Alum Grace Jefferies-Aldridge (BA’00) will draw on her personal and professional experience to help build a more inclusive university where relationships are paramount.

By Emily MacKinnon

 

Dalhousie sociology alum Grace Jefferies-Aldridge (BA’00) has joined Dalhousie as the university’s first vice president, people and culture. The position was created at the start of the current academic year under the leadership of President Kim Brooks and replaces the previous assistant vice-president, human resources role.

When the job was posted, the ideal candidate was described as someone who would champion the university’s commitment to inclusive excellence. A person “able to build credibility and trust across difference.” Since assuming the role in November 2023, Jefferies-Aldridge has set out to build that credibility and trust, which she says begins with listening.

“I have a lot to learn from all the different groups at Dal. Certainly, the staff and employees, but also the Faculties and the students weave into that too, because that’s why we’re all here,” she explains. “My primary focus in these early months, and probably year, is to be a listener and a learner.”

People-first policy

Jefferies-Aldridge asserts that listening and learning form the bedrock of any relationship, and in her human resource (HR) work, relationships are paramount. Coming from a background in federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, Jefferies-Aldridge has experience navigating complex issues such as labour relations, recruitment strategies, COVID-19 policy, as well as equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA) initiatives.

She says the key to her success is remembering that there are people at the heart of any situation, an approach that can sometimes be missed in HR.

“I think there’s a perception that HR works in isolation and just sort of pops up when needed, often to give advice that no one really wants to hear,” she says with a wry chuckle. “But I think most HR professionals get into this work because they care about the employees and the organization [as a whole]. It can be much more holistic, with a focus on respect and openness, and not just be transactional.”

Inclusive excellence through connection

Jefferies-Aldridge says that holistic view will inform her work at Dal.

One focus of this work will be fostering inclusive excellence, a key pillar in Dal’s current strategic plan, Third Century Promise. While it may sound straightforward — just hire “diverse” candidates and consider it done, right? — Jefferies-Aldridge knows first-hand how complex and intentional this work is. She knows her job is not only connecting with communities that have historically been excluded from higher education settings, but also putting support in place so they can thrive once they’re here. Ultimately, she says, the goal is retention.

“It comes down to intentional work around [finding out] how people are connecting, how we’re interacting with each other,” she says. “It challenges us to think about the conditions we work in. Do people feel like they can make mistakes and improve? Do they have the conditions to thrive and learn and grow in whatever area of the university they’re in?”

While there is certainly lots of work to be done, part of what attracted Jefferies-Aldridge to Dal was the work already underway — a solid foundation of EDIA work and many other HR initiatives from which to build. She points to Dal’s Employment Equity Plan and the African Nova Scotian and Indigenous strategies as incredible work she’s excited to support and contribute to.

The path to Dal

Jefferies-Aldridge says building more racial diversity at Dal will be a large part of her work. As a student earning her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in the late 90s, she says she had few Black instructors and was often one of the only Black students in her classes — an experience that’s unfortunately still all too common for a lot of folks of African descent.

Even in 2024, she is the first African Nova Scotian vice president in Dal’s history — a milestone President Brooks calls “long overdue.”

It’s not entirely surprising for Jefferies-Aldridge, who is used to leading change. She grew up in a thriving and tight-knit Black community in North End Halifax and then moved to Dartmouth, where she was the first Black student council president at her high school. She credits her parents for never sheltering her or her siblings from the reality of race-based discrimination and inequality.

“There were always conversations in my home and in my community around systemic racism and the impact that had on generations before me,” she says. “But that was always coupled with expectation. To be committed to changing things or dedicating time and education and work to change things.”

That awareness spurred Jefferies-Aldridge’s interest in community activism and public service, which eventually led her to Dal.

“I knew that I was passionate about people, and I was passionate about giving back, but I didn’t really know how to translate that,” she says. “Taking courses in sociology and political science introduced me to some interesting concepts that shaped where I went career-wise and fostered an interest in public service.”

Infusing EDIA into everything

To have come full circle back to the institution where she began her HR journey is a source of pride for Jefferies-Aldridge. “I’m excited about all the learning and engaging, [and] combining that with key priorities and strategies and then blending that to build a holistic people and culture department.”

Internally and externally, Jefferies-Aldridge is committed to putting people first. She says she’s keen to enact change but remains humble in terms of the pace of institutional change. She knows doing this work properly — and in tandem with some of the initiatives already underway — will take time.

“Kim’s vision, and my vision also, involves infusing EDIA into everything so we have a thriving people and culture environment that has equity as its foundation.”