Safety, Learning, & Community

There has been so much to write about over the last couple of weeks. From the clear fact that merely going to college does not imbue one with critical consciousness (see the difference between why Nate Parker and Colin Kaepernick are trending) to what kind of spaces college campuses should be, I could have written multiple posts. Alas, BGSU’s first day of fall semester was last Monday the 22nd and I was a little busy last week with my paid post. So, I decided to write today about safety, learning, and faculty responsibility to support student learning. I did it through Storify because so much great content I’ve seen on this has come through my Twitter feed. Let’s up sharing it this way works as I hope it will. Clicking on the link below should take you to the Storify:


What’s this have to do with higher ed?

Howdy. Hey. Hi. Wassup.

I know it’s been ages and a half since my last blog post. Several folks have been nudging me – okay, it’s been a bit more urgent than a nudge – to start writing for my blog again. Frankly, my absence from this blog site has not been because there haven’t been issues I wanted to write in long form about. There have indeed been lots of them. I do have to confess that I have fallen in like with Twitter. I have come to enjoy the necessity of boiling down my ideas to 140 characters and when I have more to say than that, I have learned how to “thread” my tweets so that I can go on a “tweet storm” that satisfies that in-the-moment urge to get something out of my head and into the world for feedback and commentary. This is in large part the reason why I have posted nearly 16,000 tweets in the last year or so (I know small potatoes by comparison with others, but I think that’s a lot for someone who is not a nationally known personality).

The blog, by contrast, has felt more distant. In other words, I feel like there is less direct engagement with me through my blog posts than there has been via Twitter through a rant or even a single tweet. Perhaps some of that has something to do with the “celebrity” culture that Dr. Z Nicolazzo posted about on hir blog earlier today (8/11/2016). Perhaps the blog feeds some (definitely not all) folks’ desire to “consume” or “experience” me than to actually engage with me person to person. And that’s more than a little off-putting to me. Despite my strong introvert preferences, I really enjoy talking about ideas with people and I have found that more possible through Twitter than through my blog. Again, neither space is totally either singular thing, but the patterns do diverge between those two platforms.

Another issue that’s kept me off my blog – and this is fully my own internalized constraint – has been the question that I used to title this blog post: What’s this have to do with higher ed? This is actually a question I get fairly often from anonymous reviewers and one that’s currently besetting a manuscript that I’ve been asked to submit a revision of for a journal. I have an uncanny – some might call it annoying – ability to connect the dots across widely varying content, issues, people, topics. It’s an artifact of my ADHD, a gift as I like to think of it. However, also due to my ADHD, I have a really difficult time explaining those connections that are so apparent to me to other people. Hence why my reviewers are often puzzled and have to ask me to more clearly address how my argument/findings/recommendations/the topic itself is related to the field of higher education. On the blog, I feel a greater responsibility to make those connections visible to readers, to think through my arguments, to show the picture. Mind you, these are all rightfully expected responsibilities of any author. It’s like the instruction from my math teachers in school: “Show your work.”

Nevertheless, that work is work and I haven’t had that kind of time on my hands lately, especially not over the last year or so. However, as I am choosing to take the advice of a dear and treasured friend and just “rest” this coming year, I think I am ready to tackle that challenge. I’d like to begin in this post by sharing generally how I see things connecting, the patterns I am most interested in drawing, and those patterns which already exist that I would like to point out.

The arc of my scholarship over the last 15 years has certainly focused most specifically on (Black) student identity (development), experiences, and outcomes concerning race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, faith, religion, and spirituality. However, my interest in those topics has always been connected to and meant to inform institutional transformation and what I see as the role of higher education in a (espoused) democratic society. In other words, I fervently believe that the issues on which I have focused [1)how (racially minoritized) students experience their higher education environments and 2) how those environments press upon their meaning making of who they are, their relationships to others, and what that means for how they should show up in the world] affect the broader society those students will shape and the society they experience with others. I believe that higher education best fulfills its role as a public good (not just a private gain) when it prepares people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious (and there “critically” serves two different but related purposes) citizens in a democratic society.

U.S. Census data show that 56% of the population “25 years and older” as of 2011 had at least an associate’s degree or some college experience; this includes the 30% who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Consequently, higher education environments – across sectors – have a significant (potential) influence on shaping knowledge competency, maturation, and values in the country. How people in those environments – including students, faculty, and staff – dis/engage each other around issues of identity, relationship, community, and systems of oppression and privilege shows up in how those same people dis/engage each other around those topics beyond the campus commons. Here are just three examples:

  1. How we in higher education do (not) talk about gender in colleges and universities – not just the elite, private ones – shows up in public discussions and debates about HB2 in North Carolina.
  2. How higher education does (not) talk about privilege and power as systemic realities that create and reproduce what Stainback et al. (2010) call “founding effects” and “organizational inertia” shows up in debates about policing and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC; h/t Michelle Alexander).
  3. How higher education does (not) address its historical connections to colonization and slavery and the continuing present material effects of that relationship shows up in the need for students to petition, strike, and protest by any means necessary the celebration of the vestiges of those relationships on their campuses and in the cities and states in which they live and study.

As a result, prison abolition, gender and toxic masculinity as lived and experienced “out in the world”, and the display of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds all become fodder for higher education analysis and discussion.  How we discuss terrorism, mass shootings, gun violence, mental health, and political candidates invocation of such rhetoric are all higher education issues because they all speak back/forward to how colleges and universities are (not) preparing people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious citizens in a democratic society. In partnership with K12 education, which is the extent of formal education for 44% of the country (as captured by the Census so that proportion is likely higher), we must consider what we are meant to do as educators and educational communities, what is our role, how can we positively affect change in the issues I noted above and many, many others.

So, over this next academic year, you’ll see more of that kind of discussion in my blog. I hope you’ll take this as an invitation to actively join me whether you’re working in student affairs or not.

D-L’s blog: 2015 in review

Wow, I only wrote 5 blog posts in 2015 but those posts generated a LOT of visits and discussions. During this year, I was swamped by writing for publication in external venues (journal articles and books chapters). I’ve learned that I am not a person who can divide my attention infinitely and expect to be productive. So, focusing on different kinds of publications this year meant that my blog got less attention. Despite that, I’m really proud of what I wrote here this year and very appreciative of all of you who read, shared, commented, or otherwise helped to promote my ideas. Check out my stats and see for yourself.

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Multicultural Affairs and White Folks Running Things: A Response to @jeradgreen494

***UPDATE — 4/25/2016: The ideas expressed in this blog post and some of the content written here, though expanded, has been published in a feature article in the March/April 2016 issue of About Campus (DOI: 10.1002/abc.21227) under the title “It Matters Who Leads Them: Connecting Leadership in Multicultural Affairs to Student Learning and Development.” The author’s note for that article that gave attribution to this blog post was removed during the production process. It was not and is not my intention to give any appearance of self-plagiarism or any form of authorial unethical practice, so I have added this note to the original blog post in an attempt in the forum where I do have total control to acknowledge that this blog post is the origin of the ideas and some of the verbiage even used in the now more formally published piece.***

On Thursday, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit by video conference with Dr. Marc Johnston’s Student Development Theory class at my master’s and doctoral alma mater, The Ohio State University. After my visit, I posted to Facebook about it, remarking that I had only answered two questions in the time I had with them because those questions hit nerves that tend to send me off on rants quite easily. The two questions involved who should be doing the work of social justice education (should privileged people work with privileged people and marginalized people work with marginalized people) and how to deal with resistance to such educational initiatives. In the comment thread that ensued, I gave really brief summaries of what I shared with this class of first-year student affairs master’s students. Here’s what I posted:

“So, this is a hot button issue for me. My basic contention is that it is actually a vestige of racial oppression to presume that POC are somehow inherently qualified to lead these sessions and that people whose social identities are different can’t learn from each other. It’s also racist to assume that all people of X ethnic group are going to automatically have instant rapport; we don’t make that assumption for White people, so why do we do it for POC? We need to look at skills and what self-work people have done – regardless of their social identities – as the primary criteria for whether they are the best person to put in front of a group. That being said, I also believe that sometimes, depending on where students (if that’s the audience) are in their own development, they may best hear someone who is similar to them. Regardless, we need to stop delivering diversity workshops in such a way as the presumed audience is White, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, Christian and able-bodied.

To the 2nd question about handling resistance, I said that we have no choice but to be prepared for resistance and that we must stop seeing resistance as automatically negative or as something we should try to reduce. Resistance is inevitable because it is part of the learning process. Everything new we have ever learned was first resisted. I challenged them to deny that they did not resist some of the things they were taught in their first semester in graduate school and told them that I would call them boldfaced liars if they did (that might have been a bit much, lol). We need to invest energy in acknowledging resistance, helping people to realize that they will likely resist something (maybe everything) they hear at first and that doesn’t make them bad people, and then prepare to effectively use the resistance to promote transformation and learning.”

Apparently, some folks appreciated my perspective; this comment itself got 42 “likes” on the thread. One thing I forgot to say to the class and write in my Facebook post later, was that I have come to deeply appreciate the power of having teams of facilitators leading social justice educational workshops. When 2 or more facilitators (depending on the size of the group) who have between them a mix of privileged and marginalized identities (we all have both) and balance those identities across them, it can lead to richer experiences for the participants and provide helpful support and checks for the facilitators. I have witnessed the effectiveness of this both as a participant in the Social Justice Training Institute, where I first saw this strategy used, and as a co-facilitator with Dr. Kathy Obear in a workshop we did with staff at the University of Baltimore in 2013.

A former student later posted to my thread requesting that I please engage the perspective shared in an article published in The Student Affairs Collective by Jared Green. You should take a moment to read it too.

I read the article later that evening, quickly jotted down a few notes in my journal before going to bed, and read the article again this morning, as well as the comments that followed it. Many people might think I am going to pen a searing disagreement with Jared Green, based on this line in my comments on Facebook: “We need to look at skills and what self-work people have done – regardless of their social identities – as the primary criteria for whether they are the best person to put in front of a group.” Nope, wrong. I don’t totally agree with Green either. The issue is far more nuanced than a (dare I say it) simplistic and dualistic, you’re right or you’re wrong (the approach used by most of the commenters to Green’s article). My response to Green is likely to make people on both sides of this debate, and perhaps Green himself, annoyed, disappointed, or frustrated with me. I’m more than okay with that, because it likely means that everybody left with something to think about and be challenged by and dealing with that resistance, dear reader, is essential to learning.

I love engaging master’s students in dialogues like this, especially those in their first year of graduate preparation who have often just completed their bachelor’s degree. These students are still early in experiencing the world around them and understanding the complexities of institutional systems and how those systems interact with individual actors to constrain or empower individual and community agency, development, and transformation. I love engaging them because they are raw and honest. In today’s parlance, they keep it 100. Learning begins with such authenticity. I don’t know where Green is in his master’s degree education, but what I admire about him and his article is that he is still keeping it 100. This is how he feels and I’ll be damned if I don’t affirm his right to express how he feels and why. It takes courage to share what I am sure Green knew would spark a lot of heated dialogue in such a public forum and attach his real name, his picture, and his Twitter handle online in this Yik-Yak, trolling age. So, a word of warning to would-be trolls: You come for Green and I’m coming for you. You can trust and believe me when I tell you, you are not ready for that.

I want to begin with the last line of Green’s essay. This line, to me, is the crux of Green’s argument and the reason he holds the opinion that he does. Green wrote, “I’m tired of applauding White people for cultural appropriation and being saviors of people of color or recognizing that race relations is more than just a people of color issue.”


I’m totally with Green on that. I’m tired of it too, young brother. If I see another White-person-as-savior movie, I might just flip out in the theater. [Or not, because unlike White people who actually flip out in theaters and kill random people, I wouldn’t get to walk out alive and be taken into police custody to stand trial for my terrorist actions.] I am Fannie Lou Hamer-tired of White people getting credit for doing basic human dignity and enlightenment. I am also FLH-tired of cis men getting credit for knowing how to do laundry, change a diaper, and cook dinner for their children at the same time, straight folks getting credit for supporting queer-owned businesses who are the best in their local area, cis folks getting credit for knowing gender-neutral pronouns, and temporarily able-bodied and neuro-typical people getting credit for not using the R-word. It’s a factor of privilege that it seeks to be acknowledged, to be credited, to be rewarded for being “liberal.” Jesse Williams has been oft-quoted as once saying that it is not his purpose in life to “tuck ignorance in at night.” I love that and agree. I will take another step and say that it’s not my purpose in life to pat benevolence on the back.

And as a couple of Green’s commenters agreed, Leigh Anne Tuohy does not need to be anybody’s director of multicultural affairs ever, anywhere. Nor should anyone who thinks like her. It takes a lot of self-work to get to where Leigh Anne Tuohy is and I believe she was doing the best she could in that moment. But as I’ve heard my dear friend and brother, the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington say, just because it’s your best doesn’t make it good. It takes a lot MORE self-work to move past where Leigh Anne Tuohy is to be the kind of person that Green is looking for as a multicultural center director, someone who can perceive and effectively name and disrupt the kind of racial microaggressions that Tuohy perpetrated against those two young Black men in her restaurant and that Green recounts in his essay. In my personal experience, which like Green’s has been in predominantly White educational and social environments since I was in high school (that’s over 25 years), very few White people that I have encountered have done that level of self-work and are continuing to do it and aren’t looking to be patted on the back for it. Very few. Those that have, I would trust to be OMA directors if they were to apply for such a position. But for the rest, I’m with Green – this is not the job for you. I would hazard to guess from Green’s essay that he doesn’t know any White people in his life that have the depth of multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills to be more than Leigh Anne Tuohy was in that encounter in her restaurant or Green’s White liberal associates who racially isolated him at a function where he was the only non-White identified person. Not a single commenter acknowledged that, though several recognized the problematic issues with Tuohy’s interaction. I find that very interesting. [Side question for those White liberals: Why are you even comfortable in a place where there is zero racial diversity? Your comfort with that is the first sign that you are not ready to lead multicultural change efforts on anybody’s college campus.]

Now, if you think you are such a White person, don’t be mad at Green or at me that our lives are not surrounded with people like you. Be mad at the majority of your White kinspeople who have let YOU down by not being examples of empowered, critically conscious White folks who have reconceptualized what it means for them to be White in ways that no longer rely on White racial superiority and dominance. Maybe you should get to work within your own community instead of chastising Green for failing to imagine a bevy of such White allies.

I think Green raises a provocative issue concerning the role of allies in social justice work. It is his contention that allies do not belong at the front of the brigade. I think there are instances where I would agree with that. There are other instances where I might see a place, even a necessity, for allies to lead change efforts. Multicultural student services offices do not present an obvious resolution for this issue.

I don’t know if Green’s graduate preparation program is using the book I edited in 2011, Multicultural Student Services on Campus: Building Bridges, Re-visioning Community, or my friend and colleague Lori Patton Davis’s edited text, Culture Centers in Higher Education: Perspectives on Identity, Theory, and Practice published in 2010. I think both texts could be very useful for Green and others who are debating who should or should not be directing such centers.

Most of the opposing comments to Green’s article either contend one of 2 points: One is that Green is painting White people with too broad a brush. To that see my previous point: What are you doing to develop more White people’s racial consciousness, without needing to be the director of OMA? [And for those who are tempted to snarkily counter that you could say the same to me – just don’t. For your own sake, just don’t. You. Are. Not. Ready.]

The other comments typically cite that Green fails to recognize – in their view – that OMA is no longer just about race, so the director doesn’t need to reflect a marginalized racial group anymore. First, yes, as depicted in the chapter that I and Brian Bridges wrote in my book referenced earlier, the set of responsibilities that multicultural student services (MSS) units have been charged with have expanded – mostly on larger, public campuses, to include programming and support services beyond race and ethnicity. The second section of my book includes chapters about the continuing centrality and relevance of race in MSS work (by Lori Patton, Jessica Ranero, and Kimberly Everett), and the addition of sexuality and gender (by Chris Purcell and Nick Negrete), religion and faith (by Jenny Small), and the need for an integrated and intersectional approach (by Mary Grace Almandrez and Felicia Lee). So, yes, MSS or OMA does more than just race work anymore.

However, I find problematic the accompanying contention that therefore the director can now be a White person. I find this problematic because what I hear in this very familiar argument is a refusal to grant racially minoritized people a full humanity beyond race, which is a belief that is racist at its core. It presumes that racially minoritized people are only composed of their racial identities, while White people get to be composed of multiple identities beyond race (usually to invoke marginalized religious, sexual, and/or gender identities), which can then be proxies for racial competence. Let me unpack that a bit.

I experience this on a regular basis, both from White people and from racially minoritized people who have internalized this oppressive construct. I wish I could borrow a page from my friend now Dr. Z Nicolazzo and coin a neologism, but I can’t pull that level of creativity out this morning. I would love a term that described what happens when racially minoritized people’s racial identities are used to substitute for and erase all other social identities they may carry, making them at once wholly and only their racial identity, while denying and erasing other salient identities thus rendering those other identities as presumed normative (maybe it just works to call it racism). For example, a Black person who is director of OMA is presumed to be heterosexual, cisgender, patriarchal, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian and therefore only suited for an OMA unit whose primary mission remains race-centered, because you know those racially minoritized students are all heterosexual, cisgender, patriarchal, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian, too. A White person though, could be lesbian or gay, maybe even trans*, perhaps a feminist, and/or a secular humanist – any of which get to proxy for “getting it” about race and racism too. So that White person can be the director of an OMA unit and serve everybody because now those other (White) students with non-racially marginalized identities can be served.


Whether the MSS/OMA unit has a race-centered mission or not has nothing to do with whether a racial majority person can or should be director of said unit.

What is missing from both Green’s article and any of the comments I read is discussion of the purpose of MSS/OMA units. Bettina Shuford’s chapter in my text discusses the evolution and philosophical differences among MSS units. Here’s where I think Lori Patton Davis’s book comes in as essential to the discussion. Cultural centers (the topic of Lori’s text) and MSS/OMA units are not necessarily one in the same on a campus and therefore may have different purposes and different missions to carry out their work. Cultural centers may focus primarily on culturally-specific programming and cultural support and resources for the identity-based group(s) they are serving. MSS/OMA units on campuses that have ethnic student centers and/or LGBT resource centers, may be primarily focused on administering scholarship and other financial aid programs, academic support services, educational programming and ally-building among privileged campus populations, and working across campus on increasing access to and promoting greater equity and inclusion for the populations covered under the unit’s umbrella (whether restricted to race or not).

If we’re talking about an MSS/OMA unit whose purpose and mission is focused on the latter set of tasks I’ve named, I see no reason why the social identities (including the racial identity) of the potential leader are a significant determinant over and above what administrative competencies one possesses and what multicultural competencies one possesses to be effective in the role.

It seems from Green’s discussion, that cultural programming and cultural support services, especially cultural support services, may be uppermost in his mind. For these services, I can see why Green would prefer there to be a racially minoritized person in that role. We know from a litany of racial identity development models that there comes a point where there may be a high degree of resistance to approaching a racial majority person for support with dealing with racism. Resistance and suspicion of even White allies is part of the process of development. Students in that developmental place, may not well-receive a MSS/OMA director who is White. But other considerations must factor in first.

As a hiring officer makes a decision about hiring a new MSS/OMA director, that person must first know what the institutional climate is and how pervasive racism is on campus, how embattled racially minoritized students are due to microaggressions, and what the students are looking for in terms of leadership in this area. Now is not the time to be supposedly innovative and progressive and decide to saddle the campus with a White MSS/OMA leader just to fulfill some desire to “break stereotypes” or not practice “reverse racism.” Consideration of the factors I’ve just noted makes the social identities of a potential candidate quite relevant.

On campuses where one unit carries out all these functions (typical for small, private liberal arts colleges, like Kalamazoo College where I attended, and where I cut my teeth as a professional working in multicultural affairs at Kenyon College before going to graduate school), it’s much more difficult to say who should lead. As I’ve presented with a colleague before, such a person is often a “messiah” expected to be all things to all people. That’s a high expectation to live up to, regardless of one’s racial identity. On such campuses where the MSS/OMA unit is often just one person and there is already a paucity of racially minoritized people as faculty or staff on campus, I think one is hard-pressed to make an argument to hire a White person as the director and sole occupant of that office over a racially minoritized person who is equally qualified. Sometimes, institutions use that position to help to racially diversify their staffs (or maintain that diversity) when the position comes available or is created, as that office sometimes has higher turnover than the directors of other units in the divison.

But there’s another factor to consider in this discussion that is almost-never named. Where else will you see POC on campus, if not in MSS/OMA? Where else will you see a racially minoritized person in a leadership position on campus, with an assistant dean title or even associate dean title, if not as the director of the MSS/OMA unit? (Sometimes not even the MSS/OMA director gets a dean-level title even if every other unit director in the division does, but that’s another story.) It is a fact of institutional racism and systemic racism within student affairs as a profession that it’s almost impossible to find a racially minoritized person who is a unit director, let alone an assistant/associate dean, outside multicultural affairs. This is getting better, but it’s not where it needs to be. Racially minoritized people have been consigned (some even say ghettoized) to MSS/OMA units, at the same time as White people now are pressuring for the right (which is such a reflection of privilege to think that it’s your right to have any position anywhere, to demand for it – ugh, check your privilege please) to lead such units. It’s the student affairs version of professional gentrification. We’ll look around one day if we’re not careful and have all-White student affairs divisions and people will claim to not know how that happened but talk about how progressive it is and how social justice-oriented they are. I can’t think of anything more insidiously racist than for White people who already occupy 90% of student affairs positions on campus to lobby for the right to also occupy the other 10% as well, while not lobbying for more equitable racial representation of the other 90% of positions in the field.

I can’t even.

Do I know White people who are doing good work as directors of MSS/OMA units on their campuses? Yes, I do. I think about Jennifer McCreary Ford who is the director of the MSS unit at Texas A&M University. She is a White, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied and neuro-typical, and Christian, woman. We went through SJTI together and were in the same core group and there and since then, I have come to know her to be a strong advocate who is continuing to do her own self-work to dismantle internalized dominance and recognize patterns of oppression, and who has earned the trust and respect of her students and colleagues at A&M and has sense enough to know that she needs staff around her who reflect the diversity of the students her office serves.

These are the fundamental and necessary qualities for EVERY and ANY person who aspires to be the director of a MSS/OMA unit, I don’t care how they identify racially or anyway else.

Family Additions

So I’m sitting in my car outside the PetSmart location where I am to pick up Violet, a 4 month old Pit Bull mix puppy. For months I’ve responded to my daughter’s pleas for a dog with a host of excuses related to how busy we both are, to how expensive a dog would be. And then I saw Violet’s picture shared on a friend’s Facebook page. And then my eyes were opened, like the disciples who encountered the risen Lord on their way – busy, exhausted, occupied with life – to Emmaus, a place with no room for Jesus stuff.

I saw this pooch and I recognized her as ours.


I mean, how could you not right? She is adorable, but I’d seen pictures of adorable pups needing to be adopted for months (despite my objections, I kept looking for the right dog). I can’t explain what changed, what was different about Violet. All I know is that my eyes were opened.

And now it’s time to take her home with me, with us, and I find myself feeling the same emotions as I did when it was time to take my daughter home from the hospital after her birth. Would I be a good parent? Would she like me? Would I be able to handle all the challenges ahead? Would my heart be pierced? All these same questions now occupy my mind and I am a bundle of nerves.

What have I gotten myself into, I wonder. Someone upon hearing the news that I had chosen to adopt a dog remarked that it was an “expensive treat.” I replied back, “I see it as adding to our family.”

Indeed, love gives and gives and gives and makes room time and again, because love has no limit to its capacity. Not true love.

I admit that I didn’t get all the hullabaloo about pet owners for a long time. I get it now.

And now it’s time to bring my newest family member home. Let the adventures begin!

Theorizing Synergy [ACPA Theorist HEd Talk]

On Tuesday, 1 April 2014, I had the honor and the privilege of delivering a TED-style talk (very loosely interpreted by me!) during the annual convention of ACPA.  I went last in a series of three talks, preceded by my colleagues and friends Dr. Stephen John Quaye, Assistant Professor at Miami University (OH) and Dr. Vasti Torres, Professor and Dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida. 

I was asked by several folks in attendance if I would be willing to share my comments.  This is me complying with that request. 🙂 Please cite appropriately when sharing with others.  Thank you. 


Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart
Bowling Green State University
Twitter: @DocDafina

ACPA Theorist HEd Talk
Delivered at the 2014 ACPA Annual Convention in Indianapolis, IN on April 1, 2014.

Theorizing Synergy

[I can’t recapture the extemporaneous 3 minutes that I opened with in Indy, so it just begins with my main point and the 3 ways I think we can make this happen.]

My one sentence main point: The most significant contribution student affairs can make to higher education and society is to remedy the disintegration of knowledge that I see as accelerated by the Industrial Revolution.

I believe we can serve this function in three ways:

Point A: We need to reinvent the way we do our scholarship and its relationship to our practice.

Point B: Connected knowing and integrated practice emerge from the skillful interplay of breadth and depth.

Point C: The power of specialized knowledge and complex abstraction is wasted when it is not put into the service of seeing the whole.

Let’s begin with Point A – We need to reinvent the way we do our scholarship and its relationship to our practice.

Drawing on my undergraduate work in sociology and economics, I understand that work in Europe and much of the world before the Industrial Revolution was conducted in “cottage industries,” named so for the fact that people worked out of their homes, had limited numbers of workers, typically members of the same family, and were often female-headed. The cottage was the center of activity that was interconnected and mutually dependent. Those involved had a shared understanding of the “business” as a whole – all had a panoramic view.

Then came the Industrial Revolution and along with it a focus on production, efficiency, and scale bolstered by economic theorists like Adam Smith, foreshadowed by Plato and later followed by Frederick Taylor, who said that efficiency in production required division of labor.

This division of labor produced specialists who were responsible for only knowing their job and eventually the worker on the assembly line was absent a panoramic view – as was the managing supervisor – as was the owner — Each further removed from the other and without complete understanding of the whole.

Kuh, Shedd, and Whitt have explained that as the Germanic model exerted greater influence on U.S. higher education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, division of labor also came to the academy and specialization followed. This was evidenced both in increasing specialization of disciplines and fields (political economy separated into sociology, economics, and political science) and the work of running colleges and universities. We can’t be too mad about this; after all, as a result the field of student affairs was born.

And so, within student affairs, while small colleges have retained the cottage model of generalist professionals, larger universities increasingly have fractured into smaller and smaller units – more and more specialized labor – each further and further removed from the other and without complete understanding of the whole.

However, this division of labor did not just splinter fields of study and administrative structures, but also separated thinking from doing, knowledge from practice. We became researchers and practitioners, scholars and professionals – forgetting, as Knefelkamp, Widdick, and Parker would come to assert over three decades ago, that practice and theory are and must be connected.

This brings us back to Point B – Connected knowing and integrated practice emerge from the skillful interplay of breadth and depth, as also attested to by Jeffrey Cufaude on Monday.

Throughout ancient civilization and pre-modern societies, there were philosophers, medicine men, witches, and elders, like Ptah-Hotep, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, and scores of women whose names were not recorded and whose ideas were not written down. These were scholars of the whole world, writing on everything from law and government, to education, to economics and religion. They had a panoramic view.

Instead, today we ask ourselves and our graduate students to discuss what they know and what they can do as though those are discernibly different tasks. We tsk-tsk the many hats worn by professionals at colleges with small student affairs divisions and urge future faculty to narrow, narrow, and further narrow down their research agendas until they have identified their “niche.”

Like the medical field, we glorify our specialists and undermine the value of our generalists and we burrow deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, not accounting for the fact that the deeper we go the harder it is to see.

The reality, however, is that although the specialist may deeply understand the inner-workings of the brain, or the heart, or the bones, it is the generalist who sees the whole, who understands how a malady showing up in one system may be rooted in another.

And now we return to Point C – The power of specialized knowledge and complex abstraction is wasted when it is not put into the service of seeing the whole and equipping us to form functional generalizations that lead to sustainable, equitable, and diverse communities. Cathy Bao Bean powerfully demonstrated the need for this to us on Sunday evening.

Confronted by the transformative realities brought by the massification of higher education, we have rightly critiqued the presumptive universalism of our canon and sought to expand the range of populations and institutions studied, epistemic paradigms applied, and scholars conducting the research.

However, I fear that in some ways, we have retained maladaptive postures, failing to heed Audre Lorde’s caution that we cannot use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house.

Specialization, division of labor, and the differential valuing of labor specialties has contributed to racism, the entrenchment of patriarchy, the creation of economic exploitation, and the marginalization of whole segments of our society. These same outcomes also mar our work as academic laborers as we produce theoretical models which center and privilege dominant groups experiences, outcomes, and development as optimal and normal while ghettoizing and exceptionalizing minoritized group scholarship, the researchers who produce it, and the professionals who apply it.

Some may be quick to point to the explosion of identity-based work studying the convergence of multiple identity facets with each other or the application of intersectionality as a theoretical framework as the cause of this disintegration. After all, do we really need a developmental model for Black, sexually fluid, gender queer, Christian, introverts with ADHD? Isn’t THAT the problem that’s keeping us from developing integrated models of identity?

I dare say it is not.

The purpose of doing deep investigation of the convergence of identities and the intersection of identity with different forms of college engagement is to have a more complete understanding of the whole. Complexity expands the volume of information we have to process, yes. However, simplicity does not bring us closer to synergy and specialty is not enough.

We must reintegrate the various segments of our scholarship and cross the dividing walls we have erected to specialize in student development versus student persistence, faculty and staff versus students, community colleges versus research universities, and on and on.

We must connect the rabbit holes and create networks of interconnection for educating the whole student, developing the whole community, transforming the whole profession, reinventing the whole university, and serving the whole society.

To answer big questions about historical patterns and repeating cycles, the relationship between different sectors of the university and different sectors of society, TO SEE THE WHOLE AS MORE THAN A SUM OF ITS PARTS – this is what is required of student affairs.

As the Hindu spiritual master Ramana Maharshi once observed: “This perception of division between the seer and the object that is seen, is situated in the mind. For those remaining in the heart, the seer becomes one with the sight.”

Learning to and teaching others to become one with what we see is the work of scholar-generalists. It is good work, necessary work and work which is critically important for putting our values into action and communicating our worth in an increasingly disintegrated society.

And so, I close with repeating my first sentence, my main point:

The most significant contribution student affairs can make to higher education and to society generally is to remedy the disintegration of knowledge. We must return to our core values. We must return to our heart.

Thank you.

Lean On

Several days ago, I was blessed to have an extended email exchange (yes, it could have happened faster via text message, but we’re both over 40 so it makes sense lol) with one of my mentors (yes, I have them too). I’m not naming her here because I didn’t ask her permission to do so. Anyway, I’m doing a talk at the upcoming ACPA Convention in Indianapolis. It’s a featured session where Stephen John Quaye, Vasti Torres, and I will each be giving short TED-like talks. I am feeling incredibly vulnerable about giving this talk (and even more so about sharing the fact that I’m feeling this vulnerable on my blog). I shared this with my mentor and she told me to stop overthinking it (constant struggle) and that she knew it would be “terrific.”

Usually the exchange would have stopped there, but that day, I sent another reply and then there was a volley of replies all featuring the blatant abuse of hashtags in a non-Twitter forum (hey, like I said, we’re over 40, we’re allowed). It went like this:

Me: Thanks #impostersyndrome  #whendoesthisevergoaway???

Mentor: #neverforsmartwomenandpeopleofcolor

Me: #thatsmightydepressing

Mentor: #weneedtokeepthefaithandsupportoneanother  #soundslikeasong:)

Me: Yes, #leanonme

Mentor: #perfect

I share this, not to curry sympathy (really, not looking for that) and not to receive a flood of you’ll-be-awesome encouraging words (I appreciate the kind thoughts though). I’m sure I’ll get plenty of notes from folks telling me that I shouldn’t publicize this because it will only confirm the assumptions of incompetence that some folks have about me. They’re probably right. However, acknowledging my vulnerabilities, my mistakes, my missteps is part of who I am. I can’t hide that – not if I am serious about believing that if I show up authentic, others will be free to do the same, and therefore we can recreate our spaces to be brave (see more about creating “brave spaces” by Arao and Clemens in The Art of Effective Facilitation, Stylus, 2013).

Rather, I’m sharing this exchange to show the importance of having people in your corner who don’t only support you but understand the nuances of your journey and speak directly to the issues that otherwise work to destabilize your confidence.  She could immediately recognize the imposter syndrome I named because she has had (continues to have) to deal with it herself, despite being an accomplished scholar in her own right.

Moreover, she knew that I needed more in that exchange than a pat on the back. I needed affirmation that I wasn’t being silly and that my anxieties were not unfounded.  As she named, women across race and ethnicity and people of color across genders who are smart and talented often struggle with imposter syndrome. I might go further to venture that this may be experienced more intently by those educated or working in predominantly male and/or predominantly white environments. The cultural alterity of those spaces is so distinct and the aura of male and/or white privilege (and class privilege) is so pervasive that one is wont to feel constantly as though you don’t belong.  This is reflected even in recent publications such as Presumed Incompetent about the intersections of race and class for women in academe. Telling someone who names a struggle with imposter syndrome that they have no reason to feel that way (or questioning their competence because they do) is not helpful.

Some rivers we can cross over on bridge. Other ones, we just have to wade through with the support of others who are in the river with us.

Lean. On.


*I know, this is my first blog post in about 2 months. But I am writing one today and I will celebrate that.

Venerating the Icon: The Hidden Face of Oppression

I’ve been contemplating the word “icon” lately, intensely since the death of Nelson Mandela but really since sometime early last fall. I’m not sure what triggered it initially, but as the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came around earlier this week and the national holiday in his honor approaches on Monday, I feel compelled to address the nature of making icons and how it relates to oppression. 

What is an icon? According to Google (the fount of all knowledge), it’s primary definition is religious, particularly Christian – a painting of some holy figure used as an aid to devotion.  More generally, it is defined as “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something.” Of course these days, it’s computing denotation is perhaps uppermost in some minds, but it still is a “symbol or graphic representation of a program, option, or window.” In linguistics, icon is used to reference “a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies, for example the word snarl pronounced in a snarling way.” It’s origins are from the Greek (eikon: likeness or image) and then came into Latin in the mid-16th century though Google says its current meanings date from the mid-19th century and later. What I found particularly fascinating was its usage over time. It was apparently used sparingly in the written texts that have been digitized from the 1800s through the 1950s when the usage of the word icon takes off reaching a zenith around the mid to late-00s. I imagine that much of this rapid increase in usage can be traced to the development of computing adoptions.  However, I think it seems also likely that its usage to denote a person who is thought to be a “representative symbol of something” has also greatly increased as our society has become more secularized and previously exclusively religious language makes its way into common parlance.

It’s not the designation of someone as an icon that has troubled my mind, but rather what we have taken that to mean in a global society that is rapidly erasing or at least blurring the lines between deities and mortals while perhaps forgetting why we created such distinctions in the first place.  We make icons of the living and the heroic dead and as we do so, we freeze them in carbonite – like Han Solo in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – perhaps still alive but no longer capable of change, movement, or development. 

When I teach our Student Development Theory course at Bowling Green State University, sometime during the very first session, I have the students read a short story by Sandra Cisneros title Eleven. It’s a powerful story about a little girl who turns 11 and realizes that she still carries with her all the previous ages she’s been.  I pair this with a quote from Anais Lin that expresses a similar idea.  The point I want students to come away with as we begin the semester, before they fill their heads with a bunch of theoretical models and stages and processes and positions and levels that they are tempted to reduce to rigid, linear approaches to development, is this:

We are, at once, all we will ever be and have been, and something we have yet to see.

Icons don’t develop or change or grow. We see them as fully formed and forged in stone or wood.  This is another face of oppression.  Iris Marion Young discussed five faces of oppression (originally published in 1990 in her text Justice and the Politics of Difference, pp. 39-65; reprinted as a chapter in Henderson and Waterstone, Oppression, Privilege, & Resistance, Routledge, 2009): exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence (physical and psychic). Oppression can be thought of as “when people reduce the potential for other people to be fully human.” She then goes on to explain the concept of a social group: “a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life” who have an “affinity” with one another due to their similarities.  However, by defining those who are members of a particular social group, social groups also can work to limit the range of expression of those members within their group. 

So when we make icons of people, humans, we inevitably steal this dynamic growth from them while they are living and erase it from their lives in death.  Consequently, Nelson Mandela becomes an icon of tolerance and forgiveness, ignoring and erasing his lifelong commitment to social justice by assertive action and insistence upon structural change.  Similarly Dr. King’s beloved community, one which embraced peace over militarism and economic justice over free-market capitalism and informed by religious pluralism, is reduced to an interracial festival of benevolent action. In this way, this business of making icons of people can reflect dominant groups’ attempts to maintain power and control over marginalized groups. But this is not the only way icons work.

Oppressed social groups also make their own icons.  In doing so, they also sometimes cooperate with dominant groups’ cultural imperialism or exploitation that limits someone’s potential to be fully human – to develop, to grow, to change – to be all they will ever be and have been and something they have yet to see. What happens to the person made to be an icon, the epitome of same-gender loving, who allows themselves to fall in love with a person of the opposite sex? The icon for “traditional” marriage who becomes a staunch advocate for marriage equality? The “race man” or woman who feels pressured perhaps to leave their interracial partnership to be more “authentically” the symbol of the movement?

I stipulate that icon-making is another face of oppression, hidden because it is thought and intended to be an act of reverence and honor.  Despite these intentions, the impact is more oppressive than liberating.  I hope I never become an icon.  I would rather just be human, that carbonite is lethal.  Instead of making icons, perhaps we should remember that we are humans living among other humans who are all still becoming and being human.



2013 A Blog in Stasis

So, yea, taking a look at this annual report prepared by WP tells most of the story. I only published 4 posts during 2013 (not including this one) and one of them got a LOT of views (like over 300) and the whole site had 2000 views (say what??!!). This was a tough year for blogging for me. I’ve learned that blogging regularly doesn’t just take time, but focus. Focused time to write and, more so, focus on what to write about. And time to look up and verify and fact-check and confirm and track down sources for things I want to mention – and there just wasn’t time for that kind of work.

I could have written 100 posts this year – really I could have (think about it, I wrote 47 in 2012 in less than 6 months on just this blog, so not including the research one). So many things were and are floating around in my mind. A lot of them went in summary form on Facebook, shared only to my friends, not even as public statuses. I think I got intimidated by the exposure and attention I got. As an introvert, being in the limelight isn’t a comfortable space to be, so I was more than a little freaked out by it. I wanted to retreat to my cave – I even went off Facebook and Twitter for a week over the summer trying to recalibrate my social media presence.  However I realized that there’s no going back to my limited exposure and relative obscurity. So I need to deal with it. But I’m still freaked out by the idea of this blog. What if it’s not “perfect”? What if somebody hates what I wrote? What if I got it “wrong” and hurt people? Who am I to write a blog about anything? The more other blogs and opinion sites I read (Crunk Feminist Collective, Mother Jones, Colorlines, and others whose names aren’t coming to mind — oh, yes, and my favorite queer, lay rabbi Irwin Keller!!), the more I realized that other folks who were writing about the same stuff I wrote about in this blog were just so much better. You should be reading THOSE people, not me! So, I got far more into sharing posts that I came across via Facebook and Twitter from those sources, so that those folks’ great insights and writing (a lot of which coming from womyn of color and queer people – and queer womyn of color) got more publicity. It’s hard enough for (queer) womyn of color and queer folks to have a platform and an audience. I didn’t think we needed to add another voice in competition for those same platforms and audiences. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

The other anxiety/preoccupation that overwhelmed me and kept me from my blog was wondering what I really should be writing about. I think my strongest urges to blog came from my own life experiences and the external situations that intersected with my family and work lives. Really deeply personal stuff sometimes whose publication would impact not just my life, but others in my family and friends. I don’t feel I have a right to share that and I am struggling with how to share what’s relevant for me and to me and about me without crossing those lines of other people’s right to privacy. And since I haven’t figured that out yet, I haven’t written anything here. I’m also careful not to use my blog as a space for passive-aggressive counterattacks – I save those for Facebook for audiences limited to the categories of “friends but not acquaintances” and the really painful stuff only goes to those in the “close friend” category. (Yea, sorry, if you’re just now realizing that you’re not in one or neither of those groups and you thought you were.) A lot of that stuff though does fit in the theme for this blog, “Reflections on faith, hope, and love.” I need to find a way to include it because it’s a part of who I am and shapes how I think.

Anyway, the point is that in 2014, I’m going to revive this blog and commit to post at least once a week. Will you help me stay on track to publish 52 posts in 2014? Will you send me ideas of stuff you want to hear me write about? What are your thoughts about my blogging-anxiety?

Peace, Dafina

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

From Opposition to Interdependence

So, last night while I was watching Rachel Maddow’s show, I posted the following status update to Facebook. It caught on like wildfire, so I thought that maybe it would help if I put it in blog form. Here you go.


Rachel Maddow just made an excellent connection tonight: What we saw via SCOTUS this week is the flip of what happened on election night 2008 – once again civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Latino, are being juxtaposed against civil rights for sexual minorities. She also reminded her viewers that the SCOTUS decision puts states in control of both and that the states where the fight to preserve voting rights for racial and ethnic minorities will also likely be the same states where marriage equality and other civil rights for sexual minorities will face the strongest challenges. 

Now, here’s what I take from all that: People, we better pay attention and recognize that NOW is the time to work collaboratively, in solidarity with each other across lines of race, ethnicity, and sexuality (as well as gender identity, social class, and religion that deeply converge with the first trio). We had better figure out what it means to be an ally, what it means to work in solidarity, what it means to see how oppressive systems intersect to reinforce and support each other. We had better learn how to work for each other’s interests with the understanding and acceptance that “their” interests should be/must be/are OUR interests. 

Want to know who’s best positioned to lead in these conversations? Queer people of color who live the reality of the mutuality of these convergences and intersections. Listen up people, listen to the wisdom of the Bayard Rustins and Audre Lordes of our times. Follow the lead of organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) who are working always at the intersections and convergence of queer sexuality and black ethnicities. We’re in this canoe together, people, we had better learn how to paddle in concert.


I credit my good friend Joy Boggs with naming the paradigm shift I describe here: Moving from an us-them (oppositional) to an us-others (interdependent) stance. 

I also want to share what Tobias Spears, another good friend and work colleague here at Bowling Green State University commented on my Facebook post because it adds another important dimension to my comments above:

“…[I] was just telling one of our students about the need for polyvocal and multi-issue activism. We can no longer afford to inhabit a space of either/or discourse– we need multiplicity and nuance within our organizing frameworks. And the LGBT mainstream must realize (like yesterday) that the same folks who can potentially be disenfranchised due to the SCOTUS VRA decision are the same folks who would likely vote for progressive candidates to overturn state bans on marriage. So, the oversight provided through the VRA, in many ways, is directly tied to marriage equality. And to those who live at the intersections, unfortunately we must continue to smile forward while also looking over our shoulder, I’m just glad that bell [hooks] told us there would be days like this.” 

Amen, my brother, amen.