Staff Spotlight: Sheree Ohen, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer

Staff writer Carys Shepard ’27 interviews Sheree Ohen, Amherst's Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer. Ohen discusses a pivotal experience early on in her career and her journey to DEI work at Amherst.

Staff Spotlight: Sheree Ohen, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer
Sheree Ohen, chief equity and inclusion officer at the the college, was hired in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Q: You joined Amherst College as the new Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer in June [2023]. What have you enjoyed about Amherst so far?

A: I love the community. I feel like it’s really intimate. People know one another, which is really exciting to see. I came from a much larger campus — I was at Harvard University, and in the faculty of arts and sciences, they had over 15,000 individuals … One of the other things I really enjoy about Amherst is that there’s a real commitment to students in every aspect, from faculty to staff, and even you as students, you really care about … cultivating a very vibrant and healthy student community. … Amherst is essentially built on a lot of relationships, and I like that that’s part of the work. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about working in higher-ed[ucation]. It’s not just the work that you do at your desk … but you actually get to know the people and the place.

Q: What has surprised you the most about working here?

A: What has been surprising to me is … how much work is happening within equity, inclusion, and belonging across the college, not just within the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, but in different administrative departments. I’ve seen almost all the faculty in STEM have DEI committees within their departments, which was exciting to see and learn. They have students, faculty, and staff serving on those committees.

Q: Was there any particular reason you decided to transfer from Harvard to here?

A: I practiced law before, so this is my second career. This is the fifth campus that I’ve worked on. My first campus was a Health Sciences Campus at [The University of California, San Francisco] (UCSF), then I worked at [The] University of California Santa Cruz, which is a large state institution [that] had about 20,000 students. Then I went to a small liberal arts [school], Clark University, that has [a] similar size as Amherst, and then I went to Harvard [and] then here. I looked at all these … experiences that I had, and the intimacy of Clark University where again, you get to know not just the students, but you really get to know the faculty, you really get to know the staff. I enjoyed it so much … I enjoyed all of my experiences for different reasons, but the cultivation of close relationships and feeling like you’re locking arms with others doing really important work is something that makes this work really meaningful to me. You actually get to see the impact in people’s lived experiences, you get to see the structural changes, but you also get to see the lived experience of things shifting in their ability to feel like they can thrive here.

Q: Why did you first decide to work in this area? What was the transition like?

A: It probably helps to go back in my story of why I even started to practice law. I’m a first-generation college student. [My mom] got her bachelor’s and her master’s in her 50s; she really fostered education for my sister and [me], even though at the time, she only had a high school education. I still remember the very first African American that I ever saw in a suit: His name was Mr. William Burford, [and he] had a … deep, burly voice. I was only eight. As [the] story goes, I ran up to him … I said, “What are you doing?”. He said, “I’m a lawyer.”… I said, “Well, I’m going to work for you.” All the adults started laughing. And then, when I was 17, I told my mom, “Well, Mr. William Burford said I [could] work for him when I was eight.” … [She] called him up, and said, “Well, do you remember my daughter?… She said that you said she can work for [you].” He remembered me, and he let me go work for him at his firm in Long Beach, California … I would work for them over the summer as a high school student intern at the law office. And then because I was a first-gen[eration] and didn’t know anything about college, [he] helped mentor me through the process … He mentored me when I was in college, he helped mentor me in law school, and then … he unfortunately passed since then. But a year before he passed, he actually offered me his law firm. Wow, it was huge. I mean, I turned them down because I was only a baby lawyer …

I say that to say, the power of representation matters, mentorship matters. I always wanted to give back, to speak up for those, and to create more equitable systems. At the time, I felt like that was doing law … first human rights. And then I did criminal prosecution, then I did defense, I did all these other things. But the impact in this world that I wanted to make wasn’t quite there. And then I learned about the DEI field — I didn’t even know it was a field. I went on LinkedIn — this is when LinkedIn was relatively new — then I emailed anyone [within] a 10 or 15-mile radius, anyone that had diversity in their title … I just was so fascinated with the work that they were doing, so I went back to school and I learned this field. That’s important for me to say, because [with] inclusion and belonging, equity is important work. But it’s not just passionate work. There’s a whole field of literature for decades that undergird this field. I wanted to make sure that I was being informed as I transitioned. I volunteered at UCSF and then four months later, they offered me a job. I made the move about a year later … because I wanted to be at a traditional college. UCSF is a health science and medical school, so there’s no undergraduates, and I wanted to be at a college that had undergraduate students.

Q: Many students, including myself, may not fully understand exactly what you do in your role. Could you give me an example of what you typically do, or one of the big projects that you’re working on?

A: The first thing I’ll say is I don’t have a “typical day.” Every day is different because a lot of the work I do is people-work and systems-work and thinking about how to really shape the vision for the college around … inclusion, belonging, [and] diversity. And how to integrate that, how to think about our strategic priorities and [our] ultimate goals for everyone from every background, from every perspective to be able to thrive at our institution. I think higher education is a unique place to do that. When you have diversity in this widest sense — and I truly mean, not just diversity on race, ethnicity, but diversity in perspectives, views, background, geographic region of what you grew up — that to me creates a real vibrant community. My job is to cultivate that … DEI didn’t arrive when I got here, and it didn’t arrive when the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion was created in 2016. People have been doing this work for decades. How do I build on the foundations of what's already here, and figure out the opportunities and where we can go from there?

What I wanted to build on is some of the work that’s already been here, which you might know about from the Amherst Uprising that was in 2015. … [It] was a pivotal time in Amherst’s history of a group of students occupying … Frost Library — mainly Black students … very vulnerably and authentically sharing their experiences of the college and how they felt excluded and the harm that they felt. [It] was a packed room, standing room only … I’ve seen pictures of this pivotal moment. That happened from a group of students [who] really wanted to make sure that the conversations around equity … that their experiences and [those of] other marginalized identities and their experiences of the college were really … highlighted in the academic setting. Not just this one time, [when] they occupied and then set the demands, and then nothing else. So they worked with Professor Sheila Jaswal [of Chemistry], who was an interim person in my role, to start the Being Human in STEM [class]. … I think the framework around what it means to be human resonated really well with me.

When I think about our shared humanity that uplifts all of us now, as well as highlighting the unique experiences of historically and traditionally underrepresented groups and what that looks like to walk a day in the shoes of [those groups], what that looks like to navigate systems ...? How does that relate to our social structures and infrastructure that we have in our world and again in higher-ed[ucation] settings? So I wanted to highlight the Being Human in STEM class. I just rolled that out as a new framework, and I’ll read it to you. ‘Being human at Amherst serves as a guiding framework for collaborative endeavors. It offers a roadmap to navigate the college’s landscape, emphasizing inclusion and a sense of belonging in a unique manner. This initiative centers awareness of our shared humanity, fostering a culture where individuals can authentically show up, connect, and thrive.’ And I think that’s … [how] I want to build the work here … under the framework of what it means to be human in our community.

An example of what we’re rolling out this term as a DEI learning series is how can we really think about these concepts around power, privilege, and oppression around what does it mean to think about the DEI history through the Amherst lens? What happened from the 1800s and on? What does it look like when we talk about implicit bias and microaggressions? What are they? All of those types of contexts when you talk about neurodiversity and disability, what does that look like? So we’re building out a learning journey series. It’s going to be offered to faculty and staff first, and then we’re working with Student Affairs to work with students. What can this learning journey series look like for students? … The reason why we’re separating it is there’s a lot of best practice models out there for faculty and staff, but there's not a model out there for students. It needs to become informative for students to be like, “Do we really want to do this? Is this for us? How would a journey look like for us?” Learning these concepts … tapping into the classroom, but also tapping into this co-curricular opportunity to learn more about areas in workshops around inclusion and belonging.

Q: Is there anything you wish I had asked or I missed?

A: No. I’m just really excited to [have been] here [for] seven months. It’s been interesting because … even though I’ve been in my role since June, we didn’t physically move here … [with my] four-year-old and my husband … until late August. I’ve only been here for about five months. It’s not just where you work, it’s the community that you’re in and how to think about the area too. I’m getting to learn the Pioneer Valley and all that has to offer too, so that’s been really exciting. I love the greenery. I was in the city [before], so it’s a really beautiful campus. It helps to feel excited to be here, too.