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  • Shawn Gilliam

Discussing DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION: An Interview with Mia's Virajita Singh

Get to know Mia’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, including her ideas to help shape the museum’s future.

Virajita Singh

It’s been almost a year since Virajita Singh joined Mia as its first Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer (CDIO), a position that’s part of the museum’s senior leadership team. Although Singh was already a familiar face to many guides (she started as a Collection in Focus Guide in 2006), her path from architecture to academia to more formal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) roles is not as well known. We sat down with her to learn about her background and her goals for Mia.

How did the issue of equity become such a big professional focus for you?

The roots of it go way back to when I was an architect in India working with rural communities in Rajasthan and Delhi. As part of my architectural practice, I was invited to work with rural communities, and it opened the door for me to deeply understand the impacts of colonization in India and specifically its impacts on rural communities. And then, when you start to invite people into the conversation and actually help them shape the designs that are emerging—rather than do it in a closed way—you engage people in the process. I think that was the transformative moment, and I feel like everything else since has actually been implementing that in different ways.

Did that transformative moment eventually bring you to the University of Minnesota?

Yes. I spent 25 years at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and that’s counting my graduate education in architecture. I came here straight from India to go to grad school, and I’ve been in Minnesota ever since. After my graduate education, I started researching and ultimately became a senior research fellow, and I also started teaching and was an adjunct assistant professor. My work in architecture mainly focused on sustainable design and participatory design—that was really important to me. I got to see most of Minnesota doing research and community outreach, mostly around sustainable design. We partnered with people in small communities, bringing in design skills and services and engaging students from the College of Design in architecture and landscape architecture. Ultimately, I ran a whole program called Design Thinking@College of Design, where we worked with non-profits, with the Sexual Violence Justice Institute, with the City of Minneapolis Office to End Homelessness, using participatory design thinking methodologies to provide access and take on these complex problems to solve them with an innovation mindset. [NOTE: Design Thinking is defined by the University of Minnesota College of Design as “A five-step iterative process for creating solutions that prioritize the user. Each of the five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test—offer design teams the opportunity to more deeply understand their users by challenging assumptions, redefining the problem, and developing new ideas to mock up and test.”]

That led to a broader role at the university, right?

Eight years ago, I was recruited by the Office for Equity and Diversity (OED), which is in central administration at the University of Minnesota, for equity-focused work. And I think the reason I was recruited was because of my experience with design thinking. Design thinking evolved from the core disciplines embedded in design, but over the last decade or more has really been used as an innovation methodology in many disciplines like healthcare and education. I served as Associate Vice Provost in the OED, led by the Vice President for Equity and Diversity, and my role involved leading DEI initiatives while partnering with the 17 colleges on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Campus and also partnering with colleagues leading DEI efforts on the system campuses of Crookston, Duluth, Morris, and Rochester.

Which, a few years later, would bring you to your new role at Mia.

I wasn’t actually looking for something when I found this position. What happened was that we [as guides] were being called back from COVID, and I thought, “It has been so long. I need to connect and see what’s happening at the museum.” Then I started browsing the website and happened to find this position, and I was intrigued because it aligned with my work on diversity and equity. So much of it overlapped with my experience that I thought, “I have to apply because I feel so connected to the organization and the mission.” And then the rest is history.

Your experience was a good match. What have you been working on so far?

My experience has really prepared me well for what we are engaged in and for the work that’s still ahead of us. I’ve framed the work into three parts. One is that I liaison with the Board [of Trustees] on a couple of committees—the Facing Change Committee that is about diversity, equity, and inclusion at the board level, which has been in place for a few years now, and a Government Affairs and Community Affairs Committee. The second is addressing DEI issues within the institution, within the walls of Mia—I’ll come back to this. And then the third is community partnerships and advancing our community relations around DEI.

So then, inside the museum, there are three aspects to that DEI work. One is that we want to continue to increase our representational diversity in the museum. As you know, we are a predominantly white institution as Mia, and we want to continue to grow in diversity. And what we mean by diversity is definitely about racial and ethnic diversity, but it’s also about gender identity and LGBTQ and sexual orientation. It’s also about disabilities. It’s also about age. So that’s one aspect. The second is we want to improve workplace culture and belonging within the museum for our staff, because I believe that you can continue to increase diversity, but if you don’t pay attention to cultural issues, then you’re not going to retain staff who feel disempowered by norms of behavior and so on. And then the third aspect link to the design thinking I talked about, because it’s innovating and co-creating for inclusive excellence. So we want excellence, but we also want this to be a place where we can bring our creativity and empathy and innovate across departments and so on. That’s the third bucket, if you will, and it open-ended to allow for serendipity and collaboration.

So participation plays a role?

I feel the work of equity and diversity is most successful with a sense or spirit of partnership. The goal of the DEI department is to partner with anyone, literally anyone in the museum—any division, any department, any individual—who is interested and wanting to work on this.

Some other structural changes are in the works, too, right?

Yes, but I want to credit what Mia had already done before I got here, which was to say that there will be a DEI division, and that HR will move into the DEI division, which I think is a profound move. It’s profound because, in most instances, the DEI and HR functions are separate. And therein lies some of the struggle to make progress because you’re working across silos. And here we have integration. So I work closely with the head of HR, Sandy Larson, who reports to me, and I include her on issues of DEI that have HR implications and likewise, when there are HR issues that have DEI applications, she pulls me in.

You’re in early stages, but how will you involve guides?

I’ve been partnering closely with colleagues like Debbi and Kara and Sheila and others who are engaged with the guide program. And right from the beginning, we’ve had conversations about how we might continue to diversify the guide program and how we might support the guides in learning and whatever else they need for support, through a DEI lens. I’m personally grateful for Mia Guides and their outstanding volunteer work of engaging our increasingly diverse audiences in the appreciation of art. It is critically important to Mia’s DEI work, as is their continued engagement in cultural fluency and also receiving feedback from visitors. So these conversations have been ongoing. And there’s more to come.

NOTE: A future edition of Insight will cover DEI goals, as they develop, in more depth.

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