JACKSONVILLE — Jai Ingraham considers himself a product of music. His parents met in their college choir. He too sang in his college choir, and he played the baritone in the band.
Thursday morning at the Jacksonville State University office dedicated to campus diversity and inclusion and formed for Ingraham three weeks ago, soul and funk played softly. That was just the morning’s flavor; he listens to it all, from Kenny Rogers to Ray Charles to Journey to the Mary Jane Girls to Beethoven.
“I think my background in music prepared me to handle diversity and inclusion,” said Ingraham, 38, JSU’s first chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator. “You may not enjoy it all, but you can appreciate it all.”
One of first-year President John Beehler’s first actions on campus was announcing Ingraham’s position. Beehler saw the need for an office solely committed to ensuring compliance with federal rules related to discrimination.
“Prior to my arrival, all those things were added responsibilities for three individuals,” he said.
Having a one-stop shop, Beehler suspects, will improve inclusion on campus. Seeing that happen is Ingraham’s goal.
“I pride that door for being open,” he said in his office. “I want people to know I’m here.”
Ingraham’s arrival makes LeMarques McClide, for one, glad. Last fall, at the start of his third year as residence life coordinator, McClide helped form the campus’s multicultural alliance, a group that now meets weekly.
The group allows minority students “a comfortable environment,” McClide said. That, he said, can be difficult for some to find on campus.
“It’s fear. It’s fear of people not wanting to experience the uncomfortable,” he said. “They don’t want to have those types of conversations.”
Debbie Taylor, JSU’s assistant director for student life and multicultural programming, wonders why. As the advisor of the campus NAACP chapter, she said she’s seen involvement fluctuate.
“Why is it people don’t have that passion?” She said. “Where’s that fire in their belly?”
White students at JSU account for 71 percent of the undergrad population, according to data from the university. African-Americans make up 21 percent of that population, and Asians and Hispanics combine for less than 4 percent.
“Everybody wants representation, to be heard,” Taylor said. “There definitely can be more.”
More cultural awareness, Ingraham knows, will make for a better campus. He sought to bring that to Florida International University, where he spent the past two years as an administrator working on issues related to misconduct and discrimination. From 2003 to 2014, he served various roles in a large, Latino-majority public school system in Miami, where he grew up influenced by his father’s work as a compliance officer for city departments.
Ingraham began like his mother in the school system: as a teacher. His social studies classes at the end of the year did a project in which they immersed themselves in an unfamiliar cultural experience. Some, for example, spent time at a synagogue.
“They had to have a conversation and engage someone,” Ingraham said. “That’s the beautiful thing about diversity. It’s so much more than race. It’s so much more than gender. It’s so much more than sexual orientation. It’s about how people are willing to engage each other and have candid conversations that matter.”
To have those, Ingraham said, people have to step out of their comfort zones. He found himself doing that when he left Florida for college in Atlanta in the 1990s, and he finds himself doing that now by coming to Alabama.
He’s enjoyed sitting in on JSU music performances.
In a band, “everything has its place,” he said. “You’re a part of the collective. You have to have an appreciation for the different parts that make it all work.”