Author Archives: gwendungy

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?

orientation_SLCCM79It’s 1979. I’m at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, a suburb outside of St. Louis and it’s my turn to be the lead counselor in planning the fall semester orientation. All students are required to attend orientation, followed by a one-on-one session with an educational adviser or counselor in order to select their course schedule for the semester.

In satisfaction surveys across colleges and universities, orientation always fared poorly. Students didn’t want to take the time to attend and when they were required to attend, they often rated it as poor and a waste of time. Ever the optimist and striver, I wanted the orientation that I planned to be different than some of those I had suffered through along with students in previous years.

I had two objectives in mind as I planned the program. First, I didn’t want the program to be boring, so I needed something that was a little unusual. Second, and most importantly, I wanted the program to meet students where I thought their heads were when they decided to attend the community college.

Although mostly white, the students were diverse in age and background. Similar to today’s students, the one thing they had in common was their desire to acquire the necessary credentials to meet their career aspirations although many had no idea just what that eventual career might be.

The setting for the orientation was a large meeting room on the second floor of the Student Center. Following the orientation presentation, students would sit across from educational advisers and counselors at long rectangular tables where they would discuss their desired courses and schedule.

As my colleagues entered the room prior to the students, they exchanged glances with one another; some smiled and some rolled their eyes upon hearing the theme song from the 1975 film Mahogany starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins. I was sure the students would know the lyrics, since Diana Ross’ rendition of the theme song had been more popular and successful than the film, but just in case I had the opening and most pertinent lyrics on a screen at the front of the room:

Do you know where you’re going to?
Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Where are you going to? Do you know?
Do you get what you’re hoping for?
When you look behind you, there’s no open doors.
What are you hoping for?

I chose this song because I wanted to encourage students to think about their future goals and not just the immediate courses they would take during the semester.

Using a cassette tape recorder turned up to the highest volume, I clicked through images on a slide projector to encourage students to think about connecting what courses they were planning to take with what their eventual career might be.

orientation_slides

As antiquated, hokey, and uncool as this effort might have been, I believe that my intention was on target. If students could not yet imagine a career, my goal was to let them know that it was okay to feel confused and that there were specific steps they could take to better understand where they were headed.

After a decade of one-on-one and group counseling and career advising of community college students, I realized that many of our students had no previous help in connecting what they were being taught with how these courses would help them in attaining a career. Many students saw college as one of the hoops to jump through for a better life, after which they needed to figure out what career they wanted.

Although St. Louis Community College at Meramec was better resourced with staff than many community colleges, counselors could not serve all the students who sought career counseling help when they were well into their college career. In addition to offering one-on-one and group career counseling, the Counseling Center created an efficient self-serve career resource center that included one of the first in the nation experiments with computer-assisted career counseling. Even with all these resources committed, there were still long waiting lists for students to see counselors about their career goals.

We know that when students can connect what they’re learning with what they need to know for a possible career, their confidence in their own abilities and their motivation to learn increase. Colleges today with reduced resources and increasingly high demand for career services will need to decentralize the responsibility for the career support process. This decentralization needs to be done broadly and consistently, enlisting a combination of personnel and online tools to help students organize their steps to decision making, preparation, and implementation of plans.

Helping students along their journey to work–life fulfillment is a continuing and ongoing process with better tools and more evidence of the need today than we had in 1979.

Today’s Graduates—In Their Own Words

Class of 2020 with graduation cap on zeroA major role of commencement speakers at the culminating event of a lengthy and often arduous course of study is to inspire graduates to move positively and purposefully forward to the next phase of their lives.

I’ve often enjoyed reading commencement speeches by famous people, but not this year. After participating in a bittersweet online high school graduation in which the only commencement speakers were the students, themselves, I felt that this was exactly the way the event should be for the graduating class of 2020.

I was so inspired by what I heard from these graduates in the Zoom ceremony that I looked for other graduating students’ speeches. I share just a few quotes with you from students looking forward to enter college – in some form or fashion – this fall:

Have a voice; wasting it is not an option.

 Be unafraid to challenge norms.

 This wasn’t our time. Our time is coming, and it’s coming soon.

 We’re the doers and the go-getters.

 We will be stewards of our environment.

 It’s not the crisis, it’s our response.

 Don’t tell yourself, “no.”

 Be aware of what values you hold and what values you show to the world.

 This is the end, and this end is our now.

 From these few selected quotes, I believe that students today are canceling out neither the reality that they’re now living in or the unknown world that lies before them. I sense that right now, they don’t need our commencement speeches because they have their own way of coping with whatever comes. The best that we can give them is to let them just be.

I’m hopeful and inspired about our future and theirs because today’s students intuit that the only thing that they can even aspire to control is their view of the world and their place in it. Is there anything more that we could tell them?

Words in Service to Justice

Words wash over me. Pictures pierce my heart.

There is nothing I can say that has not already been said. I’m grateful to all who express their heartfelt thoughts about the cause and effects of this raging tragedy called RACISM.

Some of the words that I’ve heard or read tell a story that has been told too often and yet still needs to be told.

Finally a turning point

 Catalyst for change

 Voices of the unheard

 Mobilize, organize, vote

 Ignited a flame

 Same issues—different trajectory

 Nation we ought to be

 Acknowledge the anger and hostility

 Broken, chaotic, destructive reality

 Gaslit by reality

 Direct action—spiritual impulse

 Psychic toll

 Ambient racism

 Outrage

 Mixed emotions

 Reluctant sense of hope

 Little ray of hope

 More than isolated events

 Racism, white supremacy, police brutality

 Law and order

 “non-violence works in tandem with threats of potential violence” (Carvel Wallace)

 “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it everywhere.” (Kareem Abdul-Jabar, op ed in the LA Times, May 30)

Whether we see the universal activism spawned by the image of a police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd until he dies as a reaction to the inhumanity of the act or an imperative for America’s reckoning about racism, the words written and spoken by those outraged are, indeed, in service to justice.

The Pain and Pride of Coming Through Hardship

One fact that we can all agree on is that we are in an economic and financial downturn with Depression-level unemployment rates triggered by the pandemic. In addition to the current hardships for so many, a consequence of this experience will be how it changes the way many will view their relationship with money now and on into the future. For example, it’s not hard to imagine that your future children or grandchildren will rationalize your excessive frugalness as a result of your experience during this time.

My mother told me many stories about how hard it was for her and her parents during the Great Depression. I remember one being especially sad. My mother was five years old in 1929 – a year often associated with the Great Depression – and my grandparents were a struggling young couple.

They had been sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta before the Depression and had done well enough to move from the farm to the city of Clarksdale. Their relatives had done well in finding jobs in the city and my mother’s parents had high hopes that they would also find jobs. They were eager to put farm work behind them.

Their plan was to live with a relative until they could, so to speak, get on their feet. Shortly after their move to Clarksdale, the depths of the Depression were being felt by the entire country and jobs that black people used to be able to get were now occupied by white people. When my grandfather couldn’t even get a job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he “pulled cotton” to make just enough money to buy food.

When the weather became too cold to pull cotton, my grandfather became resigned to the fact that he would have to find a farm where he could once again share crop. My mother said it was the “dead of winter” and they set out for the countryside walking and carrying all their belongings.

After knocking on a lot of doors, they found an old lady who was living alone. She welcomed them to move in with her. Shortly after moving in with the old lady, my grandfather became ill. He had always been asthmatic, but this illness was more severe than asthma alone. They were way out of town where there were no doctors and even if there were a doctor near, they had no money with which to pay.

My mother said that my grandmother tried everything she could to try to get my grandfather’s fever down and help him breathe. Indelible in my mother’s mind is what my grandmother did: She made a salve of Sloan’s liniment and Vick’s salve and rubbed it all over his chest, and then she covered his chest with a flannel cloth. She made a tea out of cow chips and the liniment and held him up so he could drink it while it was very hot. Then she gave him some pills called Red Devils.

While my grandfather was sick, the family ran completely out of food. The old lady they moved in with told them that there was a well-to-do farmer down the way who might help. My mother and grandmother went to the farmer for help, telling him about my grandfather’s illness and how, as a consequence, they had no food. The farmer gave them some food and told them that there was a corn field behind where he was living. The people who had planted the corn had moved away and did not gather it before winter. The farmer said they were welcome to gather all the corn they wanted and, if they shucked it and brought it back to him, he would take it to the mill and exchange it for food and other things they needed.

After wrapping their feet in grass sacks for extra protection, my mother, about six years old now, braved the snow and ice with my grandmother to return to the farm where the corn had not been harvested. They pulled enough corn to fill a large cotton sack that was so heavy that they had to drag it back to the house. My mother remembered that when they got back to the house freezing, she helped her mother lay the ears of corn on the floor in front of the fire so they could dry. After the corn dried out, they shucked it, put the ears in the big sack and took it to the farmer before filling the sack again with as many ears of corn as they could drag.

My mother said they felt lucky to have access to the corn and to be favored enough that the farmer would take the corn to the mill because some people were literally starving. The old lady with whom they were living had grown some turnip greens and, when she was ready to cook them, she had no lard. Ever resourceful when desperate times called for desperate measures, she used Blue Seal Vaseline as a substitute. My mother told me that they declined the greens cooked with Vaseline, but her mother did accept the turnip roots.

When my mother would tell me this anecdote about how tough times were, I could see in her face and hear in her voice both pain and pride. Pain in recalling the struggles so many people suffered then and the following many lean decades they endured after the Great Depression was “officially over.” Pride at the fact that she and her family had come through these times, and, in her mind, the better for it because their survival was proof of their faith and resilience.

If there is one common piece of advice survivors of the Great Depression might recommend, it is to always seek the long view when disruptions appear catastrophic in the microscopic lens of the moment lest we overinterpret the future impact of our experience and accept a destiny not worthy of our potential.

Race in the United States, as Reflected in the U.S. Census – A Glacial Rate of Change

Some say that demography is destiny. In the United States, race is destiny.

Clearly evidence of a racist social construct, “race” depends on who you are in the politics of government. From the time of the Constitutional Convention, the matter of race has been central to the decennial census practice. The census was put into place to assure proper representation and is today connected with the distribution of nearly $1 trillion in federal funding for myriad programs.

At the inception of the practice of taking the census, there was shameful, self-serving political debate about whether or not enslaved people would be counted as persons or property for the sake of levying taxes and determining representation. The compromise that stood for nearly a century was to count those who were enslaved as three-fifths of a person. Without a doubt, in the minds of these leaders all men are not created equal.

While enslaved persons were not counted as full persons for the sake of the census, indigenous persons were not counted at all. In fact, according to data collected by census-takers, the United States consisted of only white and black people for its first 100 years.

This was in part because census-takers determined race rather than allowing individuals to self-identify. In so doing, white people were recorded as homogeneous in their whiteness, while black people were recorded as free or enslaved. Additionally, black people could be recorded as mixed, with crude terms used to attempt to determine just how many drops of black blood a light-skinned black person might have. As late as 1930, the “one-drop rule” was included in instructions to ensure that interracial persons were determined to be black, “no matter how small the percentage of [black] blood.”

While the questions and language have slowly evolved since the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, they always seem to lag behind the times, never fully reflecting the current reality and individual preferences of the people. It was not until 1960 that individuals could identify their own race, and it was not until the year 2000 – more than 200 years after the first census – that the questionnaire included a “multiple-race” option by which one could better reflect one’s identity by selecting more than one race. If the census is the marker, this America evolves century by century.

As part of this glacial evolution, for the 2020 U.S. Census, respondents are asked to identify not only their race but their “racial origins.” Thinking positively about this change, disaggregating the data collected on race and ethnicity theoretically has the potential to create a picture of the multiple diversities that make up this complex nation. Understanding the history of the political ends served by census questions, however, raises some understandable concerns.

censusThe question about “racial origins” (whatever that means) would seem easier on the surface to respond to for some groups than it is for others. For example, respondents who identify as “white” are given the following examples to choose from for racial origins: German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. (Despite this seeming simplicity, however, one does wonder whether the homogeneity with which the census has treated “whiteness” to date, might still give people in this category pause in being asked to identify origins of which they may not be aware or ever given much thought to.)

Asian or Pacific Islanders are given specific checkboxes instead of being asked to write in choices from examples, unless selecting “Other Asian (Pakistani Cambodian, Hmong, etc.)” or “Other Pacific Islander (Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese; etc.).”

It starts getting more complicated with those who indicate that they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish.” While the first part of being able to further identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or another origin {Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadoran, etc.) is easy, then comes the question about race. The U.S. Census Bureau argues that Hispanic origin is not a race and that those of Hispanic origin must also be specific about their race. It’s expected that indignation and confusion will abound.

I empathize with those who affirm “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and then face a question about race. If I affirm “Black or African American” for my identity and then see these sample choices for origin—African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc.—I am inclined to write “not applicable.” It makes no sense for me to indicate “African American” as my racial origin because I’ve already checked that box for race. Also, specifying the entire continent of Africa as an origin is not in alignment with others from the continent who can select from specific countries within the continent as their origin. For my racial origin, it makes sense to me that I would write in “Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama,” because, as I discovered in exploring census data from the 19th and 20th centuries, my family’s known history goes back no further than these three Southern states.

Twist, turn, bob, and weave as it may, America’s shameful history keeps showing up. This time it surfaces when there is an attempt by the federal government to tease out the diversity among people who live in the United States. What’s more, the ever-changing demographic questions for all the racial categories except “white” raise important questions related to data meant to be used as a comparator over time. Sadly, evolution from racism is, indeed, a slow process in this America.

 

 

In the Here and Now

Waxing nostalgically or having flights of fancy are easier for me than being in the here and now. This is not a new phenomenon; I discovered this about myself when I first started meditating. As soon as I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply, my mind would find a memory, devise something to plan, or flash in my mind someone or something about which to worry. Holding my mind in a steady state of the present without thinking for even a minute or so took tremendous effort, which decreased my level of relaxation, and thereby defeated the very purpose of my meditation.

I decided to do some Internet searching on meditation and came across an Everyday Health article about how more Americans are meditating. Results of a CDC survey about the overall health of Americans taken in 2012 and 2017 showed that there was an increase in alternative therapies like yoga, chiropractic care, and meditation by both children and adults. This caused me to reflect on why I adopted meditation as a practice. It was about a year after my 30th birthday. While some people have a hard time accepting their age around 40 or 50 years of age, I had my crisis when I turned 30 years old. I became hypersensitive about how I looked as if I were just getting acquainted with my face and body. I wanted to change everything.

I was working as a counselor at a predominantly White community college where, in addition to a workload similar to my colleagues, I was, by default, the resident problem-solver for all issues involving Black students. Personally, I was figuring out how to begin work on a doctorate degree while working fulltime and doing what a fulltime wife and mother who stayed home did for her family. At the same time, my husband and I had made a decision to go out on a thin and dangerously wobbly financial limb to buy a house.

In my mind, I could handle this and more, but my body evidently was not as strong-willed, My stomach ulcers got so severe that the doctors said no medicines would help –I was the only person who could cure them. At this point, I was willing to try anything. Alternative therapy was a last resort; I chose meditation.

I participated in the required rituals and sessions and was given a mantra to use in my daily meditations. From that time on, I’ve been faithful in my efforts. My family has always been supportive, giving me quiet time and space to practice. I have no excuse, then, for my inability to be in the here and now with my mind void of all thoughts for an extended period of time.

It is not being “mindful” that I have a problem with, as I go about doing things thoughtfully, paying attention to all the qualities and aspects of any given task. I relish the time to sit quietly and focus on my feelings, my surroundings, and what’s happening with my body sensations. But for 45 years, I’ve struggled to clear my mind of all thoughts for just a few minutes in order to meditate to my standards. While I’m meditating, I’m often thinking about how poorly I’m doing it because I’m not totally in the here and now.

I once told my grandfather I didn’t know how to spell something he wanted me to write for him. He responded, “Don’t worry about spelling it, just write it down.” Similarly, even as I’m writing this critique of my efforts to meditate, my thoughts are on a different frequency, urging me to stop judging and evaluating how well I’m meditating and just meditate.

Too often, we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, immobilizing us from simply doing what needs to be done. It is only in the doing – whether that be taking a first step or continuing in something – that we grow and hone our practices.

As Strange as it Seems: Dreams

Paintography, Photograph combined with watercolour paintingFrom time immemorial people have been fascinated by dreams. They want to know what they mean. Centuries ago, those who interpreted the dreams of monarchs were in high demand.  Decisions that had profound impact on history could have depended on the subjective interpretation of a single dream.

I’ve always thought that the word “dream” is a misnomer for the images our subconscious creates during our sleeping hours. “Dreaming” seems to connote imagining something really wonderful that you wish would happen, whereas my dreams tend to be scary, nonsensical, and/or downright crazy. In fact, more often than not, I’m  happy to wake up and find that my real life is better than the story I experienced during my sleeping hours.

I’ve been in a number of discussions about what purpose dreams serve. No one has had the definitive answer, but I recall a time when dreams had a practical financial purpose if one had a dream book. Dream books were just as common in some homes in our neighborhood in Chicago as the Bible because they attached numbers to those parts of the dream that you remembered. These “lucky” numbers would then be used to place a bet as part of “the numbers game,” an illegal lottery played by people who needed a money miracle. It didn’t matter if four out of five times the numbers played didn’t win—there was always the possibility that the dream was prophetic and the people who published the dream book were modern-day prophets.

Sometimes when I’ve had a long, intense dream and clearly remember all the disjointed vignettes, I try to make the dream useful in working out something in my waking life. Between September 2010 and April 2015, I recorded some of the dreams I remembered. The stay-at-home directive gave me time to pull out the notebook and read what I wrote about these dreams. Here is the transcript of one of the helpful “dreams”:

I stepped onto the escalator with people in front and behind me. For some reason, I sat down on one of the steps of the escalator. I had a small shopping bag with me that seemed to contain food. The bag became caught in the escalator stairs behind me. As I turned to try to dislodge the bag, a loud, impatient voice shocked me with, “GET UP!”

I was doubly shocked when my alarm went off simultaneously for me to, in fact, get up.

Another dream in which I was at a NASPA conference planning committee with challenges that truly only could be dreamed up hardly needed an interpreter with special discerning powers to figure out what was causing me anxiety at the time.

Going to bed anticipating dreaming and planning to remember them may be a way to feel some sense of control. As strange as it seems, maybe dreaming during times when one’s sense of control is next to nil could be a way to relieve toxic stress and practice some psychological maintenance.

Take a Chance

Journal Entry—Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Attended Reception for The Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor to hear reflections on her life in retirement, her current judicial and civic activities, and her husband’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She was introduced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Event was sponsored by the Women’s Forum, Washington, DC.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor

From HarperCollins book cover: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.

What an unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to be in a room in the Supreme Court building with the first and second women to ever serve on the court—Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively.

In her introduction, Justice Ginsburg said that the best advice Justice O’Connor gave her was: “Waste no time on regret or resentment—just get the job done; gain visibility and put on an impressive show.”

What is the job we want to get done?

 How will we go about gaining visibility in order to get that job done, and in what arena?

 What might our impressive show look like, and who would need to be impressed in order to get the job done?

 Will we take a chance on creating a new idea of who we are in order to live our life in service to what really matters to us?