Outlook 2021: Longtime Union College professor Butler is leader on advocacy, diversity

Deirdre Hill Butler and the Nott Memorial
Deirdre Hill Butler and the Nott Memorial

Without much thinking, Deirdre Hill Butler knows exactly what the fondest memory of her past two decades at Union College has been.

On Oct. 22, 2007, when legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou spoke at Memorial Chapel on Union’s campus, Butler was tasked with introducing one of her heroes.

“She asked me how I was doing,” Butler said. “She took my hand and asked me, ‘Dr. Butler, how are they treating you here?’ We looked eye to eye and I told her, ‘It’s all right.’ For me, it felt like a torch being passed. She constantly reminds me through her work to have a voice. And that I have something to contribute.”

Throughout her time at Union, Butler has contributed plenty to the school’s operations and, of course, to her students’ lives. On top of teaching numerous classes on subjects ranging from sociological imagination to political sociology, Butler is a co-founder of the Union Coalition for Inclusiveness and Diversity, which has provided support and visibility for faculty for more than 20 years. She’s also a member of numerous other advocacy groups and, in September, became an inaugural member of Union’s diversity team as director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and academic chief diversity officer.

For Butler, the emphasis on education started at home.

Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Butler’s parents, Gerald and Mellicent, were both educators and activists. She went on to attend school at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee — her father’s alma mater — later transferring to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she earned her bachelor’s degree after a taste of Black studies and social activism. Later she went on to earn a master’s at Cornell University and Ph.D. in women’s studies at Clark University.

“I was raised to be educated and socially active,” Butler said. “It was in our water.”

During her time at Cornell, Butler worked on a case study examining Black community life in New England. The work involved “looking at Black religious centers, and understanding that leadership usually comes from Black women,” Butler said. “And so they’re unsung heroes. So it’s not a mistake or it doesn’t take me aback to see a Stacey Abrams or Michelle Obama or even a Kamala Harris coming from HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] spaces, Black leadership spaces. It’s how we’re socialized, to make the world better than how we find it.”

Her current work follows suit, shining a light on Black women, specifically Black stepmothers. The 10-year project, which she’s worked on periodically around other projects, is forthcoming in the form of a book via SUNY Press, “Beyond Mammies and Matriarchs: Visibility of Black Stepmothers.”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Butler, who is a mother and stepmother herself, fully understood the impact such a project could have.

“I find that Black mothers have been villainized often, and then Black stepmothers do the Cinderella myth or story,” Butler said. “They have a double burden that way, so I did a qualitative study. I’ve interviewed over 100 Black stepmothers. And they’ve told me their stories of how they negotiate and navigate mothering and their relationships.”

Butler’s work has also touched on her former community of Nashville, where she attended Fisk. After the 2010 Nashville flood, Butler reached out to a former roommate and began conducting interviews with several North Nashville community members. Those interviews became part of the Nashville Public Library Digital Collections Flood 2010 Digital History Project. Later, an exhibit was set at the Schaffer Library at Union College. Both highlighted Black community resilience in the Bordeaux neighborhood.

“So we did an exhibit of their photos of 2010 and 2015, and how the community revitalized itself,” Butler said. “And I’m making that into a digital project. The photos at least. That’s something after I finish the book.”

While her work outside of Union has left an impact, Butler began carving out her legacy on campus the moment she stepped foot on it in 2001. When she, visual arts professor Lorraine M. Cox and former Union professor Erica Ball first arrived, Butler said, they were shocked at the classroom dynamics of the time. In response, they created UCID, which meets a few times each term to discuss inclusivity and support.

“We were part of a cohort of newly minted junior faculty of color that year and the college, I don’t think, was really fully ready to have us,” Butler said. “So we carved out UCID to help educate our colleagues and to support each other as we progressed at Union. It’s similar to the work I’m doing as a chief diversity officer. I think it’s just another level of work I’ve already done. So I like having a position that I’m still in the faculty, but I also do some administrative work. It’s an interesting balance.”

Butler said that despite her many roles and responsibilities on campus and in the community, maintaining that balance isn’t much of a problem.

“I love setting aside time to think and ponder,” she said. “I think my spiritual life is an anchor. For me, one of the reasons why I do what I do is because I feel like ‘to whom much is given, much will be required.’ So teaching about Black life has just been a discovery and self-assurance for me, especially in spaces where we don’t seem to be visible enough.”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Correction 3/5 11:14 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Deirdre Hill Butler’s first name

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