Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

[Written April 15, 2015]

A few days (or maybe several days) ago, my Twitter timeline included a post (deep apologies for no longer remembering who it was by) that referenced a quote from Dr. Cornel West: “…tenderness is what love feels like in private…” It moved me that day and must have inched its way down into my soul because it rose back up into my consciousness earlier this afternoon.

I meditated on that word, tenderness, until snatches of a song rose up in my soul as well…

It was the right time for me to listen to Otis Redding today. I played the song twice, let the chorus loop on repeat in my mind for quite some time. “Try a little tenderness…!”  The urgency of his voice makes it clear that this is a command, a demand even, not a wistful suggestion. I had been thinking about community and kinship when West’s quote rose up in my spirit today. In fact, community and kinship have been recurring themes that Z Nicolazzo and I have been exploring together of late. I wanted to dig deeper into this notion of how tenderness and kinship might be related, so I found the context for Cornel West’s quote in this essay, “A Love Supreme.” In talking about how we might fully engage the promise and possibilities of the Occupy Movement in 2011, Dr. West wrote the following:

We must recast old notions of empire, class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nature into new ways of thinking and being. Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation. Again like jazz, we must embody and enact a loving embrace of the art of our collaborative creations. We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family, and sentient beings, and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private, deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice. (para. 3, emphasis added)

I have seen the first third of that last sentence a great deal, the second third only a couple of times, and I have never seen that last phrase quoted by others at all. I think it’s easy for those of us invested in social justice to focus on that first phrase. We are eager, thirsty, for justice. We want self-identified allies to show their love in tangible ways. Justice makes love tangible. Justice enacts human dignity. Justice brings transformation.

However, it’s that second phrase that has been rooting itself deep in my loins (as in the seat of physical strength and generative power) since I saw that tweet several days ago. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

As a member of multiple marginalized communities, I notice that I expend a lot of energy external to those communities. Energy that is swallowed up in protesting, in education, in ranting, in recovery and healing. It is far easier I have noticed to use our community gathering time to vent and strategize and waste away in our exhaustion with struggle. After all, it is often other marginalized people who actually understand why we are so worn out and exhausted, angry and hurt. We can share without undue explanation, receive validation and support.

That validation and support is critical. However, moving beyond validation and support to building each other up through love’s tender embrace is also fundamental to healing and wholeness.  I appreciate that West’s essay here is inward-facing. He is addressing those within the movement, not those who are the objects of the movement’s resistance. We must carefully consider how we will be with and for each other in order to truly realize the radical vision of a “deep democratic revolution in practice.”

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

Within communities of marginalized and oppressed people, we are well-acquainted with all the ways in which we are unlovable, ugly, and generally considered to be less than. Our mis-education, as Carter G. Woodson opined in 1935, has been thorough. As Reina Gossett shared in her interview with Rheem Brooks for Bluestockings Magazine, living out an abolitionist movement is not necessarily an action, but rather the persistent engagement in a “deep process of unlearning or learning again.” I strongly believe that this is why we need to consciously and doggedly practice tenderness among ourselves, in our private affinity spaces and community gatherings. Within the spaces we create with and for each other as marginalized and oppressed peoples, tenderness should be, must be the primary agenda.

When I think of tenderness, I am reminded of the careful, gentle touch of lovers, of a parent toward a child, of a child toward their aging parent. Tenderness is the soft touch, the sweet kiss that stirs the soul before it is felt upon the skin. Tenderness is the tone of voice that calls the name of its beloved and instantly brings calm. Tenderness is the hand held without a word needing to be spoken. Tenderness is holding close in the dark with just breath between bodies warm from shared energy. Tenderness. The gentle panting of a heaving chest that finally feels at home, loved, at peace. Tenderness has emotive power and is fierce in its quietness. It is no mistake that West chose the verb “feels” instead of “looks” when he talked about tenderness. Tenderness provokes an emotional response.

Tenderness is not for public consumption.

Contrary to what you might be envisioning now, I am not talking about sexual romance. I am talking about love as action, as imparted. How do we act out such a tenderness for and among ourselves within the private spaces of our marginalized communities?

I just said I wasn’t talking about sexual romance, but maybe I am talking about a different type of sexuality. Maybe it’s a sexuality that is not restricted to and which subsumes sexual romance. Perhaps, this is a communal sexuality focused on deep emotional intimacy and mutual valuing and investment. And despite our society’s religiously-informed body- and sex-shaming (condemnations of the flesh as inherently sinful), touch is also a part of showing tenderness to other people. I think touch is one of the first things that is withdrawn from bodies deemed undesirable. They are marked as untouchables. The experience of tenderness ought to be multisensory: seen, heard, felt – visual, aural, and tactile – and even smelled and tasted (I am remembering now the tenderness given and received in a loaf of home-baked bread). For crying out loud, touch each other with tenderness – because ours may be the only arms left to hold our socially unmentionable, publicly undesirable bodies.

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

In as much as sexuality is multifaceted (emotional, romantic, and sexual), the communal sexuality that I am proposing is also multifaceted — it is epistemic, affective, and behavioral.

[My sexually conservative religious upbringing is screaming in my head, but I am going to press on.]

Thinking, feeling, and acting toward each other with tenderness within and across our multiple marginalities is fundamental to the unlearning and new learning that Gossett recommends. As Nicolazzo has written in an earlier blog post, we must practice a collective love (citing Lani Guinier). We cannot always simply love ourselves without being shown that love within and from our communities. In fact, I would argue that an intersectional ethic requires a commitment to a political (as opposed to a romantic/relational) polyamory*, in which marginalized people are able to practice this communal sexuality within and across multiple marginalities for the purposes of deep democratic revolution beginning from within.

So, listen to Otis. Let’s try a little tenderness.

*I am grateful to my doctoral student, Liane Ortis, whose dissertation study of polyamory in college environments is teaching me a great deal about polyamory and has reshaped my thinking.

An Up-Close View from the Middle at 30,000 Feet

They are already coming from my daughter. “They” being colleges and universities. Ever since the results of her PSAT scores came in last fall, my child’s email inbox has been filled with another imploring note from institutions far and near, of all stripes and pedigrees.  They are asking this soon-to-be-but-not-yet sixteen year old high school sophomore to consider their institution as the place where she should seek to spend the next 4 years of her life after high school. Many of these institutions also email me in hopes that I will use my parental influence to sway her decision (they do realize she’s a teenager, right?).

This is my only child. I get one experience with being on the parental end of the college search process. Since I was my mother’s only child, I also only had one view of this from the prospective student’s point of view as well. There was no older sibling to watch first. My mother, the next to last child and youngest girl, did not have the opportunity to complete college, attending only one semester at Hunter College before having to prematurely end her college education to stay home and help her widowed mother take care of her younger brother, who had both physical and psychiatric disabilities. My father, though possessing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from North Carolina public universities, was not really part of my life at the time and I had no access to his knowledge about higher education. I had been helping to fill out our family’s FAFSA forms since I was in high school due to the opportunity extended to me to attend a private, independent all-girls Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (I was born and raised in Harlem, north of Central Park, in the same burrough of New York City). I was a first-gen college student; one of the “privileged poor” as Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a researcher featured in this NYT article on first-gen students at elite colleges, names those first-gen students who attend private schools and therefore have a chance to get somewhat used to the massive class differences evident at elite institutions.

Although I am told not to worry about where my child will go to college, I am concerned because I know that as a young adult perceived to be an African American woman, she will be judged in the context of this White cishetpatriarchal society as inferior, less than, a collection of deficits to be overcome – despite her class schedule being filled with honors classes and maintaining an over 4.0 GPA. So, for my child, and others like her, it does matter where she goes, what institution’s name is listed on her resume as the place where she received her bachelor’s education. To deny that this does matter for some students and their families considering college is to accept the myth of meritocracy and deny the reality of systemic bias that continues to confront graduates from minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and small, regional public colleges. Yes, the conclusions drawn by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Affects Students, 2005) based on the weight of hundreds of research studies suggest that the biggest differences lie between students in different educational programs (e.g., honors colleges, living-learning communities, summer bridge programs, etc.) at the same institution instead of between students in comparable educational programs at different institutions.

And yet, hiring managers and graduate school admissions committees don’t think of that research when they make assumptions about the quality of education at Spelman versus that at Mount Holyoke, or a graduate whose undergraduate career began at Terra State Community College versus the one whose college years were all spent at The Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus.

So, I want to help my daughter, who I’ll refer to as “M” to preserve her confidentiality, to make the best decision for her and encourage her not to “undermatch” (see the NYT article linked above) based on false perceptions of her competence and ability to succeed.

I was a first-gen college student, but my daughter is not. M is the child of 3 parents across two households who possess 3 bachelor’s degrees and 4 advanced graduate degrees among them. I am an associate professor with tenure in a doctoral-level research institution teaching, of all ironies, in a higher education and student affairs department. Going to college is not just where I go to work, it is my work. More than anyone, I should know all the ins-and-outs of college admissions, all the tips and tricks for getting M’s application noticed, have all the access to the test prep strategies and essay writing tutors that my educational station and social class privilege should afford, right? Right? Wrong.

Yes, I do know a lot more about navigating college than my mom did when I was in high school. I have attained no small amount of cultural and social capital due to my education and profession. However, I am still wide-eyed and overwhelmed in much the same ways as I was when I was on the threshold of 16 and beginning to consider where I would go to college. The problem with that is that no one expects me to feel that way. M – who has been on college campuses since she was literally in the womb – and I have an up-close view of college life from the middle, stuck in the DMZ between first-gen status and the privileges accruing to generations of college legacies. I can step out from that place and look at all this happening from 30,000 feet in the air, with the benefit of a command of the college access and choice scholarship. But this is my kid. My only child. My only chance to do this well. Yes, we have a village and thank goodness for it – the same village that appeared when I was 16 is the same village (not the same people but the same presence of support and capacity) that will help M to enter this familiar-unfamiliarity on her own terms.

As I become the parent of a matriculating college student, I’ll continue to share this unique up-close view of the middle from 30,000 feet up. I hope you’ll join me at #MsCollegeSearch.

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.

Before, During, After

I have avoided saying much these last few days, since the announcement of the non-indictment of the White police officer whose actions resulted in the murder of Eric Garner, a Black man, a father of 6, an instigator of peace. I spent most of these days just numb, with more and more information about somebody else’s Black child/mother/sister/brother/cousin (John, Ezell, Rekyia, Tamir, Akiya, Dashawnda, …) being murdered by those who are meant to “protect and serve” pooling like quick-dry concrete around my feet. I could not breathe. I don’t mean that as a rallying cry, but as a very real statement of what it felt like to be in this body. And so I have been mostly silent because the words were sounding emptier and emptier and emptier, but now I have found my voice again.

I am standing in what Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian seer and writer, has called the Aleph – that space where present and past and future become one, where time knows no measure. So much of what has been happening in the last 2 weeks is interchangeable with events already entered into the historical record. In this before, during, and after moment, I needed to reclaim a sense of purpose, a motivation to continue. In this blog post, penned before I have agreed to colead a call with a dear companion/kinfolk for student affairs colleagues, I want to reflect on standing in the aleph that has visited all of us. Spiritually, personally, professionally – these are the areas (admittedly hard to distinguish) in which I have wrestled since Wednesday afternoon.

Spiritually – I am tired, dog-tired, of superficial religiosity, of fervent calls to “turn back to God” or “God will fix this” or “I’m God’s Property; can’t nobody harm me.” I have decided (again) that this theology is not life-giving for me and is inconsistent with the call of the Divine for how I am to show up in this world. I think I understand why the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures and its metaphors and characters were so galvanizing for African peoples enslaved in this country. Unlike too much of the New Testament outside of the Gospels, the Hebrew scriptures put responsibility for creating just conditions squarely on the backs of the people living in their communities. They were not allowed to pass it off on G-d to “fix” but instead were called by G-d to get their house in order and then, then, favor would come. We have work to do that is our work to do as members together in this community. We have lies to unlearn, systems to tear down, money-changing tables to overturn, and a new kingdom to bring to pass. I think some of us want to use religion like a badge on our respectability sashes, as though we were some kind of scout. Our respectability, our sanctimony won’t save us and Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for those who thought that simply taking care of me and mine would do.

Personally – as in how do I show up as a friend, as a parent, as a child in this moment. What do I say to my child, my Black child, who wants to go into law enforcement as a career? I have felt like an inept parent at times, to be honest, confronted with her career choice – hardened it seems by the events of the last 2 weeks. But then I had to ask myself if I sat in a space that was less compromised and conflicted? Truthfully, I do not. As an educator, an academic, I make my living in institutional spaces, benefiting from and reproducing institutional systems that relied on the oppression of others by race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, on and on and on. We have our own Fegusons and Staten Islands and Clevelands and LAs on our college campuses in the forms of institutionalized oppressions and violence in many forms. I work within these spaces even as I attempt to disrupt those same institutional systems to bring about greater equity, greater justice, greater liberty. Like one of the Chinese acrobats I saw perform last night, I roll about and slide and jostle the plank on which I unsteadily balance these competing interests. If I dare to do so, then why can’t she? Indeed, she must.

Professionally – Although discounted as less meaningful in the hierarchy of faculty work, teaching and service are at the core of who I am and how I am called to show up in this world. As the parent of one of my doctoral students shared with her in recent days, I must realize that I am here today because others before refused to give up, give in, to submit to the numbness and the pooling concrete around their ankles and keep fighting. Had they abandoned their vision of the future, I would not be where I am today. The world that I imagined is yet to be realized and therefore I am yet to sit down. If I stop, then what of the world my daughter will grow up in? If I stop, then what will be of the world of the generations yet unborn? I fight and go on fighting for them. I do not have the luxury of defeat, of surrender, of dwelling in the numbness. Someone is counting on me and I will not let them down.


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.