Survival Strategies for Directors of Color
dr. Renee White felt she was handling things pretty well, all things considered. From the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the daily life experienced on campus, White was staying the course for his students, faculty and staff. .
“I was expected to be available to everyone, to be the guide, the partner, the thinker, and there was no room for me as a woman of color, living what I was going through. by myself,” said White, who is currently provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at The New School in New York. “I didn’t even realize how much I was internalizing everything, until one particular day, when there was another incident involving violence against another black and brown body, I came home to home and I had this moment where I collapsed, literally hiding in front of my family, unable to do anything.
White shared her story during a webcast hosted by Miscellaneous and moderated by Dr. Jamal Watson. She was joined by other women of color in leadership roles who reflected on the unique burdens institutions often place on people of color, and women of color in particular. The scholars shared how they faced and survived the challenges of the past few years, what they learned, and what advice they can offer other scholars of color.
“It was important because it reminded me that as a human being, I need space to deal with the things that I face as a human being,” said White, who noted that women are generally expected to do care work, and women of color are often called upon to lead initiatives because of their identity and experience. Keeping her feelings inside was bad for her health and well-being, she said.
“If you can’t resolve the situation you’re in for, focus on your health in some way: emotionally, spiritually, in every way,” White said.
White said she found comfort in a group text channel she developed with another color faculty, where she will let off steam, listen and center herself, adding that she learned to take the time needed to reinvest in herself, her identity and her mission in higher education by re-exploring things like art, cooking and music.
These methods of survival were formed at a time when more and more scholars, especially scholars of color, are leaving the academic field.
“Our field is not immune to broader changes, ‘The Great Resignation’ overall,” said Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of science politics at Quinnipiac University. “We’re at the two-year mark of the pandemic, and over the past two years people have had time to step back and say, ‘why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I doing this in a place where I’m not fulfilled, and where do I want to be?'”
Institutions often seek to meet diversity quota “checkmarks,” Brown-Dean said, and the environments they create for faculty, administrators and staff of color may not include a support network. Resilience can come from building these networks independently and recognizing one’s inability to change another person’s snap judgments. Therapy, she noted, can also be a very helpful tool.
Whatever method is used, mental fatigue needs to be addressed before it manifests physically, said Dr. Jessica L. Lavariega Montforti, vice provost and accreditation liaison at California State University, Channel Islands .
“Over the years, many people have made two suggestions: keep a journal and meditate. I’m from New York, and New Yorkers, we don’t do these things,” Lavariega Montforti said with a laugh. “I do physical check-ups. I scan my body to find out where I feel tension. Sometimes you don’t realize your shoulders are close to your ears. I try several times a day to release all this tension.
Brown-Dean said this period of political, social and economic upheaval has resulted in disparate health inequalities “that manifest in myriad ways, particularly in mental health and wellbeing.”
“Faculty, students and higher education officials of color [are] both invisible and hyper-visible due to these broader changes,” Brown-Dean said. “That’s what makes it so difficult, to lead as a person of color through all of these shifts that you’re often asked to correct. It’s the context in which we all survive.
The 24/7 nature of work has also taken its toll since the pandemic took hold more than two years ago.
“I think people create strong boundaries about it, seeing their work isn’t valued the way it should be,” White said. “Institutions use the language of family and people say, ‘No, I’m an employee and you’re an employer. I provide a valuable service and am a valuable human being.
Lavariega Montforti said there was no going back to a time before COVID, adding that many color faculties found themselves more comfortable at home because they weren’t dealing with the microaggressions that they suffered in in-person situations.
“In many ways, the virtual environment has made it a bit safer. So how do we make in-person spaces places we want to come back to? We have to change what we do,” said Lavariega Montforti. “We see that the professors, the students, the staff are exhausted. Something has to give. The writing has been on the wall for some time that the ways we are engaging right now are not sustainable.
You can watch the full webcast here.
Liann Herder can be contacted at [email protected]