North Carolina native Travis J. Albritton was raised in the small, tight-knit, rural community of Washington by his mother and a community of strong Black women who taught him to live with integrity and to always do his best. As a Black child growing up in a racist town, they reminded him, there was little room for error if he wanted to succeed.
Clearly, he took heed: Travis focused on taking his education seriously, earning a B.S. in Biology from Elizabeth City State University in 1998, a Master’s in Divinity from Duke Divinity School in 2001, a Master’s in Social Work from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013 and a PhD in Educational Studies from UNC-Greensboro in 2015.
What’s more impressive is what he did with his education. As associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the UNC School of Social Work and a clinical associate professor and director of the School’s Chapel Hill 3-Year MSW Program, Travis weaves the pursuit of justice in his programming. In the past year, he has moderated the Race, Racism & Racial Equity (R3) Symposium, hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, The School of Social Work and the Jordan Institute for Families. He also moderated the School’s Centennial Speaker Series, with such influential guests as Rev. William Barber, Ibram X. Kendi and Eddie Glaude, Jr., designed to facilitate the advancement of discourse surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. He is lauded for fostering safe spaces for students to provide both feedback and criticism to the school’s administration, and for being a valued mentor.
Travis’s mother did not accept mediocrity and made sure that he understood that he was to go to school and work hard. Travis has certainly delivered.
How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form?
It initially developed through watching the inequities that Black folks in my community experienced. As early as elementary school, I could see how my white and sometimes Black teachers treated me and my white peers differently. My mother taught me that I had to be 10 times smarter than the next person because while people could take other things from me, they would never be able to take my education. My mother and her sisters never hesitated to tell me about the indignities they faced as Black women in these yet-to-be United States. They wanted me to understand that life would not be easy for me as a Black person.
What were your family expectations in terms of higher education and career?
My mother always wanted me to go to college. My father passed away when I was four years old and when I was growing up, my mom would sometimes remind me that my dad wanted the best for his children, and he expected us to do great things. I used the stories my mother shared about my father’s hopes and dreams for me and my brother to motivate me.
You were certainly motivated! You earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate. What were the driving forces that took you on a trajectory from biology to divinity to social work and then education?
I started off in Biology because I thought that I was going to medical school. Although my mother did not overtly tell me she wanted me to be a medical doctor, she would sometimes gently push me in that direction. I was also good at science, so Biology seemed like a natural fit for me. While in undergrad, I became a licensed minister and felt that I was being called to pastoral ministry, so I attended seminary at Duke Divinity School. There, I had opportunities to serve and support families and, specifically, children who had experienced abuse and neglect. [But] I realized that serving as a pastor was not the only way to meet their needs and my broad understanding of how to support families did not always align with my own faith background. I began to develop a more expansive view of theology.
My interest in working with families and children naturally led me to the UNC School of Social Work, where I pursued my MSW. Afterward, I worked in child welfare as a case management/foster care worker and as a child welfare supervisor. I witnessed the inequities in the child welfare system, especially at the intersection of race and poverty. My work challenged me to question the work I was doing and how the child welfare system perpetuates structural racism.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how did he/she/they guide you?
Yes. My mentor was Wanda Reives and she is still a faculty member at the School of Social Work. Wanda played a HUGE role in my development as a professional. After I graduated, I would always call her when I had tough decisions or when I was not sure what to do about a case. I would sometimes go to her office on my lunch break just to talk about my professional responsibilities and any personal decisions that I needed to make. Wanda was instrumental in helping me think through all my career moves.
I appreciate Wanda because she was always direct with me. She did not always tell me what I liked to hear, but she never hesitated to tell me what I needed to hear. I continue to draw on her advice and wisdom to this day.
What was the campus climate like when you came to UNC in 2001? How has it changed (or not) since then?
When I came to the school as a student, it did not seem that there was a sincere attempt by leadership to have meaningful conversations about the impact of race and racism. Since returning to the school as a faculty member, I have watched our school community take a more direct approach to address issues of race. While we continue to have a long way to go to becoming the anti-racist School of Social Work we hope to become, I believe that we are well on our way.
What issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion did you recognize as needing attention within the School of Social Work once you returned to UNC to work in this field…and how did you address them?
We had to address issues of racism and how we could be more anti-racist as a school community. Racism is so embedded in the fabric of our institutions and it often goes unchecked. I think that many would agree that this has been the case in the School of Social Work. I have been affiliated with the School since I enrolled as a student in 2001. While we have [made progress], we must not lose focus on continuing the work that still needs to be done. We must continue to be more intentional about how to address the needs of our trans-identified students and we have work to do with respect to making sure students with disabilities feel comfortable in our community.
Your students praise you for being instrumental in allowing for difficult discourse about white supremacy and racial inequity in a safe and supported setting. How have these critical conversations brought the cohorts together? What did you see as your role in facilitating these discussions?
The most important thing about critical conversations is the opportunity for students to learn from and with each other. As students gained more confidence with each other, they discussed important issues related to race in their own lives. More importantly, I have watched as they considered the impact of race and racial discrimination within the context of their own practice and educational growth. My role is to make sure that the students mutually respect each other and that I work together with them to create an environment that invites honest and hard conversations.
You planned and moderated the Centennial lecture Series, moderated the R3 series and co-sponsored webinars focusing on COVID-19, policing, and disrupting racism in social work practice. Have you seen a measurable impact of these multiple series, both at SSW and among your students?
Yes, students, faculty and staff and the larger community and colleagues from across the country have shared how much they appreciated the work we have done. Many colleagues shared that they were able to immediately use content from the webinars and discussions in their classes or in conversations related to issues of justice and equity.
You have incorporated diversity into the curriculum by incorporating non-white readings into your syllabus and giving weight to lived experience. Through that, you discovered that immigrants have different viewpoints. How else have you learned about diversity through your students…and what changes to your curriculum and/or teaching approach have you made as a result?
I learn so much from my students every time I enter the classroom. It is hard to name all that I have learned from them. My students push me and challenge me. I like it when my students offer a different perspective or have a different viewpoint. They help me pay attention to my own blind spots. Every year, I work with a team of faculty to determine what updates need to be made to course syllabi. Our work is always collective, and we have wonderful [discussions] about what content we teach students and the best way to teach content.
What do you do during your off time? Any special interests?
I am a huge college football fan and a huge baseball fan. I have season tickets to Carolina football and season seats to Durham Bulls games. My partner and I are also slowly making our way across the country to see a game in all 30 Major League Baseball parks. I love to read and love going to the theatre, both the Paul Green Theatre on campus and the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham. My partner and I also sneak away to New York whenever we can to catch shows on Broadway.
Which of your personal accomplishments are you most proud of…and why?
I am most proud of being the best spouse I can be to my partner, the best son I can be to my mom and the best friend I can be to those I call friends. Personal accomplishments are important, but at the end of the day, I care most about the relationships I build. I want everyone who comes into my presence to feel seen and cared for and I work hard to make that happen.