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New Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion envisions a path to healing

Leslie Ridgeway • August 23, 2021
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Nickey Woods brings background in educational psychology to new position
When Nickey Woods was interviewing for the inaugural position of Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the USC Gould School of Law, the words “healing” and “belonging” came up repeatedly as she discussed her goals for solving some of the broadest social justice issues on a smaller scale. For her, that work starts with defining what DEI is.
“If I have to answer that in a sentence, it’s making the invisible visible,” says Woods, who comes to USC Gould from UCLA, where she held the position of Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Admissions in the Graduate Division. “There are harms done or hurtful things said not because people are being intentionally cruel or mean. DEI is making the things that are not apparent more obvious, and creating awareness of concepts and ideas we may take for granted.”
She acknowledges that this process can be bumpy, and when she facilitates a DEI training, she assures participants that mistakes will happen on the path to growth and change. She calls it “’failing forward’ – making mistakes and doing better next time.” She hopes the warmth and enthusiasm she expresses as assistant dean will draw people in to the sometimes difficult work of DEI.
“One of the strengths I bring to this role is the ability to tackle difficult subject matter with sensitivity, honesty and approachability,” she says. “DEI is very heavy work, and I’ve found that approaching my work with a positive attitude, a desire to connect with others and to connect others together, helps people who may be hesitant lean into DEI.”
Establishing trust as a foundation for DEI learning at USC Gould
Before the academic year started, Woods has been working on establishing trust between her office and the USC Gould community. That means developing relationships, demonstrating commitment and drawing on her expertise in educational psychology to help her understand human behavior, especially how people learn (she earned an EdD from USC Rossier School of Education in 2015).  It also means being a lifetime learner herself and reading – a lot.
“I love books – always have,” she says. “I consider myself to be a restless learner. One of the most critical things DEI practitioners can do is engage in learning. I don’t have a law background, so I took a continuing education course on DEI in legal settings.” Her favorite book at this moment is The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. “She writes about how racism hurts everyone, not just people of color, and how all of us can thrive when we unite across racial lines,” Woods says.
In addition to consulting books, Woods reaches out to other DEI practitioners to develop professional connections for best practices and identify experts who can bring their ideas to trainings or seminars on campus. She’ll also be working closely with students, and has four DEI Fellows from USC Gould assisting her in her office. Woods says she plans to schedule meetings or get-togethers with student groups and leadership in the near future. And, she’s working on developing effective assessment tools to ensure that Gould is accountable and on track with its efforts.
Woods also serves as the DEI consultant to the Nickelodeon TV channel, developing diversity-based educational content and materials to support their public affairs department.
Personal experience informs Woods’ approach to DEI
As she digs deeper into the challenges of DEI work, her own son, a college sophomore, is never far from her mind, as is her own experience as a sixth grader who was encouraged by a teacher to attend an enriched school program. That decision changed her life, and she thinks about all the other lives, especially of underrepresented students, that could be changed by emphasizing DEI and inclusive excellence in education.
“I’m thrilled to be in this role at this critical point in time,” she says. “Gould is positioned to make positive contributions because we are preparing students to be scholars and change agents. They are only with us for a short time but at Gould they are establishing a foundation for the leaders they’ll become.”

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