By Tyler L. Brown
For James A. Felton III, the vice president for Inclusive Excellence at The College of New Jersey, his recent appointment as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee chair for the McDaniel College Alumni Council is the latest accomplishment in a career dedicated to serving marginalized people.
Felton, a native of Vineland who lives in Pennington, was introduced to the concept of social justice by his grandmother, a community-oriented woman who embodied the spirit of activism. Through her examples of leadership, her involvement in local issues, and her strong stance on education, she paved a pathway for Felton to follow, he said.
“Growing up, I always had a DNA for social justice, diversity and inclusion. My grandmother on my dad’s side instilled the importance of education to me at an early age. She and my grandfather were seen as the elders of the community in Queens, New York. They believed it truly took a village and that all the children in the neighborhood were their children.
“My grandmother was a very active and vocal member of the New York’s Parent and Teacher Association. She wanted to advocate for the quality of education for all children, but it grew into something much bigger than that. It led her to go back to school and get her master’s and become a counselor. I got to experience all of these things growing up, watching her. I took her path to activism and social justice, and it inspired me to do that as well,” he said.
Felton’s first major encounter with social injustice occurred in high school. Due to budgetary limitations, the school couldn’t afford reasonable accommodations for Felton’s classmate, who was deaf. Due to the lack of resources, the student was placed in a special education classroom. Thus, causing Felton to not only question the situation, but to take action in an attempt to rectify it.
“It wasn’t until 11th or 12th grade where I had met a classmate in homeroom. At the time, the public school system didn’t have money for interpreters. For his deafness, he was sent to special education classes for the entire day. Some of that just didn’t sit well with me.
“I created a petition and sent it to the Vineland Public School System. It got turned down. So, that was an important lesson for me as well. You can’t win every battle, but it’s all about the long-term effort.
“So, being mindful of my early lessons taught to me by my paternal grandmother, I reached out to him.
“He was sitting in the corner of the classroom and from there, we started passing notes for three or four months. Then I said, this is ridiculous, teach me how to communicate the way you communicate. That opened up the wonderful world of sign language and deaf culture and that inspired me, at that time, to become a counselor for the deaf,” Felton said.
This experience inspired Felton to attend McDaniel College, formerly known as Western Maryland College, for its Deaf Education Program. There, he would major in psychology and minor in deaf studies.
However, according to Felton, his inner activist came to life and his career trajectory changed.
“I didn’t turn out to do that, because the activist in me kind of ignited. So, I took a different path. There were a lot of social, political, and cultural issues that were happening both locally, nationally, and internationally during my undergraduate years. Those were formative experiences that kind of led me down a different path towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility work.”
Although Felton found himself in a new field, he remained true to his roots, allowing him to establish a distinguished track record of helping marginalized people through education and awareness.
For Felton, the return to McDaniel College as a committee chair represents a milestone that introduces new challenges and exciting opportunities.
“The challenge and the opportunity will be how to successfully engage the alums of color. It’s how you engage them and create new positive experiences for them, as well as the current undergraduate students. It’s making those connections to the college. We need alumni from various backgrounds and identities. It’s important for students to see more diverse trustees, as well as more diverse alums actively participating and engaging in the life of the college,” he said.
At McDaniel College, the Alumni Council provides an array of opportunities for nominated alumni to serve the institution and student body through different committees and outreaches. Overall, the goal is to develop and maintain a strong lineage of invested and diversified alums.
“The Alumni Council is about being good stewards of the institution. Also, engaging undergraduates and helping them to transition to become alumni at the college. We’re really there to be stewards of our alma mater and show our pride and help prepare the next generation of alums.”
Therefore, as the newly appointed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee chair, Felton plans on using his expertise to further improve the culture at McDaniel College by creating an inclusive community.
“There’s been plenty of studies that show that diversity creates opportunity, it creates synergy, and creates transformation. We want to make sure that we’re providing support and the resources so that when folks get there, they feel a sense of safety, they feel a sense of inclusion, they feel a sense of belonging. There are many benefits of diversity, equity, and inclusion that everyone can experience,” Felton said.
Felton graduated from McDaniel (formerly Western Maryland) College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995 and a master’s degree in educational administration (now educational leadership) in 1998, according to information provided by the school.
Felton has served as a member to the Graduates of Last Decade (GOLD) Committee from 1996-98, the undergraduate relations committee from 1996-97, the reunion task force from 1997-98, and the fundraising committee from 2003-04, according to the statement.
Recognized as a national leader and scholar-practitioner in the field of diversity in higher education, Felton was recently named one of New Jersey’s most influential DEI leaders for 2021. Felton has contributed to the development of several diversity and strategic plans including the University of Wisconsin’s Plan 2008 at the Green Bay campus. He has managed several scholarship and mentoring programs for underrepresented students at a number of selective private liberal arts colleges and state-system universities across the country as well as collaborated with corporate, nonprofit and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations to promote international programs and initiatives on diversity and social justice, according to the statement.
He is the co-author of the book “Inclusive Directions: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer in Community College Leadership.”
Felton is the inaugural vice president for inclusive excellence at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). He previously served as the chief diversity officer at State University of New York at Cortland and as the inaugural director of intercultural affairs at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Felton is a founding member of the Pennsylvania Association of Liaisons and Officers for Multicultural Affairs (PALOMA), a statewide organization that provides advocacy, support, best practices, and continual renewal for diversity professionals in the field.
Recently, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).