Counselor Keith Dempsey encourages progress and healing for OSU’s Black community

Portrait of Keith Dempsey

“Are you on the football team?”

That was the question Keith Dempsey, ’93, M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’10 got asked the most when he was an undergraduate student. 

“Are you on the basketball team?”

That was the second-most frequent question. 

The third: “If you’re not on the football team, and you’re not on the basketball team, what the heck are you doing here?”

Years later, a representative of the OSU Alumni Association invited Dempsey to lunch and asked why Black alumni aren’t connected and are hesitant to give back. 

“First of all, you know our experiences weren’t always that good,” Dempsey recalls saying. “Giving back to an institution that hurt you, that’s a hard thing to do. And who are you giving back to?”

The conversation led to the creation of the Black Alumni and Friends Network, a group of people who identify with and support Pan-African, Afro-Caribbean, Black, African and African American communities.

It’s one thing to list values of community, diversity, respect and social responsibility, and “everybody has a cool mission statement,” Dempsey says. “I’m looking more at the action behind it.”

Dempsey believes Oregon State is making progress. “We are continuing
to move. We’re continuing to learn,” he says.

Dempsey also puts his values into action. After receiving the 2023 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alumni Legacy Award, he donated his award stipend to the Educational Opportunities Program’s Black and Indigenous Student Success initiative. 

“When I give money, it is specifically to Black students. I do that unapologetically. And it’s not frowned upon,” Dempsey says. 

There is value in asking Black alumni about their experiences and listening. For Dempsey, the next question is, how can we make it better for students now?

Beyond providing financial support, Dempsey meets with current and prospective students. 

“I want to encourage them and talk about their journey and what can happen,” he says. 

Dempsey is more than a mentor. He spent 15 years in counseling education at George Fox University, where he was program director and associate dean. Black people need counselors who look like them and understand their culture to talk about stressors, including racism. 

Dempsey’s now in private practice. But he still prepares people entering the field of professional counseling, which is especially important because he is one of only a few Black male therapists. 

He tells them, “Ask me all the questions! I’ll give you everything I know because it’s going to benefit our community to have more of us working in the field so that folks can come and heal.”

Through his career, as well as his past service on the OSU Alumni Association Board and by initiating the Black Alumni and Friends Network, Dempsey is not only creating space for Black people to lead and thrive, he’s saving space for others to follow the example of his work. 

While none of this could happen if Oregon State’s values were only a statement on paper, Dempsey doesn’t want people to think the work is done.

“I don’t want folks to say we have made it to the mountaintop,” he says. “I want this to be more of an encouragement.”