Fearless bridge builder
March 10, 2022
A Q&A with alumna Aretina Hamilton
While the places in which we live and work are ingrained into our everyday lives, the stories behind those places—the history, citizens, planning zones—may not always be at the top of mind. Enter Aretina Hamilton, a University of Delaware alumna who is dedicated to understanding these elements of what makes a place a community and what that means for future plans, policies and progress.
In 2006, Hamilton received a master’s degree in urban affairs and public policy with an emphasis in urban planning from the University of Delaware, and she went on to complete a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Kentucky. In 2022, her degrees are serving as an intersection with her new role as the director of equity and inclusion for the city of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Here, Hamilton discusses how UD served as a pivotal point in her life, what she hopes to accomplish in Raleigh and the key characteristic to building a society of belonging.
What was the inspiration for dedicating your work toward diversity, equity and inclusion efforts?
Hamilton: I was always interested in, ‘why does this community look this way, and this one look this way?’ It was when I was living in Atlanta in the earlier stages of gentrification that I began to understand that many of the current day inequalities that we deal with have a systemic basis. Every place that we move through was shaped by planners who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, wanted to create order in cities by keeping ethnic communities together in their respective neighborhoods. But when you create order in this way, it removes the possibility of integration and the true incorporation of different ideas and thoughts. My work in this realm began with looking to rectify these issues, understanding that all the places we enter are tied to history, feelings and emotions.
How has your UD experience impacted your journey?
Hamliton: UD showed me that effecting change really comes down to communities. My UD education was not only about going to school, but also about engaging in the work. That really shaped me. I was frequently working with community partners, nonprofits, politicians, citizens, which is how I learned that there has to be a marriage of academia, nonprofits, government — those folks all have to be at the table. I knew that I had to bring in community partners to see progress. If I didn’t go to UD, I’m not sure that I would have that lens in my work. The environments and communities that I worked with in Delaware were lifechanging.
Delaware was an amazing place for me to develop and to really think about the deeper purpose of the work and deeper meaning of the work. What I discovered at UD is that you’ll bring your full self to the work and change lives, but also that you will change yourself.
What do you hope to achieve in Raleigh?
Hamilton: In past positions I’ve had DEI work included but this is larger — it’s about belonging, it’s about encouraging people to show up authentically. The work that I hope to do here is to really help people understand that we need to cultivate belonging together. Gentrification is a big focus, as well as homelessness and the housing crisis. I’m planning to have more public facing conversations, more dialogue, and then focusing on translating that dialogue into action and policy.
Diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t just about happiness; it’s about trying to transform. I’m advising, talking to people, pulling out blind spots. One of the great things about my background is that I truly understand the current and historical roots of the issues we’re dealing with. The struggle for social justice, the fight for Black lives, homophobia, transphobia and intolerance is because people have lost the sense of empathy. When you bring these people together, you realize you have more in common than not. If we want to do more and be more, have better policies and better engagement, we need empathy.
If you could be remembered for something in history, what would it be?
Hamilton: That I was a fearless bridge builder. That really speaks to my work. I have worked in many different industries that have really helped me understand people. Helped me connect. One thing that always comes up is that there’s a lot of fear and anxiety. I’m able to engage with people where they are. We all have this inner voice that makes us feel this sense of fear and that’s OK — let’s bring people together. That’s what I love. The massive movement to have a truly equitable world starts with connecting through one-on-one conversations.
Learn more about how Women's History Month is being celebrated at UD.