Category Archives: Identity

Warriors

A lot of deserved attention is being given to Viola Davis, who stars in and produced The Woman King. Before I get into more about Viola, I want to draw attention to the director of The Woman King and other more-than-noteworthy films. Her record is one of excellence in creating films that have strong moral and positive messages.

Historically, women have not been in the director’s chair. For a Black woman to be in the director’s chair the number of times Gina Maria Prince-Blythewood has is truly an amazing accomplishment. Thank you, Director Prince—Blythewood, for your contributions to the film industry and to our culture.

Although the focus of The Woman King is Black women warriors, another warrior who ran up against a ceiling created for Black folks is John Boyega. Being a man, notwithstanding, John Boyega has felt the oppression of being Black in a world acculturated to seeing only White people as heroes in films. This was the reality that fueled what some saw as a backlash against having a Black man as one of the heroes in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Thank you, John Boyega, for sharing your talents as King Ghezo in this epic film that focuses on Black women warriors.

As Viola Davis and the other stars of The Woman King make appearances throughout the media universe, Viola shares strong messages that refute the endemic negative messages that Black girls and women have historically received not only from folks who were not Black but also from Black people who put down women because of their particular shade of blackness.

Here are snippets of messages that Viola sent that resonated with me:

Clear up space for yourself.

Do not disappoint yourself; disappoint others instead.

Don’t say “Yes” so people will love you. They don’t love you.

… weighed down with a cultural history that tells you that you are nothing.

Life is a relay race and you run every leg of it yourself.

I have a new term—“I’m worth it!”

If you have not seen interviews with the stars of The Woman King, I recommend that you take a look at some of them to hear about the six-year experience of getting the film from concept to reality.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, in response to an interviewer’s question, responded that she hoped that women would see themselves reflected in the film. She also hoped that when they leave the theater after seeing the film, women feel enlightened, inspired, and empowered.

A constant refrain that remains with me after seeing The Woman King and hearing comments of those who made the film possible is “spirit of the warrior within.”

Thank you, Viola Davis

Viola Davis is the only African American to receive what is called the “Triple Crown of Acting”—Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award. She has been in close to 30 films and has numerous television credits.

I’m no professional critic and won’t attempt to critique her films. I just want to say: Thank you, Viola Davis, for being real Black for me, for portraying Black women in all our pain and glory.

A Helper’s FIRE

I’ve talked with people who after many years in a particular kind of work feel unsettled as if they are not doing the kind of work that fulfills their passion. Others I’ve had conversations with have changed the kind of work they do many times. They say that they get restless after the bloom of doing something different begins to fade.

Like those I’ve spoken with who wonder if there is something that they should be doing rather than what they are doing with their lives, I’ve had these thoughts. But for me, these thoughts have been fleeting. During my career journey, I took many of the assessments that purport to help career searchers begin to narrow their focus. Interpretations of my various assessment results showed a consistency in that whatever I chose for a career, I would be a “helper.”

I defined being a helper as someone who would provide support to others in reaching their goals and human potential. The question for me was how this might be realized in a specific career. Coming of age in the 1960s, I didn’t believe that the universe of options was open to me. Going into the medical field was my teenage dream. However, the reality of my financial situation made that dream unrealistic as a goal.

Being a teacher was one way that I could become a helper. However, it was a choice for which I settled rather than one for which I had a strong inclination. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was during these years that I thought I was settling that I found my passion. Teaching helped me realize that young people found it easy to relate to me and sought my counsel beyond the classroom. During these one-to-one sessions with students, I learned that many of them worked to the level that was expected of them rather than to the level of what they were capable of doing. They had more potential than they realized. Helping these students see beyond their current circumscribed existence brought me joy.

My sense of satisfaction in these relationships with students and their positive response to me confirmed for me that I was in the right place. Attaining a degree in counseling, I was prepared to be a helper. I found real congruence between who I imagined myself to be and who I could be in my career as a mental health and career counselor.

Even at this early stage of my journey, my touchstones of FIRE were part of my inner process:

I accepted the situation that I was in (fate).

I believed that I would be led to the right outcome (faith).

I focused on living a life infused with integrity.

I took initiative to get the required credentials to do what I wanted to do.

I was constantly reflecting on circumstances in a manner that I could glean lessons from my experiences.

I always tried to respect those with whom I interacted regardless of age and position.

I applied energy to achieve career goals and to carry out my responsibilities as a spouse and parent.  

I freely expressed empathy for others, and I allowed myself empathy when it seemed that I had lost my way.

My hopeful wish for young professionals is that you will find the path that will lead you to your place of passion and fulfillment in your professional and personal life.

Shifting models of beauty

The saga of the pandemic continues to have innumerable impacts on people all over the world. It seems that not a day passes in which we don’t hear about some change resulting from the pandemic’s effects. From the exacerbation of mental health disorders and COVID long haulers to people refusing to return to work, the pandemic is leaving its mark.   

One seeming universal change is the great technological revolution available to ordinary people as well as organizations. This technological wizardry gives people the ability to not only communicate with one another and participate in meetings and other group discussions through voice but also visually. The downside to seeing one another is that people can also see themselves. People who didn’t like much about their facial features before the pandemic now spend hours looking at their own faces on various virtual platforms. Some people dealing with this “Zoom dysmorphia” don’t like what they see and decide to do something about it.

One of the most prominent facial features on a virtual meeting platform is the nose. Back in the 70s, one of my White friends had rhinoplasty. Before the surgery, her nose was naturally straight and narrow like many White people’s. After the surgery, the tip of her nose turned up slightly showing more of her open nostrils. I didn’t think that this was an improvement, but I kept my mouth shut.

On the topic of change and noses, I read an interesting article written by Mridula Amin for Quartz titled, Nose jobs: Breaking the beak. Assuming that a large percentage of nose surgeries are for cosmetic rather than health reasons, I was still surprised to see the following statistics:

              2.5 billion: Number of uses of hashtag #nosejobcheck on Tik Tok

              352,555: Nose re-shaping surgeries performed in the US in 2020

              67.9 %: Share of total rhinoplasties that are performed on 19–34-year-olds

I would wager, with a great sense of certainty, that the number of rhinoplasties historically and currently have been to change the nose to be more like what is considered attractive in noses endemic to Caucasians, and that’s why “approximately 66% of nose job patients in the US are white.”

The Quartz article mentions that “ethnic rhinoplasty” is “gaining popularity among people of color that aim to preserve their ethnic identity with their noses.” The idea of ethnic rhinoplasty is confusing to me. If one already has a nose endemic to one’s ethnicity, why is it necessary to have nose surgery to preserve that identity? Confusing or not, it may mean that fewer people of color are wishing that the bridge of their nose was not as flat and that their nostrils were narrower.

In describing what he calls the “Instagram Face” ideal in The New Yorker, celebrity make-up artist Colby Smith says, “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone [for white people], a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern.”

The pandemic changed a lot of things, but it didn’t seem to change the fact that people still want to look like what the majority holds up as models of beauty. It’s at least encouraging, as one can see from Colby Smith’s quote, that today when people opt for facial plastic surgery or choose makeup to emulate what they see as attractive, there is ethnic and racial diversity.

Off to College: Student Imaginings and Creating an Aloha Spirit

I’m 18 and about to go off to college. I think I’m supposed to see this moment as an opportunity to refresh, to become untethered from my life before college. In other words, find my personal identity.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will find a core group of friends who are similar to me in some ways.

What makes me anxious about going to college is that the academics will be more challenging than I might have imagined.

People ask me if I’m excited about starting college. Although I say that I am, I don’t want to have expectations that are too high and be disappointed.

I think it will be an adjustment to have roommates.

Because my parents have taught me well, I’m confident that I will have good judgment about right and wrong.

I can’t wait until I’ve completed my first semester and I’m comfortable in the environment and with my routine.

I think my parents are as anxious as I am because they don’t know how well I will adjust.

I would love it if I can be the best version of myself and college proves to be a positive and inspiring experience.

It may be too much to wish for, but after the isolation of the COVID pandemic, I want my college experience to be an adventure full of fun encounters that I will always remember.


I’m 24, the single mother of a 4-year-old and I’m about to start college. I see starting college as a key and pivotal moment in which my life will finally come into focus.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will discover and develop talents that I never realized I had.

What makes me anxious about going to college are the challenges of doing well in school and being a good mother to my child. I will need to balance my life in a way that I’ve never had to do before. I’ve been successful in working and taking care of my child, but the addition of college courses will test my ability to do it all well. I’m fortunate that my parents are willing to be a back-up for taking care of my 4-year-old’s needs.

People ask if I’m excited about starting college and I tell them that it’s exciting and terrifying in many ways. My greatest fear is that the courses, faculty, and collegiate environment won’t live up to my high expectations. I’m willing to take out the loans and to continue working and doing whatever is necessary to go to college, so I want to know and feel that it is worth it.

I think it will be an adjustment to be in a classroom with students who are just finishing high school and with people much older than me. I don’t fit with either group. Although I’m relatively young, my experiences as a single mother have made me more mature in many ways.

Because my parents have taught me well, I understand that sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to accomplish your goals. I have the resilience to stick to my plan, barring negative circumstances beyond my control.

I can’t wait until I actually have my books and can begin my journey to reach my potential. I feel like I postponed my life by not going to college immediately after high school, and now I have a chance to fulfill my highest goals.

I think my parents believe in me and that makes all the difference. They have always had my back, and that fact gives me confidence that I can succeed.

I would love it if I could accelerate the time to complete my degree requirements and find a group of folks with whom I can develop friendly relationships.

It may be too much to wish for, but I hope that someone such as a mentor or teacher will help me discover what I know is waiting for me and will help me use my education as a perch from which to soar!


Though these future college students are in different stages of their lives, they both are hesitant to allow themselves to feel the true excitement of attending college. Why might this be the case?

Storybook and movie versions of college often depict an environment in which people are interacting and having fun together. Also, in imaginings prior to college, individuals cannot help but feel that this is an opportunity and time when they can be all that they can be.

These expectations can be shattered when in a classroom, residence hall, dining hall, or just walking across campus if they feel as if they are in the wrong place or that they are unexpected visitors. When one feels like this, headphones and text messages are a refuge. The student doesn’t have to look at those who won’t acknowledge them. They don’t have to risk looking at someone who won’t look back. They don’t have to feel the sting of being invisible.

College and university staff, especially in Student Affairs, understand the need for a welcoming campus climate and they provide resources for students to be involved or to get help when needed. However, it takes initiative on the part of the student or someone close to the student to move toward what is available to help students feel as if they belong at this college.

Many students genuinely don’t want to be involved in any prescribed activity. However they do want to be in a warm and friendly environment.

I think colleges and universities with students on campus ought to require everyone to do their part in making the environment welcoming. In short, everyone should contribute to an Aloha Spirit throughout the community.

I’ve seen the idea of creating an aloha environment work. Dr. Doris Ching, a highly respected administrator for years at the University of Hawaii, was president of the NASPA Board of Directors during 1999-2000. Traditionally, the annual conference is the culmination of the term of the board president and a showcase for their leadership. How well the conference was attended and feedback on the quality of the speakers and programs often served as measures of the success. 

Having no control over the conference’s location, which often drives attendance, Dr. Ching decided that the conference marking the end of her term would be one where every person attending would feel more welcomed than they had ever felt at any conference before.

Dr. Ching made it a thing that not just NASPA staff and volunteers, but every single person who attended the conference was given the duty to contribute to the Aloha Spirit. All the nametags had some kind of message such as “Happy You’re Here” or “How can I help you?” Dr. Ching, herself, was the role model, for there simply is no more gracious and welcoming person. She modeled how everyone was to contribute to the spirit of aloha.

In every way possible, Dr. Ching conveyed the message that everyone was responsible for making everyone else feel welcome. People got the message. Although it sometimes seemed that people were self-conscious about their active role in creating this warm and welcoming environment, they wanted to do this because Dr. Ching asked them to.

As we traversed the hallways, it seemed that everyone was smiling, nodding, and in some way greeting others. As we passed one another on escalators, we were waving and smiling as we greeted people. In the conference program spaces, people were introducing themselves to the persons sitting near them. I’d never seen anything like it. I observed and was part of this experiment that proved that an aloha spirit can be created when everyone takes responsibility for making all in the community feel welcome.

At the end of the conference, it didn’t matter how many people had attended. The point Dr. Ching wanted to make was realized. Everyone was an ambassador and felt personally responsible for creating an environment where everyone else could feel that they mattered.

Simple gestures such as looking at someone, perhaps smiling, or saying hello are small acts of kindness when encountering other humans, especially those in your college community.   Speaking and smiling when encountering a fellow human being is not just about manners. It’s all the other things that these gestures represent.

Constant and pervasive messages about everyone’s responsibility to create a positive and welcoming environment is worth a try. I saw it work at a conference where people were only together for a few days.

What effect might it have if the college environment is a mirror that reflects and reinforces the positive self-image that these students have of themselves as they embark on their college careers?

Faith Journey: Who Tells Your Story

Guest blog by Florence Dungy

I was very pleased when Gwen asked me to write a piece on any subject that I wanted for her blog….

When I was younger, I thought life was basically random. I grew up in southern Illinois in Carmi, located on the Little Wabash River. The population was around 5,000 people.

Carmi was my dad’s hometown. He was born in 1914 and grew up attending a segregated school and the segregated Mitchell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. My mom met my dad when she came to Carmi to visit her uncle who lived in nearby Maunie. My parents married in 1943.

My mother had been born in 1919 and raised in Whiteville, in western Tennessee. She also attended segregated schools and was raised in the Bartlett Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. The name was changed to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.

My brother Charles and I were both born in St. Louis, Missouri—he in 1944 and I in 1947. Our family moved back to Carmi in December 1947.

There were very few Black people in Carmi. Charles would integrate Washington School by going to the first grade at age 6. My mom took Charles to school on the first day. When she went back to pick him up, she said she met him already on the way home, happy and skipping down the street. After Charles passed away, several of his classmates wrote me that they remembered meeting him in the first grade.

Growing up, Charles was much more self-assured than I was. He excelled in math and science and played basketball. He was outgoing and everybody liked him. I was concerned with being nice and polite and modest. I liked reading and writing and English.

Our lives in Carmi were integrated in every way except for church. This was a time when most people went to church, which at that time was largely identified as mainline Protestant denominations. I do remember going to Vacation Bible School, concerts, and programs at the White churches, but on Sunday we went to Mitchell Chapel AME Church.

While the theme of the Civil Rights Movement was “We Shall Overcome,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s oft-repeated observation in 1963 that 11:00 Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in this nation” was certainly the reality in Carmi.

Mitchell Chapel was located a block off Main Street across the river in East Carmi. The church must have had a guardian angel, for in today’s world it would certainly be condemned as a fire and safety hazard. The church leaned to one side, there was only one entrance, and there was neither running water nor a bathroom. We had an old-fashioned coal stove and one of the men who lived across from the church would go early and make a fire when it was cold.

Not all of the Black people in Carmi attended the church, but they would come to funerals and also to fundraisers. There were probably 15 to 20 of us attending Sunday services, for which I remember getting dressed up and having new outfits for Christmas and Easter programs. We became part of a circuit with two other AME churches in Harrisburg and Carrier Mills, Illinois.

We were pioneers. My mother was the church recording secretary, and my dad was the lay reader and taught Sunday School. On Communion Sunday, we put up the white cloth around the altar and served communion with a chalice, using the silver communion set for the grape juice and wafers.

I remember the Sunday the minister “opened the doors of the church” and Charles walked forward to the altar to join. I followed him, joining the church because he did. Charles was in high school, and I was in junior high. Everybody cried.

We never invited any classmates to the church, and I am sure most people did not know the church existed because of the isolated location. When classmates asked where I went to church, I remember answering in a low voice and not with any pride. I do not remember any of the ministers as being special or giving outstanding sermons. We did not have a choir, but I do remember students from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale coming to sing.

 In the late 1960s, Mitchell Chapel was allowed “to die” with the changing times. My family would be joyfully welcomed into the Carmi First United Methodist Church (FUMC). We had many friends at FUMC and would make new ones. My mom was especially happy and would become very involved in church activities.

When I graduated from Carmi Township High School in 1965, I did not have a plan beyond knowing that I would leave Carmi. I was encouraged and expected to leave by everybody including my parents and teachers. I moved to Champaign, Illinois, to stay with my aunt and attended Illinois Commercial College.

In Champaign, I attended Bethel AME Church. The church had a choir and a good minister, and I could get involved in activities of my own choosing. I knew a few people and made more friends. Most of all I knew the AME liturgy and songs having learned them at Mitchell Chapel AME. I became an usher and taught Sunday School briefly.

Charles was at Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston. He would come to Champaign on weekends and practiced teaching math at Champaign Central High School.

There were just a few Black students at the Commercial College. Just before graduation the man who was in charge at the school sent me to talk with the State Director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farmers Home Administration State Office in downtown Champaign. He offered me a job and I accepted. I had just turned 19 years old. The office was small and convenient to where I lived, was with the federal government, and the employees were friendly and welcoming.

I would at times have challenges working with USDA but it was very beneficial to me overall. I worked with many smart and helpful supervisors and co-workers and made life-long friends. I felt rewarded and USDA enabled me to transfer from Champaign to St. Louis and Washington, DC. I received training, took business trips, and was able to retire after 41 years of service with a pension and health insurance.

When I moved to St. Louis, I joined Centenary United Methodist Church, which was part of the Plaza Square apartment complex where I lived downtown. Centenary was an elegant and historic church. I became a greeter and served on the church board for a year and participated with other programs and activities.

Charles and Gwen had met in college at Eastern, and married in 1967, when I was 20. They now lived not too far from me in suburban St. Louis with their young son Dan, but would later move to the Washington, DC, area. When an opportunity and encouragement came for me to also move to DC three years after they did, I wanted to move but also felt uncertain about doing so.

It would have been easy to stay in St. Louis. The move would take me away from the Midwest and my family, but I also knew I could easily fly home for vacations. DC was expensive and I wondered if I would be able to find an apartment and live in a safe and nice part of the city. I prayed and knew I wanted the transfer. I found a nice and very small apartment in a pleasant part of the city with the help of a friend. Being on the bus route and convenient to the Metro, it was a short commute downtown to work.

I had read about Metropolitan AME Church before I moved to Washington. The church was convenient to where I lived. It was a beautiful and historic church with a storied history and prominent members. Walking in the church, you feel the ancestors. I would come to understand that the AME Church, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by Richard Allen, was about so much more than just segregation. I joined the church and became involved in many activities including ushering, the Love and Peace Missionary Society, the food bank, and serving as a chaplain for a seniors’ club. I took my co-workers to the church on weekdays when the seniors prepared a soul-food lunch.

I came to feel I was following God’s plan for me, which had always been there from the beginning. I would never have joined Metropolitan AME if I had not been raised in Mitchell Chapel AME Church in Carmi.

Watching the Communion Sunday church service online during Covid, I would use the Mitchell Chapel chalice my mom had given me before she passed and really feel the connection between the two churches.

I had been in Washington for 12 years and Metropolitan AME was going through changes. I was ready for a change also. The Washington National Cathedral was close to where I lived in northwest Washington. I had visited and toured the Cathedral and was awed by the beauty and peacefulness of the church and the grounds.

I liked the idea of the Nation’s Church which welcomed everybody. I did not expect to become a Cathedral volunteer or think it was even possible for me. I was not an Episcopalian. I made friends and met with the volunteer coordinator to find my place. I could volunteer at the Cathedral and still keep my membership and participation at Metropolitan AME. I would start as a greeter and become an usher, a lay reader, and volunteer in the gift shop.

My last time with Charles a week before he passed away would be attending a Sunday morning service in the Cathedral. Most people did not know Charles was seriously ill. When he passed away from a rare disease, I wondered why it had been him instead of me. At the end of the play Hamilton, there is a song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” I felt I survived to tell Charles’ story. I was the only connection to Carmi and our classmates.

I belong to a grief support group and recently we discussed how we would like to be remembered. I would like to be remembered as a Christian hopefully for kindness and outreach and inclusiveness and for understanding and forgiveness for myself and others. I feel blessed for the ways in which God has led, and I pray he will continue to guide me along my journey. 

 Florence Dungy is Gwen Dungy’s sister-in law.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Who We Are

When a dear and trusted friend who has been super cautious regarding COVID said that she would risk dying to see this film, I decided that I had to see it as well.

Who We Are movie poster with Black man looking at American flag

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in Americais a documentary written and told by Jeffrey Robinson and directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Without hyperbole, Robinson makes the case that since Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas, there have been conscious and deliberate efforts to keep people with black skin enslaved in one way or another.

The film uses a graphic to show what continues to occur. A small ball climbs slowly up one side of a curve and when it reaches the very top of the curve, instead of continuing to move forward, it slides back down the curve to where it began. Though I don’t know much about physics, I think that the climb up to the top of the curve was slow and hard, but the descent, with the force of gravity, was swift and strong.

Though disappointed that more people didn’t choose to see this documentary with the word “racism” in the title, I was glad that I was the only person in the theater, alone with my feelings. I left the theater thinking that the nature and culture of our country is the same old song. Some of the lyrics are re-arranged, but the chorus stays the same.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.