When Iris Richardson began her studies at Penn State Berks in 2003, she never dreamed that 20 years later, she would be employed as the first director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Penn State University’s Police and Public Safety Office. Her career has brought her Penn State journey full circle.
Richardson accepted this newly created position in March 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic emptied classrooms and offices throughout the University.
Officially starting the position in April 2020 was tough, Richardson stated, with the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd on people’s minds, but she states that she had a lot of support in the department. She also felt privileged to have the opportunity. “When I read the job description, it was a culmination of everything I had done at Penn State so far. I worked at six Penn State campuses before taking this position: Berks, Schuylkill, University Park, Abington, Brandywine and Mont Alto. Now in this position, my work touches all the campuses.”
As director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Richardson serves the diverse community of students, faculty and staff across 22 campus locations, fosters diversity and equal opportunity, promotes dialogue among campus community members, and nurtures a climate of inclusiveness, collegiality and shared responsibility.
She explains that she works to accomplish all these objectives through three main areas of focus: officer and staff recruitment and retention, training, and outreach.
It all begins during the recruitment process. When recruiting sworn officers and staff, Richardson ensures that there is a pool of diverse candidates, the interviewers ask inclusive and holistic questions, bias training is completed, and there are diverse stakeholders in the interview process.
Training focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion topics and health, wellness and safety. It includes American Sign Language training in collaboration with Penn State’s Human Development and Family Studies program, training in responding to mental health issues, StrengthFinders training, and – last but not least – ‘No Woman Left Behind,’ which gives space and place to empower female officers. University Police and Public Safety signed the ‘30x30 Initiative Pledge’ ¬¬ to fill their ranks with 30-percent women in police recruitment classes by 2030, and Richardson oversees these efforts.
Community-oriented policing and outreach are major areas of focus. These efforts include holding community events and having difficult community conversations about topics such as social justice.
Richardson began her Penn State journey as a student at Penn State Berks from 2003–2007, graduating with a B.A. in applied psychology. She worked as a resident assistant during her time at Berks and formed meaningful relationships with many of the staff and faculty on campus.
“It was amazing,” she comments on her time at Penn State Berks. “I experienced a lot of growth due to the people I met. It was a very family-oriented environment.”
In fact, she worked on campus every summer after her first year at Berks in various offices including ASPIRE (The Aspiring Scholars Program, a Comprehensive Studies Program, formerly Educational Opportunity Program), Financial Aid, Housing and the Bookstore.
After graduation, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in higher education counseling and student affairs at West Chester University. She returned to Berks to complete her field work for the degree.
Richardson went on to serve in several residence life positions within the University, starting at Penn State University Park campus as residence life coordinator, then moving to Schuylkill where she served as interim assistant director. From there she accepted the position of interim assistant director for Abington and Brandywine campuses. She moved back to University Park to serve as area coordinator and then to Mont Alto campus, where she served as associate director of student affairs, before accepting her current position.
“I’ve always been a trailblazer,” comments Richardson. “When I saw the posting for this new position, I said ‘Why not?’ I have always enjoyed working with police and public safety officers and serving students at the campuses.”
She explains that coming to Berks from Philadelphia, she had her own unconscious biases. Richardson credits Berks Police and Public Safety Officers Mark Groff and Kevin Rudy, retired police chief, with helping her break down those barriers. Now she wants to help campus communities to break down their barriers.
When asked what she would like to see in the future, Richardson states, “Two worlds are currently colliding. Neither law enforcement nor diversity, equity and inclusion have a positive image in the media. I want to help change that and to continue to advocate for the campuses.”
“In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a need for this position because everyone would understand diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Visit the Penn State University Police and Public Safety website to learn more about the office's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.