This post was co-authored by Richard Okello and Louis B. Ward.
As we ready ourselves to embark upon a new year, the question on our minds is what moment are we stepping into? What season will this be for us as student affairs practitioners? Furthermore, what will this season bring to harvest for our students as well as our respective campuses? The deaths of John Crawford, Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones and Tamir Rice have unleashed a new wave of energy among Americans — many of whom are students enrolled at our institutions. This new wave of energy has galvanized the call for justice within the walls of our campus communities with protests in the form of sit-ins, die-ins, walk-outs, rallies, and marches. For months, student activists have been unrelenting in their calls for justice; they have made clear by their fierce sense of urgency that they would be unyielding until their concerns are heard and acted upon. With the growing disconnect between governing bodies and the grassroots efforts of our students, we submit that therein lies our moment. If the very heart of leadership is taking challenges and turning them into opportunities, then this is our time to lead. This post is our earnest attempt to prompt critical reflection on the question of: “How do we as professionals step into our moment and lead in a time when our campuses are figuratively speaking catching fire and mobilizing for change? But before we can change the future, we must first confront the present.
Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) generally admit a small number of students of color every fall. Many of these students are first generation students and the institutions’ infused campus culture is often not adequately equipped to support them. These students are considered to be the “Victors”, sent off by their families and loved ones with high expectations to survive, thrive, and return home victorious. These same students, eager to make those who sacrificed for them proud, find themselves in some particularly harsh environments where they are still expected to excel. Whether that be taking classes with professors who lack cultural competence, co-existing in residence halls among peers who unconsciously and consciously bombard them with microaggressions, and/or having to navigate policy decisions by administrations that disproportionately affect them. Through it all, many of these students of color bravely endure the pressures while arming themselves with cloaks of mental agility and resiliency in order to obtain the most powerful weapon that will indeed change the world: education.
Yet after the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, students of color at some PWIs could be seen walking around campus speechless and feeling defeated. To hear students express painful sentiments such as “What’s the point? What’s the point of attending college to better myself when it’s clear my life does not matter?” is heartbreaking especially for administrators of color who are also grappling with the implications of the decision in their lives.
We suspect that these students understood the implications of that decision in that their college IDs would not
guarantee safe passage should they have an encounter with an officer who chooses not to recognize their humanity. The TRUTH, which is sure to be debated, is that the odds were NOT in favor of Mike Brown since birth and that very idea was only reinforced with the grand jury decision; particularly among our black and brown students. They now
have to wonder if they would ever be protected or given the benefit of a doubt at places that should be considered safe spaces. What was brought to bear after the moments of hopelessness and despair was rage, and accompanying that moral outrage was a fiery passion to seek change. They must have also realized that with education comes refinement and what better place to spur a shift in societal constructions of who matters than on their college
If catching fire is about mobilizing for change, the protests of our student bodies are representative of the end of dormancy and the beginning of conscious and collective action geared towards eradicating systemic structures of oppression. Our campuses have caught fire before and sparked change that would be felt around the country. What we know to be certain is that in most of these cases the youth between the ages of 18 to 25 years old spearheaded the movements while many of the adults observed from the sidelines paralyzed with fear, fear of imprisonment, losing financial independence, or life itself. The thing that can be said about this generation of youth as well as previous generations is that they view life without liberty and the pursuit of happiness as having no life at all. It is these feelings that lead students at universities across the nation to fall behind in their coursework due to organizing and protesting for the right to be Black in America. If our students are willing to sacrifice grades, scholarships, financial aid and on/off campus employment for the struggle, what are we as agents of these institutions they attend willing to do? “We cannot solely depend on the ‘multicultural experts’ at our respective universities to be the only means by which our students process” as said by our colleague, Jade Perry, in her recent post. We all have the ability to uplift and help guide our young Victors at this critical and ever so pivotal time. They need us. They need us to embrace the notion of courage under fire.
Courage Under Fire
A demonstration of courage under fire symbolizes a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good despite the possibility of inconvenient consequences. Sleep, time, money and grades in some cases have and are being sacrificed for students of color at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. How can we as professionals demonstrate courage under fire when considering the duality of our roles as agents of the institution and student advocates? What are we willing to sacrifice to support our students? We understand what is at stake: our position or status, our social viability, our political capital, and our lifestyle. We understand the internal quarrel of self-preservation. But what would you do if you weren’t afraid? How would you respond if you weren’t paralyzed by fear? What message would a quiescent disposition send to the next generation of leadership?
In our roles as educators, we spend a great deal of our time communicating to our students that the quality of their lives will be determined by the quality of their decisions. Their conscious decision to sacrifice is very much in fact based on their livelihoods or rather the future of them and their children. They became political when it became personal to them and we should be supportive of that choice. After all, by the very nature of our work, we are charged with being attuned to the affairs of our students and if there is a segment of our population that feels disenfranchised then we must appropriately respond. We recognize that some professionals grapple with what it means to be an educator when their own identity is on trial. We submit that it means having to navigate with courage. It means passionately speaking an uncomfortable truth that may not be fully understood to those who have no frame of reference and in a manner that appeals to hearts and minds. We should not be expecting to be given permission to bring our full selves to our jobs. Bringing our full selves to our jobs should be a requirement we have of each other and ourselves as to support the student body as a whole, but more importantly, students who are marginalized through each passing decision of injustice.
As you navigate with courage and consider your source of contribution know that an act of solidarity with your students is not an act of defiance against your institution, but rather a steadfast commitment to upholding its mission.
See Richard’s bio below this post.
Louis B. Ward is an Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Louis is responsible for maintaining a safe and inclusive campus environment by upholding the Code of Student Conduct which emphasizes principles of restorative justice. He received a Master of Education degree in College Student Affairs from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Rowan University. Connect with Louis on LinkedIn or @iHope_inc