Editors Note: This profile is a part of the Voices and Diversity collaboration series "Uplifting Black Voices."
Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Reginald Stewart has spent all of his professional career advocating for greater opportunity in higher education.
Employed at a land-grant institution, Stewart is a firm believer that education is not a privilege but a right.
“We try to build walls and fences to keep people out [of education] who could really benefit from it, whether that be financially or through the way we portray ourselves,” Stewart said.
Stewart has received recognition from the U.S. Department of Education, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the NAACP, the College Board and Excelencia in Education.
His passion for his work is rooted in his upbringing. Stewart was born in San Francisco but grew up in Oakland, California, where he considers himself to be from. Stewart went to high school there and said he developed his worldview there.
“I always say it is a city by the people for the people, and really, the politics in the community is about what are the things we need to do to help other people in the community,” he said.
Stewart has kept that community-driven selfless identity throughout his life.
“Your community is not successful unless the people who are the most disenfranchised and struggling become successful," he said.
Growing up, Stewart attended private school from second grade through high school. The environment of the Catholic schools was strict. Stewart remembers from a very young age if he didn’t get satisfactory grades, he risked expulsion.
It didn’t matter because Stewart's academic rigor was a cut-and-a-half above the rest, and he could get into the schools he applied for. His parents made every effort possible to pay for the tuition.
“Everybody faces obstacles and challenges growing up, maybe the nuisance I would add to the idea is that some people's obstacles are self-imposed and some people's obstacles are externally imposed,” Stewart said.
Like many people, Stewart falls into the ladder, somewhere between these two.
“When you have to navigate, whether it be stereotypes and people questioning your ability to be a really good student because you fall into a demographic that they don’t really think is strong academically, you are constantly having to navigate obstacles,” Stewart said.
Stewart was a child when he realized people were questioning him before they even knew him, but then, he did not have the language to describe the disrespect because he was too young.
“If you are a fish and you grew up in water, you aren’t going to turn to somebody and say, ‘Hey, this water feels wet,’” Stewart said. “You don’t know.”
Regardless, Stewart thrived in school, so this was his experience throughout his K-12 education.
“You learn how to navigate that, and you learn how to outsmart, and ultimately, the proof is in every quarter or semester when you get your grades and your grade book is strong,” Stewart said. “People start to treat you differently, so that was my advantage, I guess.”
Stewart had to be an advocate for himself before he even knew how, and this didn’t change in college. Stewart attended San Francisco State University and said while it was a socially aware environment, the Black student population was still roughly 5 percent.
“I wasn't sure what this college thing is about because I was a first-generation college student, but then, I could certainly tell who is here and who is not here,” Stewart said.
Stewart continued on his path. While in college, he remained focused on being a college graduate as opposed to a college student. During his second year, Stewart became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically Black fraternity.
Stewart said he found a group of students who looked like him and were equally as focused on graduating college. Stewart also spent much of his time playing the saxophone in the jazz lab.
Music was another expectation of his parents. Stewart's father was a drummer from New Orleans. Stewart said music wasn’t a co-curricular; it was included in their academic study.
“We make these sort of snap judgments based on physical characteristics, which I think is a flaw in human character in general,” Stewart said. “But with music, it is this weird thing, you never know somebody's capacity until they pick up their instrument.”
Stewart began playing the saxophone in middle school and has performed at venues across the country. Now, he focuses his energy on his two kids, who also play the saxophone.
“Someone [could] look like they listen to jazz or look like they could shred on a guitar, and you realize looks can be deceiving," Stewart said. "I think it goes to the additive of not judging a book as cover.”
Stewart presented a TEDx Talk called "Cultural Literacy: What Modern Americans Need to Know." In the speech, he describes cultural illiteracy as lack of knowledge of the history, politics and belief systems other than our own.
“Your world view is not the default setting," Stewart said. "You don’t get to make the determination how someone should process what they are experiencing.”
This continues to play a large role in Stewart’s work as vice president of diversity and inclusion.
“We have a tendency to judge people by the chapter you walk in on," Stewart said. "You have to read the whole book.”