2017 Breakthrough Award: H. Wes Pratt
Diversity is not something 417-land is especially known for, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people and businesses working to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces. The first-ever Biz 417 Breakthrough Award recipient is H. Wes Pratt, the chief diversity officer and assistant to the president at Missouri State University, who has come full circle to enact change in his hometown.
H. Wes Pratt keeps good company. On the northern wall of his office at Missouri State University, Rosa Parks peers out from a frame. Cesar Chavez hangs to the left, and Ernie Barnes’s iconic painting The Graduate is placed nearby.
It’s fitting that Pratt, who introduces himself as Wes, surrounds himself with images of public servants. Pratt is the chief diversity officer and assistant to the president at Missouri State University, a position to which he was appointed after years of working for the underserved. Pratt began his 18-month term on January 11, 2016, after Missouri State’s former vice president of diversity and inclusion resigned. Pratt was first hired at Missouri State in 2008 as the coordinator for diversity outreach and recruitment, eventually becoming the director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, a position that allowed him to serve as the university’s equal opportunity champion. That experience made Pratt the perfect candidate to step into the chief diversity officer role, particularly in a year like 2016 when the campus climate could be described as tumultuous at best.
According to Pratt, a Springfield native, his passion for activism started at a young age. “When I was growing up, Springfield was never particularly welcoming for people who were different, particularly people of color,” he says. “Even though it was my home, I always felt like an outsider.” He worked to change that by actively protesting “the system” as a student at Central High School and Drury University. After graduating from Drury, Pratt relocated to California. He attended San Diego School of Law and began a lifelong career in public service, serving on the San Diego City Council and leading the California Conservation Corps as director.
Pratt returned to Springfield in 2007, joining Missouri State University staff shortly after. He describes himself as having come full circle—growing up in an unwelcoming Springfield, leaving, then returning and working to make the city a better place. “I never thought that I would end up back here in my hometown being able to actually create the infrastructure in the largest public institution in southwest Missouri,” he says.
It’s safe to say that Pratt has done everything in his power to empower community members. Upon returning to Springfield, he and his wife, Francine, started a local community action group called “The Gathering” and helped revitalize the local chapter of the NAACP, establishing several standing committees and increasing membership. Along with their colleague Dr. Leslie Anderson, Wes and Francine also provide bias-based training for the local police force, teaching members of the Springfield Police Department how to mitigate their bias and interact with people of color, individuals suffering from mental illness and low-income community members. “Now I’m a part of the change that is occurring not only at Missouri State but in the community as well,” says Pratt, who feels that his work at Missouri State is particularly important because of the university’s impact on the community. “So goes Missouri State, so goes the rest of this region because of the economic footprint.” For Pratt, that impact begins with explaining the value of diversity. “Our students have to be able to compete and relate in a diverse world,” he says. “They have to be able to succeed in a global society.” In other words, universities not prioritizing diversity are falling behind.
Missouri State is staying ahead, Pratt explains, with the help of the university’s 2016–2021 Long-Range Plan. The university outlines long-range plans for operations every five years, but Pratt says this is the first time a plan has included a section to define diversity, inclusion and cultural competency to “promote inclusive excellence as a core value for the university.” Regardless of whether Pratt will leave his post after the initially agreed-upon 18 months, he wanted to put together this research-based framework to keep Missouri State moving forward.
The section outlines specific verbiage to define diversity for university purposes. “Diversity’s pretty broad,” Pratt says. “A lot of people think it’s race or ethnicity when you’re talking about the individual and group social differences that we run into in the pursuit of higher education.” Pratt explains that diversity is much broader, and includes learning style, veteran status, disabled status and other factors. Using the diversity section in the plan helps unify the university’s faculty, student affairs departments and administration, which Pratt says can be difficult. “It’s like herding cats sometimes,” he says with a laugh. The framework will hopefully create a climate of “inclusive excellence,” judging success in four areas: access, success and equity; campus climate, learning development and institutional commitment. For Pratt, the long-range plan is a big step toward the successful prioritization of diversity and inclusion at Missouri State. “Missouri State could be the model of how a predominantly white institution can really value all of its stakeholders regardless of their diverse backgrounds,” he says. “And to me, that’s the goal.”
Pratt is currently planning to write a book about his life in public service. Until then, he’ll keep doing what he does best—facilitating tough conversations, standing up for cultural consciousness and listening. Always listening.