Back in 2008 at the University of Louisville, there was a pretty big shift about to take place within a long-standing office on campus. To complicate matters this office was steeped in tradition, and had long served the university’s African-American student population in many important ways. At the same time, there was need for a new direction and vision, one that was more inclusive of other students of color and traditionally under-represented students on campus. I was tapped to lead this important transition, and to literally rebuild a center that would both honor the traditions and work of the past, while moving boldly into the future. One need not live in Louisville, KY to understand that this was going to be a challenge.
When working within the “diversity and inclusion space” there is an analogy used that I can only imagine is borrowed from the budget and finance world. Groups of people (typically clustered around race/ethnicity) will often speak about and vigorously defend their “piece of the pie.” This piece of the pie refers to their slice of the college’s resources that are committed to “diversity and inclusion.” As you can imagine, this is problematic on so many levels, and it showed up during this important transition that I was asked to lead. The prevailing question I was faced with, very loudly from those in the community, alumni, students, and faculty, was; “what about our piece?” Underneath the surface of that questions, was this: “how are we going to get ours, if we let all those other people get theirs?” And, “we don’t have enough already, how are we going to share with them?” These are real questions, born out of real oppression and frustration, and I understand it all too well. As a Black man, raised in the southern part of the U.S., I know well how this “pie” is often doled out by some faceless entity(ies) that expect the recipient(s) to make it last. This can be in the form of public assistance, quality education, financial aid, space, or other resources. The problem is, I think we continue to ask the wrong question. Which leads us to have to ask the same questions time after time.
By way of providing a solution to this dilemma, I would like to offer advice that Dr. Marc Lamont Hill shared during his keynote. We need to reframe the questions that we ask. Instead of saying “what will happen to my piece of the pie,” let’s instead ask:
This shift is beyond mere semantics. As Dr. Hill said in his keynote, this change literally requires an epistemological shift. Asking “what will happen to my piece of the pie” is a deficit way of seeing the world. It assumes limited resources, perpetuates siloism in our lives, and necessitates competition in and amongst communities that are intersectional and oftentimes similarly marginalized. Furthermore it ignores, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.” Even if the injustice is being committed to someone different from you. And as if that isn’t enough, this deficit thinking ignores the fact that people are, by design, interesectional beings. I am Black AND (Christian, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.). We force people being oppressed already, to oppress other parts of themselves and pick a “side” to defend. This is the worst kind of torture.
In 2010 I contributed to a newsletter within one of NASPA’s (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) knowledge communities. The Student Leadership Knowledge educates and connects leadership educators within colleges across the US and abroad. I wrote a piece that implores practitioners to let students lead, understanding that the best practice is experience. I am continually reminded of that as I work day-to-day with students who need the experience (for that future job as much as for anything else), and administrators who continue to struggle to let go. I would not be who I am today if my mentors and advisors didn’t get out of the way and let me make mistakes, try new things, and learn through leading. I’m attaching a copy of that publication in the “free stuff” section of my site. I hope you enjoy and share!
As we move past yet another 9/11, I am reminded of the relevance of this quote in both my life and in my work.
Much has changed since my last post. I have been blessed to have my family move up with me finally, we have found an amazing condo in Rogers Park in Chicago, I am affirmed daily in the work I do at my new job, and we have began to find a new spiritual home on the South end of Chicago. I wanted to quickly post this as a reminder that despite all the horrible despair that we face day to day (crime, death, genocide, hunger, poverty, discrimination, fear, depression, etc.) that these things can only be overcome through our commitment to shine light in the darkest corners of our existence. What is really cool is that we don’t have to do it alone. I was reminded by a friend yesterday who was in a dark place, that the universe has a way of conspiring to support and lift us up when we most need it. That’s really a fancy way of saying “we” as individuals decided to take a moment to shine light in the lives of others. What is the light? It’s a smile, a phone call, a flower left on a desk, a perfectly timed joke when you’re not in a joking mood. Lights’ natural inclination is not to hide, but to shine. Only when we prevent it from doing so, do we find ourselves surrounded by darkness. Dark thoughts, dark people, and dark situations.
In my work as an educator and diversity advocate, I find it very easy to be consumed by the darkest actions and thoughts of others. It is during that time I seek the darkness to fight back – thinking its the only way to combat such persistent ugliness that surrounds us. In fact, that is the worst possible action I could take. Darkness is only permitted to exist in the absence of light, not the other way around. So I remember that, as I start each day, trying to bring light and love into the work I do. From the smallest conversation, to the biggest cultural shifts we need to make – I will be positive, and try to use my light to chase away the darkness.
In her famous song, Strong Man, The Rev. Shirley Caesar, a legendary African American Gospel singer, sings the following words:
“There’s a strong man, in this house, with my spiritual eyes I can see,
Just what this strong man, is doing to my whole family
He’s got a grip on the feeble, and the spiritually blind,
Strong man, you better leave here, because you’re wasting your time,
Strong man, you gotta leave here, because you’re wasting your time.”
Who is this strong man to whom she references? In some world religions, Christianity being one of them, we believe this to be an evil spirit, presence, or being, that is very real and very dangerous. Quite literally, the devil. If you’re not Christian or a believer in a particular religion, think in terms of negative/bad energy, thoughts, or feelings. Bad mojo in and around you. Ok, we all on the same page? Good.
Do you have a “strong man” causing confusion or angst in your life? I ask because this strong man tends to pop up in my life and in my house often, and despite my vigilance, “it” finds a way to shake my confidence, replace love with fear, and just plain ruin my day/week/month. I’m going to suggest something to you that I have to remind myself – words are powerful. They can start and end wars; they can drive people to take their own lives; and they can keep someone alive who may have no other reason to live. Use your words to take back whatever situation the “strong man” may try to disrupt.
Here’s the leadership lesson – the most productive leaders and managers are those who articulate their goals. Those who literally tell themselves they are going to be successful, and somehow will it into existence. The thoughts, ideas, and the words we have are the beginning of what will be the next big thing. Just as we speak our goals into existence by writing them down, or sharing them with others – we must do the same thing to speak trouble out of our lives. When the strong man shows up in your life or organization, call it out for what it is, and then politely ask it to leave. And declare, “you’re just wasting your time.”
I will preface what I’m about to post as such: I am a DIE HARD and ardent NC State Wolfpack fan. Oftentimes I have thought to myself, “they can do no wrong.” Period. I will admit, that sentiment can be reckless. I also, at the same time, value loyalty: to things/places, causes, and people (in that order). I value family a great deal, and within my community loyalty to family and our people is sacred. A rapper I used to listen to (and still secretly do) said, referring to his brother, “even when he’s wrong, he ain’t wrong, cause he’s my brother.” That pretty much explains how I have felt about my family through time no matter what; but to NC State, not so much. It is an organization; it, and the people within it, make mistakes. And when they are wrong, they are wrong, and should be held accountable.
I am concluding a week long academy for student conduct administrators on college campuses. There are folks here from all over the country, from California, to Texas, to Pennsylvania. In fact, there are several people here from Penn State, and many alumni of Penn State. Of course as we are discussing conduct matters, the scandal at Penn State was obviously going to come up on more than one occasion. After each mention of Penn State, and subsequent snicker, discomfort, or “oh yea – Penn State” comment, some employees and alumni acted like they wanted to be upset! Some playfully, others playfully but kinda serious. They would respond with, “hey now,” or “watch it,” or as one of our speakers apologetically said “I’m a graduate of Penn State, so don’t get me wrong, that’s my school,” before she went on to leverage criticism.
Simultaneously this week, I began reading the Freeh Report, detailing the Penn State abuse by Gerald Sandusky. It also details the appalling lack of accountability, responsibility, and empathy of several in the Penn State community for years and years. My question is, why are people so reluctant, offended, and outraged at the notion of saying anything bad about Penn State? This is exactly the reason they are in this position now; blind allegiance to an entity at the expense of rational critique and ethical protection of innocent people. Pen State messed up…no if, ands, or buts. I teach Educational Leadership to graduate and undergraduate students, and have been in higher education for 10+ years – but a first year freshman can tell you that Penn State messed up. We all should be able to say that without apology. This does not take away the fact that PSU is a great educational institution…but they messed up. Let’s leave it at that for a while.
The leadership lesson: own your stuff. Each of use will fail. Each of us will fail those we love and care about; our family, friends, constituents, customers, etc. Our goal should not be to hide or obfuscate the truth, or to show blind and reckless loyalty to ourselves or others. Rather, we can admit what we did, apologize for what we did, attend to those to whom we caused harm, and commit to act in ethical and consistent ways moving forward. As leaders, it is paramount that we act with integrity at all times, as much as humanly possible. The funny thing, though, is that humans are fallible, and we make mistakes. When we do, we need to own our stuff.
Earlier this month I traveled to the beautiful twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Though the trip was amazing, its what happened before I traveled that inspired this post. You see I still have my tonsils…which means that I am particularly susceptible to strep throat. I could take them out, but I have been told that as an adult it is particularly unpleasant, so that’s a no for now.
At any rate, I went to the emergency room and was prescribed antibiotics to clear the infection. On the bottle and in the instructions, which is pretty standard, it instructs the patient to be sure to take all of the medicine. If you don’t, you run the risk of feeling, looking, and sounding like you’re OK, but underneath it all the infection is still there. So whether I felt better or not, I committed to taking the full dosage, as instructed. Beyond not wanting to be sick again, I didn’t want to be “that guy” complaining to the doctor that I’m still sick – only to hear him ask “did you take all of your medicine,” in which I would have had to reply – no:( How then could I complain, be upset, or otherwise have any reason to be confused about why I’m still sick when I clearly didn’t follow directions.
I constantly look for leadership and success lessons in the mundane occurrences of life. So naturally I got to thinking about what else in my life could I apply this medical lesson – and of course academic success came to mind (me being an academician and administrator and all). So let’s apply this same logic to academic success, and beyond that to success in general. As part of a number of posts that I will refer to “getting back to basics,” I want to explore how students and others can benefit from this seemingly common sense principle of following directions.
Every semester, and every year, institutions across the country give their students tips, strategies, and advice on how to be successful students. And each year, students, some more than others, fail miserably and end up becoming academically ineligible and/or feeling completely deflated by their poor performance. Egos are hurt, careers fizzle before they start, and money is wasted all in one swoop. But why? Were the timeless research-driven strategies and tips not good? Were the students not listening or writing down what they should do? Was there a problem with understanding what was said? I don’t think any of this is the reason. I think it is a fundamental problem with the nomenclature we use when giving this information, and the perceptions of the students’ who receive the information.
The doctor does not suggest medicine for you to take. She does not give you tips on how to get better, or strategies on how frequently you could take a certain type of medicine. No, she prescribes you something, with the full expectation that you will take it – ALL of it – if you plan on getting better. I believe that students perceive the information they receive as just that; information. Take it or leave it, do it or don’t, apply it all or apply some – but its up to you. And therein lies the problem. When someone tells you to:
- Go to every class, not some, but all
- Meet your professors/teachers/instructors and get to know them
- Go to tutoring before you need tutoring
- Find a mentor
- Get involved with an organization or peer support group
These should not be confused as tips for success, rather as a prescription for success. Can you see the difference? Not doing these things fully for the entire time you are in school is tantamount to you not finishing the antibiotics prescribed to you. You may “feel” OK after the first few weeks of school, and “think” you are OK because you have been going to class and met some of your teachers, but the reality is that you won’t know for sure you are well/on the right track until you take all of the medicine and get a clean bill of health (i.e., an A!) Here is a typical convo with students after a rough semester:
Me: You didn’t do too hot, this semester. I know you were shooting for a higher GPA, what happened?
Student: I don’t know.
Me: Did you do X-Y-Z, all the things I mentioned above.
Me: Ok, so what are you going to do now?
Student: I don’t know, what should I do?
Zoom out now and apply this to almost anything at all. Anything that you have been given instructions on how to do: being a better leader, running a marathon, writing a book, building a successful business, etc. There are “self-help” books and guidebooks EVERYWHERE on EVERYTHING. Success is within your grasp. You can reach your goals, you can overcome, you can be better; you just have to take your medicine (even if you don’t want to!).
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced, nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
In my continuing application of this classic poem by William Ernest Henley, I want to remind us all to wallow for a time in our self-pity…and then get over it. How many times have you heard “someone” (that someone may be you by the way), complain all the time, about everything? Even worse, that someone complains as if their problems are somehow bigger than your problems. They say, “my major is harder, my class load is tougher, my job sucks.” To those folks I say, “you chose your major, you chose your class load, and at least you have a job.”
As I see it, it’s good to be busy, it’s good to feel tired, it’s good to have trouble sometimes. And what’s more, it is inevitable that things happen, good and bad, whether or not you are good or bad. Take heart though, because what you can control is your response to your particular circumstance. The poem says it all; “in the fell [read ‘cruel’] clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud.” The author didn’t plan on his leg being amputated, but it was; he was indeed caught in the cruel grip of circumstance, but refused to even wince! That’s resilience folks! He goes on to say that even after getting bludgeoned by chance, his admits that he is bloody, but refuses to bow down. Pay attention to the beautiful diction here, and look up the word bludgeoned – it’s not just getting “beat up.” This is the type of resolve that we must have despite what chance might send our way. I can imagine the author holding on to the fact that he was at least still alive. Can you honestly tap into that inner strength and resolve to get past the circumstances and random chance in your life?
Several years ago I had the pleasure of hearing the incomparable Maya Angelou at a public forum. She told us of a time when her son called her and asked her to recite Invictus to him over the phone, very slowly and deliberately. After she finished the poem her son thanked her, and told her that he had just underwent an extremely painful procedure at the doctors office that required him to remain conscious – and he needed those words to get through it. Use your pain, circumstance, and chance situations in your life to build strength, character, and resilience. Do not complain. Be unconquered.