A Conversation with April Castañeda
April Castañeda—who recently stepped into the newly created position of assistant vice president for equity and equity investigations and Title IX coordinator at Caltech—is charged with designing and implementing a comprehensive approach to all issues pertaining to discrimination, unlawful harassment, and sexual misconduct. Though the role is new for both the Institute and Castañeda, she is no stranger to 1200 East California Boulevard, having served in a variety of roles at Caltech (in the provost's and president's offices, as well as Human Resources) for more than 20 years before a recent two-year stint as the assistant director for human resources at JPL.
What is the scope of the job? How is it different from the Title IX office that used to exist?
The office now includes not just Title IX [a law that covers discrimination on the basis of sex] but also Title VII and Title VI. Title VII covers discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VI is the same thing but applies to federal contractors. And because we take federal money, that applies to us as well. We also have state regulations, and California has about 40 different protected classes. So anything that involves a protected class comes into this office.
And this office used to be part of Student Affairs but is now part of Human Resources …?
Although the office is now part of HR, we maintain very close connections with Student Affairs, working closely with the vice president, the deans and the many other offices that serve our students. We're also in the process of hiring an education and deputy Title IX coordinator for Student Affairs to ensure that the needs of the student community are met. The office deals with all constituents, so that's staff, faculty, postdocs, and students—both grad and undergrad.
How do these changes benefit the Caltech community?
For us, especially with the size of Caltech, it makes a lot of sense to create one equity office. There were times in the past where people had to figure out, "Where do I go? OK, I feel like it's discrimination. Is it sex discrimination? Is it race? If it's sex discrimination, I have to go to this office; if it's race, I go to that office." Whereas here, all you have to know is, "OK, that's the office that I go to if any discrimination or harassment or sexual misconduct happens."
I also think the combination of HR and Student Affairs is really powerful. We get to see all the different constituents, so we learn how they're all experiencing it—from the faculty side to the student side to the staff side to postdocs—making our investigations, outcomes, and solutions stronger.
We also have a lead investigator [a new position], Brian Quillen, who is focused on the equity office model and dedicated to it and has that expertise. That's a real strength because one of the things that we find is that with Title IX, the laws change, the regulations change. ... It's a burgeoning field. Having a lead investigator who is keeping up on those changes makes for a really strong program.
And as I said, we're also hiring a full-time community educator who will do preventative outreach. That person will be in the residences, working with grads and undergrads, getting to know the students, really understanding the culture.
How do you encourage people to come forward, and how do you make that process as comfortable as possible?
My whole career has been spent talking to people about difficult things. My approach is always that it is a privilege to be there in a person's life at a moment when they really need help, so I try to handle it with care and respect.
We also want to make this process as easy and as approachable as possible, as well as being impartial and fair. Having good investigations brings closure for people. When something happens in a community, the only way that you can become resilient is to feel like you had a fair process, it got closed, and now you are able to move on.
Some people come in and say, "I need an investigation. I want to get down to what happened, I want the fact-finding part." And we provide that. But it doesn't always reach the level of an investigation. And then there are lots of people who just come in for consultation. I tell people before we start, if you want to just tell me what happened, I'm happy to do that, too. And then they might come back later and be ready to share names.
The nice thing about Title IX is that the person who's reporting the incident has a lot of ability to dictate what happens. They often can come in and file a report without us taking action. I follow where they lead. That said, there are things we have to move on if we feel like there's a danger to a community or to themselves.
How has your career prepared you for this role?
I have done so many things in my life that really mesh well with this role, so I feel like I'm bringing all those different pieces of me into this job. When I was in grad school at USC [where Castañeda earned a master's degree in social work], I did my internship here in Caltech's Staff and Faculty Consultation Center. They asked me to stay on, and I worked full-time, but they let me work four 10-hour days, so that left me a day a week and the weekends to do trauma consulting. I then became a diversity liaison under David Baltimore, when he was president. From there, I came into HR as the head of staff education and development, and ultimately became executive director of Human Resources. About two and a half years ago, JPL asked me to come over there as assistant director of Human Resources to work on building communication and getting the different branches of HR to all grow in the same direction.
What does success look like for the equity office?
I'll know it's successful if the number of our cases goes down and the number of our office visits goes up. I want people to come in before things escalate. Absolutely there are times where we need to do an investigation, but there are also lots of things that we can do to build inclusive communities. We want people to worry about school, work, their research, winning Nobel Prizes. ... We don't want them to worry about, "Am I safe? Am I OK?"
What are some of your short-term goals for the program?
We've heard lots of feedback from people that they find our policy really daunting. It's a 25-page policy with lots and lots of process. It's a solid policy, with everything you could ever want in a policy. But when you're in a crisis, you don't want to have to sit down and read a 25-page legal policy. So, making guidelines that are easier to read and updating the language so that it's clear, concise, and relatable is really important.
Another goal is setting clear communication standards for what the equity office and Title IX is, so people really understand who we are. That involves changing everything from the look and feel of the Title IX website to how we engage the community.
We're also using data to inform our work and our practices. We're looking at the numbers of visits, the kinds of things people are coming in for. It's so important to have data so that you can really look and see what's happening without being prejudiced by your emotion.
What motivates you to do this work?
I've spent most of my career doing things that are engaged around social justice. It's important to me that people have the rights and the ability to do good work.
When I first came to Caltech, I was reluctant to be an intern here because before then I had always worked with underserved populations, and here I saw a lot of privilege. My adviser at the time said to me, "April, pain is pain, no matter if it's in a suit or on the street." And she said, "You have to decide. If you're trying to alleviate pain and help good things happen, there's a place for you here."
But I also do this kind of work for my 10-year-old daughter. Because what we do here sets precedent, and it changes how other people will experience college and education and work.