Mecca Santana, the Chief Diversity Officer for the State of New York and highest-ranking woman of color in New York State service, joined students and faculty at SUNY New Paltz on Nov. 18 to discuss the keys to successful leadership in professional and personal environments.
Santana, a product of the SUNY system having graduated from SUNY Albany before attending law school at Hofstra University, said she was exceptionally excited at the opportunity to speak at SUNY New Paltz.
“I am both honored and humbled to be here representing the governors office,” Santana said. “I love the opportunity to give back and speak to young people because I derived many benefits from others who helped pave the way for me.”
Throughout the lecture, Santana candidly shared many of her personal anecdotes and early life experiences, captivating students who were not expecting such frankness.
“At first I was expecting a typical lecture with straightforward tips on leadership but Santana’s stories made it so much more interesting and relatable to real life,” Sophie Park, a first-year biology major said.
Santana shared her early encounters with the leadership role. She spoke honestly about being a very introverted child with stage fright and fear of public speaking. However, she was very perceptive when she was young, which allowed her to have a heightened awareness of the wrong doings in the world.
The little infractions she witnessed became lasting memories and she began to “stand up and speak out.” She said she started coming out of her shell, quickly becoming the go-to person adults and friends went to for help. She enjoyed being the “do-gooder” and putting on the “white hat” leading her to her to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer.
As an attorney, Santana said she strove to correct the wrongs she saw in society by fighting vehemently to pursue cases of corruption, discrimination and misconduct. She was an organic leader, a position she did not necessarily see herself in as a child growing up in Syracuse.
“I didn’t view myself as a leader because other leaders didn’t look like me and I couldn’t see exactly what was special in me,” Santana said.
Even as a lawyer at the prestigious District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, Santana faced opposition from those who did not respond well to seeing a woman of color in such a position of power.
Today, Santana works to create, implement, and promote workforce diversity and inclusion to construct a society where all people are represented in the private and public sector.
She said she stresses the importance of diversity but also the importance of inclusion. She distinguished them as two very different things.
“Diversity is being invited to the party,” she said. “Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Santana said she feels that implementing policies is just not enough and there needs to be a focus on striking down unconscious biases in order to promote real change and encourage leaders from all backgrounds.
“Leadership development starts early,” Santana said. “Leadership potential is not something you are born with but something that comes out of experiences and the support of those around you.”
Santana’s ability to lead came from all the lessons she picked up along her professional and private endeavors, she said.
She described the importance of confidence, strategy, sacrifice and patience and encouraged students to always move forward.
“Be strategic,” she said. “Make sure that every move puts you in a better position than when you started because life will go on whether you decide to progress or not.”
Santana wanted to impart the message that anyone can become a leader because according to her “leadership is about who you are and not what you are.”