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For Dr. Kahan Sablo, DEI work in Adler is a call for sustainable change

Stories | 02.10.23

In the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education, Kahan Sablo, D.Ed., says he understands the difficult work ahead of him — creating sustainable change.

“As a community, we must avoid being performative and remain committed to meaningful change,” said Dr. Sablo, whose own personal experiences have prepared him for his DEI role today. “I’m working to integrate multiple expectations and requests for refined monitoring, so things don’t fall through the cracks.” 

About 10 months into his new role as the vice president of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Dr. Sablo said he’s just hitting his stride in developing ways to help the University create a better culture of accountability with its DEI initiatives.  

Turning negative into positive 

Dr. Sablo is no stranger to discrimination.  

In his junior year of college, he became the target of harassment based on his race and sexual orientation. He received vulgar phone calls (approximately 300) from two groups of people that were unknown to him and each other. They yelled racist and homophobic epithets at him.

“After the investigation, people were charged and disciplined by the college. About six or seven people were suspended or expelled from the school,” he said. “That was the end — or so I thought.” 

One of the students appealed to the university president, then to the local courts, and ultimately to the New York Supreme Court. Because of a procedural issue, the judge overturned the decision, and the student was reinstated at the school. 

Photo of Dr. Kahan Sablo as an EMT

At State University of New York at Oswego, Dr. Sablo completed his first basic emergency medical technician (EMT) course.

“I was not out to my family at the time, so I was navigating all of this without family support,” Dr. Sablo said. 

That experience, however, ultimately led Dr. Sablo to his new calling. He changed his childhood dreams of becoming a New York City police officer and pursued a higher education career launching inaugural DEI and improving the holistic student experience.

“Instead of crumbling and woe-is-me — sure, I did a little of that — I decided I wanted to make a difference in how people think and are educated,” he said. “It was my way of redirecting that energy and turning something horrible into something productive and positive.” 

Dr. Sablo completed a bachelor’s degree in public justice with a minor in health science and a master’s in counseling and psychological services at the State University of New York at Oswego. At Oswego, he also completed his first basic emergency medical technician (EMT) course.

Dr. Sablo said, in his first job as a minority student services coordinator, the school simply wanted him “to help keep the Black kids from putting their feet on the president’s desk and talking about what they don’t like.” 

“I told them my vision was larger than that and showed them how it should be done,” he said.  

When SUNY Fredonia recruited him, the school had just experienced a cross burning in the middle of their campus. A second cross-burning occurred immediately after his interview. He eventually became their inaugural director for the center for multicultural affairs position. Among his brainchild there was a vision for opening a DEI Center.  

Dr. Sablo then joined Edinboro University of Pennsylvania as associate vice president for student life. It was in this rural western Pennsylvania town that he worked for 18 years, taking on various additional roles, including dean of student life and interim vice president. While in Edinbory, Dr. Sablo earned his Doctor of Education degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and culminated three decades of emergency medical services experience as an EMT-paramedic — the highest level of EMT credentialing.

When it was time for a change, Dr. Sablo accepted an assistant vice president for university life job at George Mason University outside of Washington, D.C., and later a dean of inclusive excellence post at Bard College, a private liberal arts institution about 100 miles north of New York City. Also at Bard, he began a Master of Social Work degree at Fordham University.

Then, in 2022, Adler came along. 

“I was drawn by the combination of its commitment to social justice while training mental health practitioners,” said Dr. Sablo, who will complete the MSW program at Fordham in May and pursue a therapist licensure. “I have always had personal concern over the mental health of historically marginalized people, and I wanted to do my part in making sure the practitioners we send out are competent and do some great things.” 

Creating one blueprint 

In 2020, the activism following the murder of George Floyd heightened awareness of racial injustice in many organizations that was long overdue, including at Adler.  

Two years later when Dr. Sablo arrived at the University in April 2022, he says members of the campus community shared that they were still feeling less than valued, whether through policy or actions. Throughout the 10 months since, he has been busy trying to understand and synthesize and organize the various DEI-related programs and initiatives.  

Photo of Dr. Kahan Sablo

“That’s the challenge of DEI work, everyone has a demand and wants it done tomorrow,” Dr. Sablo said. “Well, if we do it tomorrow, it may be undone the following day, as it likely a performative move. Fixing systems takes time. It’s about creating a solid foundation sustained change.”

“There are well-stated demands to do better. But the big question for me is: How do we create one blueprint that speaks to the needs of multiple communities? Especially when an institution’s DEI pathway can get rocky at times?” 

A Black at Adler 2020 report documented concerns of Chicago Black students, staff, and faculty at Adler, including implementing new initiatives and training to address or improve the experiences of many Black students, staff, and faculty at Adler. 

“There are individual plans and goals in the works, but the longer-term goal is to get us all to sing off one sheet of music,” said Dr. Sablo, a seasoned church musician and gospel singer.

One of Dr. Sablo’s primary goals is to strengthen relationships and open the possibility of trust.

Repairing relationships includes continuing work on a variety of planning documents, including the Anti-Racism and Inclusion Plan. The plan, which is in its third year, was drafted by the University to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse student body and workforce; fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus environment; dismantling racist and oppressive systems; and launching the work of the Board of Trustees’ Anti-Racism and Inclusion Committee. 

Although written as a two-year plan, Dr. Sablo petitioned the University’s Board of Trustees for a third year to more intimately engage this ongoing work. Outcomes of the plan will be monitored by the Board and its Anti-Racism and Inclusion Committee and will be used to inform Adler’s anti-racism work in subsequent years. 

When it comes to decolonizing the curriculum, last year, an audit was conducted on every syllabus on campus. Also, a consultant was hired to conduct focus groups in December 2022 as part of the Transforming the curriculum initiative (TCI), which seeks to address the narrowness of a too often white-centered curriculum and ensure that every class and program (on all three campuses) effectively addresses issues of justice and human diversity. 

Dr. Sablo said he sees everyone in the Adler community playing a role in each of these plans. Everyone must be willing to be vulnerable, to be aware, to be educated, to take risks, to be honest when they don’t have an answer, and be willing to apologize when they make a mistake.

Adler employees are here to facilitate and support a welcoming environment for the training of social justice-informed mental health professionals. Likewise, students should be open to challenging themselves and each other, according to Dr. Sablo.

“I see a community filled with people whose spirit and intentionality are to do things right, yet struggling — and at times, scared — on the best way to make things happen in the reality,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but everything is moving along.” 

At times, change can be slow, Dr. Sablo said, but sometimes that’s by design. 

“That’s the challenge of DEI work, everyone has a demand and wants it done tomorrow,” he said. “Well, if we do it tomorrow, it may be undone the following day, as it likely a performative move. Fixing systems takes time. It’s about creating a solid foundation sustained change.” 

Creating that solid platform is of the utmost importance for Dr. Sablo as it leads to the University ultimately training and graduating socially responsible mental health practitioners. 

“I see lots of potential and a lot of people who are very much committed to DEI work,” he said. “If we’re effective at our job, those we graduate will do great things, and that’s sustainable change. The impact that socially responsible practitioners have on their communities can be beyond anything I could do on a campus.” 

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