Zalika Winitzer isn’t one to shy away from difficult questions or tough conversations.
As the head of Lesley’s 30-member Alumni Council, she embraces both, using her experience and skills in organizational psychology and in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion to build a stronger and more inclusive voice for the over 90,000 graduates represented by the Council.
The Alumni Council is an all-volunteer organization that works to promote the interests and mission of the university while encouraging the spirit of fellowship among Lesley graduates. Members work with faculty and staff to support networking and reunion events, sponsor student scholarships and annual Alumni Awards, organize get-togethers for athlete and artist alumni groups, and much more.
Since joining the council in 2016, Zalika has found a like-minded group of energetic, dedicated alumni.
“I just love being connected to so many passionate people who just really want the best for students at Lesley and for the community,” she says.
Zalika focuses her council work on helping people think with a diversity and equity lens on issues including recruitment, alumni engagement, and initiatives that would benefit current and incoming students.
“It’s a long-term commitment,” she says. “That’s the stuff I love to do. I love to dig in and get in the weeds and see how we can make larger changes.”
Starting new conversations
As the senior manager for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at e-commerce giant Wayfair, Zalika is used to leading challenging conversations around racial equity. But the subject is nothing new to her. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, she grappled with questions about race and diversity from a young age. Lesley’s commitment to racial equity and social justice was one of the things that drew her to the school.
“I’m half Black and half white, and I’ve worked really hard, honestly, since I was five years old to bring people together to talk about racism in difficult situations,” she says. “Lesley really spoke to me from the social justice point of view.”
She came to Lesley with a four-year scholarship through ALANA—the Asian, Latina, African-American, and Native American Association—and majored in Humanities: Art, with a minor in Art Therapy. She spent years working with young people who had experienced trauma and found many avenues to put her Lesley studies to use.
“I still infuse art therapy in what I do … all the way through to my diversity, equity and inclusion work,” she says. “It’s really embedded.”
Even in an academic community that prioritized diversity and progressive values, Zalika found that there was work to do to address issues of systemic racism and sexism at Lesley. There were few people of color in her class, though then-new programs like ALANA and later the Urban Scholars Initiative were helping non-white students feel more welcome and giving them a stronger collective voice. She always felt that there was space for progress.
“There’s always room for conversation and discussion,” she says. “And having an open growth mindset was something that is foundational through all my interactions.”
Bringing her voice to the Alumni Council
After graduating in 2001, Zalika earned her master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and pursued a career focused on human resources and helping companies achieve greater equity. Wanting to see the voices and experiences of Lesley’s alumni of color better reflected, she joined the Alumni Council in 2016, serving as secretary and chair of the Athletics Committee.
“One of the reasons I wanted to join the council was that I went to one of the reunions and thought ‘Wow, we need to increase representation—how can I get involved?’”
She became council president in 2021.
“I didn’t plan to be the president,” she says laughing. “I’m just a person who wants to provide any help that I can. And I found the skill set that I had within diversity, equity, and inclusion, and also organizational psychology was really helpful to make the systems within the council more equitable.”
Her top goals in leading the council are to raise awareness of the group and to find areas where alumni can collaborate more effectively with the university and its students.
“The biggest challenge is ensuring that people at Lesley know who we are and what we do,” she says.
Whether it’s connecting current students with alumni mentors in their field or helping to encourage and fund student initiatives, the Alumni Council hopes to continue building strong relationships within the Lesley community. And as the university takes a more proactive approach towards racial justice in hiring, recruitment, and representation, the council is working on its own issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, instituting new bias trainings and establishing a DEI working group as part of its Service Committee.
“We’re increasing our own knowledge as council members, how we manage and are aware of our own biases and how those show up in council meetings, in the work that we do, in ways that we want to move forward together,” Zalika says. She’s encouraged by the university’s proactive approach towards racial justice and representation in recent years.
“I’ve really been refreshed by how that’s a priority for them and how we’ve been able to connect with Lesley’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Justice. We always want to make sure that we’re supporting folks who are underrepresented and knowing what their needs are.”
The council works to cultivate strong connections with Lesley’s Undergraduate Student Government, graduate school students, university trustees, and Threshold Program alumni. They continue to explore new ways to connect with and listen to different constituents on campus—affinity groups, athletes, commuter students, and more.
“We really want to engage as many parts of the community as we can,” Zalika says.
These days, Zalika’s life is busier than ever. She works full time and serves on several boards; she and her husband have three daughters under 10. “And two kittens and a puppy,” she adds. But she’s committed to her work at Lesley and to encouraging honest community conversations as the university makes plans for its future.
“I feel that my mission in life is to bring people together to talk about difficult things,” she says. “One of the things that I really center myself on is that change is the only constant in life and there’s always room for growth and learning, even when it’s uncomfortable.”