Up close and personal…

I’m remembering previous times when everyone around me was frightened, but the scary thing was not up close and personal.

  • During the first years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when we would hear the piercing siren sound, our teachers would direct us to quickly scramble under our tiny desks and to cover our head with our hands.
  • When the rain became an electrical storm, our teachers would urge us to move quickly and quietly into the cloak room where our little coats were hanging on low hooks. I remember covering my face with whatever coat I was near.
  • When I was at home and there was loud thunder and crackling lightning, my grandfather would turn out all of the lights, cover the mirrors, and tell us to be very quiet.

These were scary times, but they were not up close and personal.

It was the second month of my first semester in college and my roommate and I lay on our narrow beds facing one another listening to the radio and talking about what might happen because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would we die any moment because of what sounded like an impending nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union? We were frightened, but this was not up close and personal.

In October 2002, the “DC Sniper” randomly killed ten people and wounded four. Whether going to the grocery store, pumping gas, or walking on the sidewalk, there was fear that one could be gunned down any time without provocation or warning. I recall being so frightened that I actually did walk a zig zagging path down the sidewalk in DC in order to make it more difficult for the sniper to get a good shot. It looked crazy but it was a suggestion on how one might stay alive. Despite the generalized fear, this was not up close and personal.

Today, COVID-19 – or the Coronavirus – is up close and personal. The virus is likely the most impactful phenomenon that the people of the world have experienced, and its historic significance cannot be overstated. All of our lives are being touched in one way or another by the circumstances this pandemic has caused.

Because this pandemic is up close and personal, it is my hope that it will stimulate more compassion and selflessness when the first instinct might be something else.

 

 

Recontextualizing the story of women

Women have inherited a context in which race, class, and gender enter with them, treating them as if they’re guests in the house of opportunity that women before them paid for and left for them to build upon and expand. Some enter the house and find that they are prevented from going to the upper levels of the house because they couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Others realize that they could not even stand up to their full height in the house because the ceiling of expectations was so low.

Although traveling different roads to get there, all women who enter the house have a story to tell. Women’s History Month 2020 is a good time for women to share these stories and to recontextualize the barriers that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. When women recontextualize the conditions and circumstances of their existence, race and gender can become strengths that stimulate a collective vigor to support and help each other succeed in all the houses they enter.

Women who came before cracked opened doors through which women who followed could squeeze. Because of the work of those who have come before, women today are obliged to ensure that there is no turning back, but a continuous reaching back to move the next woman forward. Will women of today accept their role in the story of women? When women recontextualize the story of women, the house is on the high ground and all the rooms have a favorable view.

 

 

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 2

When MSNBC journalist Rachel Maddow interviewed Elizabeth Warren on the day she withdrew from the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, the tone was pessimistic about whether a woman would ever be elected President of the United States, and how devastating such pessimism would be for women now and the young girls who are seeing this as their future.

It’s not for lack of trying that a woman has not been elected president of the United States. Though history was made in 2020 when six women were candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, seven women before them also ran for president. The first woman to run for president—though it might be disputed by some—was Victoria Woodhull, who ran as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. It would be almost a century until the following women dared stand for the office again:

  • Margaret Chase Smith (Republican, 1964);
  • Shirley Chisholm (Democrat ,1972);
  • Patricia Schroeder (Democrat, 1988);
  • Elizabeth Dole (Republican, 2000);
  • Carol Moseley Braun (Democrat, 2004); and
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, 2016).

pictures of women who have pursued US presidential nomination--Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, Patricia Schroeder, Elizabeth Dole, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kirsten Gillebrand, Marianne Willamson, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobachaur, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard

Clinton, the most successful of these candidates, was interviewed by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria for International Women’s Day. When asked about the failed attempts by women to become President of the United States, Clinton described some of the reasons for the failure:

  • unconscious bias;
  • a double standard;
  • objectification of women;
  • women not being what we expect them to be; and
  • unconscious alarm bells going off when a woman wants to lead.

We still need to work out how to “truly respect and value women in the workplace,” she said, “…how best to empower women to be the best they can be under whatever circumstances they find themselves.”

Let the church say, “Amen!”

From Being Charming to Being a Contender, Part 1

It was 36 years ago this month that the first collegewide task force for diversity on which I served hosted a Women’s Week program. After a year of meetings with faculty about the need to make the curriculum inclusive, we were thrilled that Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley Centers for Women had agreed to be our guest speaker.  Her papers on white privilege had catapulted her to the top of the A-list as a speaker on issues of equity and privilege.

It was not until after this program that our task force realized what a dismal failure we had been in helping faculty to see that educating for diversity could revitalize their work, affording them the opportunity to rethink knowledge, evaluate their teaching methods, and effectively put students’ learning at the center of their efforts. Disappointingly, it seemed that few faulty beyond the twelve of us on the task force saw the point in making their syllabi and the curriculum more inclusive. The hardest blow—and most debilitating comment—from a faculty member after the Women’s Week program was that Peggy McIntosh was interesting and charming, but what did her presentation have to do with them?

This was not the first or the last time that I would hear a woman described as “charming.” A synonym for charming is “likable”—the standard to which women who run for high political office seem to be held. By contrast, many women are looking forward to the realization of what former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Amy Klobuchar said: “I think what matters most is if you’re smart, if you’re competent, and if you get things done.”

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.

Role models: What do your actions teach when you think no one is watching?

When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.

While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.

What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.

Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.

After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.

When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.

I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.

There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.

When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.

When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.

While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.

Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.

What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.

Learning about oneself

Who doesn’t want to feel capable, respected, admired, and loved? At an important juncture early in my career, these feelings promoted a positive sense of personal power and a belief that I had infinite potential. My feelings of confidence and high self-esteem were sustained by co-workers who encouraged me to blossom as I basked in the light of their good will.

What changed? I met Mary in graduate school. She had a positive attitude and her spirit was infectious. She exuded confidence and high energy. No one could be depressed, down, or self-critical in her presence because she believed not only in herself but also in you. Greeting everyone with a smile and a kind word, Mary was always sought out as a listener or study partner. When the feedback we were getting from our professors reduced our self-esteem in every conceivable way, all of us in our graduate cohort needed Mary and loved being with her because she validated us.

Mary was at least ten years older than the rest of us. She had an old-school marriage where she was responsible for everything related to domestic life, and a full-time job at a junior high school where she needed combat pay for the war she fought every day.

I loved being in Mary’s company and thought it would be nice to see her even more often than in our classes at the university. When a position opened up at the college where I worked, I thought Mary would be perfect to join our team. I told my boss about her and encouraged her to apply for the position as a counselor. I championed her candidacy, but she didn’t need it. She blew away the review team and became my colleague.

We needed another counselor because students’ needs were beyond our capacity. There seemed to be an epidemic of students coming to the counseling center with symptoms of depression. We were overwhelmed. Mary was so effective with students who presented as being depressed that she quickly developed a reputation among the faculty and staff who made student referrals to the counseling center. The counselors also began to consult with her on particularly troublesome cases. Mary became known for her skills and, once people met her, they became fans and friends.

I didn’t know what was going on with me, but I began to spend less and less time with Mary and apparently, according to Mary, rejected her attempts to continue the warm relationship we had before she joined the staff.

One day, Mary came into my office, shut the door, and sat down. I didn’t know exactly what form this confrontation would take, but I knew something like this was bound to happen. I was quite uncomfortable. We both sat quietly without talking for a long couple of minutes. Finally, Mary caught my eyes, held my gaze and, speaking softly as if talking with a small child, asked me, “Gwen, what are you afraid of?”

Of course, I didn’t think that I was afraid of anything. But when I reflected on what had been happening and how I felt, I came to grips with the fact that I was afraid that if Mary were loved and respected to the extent that she was, there wouldn’t be enough for me. Before Mary joined the staff, my light shone brightly, and now all the light seemed to be on her. I felt diminished.

What did I learn? I learned that without the external validation that I was capable and had potential, I doubted myself. Past successes as evidence of my competence and effectiveness were not enough to overcome the unacknowledged fear of losing what I saw as positive personal power. It was this direct question from Mary about my fear that brought me face-to-face with my real weaknesses.

I needed external validation of my capabilities and effectiveness. I felt that there was a limited amount of love, respect, and admiration, and if Mary were getting so much of it, there wouldn’t be enough for me.

After that hard realization, I began to habitually investigate my feelings through reflection to see what other lessons I could learn about myself.

Don’t let negativity hijack your focus: It’s all about students

When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.

Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.

The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.

I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.

When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.

I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.

I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.

During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.

I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.

Awakening to notions of who one is and what one believes

On Saturday, January 18, I went to “Awaken 2020” at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Kanye West and his Sunday Service Choir performed for just about an hour of the 12-hour event. To describe what Kanye and the choir did as a performance does not nearly capture the impact they had on the thousands of people in the stadium.

Awaken 2020 in Tempe Arizona

Awaken 2020 in Tempe, Arizona,
from Awaken 2020 Facebook page

What struck me most was how the music of the Sunday Service Choir seemed to have the power to compel thousands of people to lose themselves in a common trance. On the jumbo video screens, we saw close-ups of the faces of individual choir members as the setting sun shone brightly on their uplifted faces; we heard the hypnotic and mesmerizing drum beats in the music that insisted that bodies move in sync; we responded to energetic invitations of the choir director to sing along; we stretched our arms to raise our right hands in unity.

There were other great gospel choirs before I arrived and, throughout the event, various people famous in particular arenas spoke their thoughts about Jesus, God, and the Bible, and gave testimonies of personal experiences of depths and heights.

As a participant observer, I was impressed not only by the power of the music spectacle to invoke ecstatic feelings among people as diverse as the universe, but also by how it caused me to reflect on the critical role a trusted mentor might play in helping one to discern messages.

What if someone were severely criticized by family and friends for attending Awaken 2020 because they did not trust the veracity of Kanye’s conversion? Having experienced such good feelings only to be admonished later by those closest could cause doubts and questions about who and what to believe.

I’m using Awaken 2020 and a possible subsequent experience to point out the benefits of college beyond exposure to facts and critical thinking based on a preordained curriculum. On college and university campuses, mentors are found, more often than not, in student affairs and among the faculty, administrators, and staff. Whether or not they see themselves formally in such a role, these “mentors” offer students of all ages the opportunity to share who they are beyond the traditions and often admonitions of family and long-time friends.

Stepping out beyond one’s inner circle is a way to learn the essential skills for a well-lived life. Being in a community of learners provides opportunities to constantly weigh opinions of others against personal beliefs. The act of daily living among people who are not one’s natural protectors gives students opportunities to self-determine what is important to their own well-being and their image of themselves as citizens in community with others. Whether on campus or online, college provides the context and laboratory to experiment with notions of who one is and what one believes in light of others’ opinions and perceptions.

I understand that a college education is not necessarily for everyone and no longer the defining asset for a financially successful life. But for those who elect and are fortunate enough to attend a college or university, what is learned in dialogue with others or when someone just listens helps one look inside oneself for the personal integrity necessary to glean the rightness of a situation or belief. These “aha” moments can also bring the wonder and awe of a religious experience.