Black in Academia

Before I begin, let me make clear that the experience I write about is my own. It is not meant to be an exhaustive op-ed of most, some or even a few Blacks in academia. My story is my own. And, only a person of color would have to begin such an article in such a manner.


Twice as hard, Half as much

Being from Atlanta, I am not sure I ever understood, clearly, the limitations that blackness had in this country. While it is true we have our fair share of black crime, and black poverty, we also had black success and black wealth. Black did not mean any one thing to me, it did not paint a specific picture in my mind of any one person or any type of lifestyle. As a result of both my environment and upbringing, the domains of “acceptable” black behavior were lost on me. I was not taught the twice as hard, half as much proverb which rings true to the core of most upwardly mobile black people. I was somewhat unaware that some people would not even be rooting for me to fail, but that it would never even occur to them that I could or would succeed because of the color of my skin. What a gift that ignorance has been.

Raisin in Rice
My dad would say that I came into my black identity in college. Taking part in organizations like the Black Cultural Programming Committee, or NAACP on campus, or that one semester of NABJ when I still believed I would be a journalist, or wanting to pledge a historically black greek letter organization.  However, I would argue that my blackness became truly salient in conjunction with the birth of my identity as an academic; when I began working on my PhD. The stress between the two identities has lead to a reorganization of many beliefs I held about both white people and black people and the realities of racism in our nation at present.

First, my noticing came at my fear of ever being angry in class. I began to question whether my deference to passivity or apathy was due to my lack of opinion or passion around a topic or an unwillingness to share my opinion or passion because of my environment. The more I asked that question, the more I realized I was silencing myself. So afraid of being trapped in the role of the angry black woman, I was “shucking and jiving” to assuage white feelings at the expense of my own.  My internal struggle: the paradox of white feelings versus black lives would be one that would take the center stage for the nation four years later. However, as a nation, similarly to my own processing, it would be impossible to have a productive discussion about the conflict due to overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, hurt, and fear. They would hold us captive in our positions unwilling to make any forward motion on the matter.

but you’re not really Black
I’d first heard the “compliment” in high school. Stripped of my racial identity because I did not fit the media contrived portrayal of a black girl and later a black woman. While the words never set well with me, it was not until being in a blindingly white academic setting in a pervasively white city that I would become outraged at the insinuation that because I was black I could not be whatever other (usually) positive thing I was, in fact, being. After getting into several arguments with white friends about blackness and the richness of black identity that they truly could not comprehend I realized that the conversations were going nowhere. I was trapped in anger, fury, over being forced to exist in a space where I felt largely misunderstood and the people around me inherently expressing that my blackness did not matter. They were taking the colorblind approach; I saw it as total blindness. If you cannot or will not see my blackness, then you cannot possibly see me.
tumblr_ntoo3zDyRG1tp1sv8o1_500So for the second year of my studies, I avoided conversations of race and racism with anyone other than black people. That year was important and I do not regret it. My own immersion/emersion, though it was practically impossible to avoid symbols of whiteness, I did try to soak in as much blackness as I could find. I did research for and with black students, administration and faculty. I organized programming which helped strengthen the black community on campus with that of the black alumni network. I volunteered to mentor with a BGLO’s leadership development academy. I attended community events and poetry slams, open houses, even the “ratchet” spots all in search for as much blackness as I could find because I felt like I was starving for it. It was something I almost couldn’t make sense of because I had been aware of blackness my entire life. I knew black history and where I sat in it. I knew both how fortunate I was and also how far my generation had to go, and yet here I was FEELING black for the first time. Feeling the blackness that I’d only really know theoretically or in passing, never anything sustainable. People rarely believe me but I have encountered more racism in southern California than I ever did at home in the south. Sometimes well-meaning, nevertheless, racist.

In America, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate
In my skepticism of white culture I began to see racism woven into the fabric of everything–to be fair, that and patriarchy. The idea of professionalism; who decided that? Why is the hair that grows out of my head, as it grows out of my head, subject for discussion or debate? In handbook outlines, rarely are traditional cultural garments named as acceptable traditional attire. Bold and bright colors, prints and fabrics represented not who we were but where we had traveled. Been spectators, voyeurs to a culture that was fine…there…but not here. Though no one would outwardly express it. I remember a colleague talking to me about job interviews for a student worker position in which she described a black male candidate a bit too loud and aggressive. I cringed. I couldn’t help but wonder if his skin color amplified his being or if he really was a loud and aggressive person. I began to feel hopeless. Black people don’t stick together enough to successful have a thriving subculture, yet we are being exterminated and oppressed within the larger culture. The single greatest victory of slavery was the idea that white was superior. There was a wave of time in the sixties when we challenged that, but I think there’s such a loss…there is no “home” to go back to, no mother tongue, no one place we know to turn to feel connected to who we are. So whiteness it is…we will call it American; the American dream, never questioning whose america because we know exactly whose it is.

If the youth are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth
Trayvon Marton. Michael Brown. Ferguson. Eric Garner. Oakland. Baltimore. Sandra Bland. The list goes on and on and all while I go to class and learn about the importance of effective leadership and the dynamics of systems. Part of me resentful because no one dare talk about the current leadership or dynamics of a system black people are dying in. Part of me desperate to take in as much as I can so that I can understand what they think is true. Given an assignment to write about ethics and leadership I took the opportunity to write about being black in white spaces. I knew it wasn’t my approved topic. I knew we hadn’t spent one day discussing race in america in class. Still I wrote:

In isolation, it appears as if the combination of the events of Ferguson, the existence of multiple parts of my self, including those identities of Black, Scholar and higher education professional, and a pending meeting with a university AVP would be an easily solvable “ethical dilemma.” However, this is a decision that will replicate itself over and over again given my chosen career trajectory.  I will always have to discern and decide just how Black to be in my spaces, especially White spaces. When the global context holds racial tension, I will always have to decide if it is appropriate to respond with my “Black self”, especially in White spaces.  When I hold a position of authority, as I often do when I teach, I will have to ask myself continually and infinitely essentially how “Black” can I be right now, in this White space?

I was angry. I am still angry. I find solace in the words of James Baldwin,“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” I am enraged. I feel like Bruce Banner and at any given moment I can give in to the anger and become the Hulk. I am not sure that I will ever not be angry because I don’t know if my lifetime will include the shift of consciousness needed to heal this nation and come to terms with racism (institutional racism feels redundant), oppression and injustice. tumblr_ntyrrmTaeY1ucerf6o1_500

I am the hope and the dream of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.
Despite my anger, I have begun to speak. Largely because of my education I have been able to make strides in my own understanding and conceptualization of race and racism. I’ve become less angry at white people and more frustrated with whiteNESS. This way of being that “we” see as normative and therefore right, specifically, more right than any other way of being without question. I’ve become less skeptical of individuals and increasingly more infuriated with oppressive systems choosing to believe that if people understood the hurt and pain that was caused by their own individual actions, they would certainly choose another course. I am not so naive to think that is true for all.

I have accepted the responsibility of what it means to be both black and [formally] educated. Whether or not I asked for it, I do come as 1 and 10,000. I am the result of my grandmother’s prayers, and her grandmother’s prayers. I owe it to them to be better. I owe it to them to hold stead through my frustrations and have the difficult conversations to help shed light on a dark topic of black pain. I owe it to myself not to have to hold it in all the time. I was given this gift of writing and I do a disservice if I do not write about it. If I worry so much about who might read it, what job(s) it might disqualify me for, or what colleagues may be upset by my words. Being born black in america, I was given enough to hold I don’t have any space in my pack for your guilt or discomfort.

tumblr_nrgyp15Gkk1stueg7o1_400Finally, I have come to terms with being extremely proud of myself; who I am literally and figuratively. I am months away from having PhD behind my name and joining a very exclusive sector of society. And when I do become Dr. Williams, I will do so as my black self. My Harriet Tubman self. My Paul Lawrence Dunbar self. My Booker T. Washington self. My Mary McCleud Bathoon self. My Toni Morrison self. My Barack and Michelle Obama self. My James Baldwin self. My Della Wilcox and Ollie Fambrough self. I am rooted in the black american community. No matter how much success I acquire, or accolades I receive, one’s roots are immobile. For that I am proud. It is not at all a burden, I am happy to carry my people with me.

Authors note: Upon finishing this piece I was struck with the realization that I had not given any due credit to the conscious, supportive white people who have been present on my journey, and I decided that you know what? that’s okay. This piece was not about them. I gritted my teeth even at the decision to include this post script once again paying special attention to white feelings, preemptively. It’s so ingrained…

The Dissertation: Calling All San Diego Fat Women!

Want to be part of my dissertation study? Here is all the information: Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 12.36.26 PM

The purpose of this study, in part, is to collaboratively explore the meaning making and developmental processes of self and system for a group of women who identify as fat. Using an action research methodology, the group—comprised of women who identify as fat including the researcher—will engage in systematic collaborative and critical self-inquiry with the goal of better understanding who we are individually and collectively. Further, by participating in the aforementioned process, we will also study the ways in which the group dynamic develops using relational cultural theory, which offers that through presence and mutual empathy we can replace shame and isolation with validation and connection. Finally, this continuous, concurrent development of self and system will then be used to understand implications for increasing the capacity for practicing leadership for women who identify as fat.

This proposal for research sets an intention to better understand the processes of how vulnerable, shame-riddled populations connect, influence and empower one another, and create change. Insight on empowering vulnerable populations has profound implications in the field of leadership, as it offers systems a way to fully engage all parts of itself versus relying on unsustainable models which privilege some groups and oppress others.

Finally, check out my YouTube video to hear me say a few words about my hope for the project. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me and forward a link to any women in the San Diego area who may be interested in joining.



1500 words of reflection

Odd though it may seem, I am just realizing that this is my last semester of being in a classroom taking classes ever (ever ((ever(((ever))) echoes into the infinite hollow). I have been in school in some shape of form for the past 27 years. That is a significant amount of time and now that I’ve come to the end, I genuinely can’t believe it. True to form, all I can think is, “What happens next?”

Technically I know. I mean next semester I enter dissertation stage and I’ll be in seminar, then I’ll propose and transition from Doctoral Student to Doctoral Candidate (Jessica Williams, ABD!) and then…it begins. I am very fortunate that Annie, my work-wife and writing partner, is a speed racer and I am a slow turtle because it means we are now on the same pace and will be going through this together.  I keep reminding myself ‘one bite at a time’  that’s how you eat an elephant and that’s how I’ll finish this dissertation. Come what may, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

As I take a moment to reflect on all the tiny moments that got me here a few stick out that I think serve as lessons I can always return to.

  1. If it is meant to be, IT WILL BE.  This is the greatest lesson.  My journey to physically get to San Diego was crazy, dramatic, unbelievable and so humbling. It really taught me the lesson that the universe really is conspiring on my behalf and I was supposed to be here. In fact, I was never not going to be here. I am so happy I went with my gut.  USD was the only PhD application I completed. My Stanford and Vanderbilt applications went unfinished because I just did not get the same feeling from those universities that I did from USD.  All of the things in the checkboxes matter: Cost, Program, Faculty, Location, etc. But at the end of the day you have to feel it. At the end of the day your doctoral program, or really anything has to FEEL right. It has to be somewhat organic.  Fit is by far the most important decision making factor for me when it comes to things I align myself with or commit to and I learned that from this process.
  2. If its costing too much energy to keep it together, let it fall apart. It is kind of the antithesis of #1. There were many things I tried to force into fruition. My timeline, my topics, certain projects and even certain friendships or relationships throughout my program. But, what I’ve learned is that it is not working for a reason, pay attention to the signs! There has been nothing I’ve lost that was not for the better (in the long run).  So if you are falling out of love with your topic that you have so much research on it is okay. Do not cling to it fearful of what you might lose, open your arms in anticipation of all you may gain. You might find yourself returning with renewed perspective or you might find yourself somewhere entirely new, but do not deny yourself that journey.
  3. This is YOUR education, own it.  I am not exactly what one would call a rule follower. Sometimes I do things my own way and in my own time and the beautiful thing about a terminal degree is that you are charged with the task of being original. Take that up! There have been assignments that I’ve completed in a different way than asked by the professor. I explain my process, and then I do it in a way that is more suited for me and my learning. It is tricky because you want to make sure you are challenging yourself, but at the same time you have to be true to your vision.  I am fortunate that my professors and my program support innovation and creativity (see why fit matters?), and I have really been able to step into my own as a professional as a result of their blessing.  Your professors are your future colleagues, collaborate with them in that way.
  4. Year 1–meet everybody Year 2–say yes to everything Year 3–tighten your circle and your interests.  It was important to me to leave my university, and every university I have attended, with relationships as rich as knowledge I acquired. In many cases those relationships have opened more doors than the knowledge. I have found at the doctoral level, the situation is no different in fact in education, who you know is kind of everything.  My first year I was a sponge, and I absorbed everything. I met everyone that I possibly could and kept in touch with them too (that’s important). Those relationships led to opportunities that I was offered my second year when I had a bit more experience under my belt and had my bearings. My third year I had discerned which opportunities were great for the experience and which ones I really wanted to invest more of my energy into. I could not have done this if I hadn’t experienced so many things the previous year. For example, I got my job teaching in the counseling program (2nd year) because of a relationship that began and I nurtured from my 1st semester. When offered the chance to TA a class, I took it even though I could technically teach my own. That lead to me being able to teach abroad in Jamaica that summer.  Which leads me to the next lesson…
  5. You are never “too smart” “too experienced” “too successful” to take a back seat.  One of the first assignments I had to complete as a doctoral student was shredding for our teaching department.  I hated it, who wouldn’t? But I did it and showed up everyday in business casual attire to lift heavy boxes and shred paper. The professors who were around would notice me shredding and eventually they started to talk to me. I told them I didn’t mind the work even though I hated it, and seeing my work ethic I got two more assignments. One was a research project with a professor in that department.  I have experienced so many doctoral students who are “full cups” and who are unwilling to really listen and take in feedback or humble themselves and do menial tasks; but people notice that. It is unattractive to say the very least, and in the field of leadership? And yes we are working towards terminal degrees so that we never have to make copies and shred papers again, but that does not make you better than the work. It does not make you above the work.
  6. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and don’t be afraid to be right. Some of my greatest learning lessons have come from conflicts, arguments.  When I disagree with someone or something that was said about me and I have to sit back and engage in critical self inquiry.  Not only was the comment or observation true, but why was it bothering me? What did I believe about myself?  It resulted in the greatest growth.  Similarly, learning when to stop hoarding insights was key.  Why was I holding onto it and not speaking up? Whatever the reason it was not a good one and I finally started speaking up and coming forth with my opinions. Sometimes people agreed, sometimes people didn’t respond at all but it was out there.  The most rewarding byproduct of this degree has been access to really really intelligent and opinionated people. Take advantage of that audience, dialogue really helps to sharpen the saw.
  7. Have Fun. Seriously, if this work doesn’t fill you up with all the good stuff at least some of the time, why are you doing it?  It is a question worthy of consideration. I’ve had people who just want the title of Doctor. I’ve had people who just “love school” I’ve had people who feel its the “next step” and having been through3/4 of a PhD I can say with some authority that that’s ridiculously stupid. Yes stupid. It is far too difficult a process to go through not to love it and quite frankly what joy will you have at the outset if you’re killing yourself in the meantime? I may complain (often) about my program, my being a professional student, my debt (!), my work, but I sincerely love what I do.  Otherwise I would have walked away a long time ago.  Marching too long in the wrong direction just means more work for me in the long run.  There were certainly times when I thought maybe I’d gotten what I needed from the experience and could quit, but then I would learn something new. I would have another opportunity, I would gain another new insight and I would be reminded that I am supposed to be here.

What a blessing this has been.  What an absolute blessing.

The Curious Case of Salt and Elle

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 12.42.24 PMI tried to imagine what it would be like to be popular on a massive scale like Alex Elle or Nayyirah Waheed.  Are they even massive? I mean I suppose its relative. They have considerable social media followers but would Jay-Z know who they are? Probably not. I was in the process of asking for something, last week the intention was opportunity. It woke me up at 5 am and beat down my door until I found resolution, and eventual resolve with it. Then came the talks of writing a book again. Again. How many times do I have to hear it? It is starting to be clear to me that the book may precede the work (and the next book).  

Okay, so maybe I knew that. In my office there is a sign which sits right in front of me. It reads “Follow your heart”. I hate it.  It mocks me daily. Mostly every time I stop working and pause, my mind almost immediately wanders to the place where I’m happiest. It is not within four white walls or a beautiful marble-floored building, or even an ivory sanctuary atop a mesa with an ocean view.  Metaphorically speaking. 

Kanye West said he remembers walking through a mall and feeling as though it was the last time he would walk through the mall and do so anonymously. He said he could feel himself about to be thrown into the spotlight.  I actively work against that. Or, I should say I have actively worked against that.  For a while now I have been apathetic to it, indifferent and not caring either way whether people read, shared, commented, engaged, etc. And now, I feel as though I’m about to leap into recognition and I’m asking myself, “Are you ready?”   

Do you ever really get ready? Or does there just come a point where the tables turn and staying put, sustaining becomes less comfortable than the unknown? Anything could happen, how absolutely true.  This song, Ellie Goulding just came on my radio. Coincidence? Never much believed in those.

So here is the truth. And I’m wincing as I write this… I will take the next few days and write the prologue. What has gotten me to here. Blog posts. Coupling them. Using them to tell the story. I’m researching, piecing together the patchwork quilt which will begin the foundation for my work. As I write this our research librarian emails me and says the following:   

Dear Jessica,
I did NOT find anything under Women AND Leadership AND (Obese OR Obesity OR Physical Characteristics OR health).
What I heard her say was that the lane, my lane, is open.  And that everything I have done up until this point has uniquely prepared me to tell this story in a way that only I can tell it.  Wait, no…not tell the story but begin the conversation. The post-conventional conversation about body, weight, authenticity, connection and capacity.  tumblr_lo06h95mlo1qiaf2xo1_500I don’t know if I’m ready but I’m leaping and I am no longer apathetic or indifferent. I openly solicit the recognition, too.  A lump in my throat appeared as I typed that. I openly solicit the recognition.  AND I lean heavily on my support system because this is not about me personally, I am just the vessle, but I understand that being themedium, the conductor is what makes the energy constructive.  I own my importance in the process. That’s the piece I’ve been uncomfortable with and that’s the piece I’ve been running from. Well, no more running. No more hiding. I will not die wondering. 

Barefoot at the defense or Call of the Torchbearer

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
~Audre Lorde

I was reading a book I’d checked out from the library about women of color in academe. I could tell it was one of those books I wanted to read immediately and without interruption, and I could also tell that it was a book I would need to constantly stop reading and make notes about. I was ready to dive. On the introductory page written in italicized letters was the word “Fuck”. I knew then that I’d been very right about this book.

I interrupt myself to add a bit of context. Today I went to the dissertation defense of one of my classmates and pseudo-cohort members. I internally and externally–as evidenced by my lack of critical questioning–cheered for her successful defense and all the while deeply considered the pending arrival of my own.  I studied her body language, her notes, her slides, would my slides be the university standard Torero blue? I made a mental note that prior to my defenses I would need to buy a wireless clicker to maneuver my slides. I wondered what type of suit I would wear and I got down to her heels and I asked myself what type of shoes would I wear? It was then that the words that first began my initial doctoral class rang deafeningly though my head, “How would you like to begin?” Before I  could think about it I answered myself and said, “By telling people exactly how I felt, acknowledging whatever emotion was there and I would like to be barefoot.”

As a read the second story of From Oppression to Grace I came across a metaphor introduced by Menthia Clark but derived from work by Smith ((sidebar, I tried desperately to find the whole name of this author but unfortunately the citation only lists Smith, D. and the internet isn’t too fond of ambiguity.  I see this as a major flaw in the system, APA….major flaw)).  Smith states that, “I work hard at staying in my mind and not allowing spirit to visit me as I speak about critical education theory, womanist/feminist theory and pedagogy or qualitative/ethnographic research.  It is the dis-dancing with myself that creates a kind of distancing from the southern Black girl/woman who enjoys spirit-filled conversations that push the boundaries of a different kind of intellectual life.”  When I read it my breath left me, temporarily.  I felt this way. About spirit and particularly about art.

Much of my research is about connection, authenticity, feelings of belonging, vulnerability and all of that for purposes of facilitating innovation. AND much of my degree has been running through mud trying to make space for both my artist and my academic selves. I’d long sense surrendered a battle I foresaw with my department over doing a non-traditional defense. Partly because I was not sure the fight would create more heart-ache than hedge-way and partly because I conceded to do both the traditional defense and a nontraditional option.  However, in completing research on facilitating innovation, everything in me scoffs at the traditional defense with black words on white backgrounds and an hour of intellectual hazing.

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here...

Get me get me out of this box I feel so claustrophobic in here…

How far can I push the boundaries, I wondered? Again, I answered myself lamenting that if I were going to dare to buck against tradition, I better damn well know my shit.  How is it that the sole purpose of the doctoral degree of philosophy is to promote new ways of thinking, and being and yet the process by which we go about it is, to some extent, archaic and riddled with binding rigidity?

Clark recalled a story where she asked a classmate what she, a Black woman, should wear to assert power. He laughingly responded “a power suit.”  She pointed out the illustration of westernized patriarchy in the subliminal suggestion that a woman must wear a “power” suit in order to assert power as if she could not any other way.  And the very fact that for women it is called such supports the social construction (and thus, to some–large–extent the consciousness) of such a remark.

I struggle with idea that I am working within the confines of a system that was not designed with me in mind.  And for as much creativity, forward-thinking, innovation, and imagination that we (the academy) claim to foster, there is only but so much the system can handle before it begins to reject it entirely.  It is kind of like what I’m studying.  In explaining my research earlier to a colleague I wrote to her the following: If the leader’s vision is not in alignment with the values of the group the leader will quite literally be destroyed like a parasite or a virus.  The group acts like a body and each individual is a white blood cell working for systemic stasis.  If a host upsets that stasis then it is attacked. However, my understanding is that what they call the leader I also see as this intermediary.  It does not make the leader a person, but a role, literally then the one exercising leadership in the moment and the person who is holding both the “human community of individuals” and the “greater collective system” at the same time. However because of the danger of any such group requiring this of one person, and repeatedly, that model is not sustainable over time.  In this sense, sustainable leadership requires individuals to each hold a piece of the leadership responsibility.

Herein lies both the problem and the solution.  If I chose to throw out too much of the tradition, the process, the standard way of going about my dissertation I would be treated like a parasite, a virus and the body of academia would destroy me.  However, if I am able to work within the system.  Both sharing the responsibility of creation and connecting with others who are working towards the same end, the perhaps I might survive.  In either case, it just won’t sit will enough with me to go along to get along. That has never really been my style. Fitting as such, my current facebook cover photo is from a professor in my program that perfectly summarizes exactly how anyone willing to fight against convention must do so…

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 7.09.05 PM

Such is the task of a torchbearer.  “Jessica.” I think, almost daily, “You have to just do it your way and forget how hard its going to be or how much longer it will take.  You have to go with your gut.”  It is a gift and a curse  to have such a vocal and ardent inner voice. But she has gotten me this far and we have many more miles to go.

The Arrival

“That sense of sorority that other women seemed to feel whenever ‘Women’s Issues’ or ‘Women’s Events’ came up seemed to evade me. It never felt like I was included in that.” I shared with the Colonel.  She shared her own experience of feeling something similar with Women Marine events.  “We were already the minority, there was no need to celebrate and highlight that any further. Maybe that’s what we have in common?”  And then I found this picture:



It was captioned “The only one”.  The Chair asked me to consider facilitating a group and writing both about how the participants experienced connection as well as my own experience of facilitating it.  I was unsure of if that was right for me. I told her I would think about it.  I wasn’t tied to talking to women of color, women were never my population but for some reason this year the call of my own womanhood was evident.  I could not ignore that there was something there, but what it was remained to be known.  I sat with it.

What if for the fall research project I talked to women of color and for dissertation I expanded that to all women? At some point the dialogue needs to open, right? Then I realize how present this work has always been with me. My sophomore year of college I did a program about different types of beauty.  Having my white residents and my residents of color talk about what was beautiful for them, and discovering those things were sometimes contradictory.  Discovering then that our frames of reference were like north and south, worlds away from one another.

Lea asked me what I want my contribution to be and I said I wanted people to know what needed to be present for people in groups to feel connected to it.  A recipe for connection. But I think what I want even more than that is for a real real dialogue to begin about what it means to be a woman. The limits that are imposed on us and the limits that we impose on ourselves. The ways that we tear each other down and the opportunities we miss to build each other up.  I read somewhere that if you knew everybody’s story you couldn’t help but to love them.  That is what I want. I want to help bring more love in the world.

When I saw this photograph I thought about the tension that Kegan describes between embeddedness and differentiation.  You work so hard as a member of the core to match bodies, movement, lines perfectly and yet and still she will stand out. She will always stand out and how should she feel about that?  How should others feel about that? Colorblindness is not the answer. We have tried that. Pretending you don’t notice my difference devalues the uniqueness I bring into this space. So we ball our hands in a fist and raise it above our heads as if to amplify our existence.  Here I am! Notice me! Then we are different, you and I.  What do we do with that? We cannot share combs, make up, band-aids, or tights…but we share our love of dance, our appreciation of the music, the joy the first time we preformed and it was perfect.  We are different and we are the same. I just want us to get to that point(e).

2016 or “You don’t even wear shorts”

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 11.59.54 PMIn two weeks I’m going to the Beyonce+Jay-Z Concert. I’d been racking my brain trying to consider what to wear. The obvious choice would be something with one of her witty or catchy lyrics inked on it. But no way was I going to pay $40 for a graphic tee-shirt I’d never wear again. However I was obsessing over the idea of a t-shirt and denim cut-off shorts, obviously inspired by her “Flawless” video (the flannel shirt to be tied around my waist). Every sleepless night I’ve had lately–and there have been many as I slowly adjust from Bali time to San Diego–I have looked for outfits that felt right. Always consisting of the essential elements, the shirt and the denim cut-offs.

Today I had a meeting with the Chair. I promised her I would not make her the bad guy in this blog. Honestly, there is no bad guy, there is only what is.  What IS right now is that I’m losing the last piece. My timeline. I gave myself today to grieve it to think of it, to remember it as it was and then slightly less every day forward.  When I made the decision to drop my research class, I made a decision to then be ineligible for Dissertation Seminar. When I made the decision to both forfeit my eligibility, or exemption from seminar pending a successful proposal defense, I (essentially) made the decision to take the course once I’d completed my coursework.  Which means next year…the semester I would be graduating. I knew it when I did it. I guess I hoped it wasn’t true, but a meeting with the Chair confirmed it. I was going to be here five years.

Sidebar, some ask why a whole extra year. Our degrees are only conferred in January and June, and graduations take place only in May, part of the celebration, pomp and circumstance of becoming a member of the academy is your hooding ceremony. After three women WW, Dr. Cameron and Dr. Lee reenacted the hooding scene telling me I ‘for SURE did not want to work this hard and miss that moment’  I realized that there was no real incentive to hurry up and finish in August or finish in December. I might as well wait until Spring 2015. I can defend early to beat the throngs of April defenses if I need to.  

The Chair asked me, “Why don’t you stop trying to time when you finish?” It was as if she’d spoken in an entirely different language. Why don’t I what? I recounted her comment to friends later, scoffing at its obvious absurdity. And then, when I got quiet enough I heard what she was asking me.

Why don’t you do the thing you’re going to spend your life asking other people to do? Trust the process. Let go of your expectations, plans, and preconceived notions. Live a little while in the unknown.  Oh.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 12.19.45 AMThen came the tsunami of guilt. How was it that I was able to be a “feather in the wind” and listen completely to the Self that told me to drop this class because it did not feel right, but I was not able to trust that same Self when it came to owning the consequences of that action.  Well easy, my ego was majorly bruised. I felt like I said I was going to do this thing (graduate in four years) and here I was breaking my word.  But my word to whom, exactly?


Two things happened then.  The first: I could see the situation very clearly for what it was: a meeting of expectation (ego) and reality (Self).  I made graduation, not just the ceremony but the entire act, mean something about me. I was now the fraud who doesn’t have her shit together, which is basically one of my worst nightmares. My achieving this thing somehow made me more of some things (competent, capable, sure) and less of others (novice, uncertain, green).  And when the loss of that event came, it was as if I lost all those pieces of myself as well. It wasn’t until I got to look in the mirror through a relationship that my feelings shifted. My best friend was having a bad day, studying for the bar feeling defeated, and sullen she fed herself wine, cried and went to bed. I wrote to her:

I don’t know if you’ll pass the bar.  Or find a husband. Or have a kid.  But you’ll be You without all those things, you’ll be my best friend and I’ll love you always.

It was as if I said the words to the both of us.  These things, titles or degrees, husbands, children, or any relationships…they can be wonderful but they do not define me.  For now they are options, and should any come to pass they will be part of my story.  None if it would ever be all of me or all of her.  We needed to hear that.  Then the second thing happened, I thought of my outfit for the Beyonce concert and immediately said to myself, You don’t even wear shorts! Talk about a wake up call. It was as if I had completely forgotten who I was.  It was then that I had the very distinct thought that if you are not careful to remember who you are, there are endless things in the world waiting to try to tell you.

I am not “not” together because I am taking another year to graduate.  I am not incompetent nor unsure. In fact, I have never been so sure in my life, that’s what got me here today in fact, my certainty that THIS was the path I was meant to be on.  I do not owe an explanation to anybody.  Not even my silly ego who is still up-in-arms about trips planned and “doctor by 30” deadlines.

And even though today was marred by the news of my great loss, I am not said I wasn’t “wise enough” or fill-in-the-blank enough to avoid this feeling.  Competence surely won’t outgrow consequence.  I am not ashamed that I struggle STILL with things that I know, understand, and want to teach.  It is a beautiful thing to still have lessons to learn.  Lessons to share.  That is a gift, and if that is what the fruit of today bears then it certainly is sweet.


What I can take from it all is that life happens and that if I want to be the person who shows others how to exist and even thrive in the unknown, WITH the unknown, then I had better make myself at home in it.  I don’t need cut-off denim shorts (was I really going to wear those?) or a ’15 on my tassel to prove anything to anyone, even myself.  Jessica, you have the gift of knowing yourself and your purpose, do well to remember it.  That old southern saying, “It’s not what you’re called its what you answer to” comes to mind.  Essentially others and even my disappointed self may call me all kinds of hot mess screw-ups but that is not what I choose to answer to, because that I certainly not who I am.  I am a woman on a different path than the one I originally thought I was on.  Nevertheless, I am going the way I need to go, and so: onward.

Screeching Halt: The sound of the night bus

Have you ever felt like the best way to describe your life in a specific instance was a sound? A particular sound, not just any sound; my life right now sounds like the Night Bus (from the Harry Potter series) coming to a screeching halt.  The kind of halt (if you’re not familiar with the movies) that sends everything and everyone flying forward overcome with the pull of inertia.

My mind will not stop processing. Taking in the discoveries I made in Bali and even the ones before, I decided to drop a class just to breathe.  It was all moving too fast. I’d just gotten my footing back coming off a horrible semester, emotionally, and I was preparing to write my dissertation proposal.  I’d left things in such a balance that any one thing would create a domino effect of catastrophe. IMG_0746_t670
Sidebar: as I’m writing this post I went to upload the photo of balancing rocks from Seaport Village. During the process the website froze and after waiting I was faced with the option to close the browser window possible losing all the words thoughts feelings I’d just written and starting again or continuing to wait hoping something would change. I closed the window, restarted Chrome and here was the post, pictureless, but words all in tact waiting to be published.  It was a beautiful lesson in exactly what is happening in my life right now. Sometimes you have to listen to the signs, let things go and trust that they will work out in the end just as they should.  

So I dropped a class. A class that I need to graduate, only graduation has become less and less of a goal and more and more of a thing that happens at the end of something great. Kind of like cake on your birthday.  The joy is in another year of life, not cake.  I emailed my advisor after it was already done.  And then I sat back staring proverbially at open sky.  I do not yet know what is right or what my new timeline is.  I didn’t let go of the May 2015 deadline, but I let go of killing myself to get there. There is a cost to every choice and this one was too high. It was creating disharmony in my life. “It was a pebble in my shoe” I told Cheryl.  I had to remember why I was getting this degree in the first place. I had to remember that my work, the very nature of it, is about listening and emergence and paying attention to the things that so often go dismissed. And I was doing it! I couldn’t keep it up, but I am proud of myself for noticing it enough to make a change before one was made for me.

I shared with a few friends in Bali that life talks to us.  First in whispers, then it speaks, then it yells.  I was working on listening at the whisper, I told them. And something about saying it out loud meant that I had to actually do it.  Also, I would have typically consulted with Christopher or Cheryl or Zachary about the decision before it was made, but I did not. I knew it was the right decision for me.  I knew it would derail everything. I knew all my planning and timelines and deadlines now meant something else, if nothing at all.  I knew it and I made the choice because I couldn’t not make the choice.  I laugh because Annie pointed out my affinity for double negatives. They are more dramatic. More poetic I think.  Then again, I’m a little dramatic. A little poetic.  So maybe I like them because they’re a little like me. 

So now what? Well now I’ve given myself a week to regroup. To write down what I know of my work and to mind-map the rest. To start to sketch this thing out and create a deadline that fits the work not the work that fits my deadline. Time, I learned, is not money it is relationships.  So if I can take another moment to soak in something that feeds my work (which I believe strongly will eventually feed us all) then I owe it to myself, you, and God to do just that.

We were walking at the cremation site when Bobby asked me why I wasn’t afraid of death. I told him why and then began to wonder what exactly it was that did frighten me.  The answer just occurred: I am afraid of leaving this life anything other than completely empty.  I want to use every bit of talent I was given. I want to write every word, sing every song, dance every dance, love fully, give freely, and do so with joy in my heart. I want to literally “strain my potential until it cries for mercy”.  I’m afraid of a life anything other than that one.  I was given the chance to be great, to inspire greatness. So anything less is unacceptable.  And if that takes a little more time than previously expected, well then it takes a little more time.

I will get there.

There will come a moment

There times in our lives when things make perfect sense. Sometimes they are but small moments of clarity when we are able to understand that everywhere we have been and everything we have experienced was preparation for this moment, in which we feel uniquely prepared to exist.  I had one of those moments on Saturday.

I’d had a really difficult time finishing my literature review which was an assignment I gave myself, but took as an independent study course.  I talked to Newman about it and told him I was having a hard time because I did not connect in any way to the higher ed org literature. I found myself much more intrigued by business literature. Pouring through one Warren Bennis book after another.  I’d lost my connection to higher ed and that scared me a bit.  I don’t know the business world, and working with students in higher education was the only thing that remained the same from my original research idea upon entering the program.  It is not that I am afraid to lose higher ed, it is that I am not sure where else I fit?

Anyway, so I was having feelings of confusion so this summer (about three weeks now) I haven’t read a thing related to school.  That was until this weekend. I saw a colleague from the group relations conference who lives and works in New York while I was out to lunch with Dr. A.  I wrote to him and said, “How serendipitous to have seen you on campus.  I mention it as such, because it was a not-so-gentle reminder to get back into my literature.  Friday evening I had a dream about a book, so when I woke up Saturday morning, I bought it and read it.  The book is called The Spell of the Sensuous and it was on the “recommended but not required” book list for my Bali trip. Curious that I even remembered it or dreamed of it, then again, not so curious.” 

I read this book and it completely rocked me. It is way too much to explain, but what I can say is that it made my research even more narrow and focused.  And left me wondering if I should keep it that small.  No, not small, specific.  But I know the answer. The answer is yes, and I am not even nervous about telling The Chair about it tomorrow during our meeting. I actually think she will find it makes perfect sense. It brings our very first conversation we ever had back into relevance.

One thing that I do that I am grateful for is that I pay attention to very small things. I often sell myself short claiming to be a big picture thinker who finds details tedious.  But the fact of the matter is, I have worked hard at appreciating both.  Tuning yourself.

Whenever I think of this research as I see it now my entire body gets hot.  My fingers tingle and My mind races. I know this is it and this is the work I am meant to explore.  Or rather, this is the moment I’ve caught the lightening.  Someone wrote on instagram the other day, “When you are in your own lane, there is no traffic”.  Here’s hoping.

Last Night a DJ Saved My Dissertation

The entire room felt like one massive, united tribe of thousands of people, and the DJ was the tribal leader of the group. People weren’t dancing to the music so much as the music seemed like it was simply moving through everyone. The steady wordless electronic beats were the unifying heartbeats that synchronized the crowd. It was as if the existence of individual consciousness had disappeared and been replaced by a single unifying group consciousness, the same way a flock of birds might seem like a single entity instead of a collection of individual birds. Everyone in the warehouse had a shared purpose. We were all contributors to the collective rave experience.
~Tony Hsieh “Delivering Happiness” 

I’d read these words sometime last year and highlighted them to remind myself to share them with my Work Wife. I knew she attended raves, and I wanted to know if this experience that Tony described was what she felt, too.  When I asked her, she confirmed and ever since then I’ve wanted to attend a rave. Last night I did.

A short remark before I continue, people are often surprised at the things that I get into.  My thought now, and for most of my life has been to just have fun and never be afraid to try new things.  Of course there are things that I do not like or that do not sound appealing to me (sky diving), but more often than not I believe in the fun of the adventure and a life free of what-ifs.

So, last night Work Wife (WW), her husband and friends and I went to see Armin Van Buuren here in San Diego.  I was dressed like a highlighter in bright neon workout clothes because she told me to dress bright and light–as in light fabrics because with so many people dancing it can get hot.  We arrived at the concert at about 8, and for the next five hours were treated to lights, smoke, acrobatics, singing, dancing, live musicians, confetti, and of course, really really good music.  I’ve told WW previously about my ability to see people’s auras and colors in music.  There was a moment last night when I sat down and just closed my eyes. She asked me if I was too hot or needed anything and I told her no I was fine but I could see better with my eyes closed. I tried to describe to her the way all the colors looked to me but nothing I said could quite paint the picture. It was amazing, and the words Tony used, or that I would use to describe the experience fall daftly short to even begin to explain.

I texted a friend of mine who has been to raves and told him that it was easily one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in my life, and asked him why he never told me about them before.  He messaged me back and simply said, “Its a total different experience, right?” It is.  When I woke up this morning I was still so curious about what I’d experienced the night before. What was that? It was beautiful, whatever it was, but what was it?  It was then that I went back to my copy of Delivering Happiness and looked for Tony’s words to see if I could find my own truth hidden in them. It was exactly it.  It’s a shame that raves get this stigma of drugs and out of control behavior, because it was so much more than that. It was, I thought, exactly what I’ve been trying to describe in my dissertation.

Connection…drafting…murmuration…movement…one purpose…deference to the collective…this was it. It was the experience of being at a rave but in a classroom.  How do we get that? How can we foster that? What do we call that so we can ask for it specifically?  My synapses were firing all over the place lighting up connections between this theory and that study. It was like a laser light show of thought.   I went straight to my computer and began typing. I didn’t stop for two hours.