Community, Engagement, Belonging and Access

A Conversation with Felicia Benton-Johnson, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence at Clemson University


A year ago on March 1, 2023, Felicia Benton-Johnson began her role at Clemson University, working across campuses and sites and working with community and grant partners to foster an inclusive and supportive environment. A national thought leader, researcher and practitioner specializing in inclusive excellence at the undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral and faculty levels, Benton-Johnson has been hard at work across the University’s campuses and sites, working with community and grant partners to foster an inclusive and supportive environment. 

She began her Clemson role shortly before the 2023 Men of Color National Summit; prior to that she served as assistant dean and director of the College of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Education and Diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In her first year, the University announced the formation of a new Division of Community, Engagement, Belonging and Access (CEBA) to support the key pillars of the University’s new strategic plan, Clemson Elevate. The new division, which Benton-Johnson has been working to shape, aspires to foster a community of belonging where all members thrive and do so by building positive relationships; broadening collective understanding; providing experiential learning opportunities and engaging in innovative and collaborative research. 

As the 2024 Summit approaches, Benton-Johnson took time to reflect on her first year at Clemson and share her thoughts and ideas about the partnerships and programs it encompasses. 

An African-American woman stands at the front of a room. She is wearing a brown blazer and black glasses.

Q. How would you describe the Men of Color National Summit to someone who has not heard of it?

A. In a word, powerful. This gathering brings together more than 2,100 high school and college students, educators, business professionals, government officials, and community leaders from across the country for two days of inspiration, education, and empowerment.

At its core, though, the Summit seeks to illuminate pathways to higher education and career success for young men of color by emphasizing the importance of education, mentorship, and community engagement. The Men of Color National Summit is such a dynamic and inspiring event. It truly champions the potential of young people of all identities, equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and networks needed to excel in their academic, professional, and personal lives.

Q. Why is an event like this important, especially for Clemson University?

A. It is profoundly important, especially for an institution like Clemson University, for several reasons that align with its educational and community engagement missions. Bridging the opportunity gap for historically marginalized populations such as African American/Black and Hispanic/Latinx males is essential, not only for the individuals directly impacted but for society. There are economic and workforce development benefits. It improves educational outcomes and corporate and organizational excellence. The case for addressing the opportunity gap is grounded in a vision for a more prosperous, equitable, and cohesive society, where the success of one group contributes to the well-being of all.

Q. You had just arrived at Clemson when the Men of Color National Summit took place last year. As you prepare for your second Summit, what are your thoughts a year later?

A. Experiencing the Men of Color National Summit was an enlightening and profoundly impactful journey for me, just as it is for so many of the young people who participate. When I reflect on that experience and look ahead to this year’s event, a few key thoughts and observations stand out to me. 

A convergence of shared visions and goals: The Summit serves as a vibrant meeting ground for individuals and organizations from various sectors, all united by a common purpose: to uplift and empower young men of color. This shared vision creates a powerful sense of community and purpose, emphasizing that collective efforts can make significant strides in bridging the opportunity gap.

Impactful learning and engagement: The range of topics covered during the Summit —from career development to personal identity — are both comprehensive and deeply engaging. Sessions provide actionable insights and knowledge, empowering attendees with tools and strategies to navigate their educational and professional journeys. Witnessing the genuine engagement and enthusiasm of participants underscores the Summit’s role in sparking positive change and inspiration.

Networking and mentorship opportunities: One of the most valuable aspects of the Summit is the wealth of networking and mentorship opportunities it provides. For many attendees, including myself, forming connections with professionals, educators, and peers opens doors to new possibilities and support systems. These relationships are pivotal for personal and career development and highlight the Summit’s role in fostering a nurturing and supportive community.

Motivation and renewed commitment: Leaving the Summit last year, I felt an overwhelming sense of motivation and a renewed commitment to contribute to the mission of inclusive excellence in higher education and beyond. The stories of resilience, achievement, and transformation shared during the event were incredibly moving and served as a powerful reminder of the impact of dedication and hard work.

Anticipation for future Summits: As we prepare for this year’s Summit, I am filled with anticipation and excitement for what we will achieve. Building on the foundations laid in previous years, we aim to enhance the Summit experience further, introducing new elements that will deepen our engagement and impact. I look forward to seeing how this event continues to evolve and influence the lives of young men of color and their communities.

A call to action: Finally, experiencing the Summit has reinforced my belief in the urgency and importance of this work. It serves as a call to action for all involved — participants, organizers, sponsors, and community leaders — to continue our efforts in education, mentorship, and advocacy. Together, we can create lasting change and open doors for future generations of leaders.

Q. How has your approach to this event changed in that time? What are you preparing for this year? 

A. My approach to the event has evolved in several key ways. The event has developed a strong foundation in its first six years. Building on that foundation, we need to find additional opportunities to engage students with the colleges and professionals in attendance. Witnessing the energy, inspiration, and transformation at last year’s Summit highlighted the importance of not just planning an event but building a sustainable legacy. My approach has embraced the idea of creating enduring impacts that extend beyond the Summit days, focusing more on ongoing mentorship, community building, and support networks that empower attendees throughout the year.

Q. How can Clemson University continue to grow Men of Color?

A. Clemson University’s leadership has already shown a remarkable dedication to the Men of Color National Summit, understanding its value not just to the University community but as a vital contribution to society. This foundation of support is a testament to the University’s commitment to making a meaningful difference in the lives of young men of color and sets the stage for the Summit’s future growth and success. Moving forward, leveraging this support in strategic and innovative ways will be key to maximizing the Summit’s impact and legacy.

Q. How do you think you will make your mark on the Men of Color Summit? 

A. As we move forward, my evolved approach to the Men of Color National Summit is characterized by a deeper commitment to making a lasting difference, embracing innovation, fostering partnerships, and continuously learning and improving. It’s about building on the success of past Summits to create an even more impactful and inspiring event that truly changes lives. The Men of Color National Summit is more than just an event; it’s a transformative experience that renews our collective dedication to making a difference in the lives of young men of color. 

The Men of Color National Summit stands as a beacon of hope, progress, and empowerment, driving us all to strive for excellence and inclusivity in everything we do.

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