“My family has a lot of firsts,” said Nerita Griffin Hughes. Her late father, affectionately known as Griff, was one of the first African American firefighters in the Minneapolis Fire Department. Hughes’ mother was one of the first African American triplets in Monroe, La. and became one of the first African American teachers during the 1960s Minneapolis Public Schools hiring push.
Hughes is also a first: North Hennepin Community College’s first African American dean. She became dean of Business, Technology, Career, and Workforce Development for the college in May.
Being a first did not come without its challenges. When Hughes took the role in December of last year, her position was originally only contracted for six months as an interim dean. “Talk about stepping out on faith,” said Hughes. “I left a permanent job for a job that [I] might not even get. I have seen it happen. I could do all this work and I still might not get hired.”
But, as a woman of faith, she decided to step out on just that – faith. And, it paid off.
Faith and perseverance have been common themes in Hughes’ life, which has been no stranger to obstacles. While attending Grambling University, the South Minneapolis native became pregnant at the age of 19. She also faced financial hardships, which led her to live off public assistance for a while.
“Your whole life shifts when you have a child at 19,” said Hughes. “Your life and your plans for your life have completely shifted. I knew [this moment] was an eye opener, but that also meant I needed to think how I would still carry out the things for my life that I have always dreamt about.”
More determined than ever, she went on to earn her Bachelor’s degree in business management at the National American University and her Master of Business Administration from St. Mary’s University.
She then worked as a customized training representative at North Hennepin Community College (NHCC). This role placed her on the non-academic side of higher education. She said working at NHCC was great because “I wanted to work in an academic setting, and it would prepare me to work in a higher level.”
Although working in academia helped shape her career path, Hughes said her skills were not fully utilized early on in her career. She also longed to get into workforce development or workforce equity, so she pushed harder.
“A lot of times, we [African Americans] tend to get comfortable and not step outside of our comfort zones,” she said. For her, that meant pursuing a role outside of her comfort level with Ramsey County as a workforce innovation and opportunity manager. She said the position was “instrumental in my growth and preparation for my current role.”
Her strategy for success going forward? “First, I start my day off with prayer,” said Hughes. “I also bring my authentic self to work.
“I know that I have to bring myself differently, and in some cases, make sure that when I am articulating something it does not come across as the ‘angry Black woman’… I have been able to master that. I have been able to be very clear by bringing facts and data.”
Hughes is also working on her doctorate in education and leadership at St. Mary’s. She anticipates graduating in spring or summer 2019. Her position as dean is the next step in her journey towards her ultimate goal of becoming president of a college in Minnesota.
“That was the reason that I decided to pursue my doctorate. I saw there were no college presidents – at least in the Minnesota State College and University system – that looked like me. Let alone, vaguely, any executive level [administration] that looked like me,” she said.
“I said to myself, ‘When you work in an environment with a 50 percent student of color population, we have to be seen in these types of positions.’ We need to be seen above and beyond the classroom and [custodial] positions. There is nothing wrong with these positions, but our [children] need to know, yes, you can do it.”
Brandi Phillips is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.