Story Corps

It is a rare gift to be able to share parts of one’s story prompted by a highly skillful interviewer. As a gift to me, my dear friend and colleague, Paulette Dalpes, interviewed me in the summer of 2014 at Story Corps in Chicago. In recognition of Black History Month, I am sharing segments from that interview here on my blog.

Identity

Great Grandfather

Didn’t Feel Loved

Coat and Penny Loafers

Faith

Piano Lessons

Role Models

ROTC

Eastern Illinois University

 Student Teaching

Students Have Stories

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Obear’s Inspired Vision

How audacious and bold of Kathy Obear to put her inspired vision into action through this essential book for all who want to continue the work of dismantling racism. Ostensibly, But I’m not racist! is written as a tool to help white people. As an African American, I found the book not only intellectually enlightening but a courageous and hopeful foundation upon which we can all build.


From Kathy:

Get your FREE copy of “…But I am NOT Racist: Tools for Well-Meaning Whites” and encourage your colleagues, family, and friends to download their free copy!!! [URL to share: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NCWVXEY]

And as a bonus, here are the links to the other 12 authors I am publishing with today! Get their books FOR FREE, too!!

Download these books while they are free and share the links with your friends!

How to reach Kathy:

Kathy Obear
President, Alliance for Change Consulting and Coaching
#1 Best-selling Author, Turn the Tide: Rise above toxic, difficult situations in the workplace
Co-Founder, Social Justice Training Institute
@kathyobear
Skype: kathy.obear
Pronouns I respond to: she/her/hers

Effectively supporting first-generation students

Like many, I was a first-generation college student whose family lacked the economic means to send me to college. With a state tuition scholarship from high school, loans, campus jobs, and help from my friends, I was able to attend and graduate from Eastern Illinois University (EIU).

First-generation students were probably the majority of students at state colleges and universities in the Midwest when I first attended college, but unlike today, most of the first-generation students then were not minority, low-income, or students who were new in the United States.

Today, students whose parents have had no postsecondary education or experiences are given the opportunity to participate in pre-college programs while in high school, and the equity-minded colleges these students attend often provide special programs to ease the transition from high school into college. Committed to their success, colleges who identify students as first-generation generally provide special support programs that include advising, tutoring, and opportunities for engagement with the broader academic and local community.

All first-generation students are not the same. As I recall my experience as a first-generation college student, it was another identity that distinguished some of my peers and me and caused us to experience college differently than other first-generation students. Being a Black college student on a White college campus less than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision compounded the obstacles already inherent to my success as a first-generation student.

I was not aware of any special programs to help level the playing field. Upon reflection, however, I realize that for me, more important than a special program would have been a concerted effort by the college to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. I believe the president wanted Black and other first-generation students to feel welcome, but it takes every individual in the academic community to create such an environment.

I can’t speak for other Black students who were my peers, but I dreaded going to the faculty advisor I was assigned. I needed support as a first-generation student, and what I received was indifference. I felt as if the advisor hated this part of the faculty role. When I attempted to share my goals, he did not listen. My advisor made no effort to get to know me, and I felt that he hated me because I was Black and looked down on me because I was poor. The selection of advisors for first-generation students is critical not only for making the climate supportive, but for the ultimate success of students.

My being in class was awkward for everyone. No one looked at me and I didn’t draw attention to myself. I kept my eyes on my textbook, my notebook, the chalk board, and the professor. When I would feel someone staring at me, I would resist the urge to look directly at the person, but would just begin to turn my head in their direction. That always broke the stare.

One professor, who was my favorite, stands out for me because he was the one faculty member who looked directly at me when his eyes surveyed the classroom. All the other professors had this uncanny ability to look around the classroom and never see me. I should have stood out since I was the only Black student in any given class.

With the diversity of students in classes today, faculty who do not know how to help all students feel included should request professional development. At minimum, faculty can incorporate basic strategies to develop an inclusive classroom environment by making eye contact with all students, pronouncing their names correctly, finding creative ways to encourage all students to participate in class discussions, and providing opportunities for group projects in which students are randomly assigned.

As I was nearing the end of my first quarter at EIU, I began to worry about what grades I would receive at the end of the term. An uncaring advisor and awkward classrooms did not help my grades and neither did the fact that I had been having a good time with my Black peers and our new-found freedom. I decided to call my mother to alert her to what might happen if my grades were as bad as I expected them to be.

I remember using a pay phone in the Student Union. My mother was surprised to hear from me because I didn’t have the kind of money to make long distance telephone calls unless there was something important to convey. To begin this difficult conversation, I asked about every single person in the family. I could sense that my mother wanted me to get to the reason why I called.

Finally, I said, “My classes are really hard, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

“What do you mean when you say you don’t think you’re going to make it?” she responded.

“My grades may not be good enough for me to stay in college, so I might have to come home.” I waited for her response.

After a short time she said, “That’s too bad. You can’t come here because your sister has your room now. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

I just hung on the line for a beat or so because I was afraid to let go. In just a few words, my mother made it clear that she was not going to rescue me. Shocked and afraid, I realized that what happened to me from this point on was entirely up to me.

I believe that support programs, caring advisors, inclusive classrooms. and an overall inclusive campus climate make a difference for first-generation and all students. I also believe that every student will have unique motivators that are separate and distinct from anything the college or university can provide. Being self-motivated is a powerful impetus to succeed. What first-generation students may need most is someone to help them identify what motivates them most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Understanding how students learn in order to be more effective educators

All I want to say is thank goodness for Jane Fried!

Of Education Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes book cover with fishbowl

I just read her book titled Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes-Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World. Don’t let the long title deter you from this compact gem at just 100 pages. I am thankful for Jane Fried because she has discovered what my personal experience and the science of learning indicate is the truth about how real and deep learning occurs and, most importantly, she is determined to help the rest of us understand it.

Though the book would be a resource for all in higher education, she spoke directly to student affairs professionals in 1995 when she and associates edited the ground-breaking book Shifting Paradigms in Student Affairs, Culture, Context, Teaching, and Learning. Prominent among purposes of the book was to emphasize that student development was part of the mission of colleges and universities, and student affairs practitioners were educators.

Fried located the concepts of the educative role of student development and student affairs in the different and interrelated cultures encountered in higher education in the United States and, indeed, the world. These different cultures were being aggregated under the term diversity in U.S. higher education and the best approach to seeing diversity as a resource rather than a problem was to see with new lenses or shift paradigms about learning. This paradigm shift is relevant today as students are creating their own laboratories for learning through their activism.

In Shifting Paradigms, Fried suggests that educators understand and accept the fact that sometimes the “student is the expert and the student affairs professional learns a great deal.” (112) She also points out that the role of the student affairs professional becomes one of understanding that students are learning from their experiences and the role of the professional is to help students reflect on that experience. (213) Those who desire to truly educate will need to help students reflect from the perspective that “cultural experience, historical experience and personal experience” all matter. (230)

As an original thought leader and contributing author of Learning Reconsidered-A Campus-wide Focus on the Student Experience, published by NASPA and ACPA in 2004, Fried championed the idea of the interconnectedness of learning where all of the processes and relationships a student encounters must be recognized as learning sites that students could use to make meaning of their lives. Therefore, each site must see itself as part of the learning community. In other words, learning occurs both inside and outside of the classroom.

I keep her 2012 book titled Transformative Learning through Engagement-Student Affairs Practice as Experiential Pedagogy close at hand for quotes for my various essays and speeches. It is rich with information about the psychology and biology of learning, and it reinforces what I think is the major take-away from Learning Reconsidered, mentioned above, and Learning Reconsidered 2, published in 2006: The most important factor is that transformative learning always occurs in the active context of students’ lives.

The most recent book speaks to faculty directly about their assumptions based on how they were taught and learned and how their world view influences how they see students and how they teach. By another name, Jane Fried is still working to help educators understand that there has to be a paradigm shift. She makes concrete recommendations about how faculty who teach undergraduates can do so more effectively. True to how we learn, throughout the book, she asks the reader to stop reading to do some exercises and reflections in order to move beyond learning “about” teaching effectively and to begin to understand how learning occurs through their own experience and reflection.

I will continue to read whatever Fried writes because it takes a while to unlearn what and how we have been taught and to shift our perspective in how we see the world.

Thank you, Jane, for continuing to move classroom faculty and student affairs professionals toward understanding how students learn in order to be more effective educators.

References

Fried, J., & Associates. (1995). Shifting paradigms in student affairs: Culture, context, teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association; Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Fried, J. (2012). Transformative learning through engagement: Student Affairs practice as experiential pedagogy. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Fried, J. (2016). Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes-Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Keeling, R. (Ed.) (2004). Learning Reconsidered-A campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

My memoir – putting it off no longer

A confluence of events won’t let me put it off any longer.

In addition to everything else I am and do, I’m identifying myself as a memoirist since my retirement. It’s not that I use the term “memoirist” as an identifier, but as a way of answering when asked how I spend my time — I’m writing a memoir.

I’ve had writing my memoir on my agenda — or as some call it my “bucket list” — for many years. I’ve held it back as I would a favored dessert in order to savor it after a satisfying dinner — the dinner being my 51-year career in education.

It is significant to me that I’m using the possessive pronoun “my” in describing this memoir because until just a few days ago, I’ve called it “a” memoir, “the” memoir, “her” memoir, and “our” memoir. The “her” is my mother. What I’ve been writing is her story and mine. I am now compelled to own the memoir as mine and take responsibility for getting it done.

Getting it done has been the issue. It’s not that I can’t complete it. Over the past four years since retirement, I have kept writing my memoir on the back burner in order to respond to requests others make of me in order to complete their agendas. One of the events that occurred recently that is forcing me to move forward with the story is a conversation I had with a friend who is a successful published writer. As we talked about what I’m writing, I came to the conclusion or discovered for myself that I have not wrapped up the first part of what will be a trilogy because I don’t know what to do with it when it’s finished. My friend said matter-of-factly, “just finish it.”

The next event that pushed me to move forward was when I was shocked recently to read the title I’ve selected for my memoir as the title of someone else’s work. I love to listen to Mahalia Jackson sing old Negro spirituals, and one of my favorites is My Soul Looks Back and Wonders How I Got Over. I changed the words slightly for my title to say My Soul Looks Back in Wonder. I could not believe that another author had the exact same idea! My first thought was to change my title. My next thought was to get my memoir done.

My watershed moment was when I received an article from a friend about how difficult it is to get a literary agent. The article was discouraging to say the least, although I do not believe my friend meant for it to discourage me. Rather than worry about getting an agent, I took this as another indication that I needed to tell my mother’s and my story through my memoir sooner rather than later.

Although I’ve written the proposal for my book, I think that the media has changed so drastically that the traditional route to publishing may not be the best option to get the story out. I’m mulling over the idea of putting some parts of the story on my blog. I have faith that if I take this first step, I will know what the next steps should be.

Intersections of Identity: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings book coverThomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, a novel by Stephen O’Connor is over 600 pages, and I’ve been reading it intermittently for weeks.

A friend who I admire for his intelligence and for his depth of knowledge about writing and life in general liked the book so well that he gave me a copy as a gift. After beginning the book, I went away and left it at home. Then other priorities took precedence and I didn’t read.

It has been important to me to complete the book, not only because I want to demonstrate my appreciation for the gift, but equally as important, I want to see how I feel about a novel written by a white man about the often referenced relationship–if I dare call it a relationship given the power imbalance–between a slave master and a slave woman. Not an ordinary slave master, but Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of this country, author of the Declaration of Independence, and father of the University of Virginia, among other notable accomplishments.

The author, Stephen O’Connor, did not write this fictional biography as a traditional novel. His biography of the long liaison between Jefferson and Hemings is infused with fantasies, dreams, and meditations, including characters such as James and Dolly Madison in colorful and fantastic musings.

The author acknowledges that there is literally no biographical information about Hemings and no known photographic likenesses. In his creation of the character of Sally Hemings, O’Connor brings an important element about this slave woman. She looks like a white woman in every aspect of her physical features. I don’t know why, but this made a difference for me in reading the book.

O’Connor created a woman, not a slave without gender identity. He adds dimension to a historical character that most have only known as a slave whose children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.

O’Connor gives us a view of the power and emotional conflict that could occur in the life of a woman in circumstances that were, on the one hand beyond her control, and on the other, we’re not sure.

Through her character, we also see what we’ve always known about Jefferson, such as his complexity and the conflict between his universal moral positions and his way of life. This novel forces the reader to see the intersections of identity within individuals and the wide variations of perceptions within groups of people, regardless of their stations in life and despite the power imbalance in the world where slavery existed.

This book defies any simplistic notions of black and white and slave and master, though as one reviewer notes, “This book is a history of oppression. . .”

For me, O’Connor’s insights as told through the voices of Jefferson and Hemings give him credibility when creating a voice for Sally Hemings. For example,

People adjust to their circumstances . . . Even if it can also be their undoing.

In reference to those who felt fortunate that Jefferson was not a cruel slave master:

Yes we were lucky, but such luck is a mere drop in an ocean of misfortune.

And so the desire to lie to oneself or to make much of small blessings becomes irresistible, and thus to further humiliation. The very songs we sing to escape our chains themselves become our chains . . . .

[Sally Hemings to Jefferson] You think it enough to speak beautiful words, but that beauty is nothing unless those words are lived.

I am partial to biographical novels and sensitive to any efforts to soften or deny the cruelty and moral degradation of slavery and, because of these prejudices, I am impressed with O’Connor’s work in adding a critical piece of Jefferson’s life by creating a persona for Sally Hemings.

Allowing one to be what he imagines himself to be…

We will celebrate our son’s birthday in a couple of days, and this occasion makes me have a moment of nostalgia about our relationship as mother and child.

I could tell you that the doctor kept telling me that I was not pregnant with him, despite the fact that I had missed my period for four months. According to this physician, if I were pregnant, the rabbit test would confirm it, and since the test did not confirm it, I was not pregnant.

I could tell you that he was born close to a month early, and it was a complicated delivery that caused him to be without oxygen for quite some time, according to the doctors. This led them to forewarn me that this child could experience some developmental or other problems. I’m grateful that their warning was not confirmed and he was a perfectly healthy baby.

I could tell you more about the pregnancy as mothers are wont to do, but what I want to tell you is that I have been in awe of this stealth child who fought hard and arrived unscathed to be the light of his mother’s life.

From the beginning, I consciously decided that because I loved him so much, I would have to fight not to allow my love to possess him. I decided that he would belong to the universe and that he was God’s child, and it was my privilege to have the role of mother in his life. Holding him close in my heart and seeing him as not belonging to me or any one person, I have always had adoration for this child that I have the privilege of calling “son.”

I have always respected him as his own entity, and I worked to play the role as parent with nuanced control, not holding the reins too tightly. Growing with him has been like performing a modern dance following the beat of a jazz composition and going with the flow. Rather than attempting to mold him into my conception of what he should be, I trustingly reinforced his unique nature and characteristics. When I think about it, it has not been so much “raising” him as allowing him to be what he imagines himself to be.

I’ve often said that he grew up like a cabbage because cabbages can grow just about anywhere. Though his dad and I did our best to provide the right conditions for his thriving, like cabbages “soil texture is not critical” for him. Because he is an only child, he was often treated as the third adult in the house, with some limitations, whose feelings and ideas were valued. I always wanted him to see the worth of his own efforts despite the opinion of others. Whenever he did something praiseworthy, rather than first telling him that I was proud of him, I would ask, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?”

With adoring, respectful love and not too much pressure from hands-on parenting in the traditional sense, I should not have been surprised at his response when he was asked by a third party what he thought had the most impact on his development as a man. He responded that his college fraternity was the most important influence on him in being who he is today. I’m also not surprised when he does not remember all the cute incidents I remember about his childhood because his childhood and adulthood, in some ways, have been seamless, in that he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy my unconditional love, devotion, and respect because I have always thought and continue to think that he is awesome.

Book Review: The Firebrand and the First Lady

Firebrand and the First LadyIn her book The Firebrand and the First Lady – Portrait of a Friendship, Patricia Bell-Scott successfully marries the kind of scholarship expected of an academic with the kind of accessibility that will make this book interesting to all readers.

I was especially eager to read this book because I’ve known Pat Bell-Scott for decades — since we were members in the National Association for Women in Education. She also is the editor of Life Notes: Personal Writings of Contemporary Black Women, in which I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter.  

As I read this book about the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, my admiration for Roosevelt deepened and Murray became my hero. The book revealed new details about Roosevelt’s courage and her fight for civil rights and social justice, and showed how Murray lived many lifetimes in her time with us. She showed us that the way may not be smooth, but it is our duty to keep pushing forward, to reach for the brass ring, and to challenge injustice wherever it occurs and from whomever it emanates.

This book is contemporary in that it plots the path from overt racial segregation to what our country is experiencing today around diversity and inclusion. Bell-Scott tells us that Murray’s “first fiery essay” was “Who Is to Blame for Disappearance of Gaines?”

Lloyd Lionel Gaines was am African American who was denied admittance to the University of Missouri School of Law. It was speculated that he may have been murdered as a result of the Supreme Court decision that supported his case that the University could not deny this highly qualified applicant admission based on his race.

Murray’s essay could well define the current climate in which students are demanding the elimination of what they see as structural racism. After 55 years, the University of Missouri School of Law granted Lloyd Gaines an honorary degree. Is it any wonder that generation after generation of African Americans say they can’t wait?

Bell-Scott is a role model without peer for academics and others who have a book in them that needs to be written. She worked on this book for 20 years and the results demonstrate the time, energy, and love she devoted to this work. Truly, it is more than a book. It is a spiritual acclamation of a cross-section of the lives of two women who were most distinct in their culture and context, yet had a similar strength of purpose based on their values of equity and justice.