By Allison Campbell-Jensen
You might say that Hubert Humphrey introduced Amelious Whyte to Minnesota, because seeing the funeral of the former Vice President made an impression on him as a youngster. Much later, when he was applying for graduate degree programs in public affairs, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs was on his list.
“At that time, I was interested in social service, welfare reform, and poverty issues,” says Whyte, who now is the Director for Public Engagement in the College of Liberal Arts. “There was something appealing about studying issues like that at the Humphrey in Minnesota, which from what I knew about it at the time was a state where they were doing cutting-edge things.” He was accepted at several of the schools — but chose Humphrey in part because someone from the school actually called him to ask if he had any questions.
Brooklyn-raised and coming from the University of Southern California, where football is big, he wanted to know where the football team played — Duluth? Since arriving in fall 1990, he has gotten a better handle on geography and has become a valued member of the University’s much larger team and several boards, including the Friends of the University Libraries Board.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Whyte was invited to join the Friends board by Craig Swan, a former colleague who had served as the University’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. He first attended a Friends Forum event with author Isabel Wilkerson. “I had just finished her book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ [about the 20th century migration of African Americans out of the South]. I was super-excited to meet her,” Whyte says.
He joined the Friends board in 2015 and, starting in June, will become its chair. “I didn’t join with the idea of becoming an officer or a chair,” he says. “That happens to me a lot, so I suppose that’s a good thing.”
Continuing and building on an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion will be a part of his leadership. “Because of the murder of George Floyd, we started some of that, but I think there’s more that we can do in that space,” Whyte says. “We’ve had discussions about how we can very intentionally partner with various aspects of the community.”
In his position at CLA, he also developed a series of roundtable discussions titled What’s Next? in response to George Floyd’s killing. The focus is on eliminating institutional and systemic racism in specific areas of society. The first was What’s Next? — Money Talks: Leveraging the power of business and philanthropy in pursuit of racial justice. The popular series also has covered K-12 education and what needs to change in policing, and there are plans to produce more on sports, museums, and other topics.
“Part of the motivation for that series was personally not wanting his death to be something that just happened and then people moved on,” Whyte says. “One of the things that I committed myself to last summer was doing whatever I could do in my sphere of influence to make sure George Floyd did not die in vain.”
These efforts and his advocacy in other areas — such as speaking at a rally opposing a proposed white student union in 1991 — have been recognized recently with the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award. “It’s a humbling honor to receive that,” Whyte says.
Whyte’s career at the University began with a graduate assistant job in the Office for Student Affairs that grew into a full-time position. Over the years, he was promoted and ended up serving as Senior Associate Vice Provost for Advocacy and Support before moving to CLA.
“I have a need to help people,” Whyte says. “That’s something that is very important to me. In my work in Student Affairs, I got to do that in a variety of ways.” He would get involved when bad things happened — a student death, a shooting, or a riot — and strive to help students cope. He also wanted to show that although the U is a big institution, “we care about our students.” Regular communications to students about mental health services and issues were one way; the office also relayed ways to help students to faculty and staff.
Now, he’s extending his help to the community in his current position as Director of Public Engagement, which was newly created as part of CLA’s strategic roadmap. A new space is being developed in Pillsbury Hall specifically to facilitate connections between CLA faculty, staff and students and members of the community: The Liberal Arts Engagement Hub.
“We have a pilot program right now, called Hub Residencies, that I helped to create,” he says. “In the fall, we will have our Hub Residencies and other programming. It’s really an effort to be intentional about how we connect to the community in a way that’s reciprocal and makes the community feel welcome. That’s something I’m really excited about.”
Whyte also connected with the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta, becoming their academic advisor in 1998 and, a year later, accepting their bid to become a member. He reckons these among the best decisions in his life. “What I tell people is that they bring out the best in me,” when reflecting on various awards he has won for his work with the fraternity. After working with them for years, he now has a volunteer role at the national headquarters as Educational Director, responsible for helping all chapters to do well academically. “I still have connections with the guys here,” Whyte says. “They’re a good group of people.”
Acting on his vision
Whyte is very intentional, believing he is here — in Minnesota or on Earth — for a reason. “I have a vision statement that I created years ago. It’s to be a positive influence on the lives of others. That’s what I strive to do.” And he’s clearly succeeding.