I recently visited a friend’s church in Chicago, and during service they talked about tithing. Now if you go to church you are already side-eyeing this whole conversation – you know what I mean, but stick with me. If you don’t go to church/mosque/synagogue you may be inclined to stop reading as well – that’s OK, but I think what I’m about say is beyond religious babbling, rather its a principle that shows itself true over and over: giving is good, and worth it.
I decided to “step out on faith”on that day and give – and in doing so I was literally saved from a situation I wasn’t able to handle. I’ve also recently joined a non-profit board, not really having as much time as I want for other things now, and not knowing how it would turn out. Without going into too many specifics for either situation, my faith this time showed itself true. I say “this time” because stepping out on faith is not like rubbing a genie and getting what you want. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. But faith simultaneously allows me to know that whatever the outcome, I’ll be OK. I think about this in the service I do, both within my region and across the world. I also think about it academically as one who studies leadership and its purposes. In fact an entire philosophy of leadership is driven by the believe that leaders should first be servants, and through serving improve the world, community, and individuals. More about Robert Greenleaf and his seminal work on the topic can be found here: https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/.
This is not a new principle, but I think its one we have to remember, and reframe. At least I did. I think it is easiest to hear and do this in times of abundance and good times, but we miss something when we do that. You see, biblically speaking, the first “tithe” was given by the father of all Abrahamic religions (Abraham) after he had seen a victory over his enemies. There was no need to give first in order to get something in return. If we think about our own lives, treasures, time and talents, we must think about all that we have already. Whether by your own hard work, by family, or by some other means, we all have something to give. Take what you have been given, and give it back. Not in anticipation of anything in particular, but because you have it to give. Whether the giving is financial, spiritual, with your time, or with your talents; give…because you got it.
Much of my life I have heard the phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Usually that is followed by “and everything is small stuff.” I lived by that quote for much of my life – using it to help me get through, over, and past my disappointments with myself and others. I used it when doing my professional work, realizing that there is always something bigger, badder, and worse that could have been happening. Lately however, I’ve begun to realize that the “small stuff” may mean more than I once believed.
Many of you reading this may have heard of the term microaggresions. If not, google it. These fall under the larger rubric of a micro-insults. They are a form of oppression so small and so slight, that it often goes unnoticed by the person using them. Like a paper cut, to the hearer, they very much so hurt – despite their size or the intention of those using them. Enough of them can cause a tremendous amount of lasting pain. This is often the “small stuff” that many are asked to not sweat. But that’s not really fair is it? I think we need to shift to sweating that small stuff very much, and the people who are subject to those slights should do the same.
The way I see it, if it is indeed that small, perhaps it should be easy to shift our language and behavior a bit to make someone feel like they belong, and that they matter.
I also want to extend this conversation to the “small stuff” we see physically around our campuses that may lead people or communities to feel that they don’t matter. As I visit campuses across the country and indeed my own campus, I wonder how small changes to the environment can go a long way in helping the community feel pride and joy about the space they call home for much of the day. A fresh coat of paint here, a new sign there, a deep cleaning of this area. Some would argue, “but we have so many other big things to worry about.” And to that I would simply respond; then this should be easy! Like the great coach said in the quote above, the little details are vital. In what we say, how we present ourselves to our community, and what we do and do not do; it all matters. Just think about the big things you can make happen once you start attending to the small details I’ve mentioned in this post. People who feel valued do more and better work, people who have pride and joy in their work and learning environment are happier and more productive. I think that’s worth sweating the small stuff.
“While strolling through the fields of time, there’s many things to see;
But nature is the greatest sight, that there could ever be.
The greatest of them all to me is how the world was formed;
And why the roses have to live each day among the thorns.”
Image provided by bitrebels.com
My work places me in challenging positions. I have to have conversations with faculty members, students, and other employees about how to navigate difficult conversations, how to accommodate students so they can be successful, and how to see the humanity in people even when they don’t want or have to. It can be exhausting. I question why I do it, and how or if I will sustain doing it for the long run. I’m then reminded of an important reality, as I often am, through the gift of song. When the lyrics are good – I’m good. No matter the genre of music, I find a message that keeps me going. In this case I found it in Bluegrass. Having been raised in the Southern part of the U.S., I can appreciate some good Bluegrass.
The song A Rose Among The Thorns made me remember that one of the most beautiful flowers in the world, the Rose, exists amongst thorns. Metaphorically, good people, and indeed the good in people, are much like roses amongst the thorns. I don’t get to choose to be offended by the thorns and thereby lose an opportunity to appreciate the roses. I don’t get to be afraid of the thorns, and let that distract me from the beauty of people, or the value they bring to this world. There is good in people and bad in people. There are good people and there are bad people. You can’t have one without the other, and one shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the other. I will remember in my daily work that despite the selfishness, racism, bias, and bigotry in the world…I will continue to do what I do for the roses.
As I meditated this morning I came across a scripture, 1 Corinthians 10:23 and 24 that reads,
“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.(NIV)
In my daily work as a chief diversity/inclusion and senior student affairs officer at a public institution, the notion of rights and responsibilities is always on my mind. In our world, and in the United States in particular, we use our rights as a hammer and permission to do whatever we want. The debate about gun control, also relevant to college campuses, is one such example. The right to be be biased, or hate, is another. This scripture, Christian in its context but clearly applicable to us all regardless of our beliefs, states some obvious facts, “not everything is beneficial” and “not everything is constructive.” It applies standards to our rights, and asks us to ask if what I will do will add value to others, or should I do it just because I can. And notice these standards are not simply “good or bad,” those are too simplistic. Beneficial and constructive is the goal. I have the right to buy an AK-47, but is that beneficial (literally: favorable or advantageous; resulting in good.) I have the right to use most any names I want to refer to someone else, but is it constructive (literally: serving a useful purpose; tending to build up.)
As individuals we have rights, as a community we have responsibilities. The whole thing we call civilization falls apart if we don’t keep that in mind, and remind others to do the same.
In my meditation this morning I was reminded about my own role in fighting for justice. Praying for peace and justice is necessary, as the prophet Habakkuk did:
“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
I spoke about “going places and doing things” in one of my previous posts. It’s good to get out and about, in the world, your community, or your neighborhood. One thing that inevitably happens when you travel abroad – is that you hit a bit of a wall at some point in your trip. The tenor of this post may sound more subdued, but learning is learning, even when its hard.
As I drove in to work this morning with Jerome, I felt more foreign than I have since arriving. The traffic patterns, the people and faces, the bikes, the lack of the kind of coffee I want when I want it…even nature betrayed me. The trees and grasses looked different, and unfamiliar to me. I was taxed trying to follow what Dutch words I could on the radio, and I wanted to be back with familiar people, sights, and sounds. This is the cost of traveling, particularly abroad. I imagine that our students feel like this after they have started college. The language is different, the people, the expectations, the rules. And despite their preparation via orientation, websites, and talking to folks – they still feel like strangers. I also prepared for my trip here. For over a year! Even still, I find myself well into my trip – feeling lost and alone. What gets me through it is the love, counsel and support of others, connecting with my routines, being resilient and knowing that it will pass. I wonder how I can apply this same process of coping to our new students. Those first three – six weeks is so critical to student success for the entire semester. We need to empathize more with what our students are experiencing – put ourselves in their shoes to discover new insights into their lives. And we need to ask them – then ask them again – then ask them again, until we get better at helping our students feel that the college environment is familiar to them. Success can then flow from familiarity and belonging.
That passed for me, and I found my joy again at work (that didn’t take long did it). Arriving at the Sports College in Amersfoort I was able to meet with the students in Jerome’s mentor group. Each teacher here has a group of students with whom they mentor throughout the year. These teachers meet with their students as a group and 1-1 once a week. Talk about student support! I met with two of the students afterwards and heard from them about why they were there, what they hoped to do in life, how much they felt supported (or not) by the college, and just generally about their lives and journey to Sports College. I was going to talk more about the stories they shared, but decided not to, for their privacy. Let’s just say this group of students (in this cohort/class/etc.) are really going through some things outside of school. Again, without going into detail, this is some heavy stuff that would tax the most capable and well-adjusted person. But many of these students are not capable and not well-adjusted. Of course they will be, that’s why they are in school, but the journey is a long one. Jerome and I agreed that here and in the U.S., the “stuff” that is going on in our students’ lives have everything to do with how successful they are or are not in school. I believe some in my circle at Oakton think that being a student is the end all be all of our student’s purpose – yes they are students, but it is not all they are. I also think we forget just how important those things are that happen outside of classes. I am not talking about co-curricular and extra-curricular activities – I’m talking about life. To complicate this fact, is that within a community college space (and in the ROC here), and increasingly in four-year spaces, students have a very utilitarian view of higher education. They are going to school to learn something, that they can then apply in very visible and rewarding ways afterwards. Do we engage students understanding this reality? Are we fighting to make them want to value education for education’s sake as in days of old, or at our elite universities? I know what we say, but do our policies reflect that? Do the courses students take and the teaching in the classroom reflect that? Do we have this conversation with our students on a regular basis? These are the questions I want to press upon my colleagues. There are no right answers, just different ones. And these questions deserve our attention on both a personal and institutional level.
While there are many students struggling, there are many students thriving. I had the opportunity to sit in on an English class (where they are learning to speak English that is), and students were giving presentations that day. They were of course nervous with a native speaker in the room, but they were fantastic. I had a chance to learn about their work experiences in their internships, while also providing feedback about their presentations and English. It was good to be in the classroom again in that way – and to interact with the students in that way. Later I traveled to the Tech and Bouw & Interieur (Building and Interior) Colleges.
Here they do a number of things, electrical, plumbing, concrete, woodworking, automotive, flooring, upholstery; basically anything in and out of buildings. Once again, I saw students on state of the art equipment doing real work, learning their craft. It is fascinating to watch this system of vocational education at work – and these students are quite young. They enter their ROC experience at 16/17, when many of our students are finishing high school still. It’s too early – as I expressed in an earlier post – but we don’t get it right either in the U.S. And many of these students seem so focused and mature for their ages. None more than those I met at the Horeca & Travel College (Hospitality and Travel).
Much like our culinary schools, these are the cooks, facilities managers, and hospitality experts. We were greeted by a level 4 student, who served a the facility manager for his lower level peers. He was 19. After touring the grounds and meeting with the ROC Academy (which is their faculty professional development center or teaching and learning center in four-year spaces), we had a world-class dinner in the restaurant. The food was prepared by students, served by students, and the manager was a student. He was 17 – and he was good. Each student has this potential when coached, trained, and trusted. I love to see it in action – much like I love to see our students taking on leadership roles and student work experiences at our campus.
I’ll end this post with some fun shots from my holiday on Monday March 25 – which was also Memorial Day in the U.S. I visited Den Haag (The Hague), which is the political seat of power for the Netherlands. I went with Sandra (my host), and her brother-in-law who works for the government and is very knowledgeable about the city Though Amsterdam is the capital, Den Haag is where the parliament, prime minister, ministries and justices do their work.
There is also a great little attraction known as Madurodam, which is basically a model village of all the major attractions across the country! It is one of the coolest things I’ve seen. Such amazing detail and attention to the many wonders of this place. Enjoy!
Blogging at the end of the night is impossible when my nights end late, which they did on both Friday and Saturday. Friday ended with these now regular chat with Sandra and Jerome over some wine and light snacks. I’m in love with the rituals this family keeps, and am taking notes as I think about how to be a better host. Rituals, like traditions, create a sense of belonging and purpose. A lesson for all of us is the power in daily routines to help us center ourselves, reflect, and prepare for the next day. With a child of my own I’ve learned to appreciate the power of routines. It is vital for her health and well-being. Of course once we get older we seem to drop our routines, and because we are so “busy” we accept the chaos that comes with everyday. I am going to think about my routines more at home and work – which ones are healthy and which ones should I ditch. Oh, and I saw a hedgehog! A real life, in the “flesh” hedgehog. I told my hosts that I’ve never seen one outside of a zoo – and never thought about why. But as it was crawling around their back porch I looked them up on the internet and found out they are not indigenous to the U.S. So there you have it – a hedgehog.
I did have an opportunity to sit with two more staff members at the ROC Sports College in Amersfoort. One of those men was Bas (Sebastian), who was the Director of the college. He is equivalent to a Dean in the U.S., and he is responsible for reporting to the Chairman of the ROC and managing the affairs of the college. He actually started the Sports College almost 10 years ago, along with others I’ve met, including Jerome, of whom Bas speaks very highly. I learned more about the higher education system, and with each meeting I learn something new, gain clarity, and lose some as well! Understanding all of this takes time, and will take more time even after this exchange to get my head around. Bas and others started the college, so I began to think about how at Oakton we have some who have started the college 46 years ago still exerting influence in the college. There are others who have been there a really long time. I think how hard it is to change something that you’ve been so immersed in since the beginning. Part of my interest in doing this exchange is to examine how higher ed is administered, how the organizations are structured, who leaders are and how they lead, and how change is managed. When asked about how change is perceived and managed here, Bas commented that they were excited about change. At least within the Sports College change is welcome as a new opportunity from what I can tell, and because of the involvement of the teachers and others in the execution of change, there seems to be buy-in early in the process.
I mentioned in a previous post about the involvement and care of the teachers. After speaking with the Director, it seems that the teachers’ involvement is encouraged and insisted upon from the highest level of the organization. The teachers and other staff are the decision makers. Yes, the Director gives the larger goal to achieve, but all the details of how that will happen flows up from the rank and file. In fact, the Director said “my dilemma in leadership is to not interfere with how the team achieves its goals.” There is an inherent and well-earned trust among this team, one that lacks in some of the spaces where I work. I believe I can do better to develop trust in those around me, and also trust the people around me more. This trust-building process takes time. Time that we often sacrifice in the name of efficiency and “getting things done,” while in fact our ability to get things done is compromised by our lack of relationship building. I tell my students this all the time – but alas, I don’t always practice it.
There is an “Invocation and Education” team that I have to find a way to model at Oakton. It is something I have thought about a lot in terms of how we institutionalize creative problem solving using the talent within our division. This team is designed to do that for the Sports College. New ideas and ways to approach problems are discussed in this group, and the ideas can be generated from his group as well. At the end of the day you have well vetted ideas and solutions that can be attempted. I need to learn more about this team as I think how to apply the concept back home. I hope to see more people take ownership in the affairs of the College at all levels. I think that is missing – it’s my role as an institutional leader to create space for that culture to emerge.
Saturday was my triumphant return to Amsterdam! Very good day. Lots of walking and lots of sight-seeing (unstructured),
the Amsterdam Dungeon,
a canal tour,
and some good drinks at Irish pubs and a steakhouse. The pictures say more than I can say – but it was a great day. Today is my day off – I won’t blog tomorrow about today as I’m mostly going to be at the house until dinner tonight with the family.