With racial tensions boiling over in Ferguson, Missouri after the “No Indictment” decision of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, and now in New York City with the officer who received a “No Indictment” decision after putting Eric Garner in the choke-hold that resulted in his death, I am proud to say that I have wiggled free from a racial hard place in my profession.
I had a Senior, African American female student enter my office shortly before I was leaving to go home for the day. We began chatting about her finals and a few other topics but I could tell by the large blurbs of awkward silence that she had something she really wanted to say. Usually when I notice this behavior I joke with students and say “What do you want from me?” but this time I decided to give her an opportunity to process and tell me what she was thinking whenever she was ready. After I turned off my computer and made several non-verbal cues that I was about to leave the office, she finally blurted out “We want to have a peaceful protest on campus.” I will be honest. At that moment my soul cried out “Why me?” I had no idea that this is what she was going to say but I remained calm and listened to her plans unfold. Essentially, she said “We want to wear all black and have a few people read poetry, hold signs and speak about their experiences with police brutality and racial profiling.” She asked me if I could send out an email to the entire residential population about the protest. Normally, I would be permitted to send out an email on campus if what they were doing was an approved program through the Student Government Association but this time, it was not so I could not send the email. I asked her who all was involved in the organization of the protest and she named another female and a few other students on campus that I did not know. It was clear that nobody really knew about their plan besides me and this is what made me feel uncomfortable as a new professional at the college.
I just started working here in August as one of only two black females at this level of student affairs, certainly the only one at my age. As I sat and processed what was happening, my question of “Why me?” became very clear. I am young. I am black. I am new to the college. Why not me? I was honored that the students felt comfortable sharing this idea with me but I could feel a few concerns tugging at my conscience. What about the backlash or perceptions that I could create for myself by standing with my students in this effort? What would my boss or colleagues say about me? What if the media caught a hold and my name was released? Is this something I want to be associated with? Will this affect me if I choose to look for another job someday? I stopped myself in the midst of a whirlwind of thoughts and I became extremely introspective. Why do I feel uncomfortable being an advocate for my students in whatever way they need me? Why do I have to consider campus politics and how people will perceive me? Am I turning into a sell-out? Am I failing The Student, the sole purpose of my being at this institution? I had to remember a key point in my studies of Student Advocacy and Leadership: It is not most important to share the same views as the students but more important to acknowledge and respect the purpose of their concerns. Even if I did not want to participate in the protest, it excited me that these students on a very small, private college campus wanted to be heard in a very peaceful yet powerful way. My obligation is to hear them. See them. Respect them. Make sure they are safe. Period.
I met with the two leaders of the protest the following day and made sure that they knew I was supporting them and that I wanted their protest to be successful but safe and peaceful. I researched and educated them on the proper communication for a campus protest; word-of-mouth, hand-bills or social media and that it would not be wise to use the college’s email provider.
At the end of it all I was proud of myself. Many times as professionals we want to stay neutral and non-biased in an effort to save our professional faces but at what expense? As a new professional, I am learning to embrace each of my colleagues that have non-conventional advocacy interests with hopes that I will not be judged for my views or the campaigns that I choose to support. Am I outraged and angered by the recent happenings in New York and Missouri, no but I am saddened and concerned that this may keep happening. There is a great deal that students can learn from hearing that you have an opinion and a stance on current issues in the world. I now welcome tough conversations and opportunities to support students during challenging times.
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Podcast With Ann Marie Klotz on Women in Student Affairs