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…

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.

Sharing the Madness or “How to Eat an Elephant, Part 1”

I decided to post the following exchange between an invaluable member of my dissertation committee, Zachary. I’ve made reference to my committee before and they know I often publicize my process. In fact, my chair, “The Chair” will often say to me, “Okay now I guess you’re going to go blog about it…” when I have drawn a conclusion about something. I have not, yet, written about Christopher but his time is coming. I try to spare him as much as possible from my mess until it has taken more of a shape. I warned him about my “how” though, and he still signed on.  In any case. I fully intend to document my process both for sanity, the sake of sharing, and reference. I openly welcome feedback, dialogue, and sharing with anyone who might have thoughts…that being said, here goes part I of “How to eat an elephant”
As a small aside, I named my dissertation process How to Eat an Elephant because of that old joke, ‘how to do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time’.  The idea actually came from Christopher when he said to me to stop thinking about the whole dissertation and just think about writing one day at a time. Sage wisdom.  Okay and now… 


To preface, I have not thought any of this through, as a result I already made the mental boundary to send this to your personal email versus your professional one as I am very much asking for much more than I am likely offering in terms of creative thought.

I am in the process of creating a literature review, and have found myself down many rabbit holes; some good and some not so good. I must say, the business/organizational literature and reading is much more exciting than the education literature and that in and of itself is cause for questioning. However, I’ve stumbled upon the book Tribal Leadership  and I love it if only because I feel so validated in the way I look at organizations and systems.  On the front cover it says, “Leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organization” and that is the crux of so much for me in terms of leadership. George and I had a conversation about leadership for what?  Does leadership always have to be about change? We both agreed that it does not and that leadership can sometimes be for stasis, much like a human organism, or a biological system which does not need excess or continuously dies and births, and cyclically owning each as part of the process.  So yes, we change but we also work very hard for stability and elements of predictability. It is a delicate balance.

The piece that struck me most keenly was this:

Tribes emerge from the languages people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others.  For most people, language is something they just live with and don’t think about. Tribal Leaders know how to nudge language in a way that makes it morph…Change the language in the tribe, and you have changed the tribe itself.   Hold that piece and then sift in the following:

(President of Griffin Hospital in Connecticut, Peter Charmel says the following when asked about the success of the hospital) Looking back, it’s clear that we never could have accomplished this without engaging our employees and getting them involved in the process.  I think that’s what distinguishes the approach.

  This idea that somehow a leader is both responsible and in deference to the power of the group is fascinating and is at the center of my research and where it has lead me is to the work of Vygotsky around thought and language. His ideas that consciousness preceded language make sense and we can grasp that, but add to it the idea that a leader fits in between that.  A transformational leader or a tribal leader…a leader both in front of and embedded in a group…that somehow a leader is able to articulate the consciousness of a system and then the leader is both|and at the same time the symbol and the meaning.  Is that not what grabs us and holds us???  When someone can bring life, not just life but detailed, articulate, emotive, affective life to our lived experience?  We rally behind that because it validates us, and it makes us feel as though we are seen and heard and we matter.  Ironically, or really no…not so, but this correlates to your thought from this summer about connection across space and time. The cloud atlas effect. I can think of examples of when leaders have preceded consciousness, perhaps in the universal design, intentionally, like Galileo.  Where sometimes the leader becomes a martyr for consciousness, dying in the system like a cancer. Yet, if what Senge says about the indivisible whole is true, then you cannot ever kill a thought, or a leader with a thought because you cannot unthink it and if it exists in one part of a system then it exists in the entirety of the system.  Typically what we look for are those to affirm the perceptions we believe (Kegan Imperial, Erikson Industry v. Inferiority) but this is only sufficient for a time…we are called to be stable and growing simultaneously.

Now, in this book it is also stated that, if a groups leverage points are applied incorrectly then it results in tribal mediocrity…I reframed that as status quo; and if I am still to use Scharmer’s U as the backbone this would move to support the left side of the U in that maladaptive  or ineffective leveraging connect to voices of fear, judgment, and cynicism. This would keep us stable, this would keep us healthy enough, but as we work to balance change and stasis, too much deference to one severely cripples the other.  I have not gotten so far into the book to see how it lays with the rest of the theory, but I needed to write to think straight.

In my pilot study there was so much with the groups…group affiliation dictated behavior, rules of engagement or disengagement, connection, and authorship.  Which, theoretically speaking makes sense…but my question is about creating connection, how do we do it? And I just feel really close to something right now with this work.


Jessica Williams

**I thought I should ask prior to posting Zachary’s response, await with bated breath and until then, if you have thoughts, comment!!

Everyday miracles

I believe in all the things that are normally left in fairy tales and make-believe. I know angels to be real and love when I see little timestamps in my journey that tell me I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Last night I had statistics class. I hate it. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because its just not my cup of tea. It also does not help that every example we get to make the content “real” is biology related, but I am taking it in the nursing school. Needless to say I spend a lot of the class lost. Yesterday ways particularly difficult for some reason, I am not sure why. Normally, our professor gives us the last 45 minutes or so to do our homework and everyone stays to take advantage of her help. Last night, I couldn’t do it.

I walked out of class frustrated at not being even the slightest bit interested in a class at this stage in my education, and then the funky spiral. I got upset because I wanted to go home and couldn’t because it gets dark so early now that walking home is not the best idea. And I hate that my plans to get a car are always ruined by some unfortunate circumstance. I had worked myself up and just wanted my bed to be my fortress of solitude.

Then I looked down at my phone and saw an email from my student asking about extra credit. I remembered that I’d sent them to “some leadership workshop” and thought, well let’s see what I’ve sent them too. I walked to the UC imagining how nice it would be to have my own car finally and to be able to just come and go as I please. I was lost in thought the whole walk over. As I arrived to my destination I thought about a classmate who works in the building. I thought maybe she’d be around and I could ask her for a ride home. So, I touched the handle and said outloud, “find something to be grateful for.”

Ten steps later I get to the doors of the workshop and its Zachary. And Crystal. And my advisor. I also saw Mass Elle, who I’d been texting earlier about how miserable I felt in stats class. I looked around the room and found lots of familiar welcoming faces and I took my seat and joined the work.

The thing that I have to laugh at was how I so desperately wanted home. Its all I could focus on, and now here I was dedicating another hour to being on campus, but that space with those people was and is home. Not only that, but the work we were doing was work I told Zachary I wanted to do more of with him. Well played, God. Well played.

So there was still the issue of going home. How was I going to get there? Mass Elle told me I could just take her car and drive back in the morning. I could have cried. Not because of her offer, though it was incredibly kind and I am grateful for it. But because of the quick return on my prayer. I needed that independence, to feel it, it have it affirmed and if only circumstantial and if only for one night.


When I went downstairs to get keys from Mass Elle I saw the book Blue Like Jazz which I have referenced several times. There it was just sitting there on her desk. I asked her who’s it was and she didn’t know, but I knew. It was there for me to notice. For me to be sure that in this moment I am where I am supposed to be. In every sense; physically, mentally, spiritually, etc. I recalled the opening lines…

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I also took one more step in the direction of choosing teaching. Because, after all, it was my students who lead me there. When Henry asked me what was important to me right now (because, he said, this same thing will govern the trajectory of my next years) I thought of two things, family and seeing people go within. That’s really what I want to do. I want to show people the way. Not my way, the way, so really “I” just want to get out the way.

Two things just struck me, the night I saw Henry, he sang this little light of mine with his wife, my advisor, what an appropriate song for the space. And also, some of our students put up a board outside the Student Life building with the question, “what is it you have been called to do?” I wrote big as day in bright orange marker, LOVE~thats all there is~

Way to bring it full circle. Again, well played, God, well played.

The Morning After

Though admittedly I was not as emotional watching this election, nor was I as nervous about the outcome should my preferred candidate lose, it was still wonderful to see President Barack Obama be re-elected. As I watched the election results, however, I had the words of two other Black men on my mind. One of a professor, Dr. N who pointed out the partisanship is really urban versus rural. And the other of my advisors husband who said many things and among them, “relax into it, you don’t do the work.”

I had a friend’s mom ask me if I was voting for President Obama because he was black. I told her yes, confidently. Among other reasons, but I would be lying if I discounted this truth. And why should I? I even love the unease that comes to some at having a Black man, in specific, as the leader of our nation. As I looked at the city of Chicago and the diversity in the crowd of POTUS supporters I thought, this is why I have to move back to a city. I love the culture that dwells within metropolitan areas. I love my own city and how distinct each neighborhood is but they blend together so effortlessly to make one delicious Atlanta. I have never considered myself a Democrat, but I have to say the ugliness of intolerance curdling to the top of the GOP within the last 5 years has been disgusting.  I figure in cities its a constant mix, a stirring of the pot as transplants move in, out, and throughout. And to some extent, for me, its about education and professional opportunity.  On the other hand its about urban youth and the chance to make a difference. To say, look at me–in to me, see–I look like you we are each fighting our own battles but do not fight them alone anymore. I am here for you, there are no excuses, let’s move.

When I think about my own purpose and my own aspirations I get overwhelmed. For a class assignment  I am having to consider where I’ll be in 2, 5, and 10 years and I have been supremely uncomfortable with verbalizing it. When Henry offered that I don’t do the work, I felt about a million lbs lift off my chest. Of course I don’t. I get out of the way and the divine does the work. That’s it. The anxiety of paralyzing fear over choosing the right path…I just have to walk confidently in the direction that my heart choses. Right now, more than ever, that is teaching.

I had what I would call “a moment” with my class on Monday and we took a time out from lecture and addressed some frustrations and other elephants in the room.  After class I received messages from them claiming how pleased they were and how close they felt to their classmates. I was honest with them, and in turn they were honest with me. And we can only grow from that. Mondays class is why I have to do this work.

Lastly, I thought about my Pakistani classmate who pointed out the humanity in out political system yesterday. At the end of last night Mitt Romney may not be the president but he got to go home to his wife and family. He is not in exile, President Obama wished him well, and he is still in every sense of the words, one of us. We see ugly campaigning but we do not see a dictator nor military coups, nor violence. What we see is bad, but the perspective she offered reminded me of how wonderful it truly is to be in a country that supports civic disagreement and the freedom of speech.

I suppose having held all this, the morning after has been one where I smiled, said thank you to my source and set an intention to get out of the way. Its not President Obama, its something he represents to each of his voters. Its a promise we need upkept. Its work we ultimately have to do ourselves before we can see it.  And that’s the great irony of it all.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mile high mind massage

I am currently in Denver for a leadership conference for school…and while originally I wanted to write about all the things that I have learned and that have come up for me here…and perhaps that will come later but what’s alive for me right now is the notion of commanding.

I’d been looking forward to meeting this scholar who studies mindfulness, attention, Buddhism, and leadership for the past month. I walk into her session and she is not there. Not physically, but she’s on a phone which is hooked into a speaker. Not hardly the same. Next we proceed to meditate to which people are coughing (my pet peeve, self admittedly) moving, shifting, coming in and out, etc. I just wasn’t into it, so I left. I thought to myself, “I can (and do) do this on my own and have a much more pleasant experience. That’s the point though.

See…my “work” in this life is to connect to others. I knew that, Jan Spiller reiterated it. And as I literally sit above a mile high mountain top as I did many lifetimes before, I have never hated “connecting” more than I did 20 minutes ago.

When faced with the abrasive reality against my polished expectations it felt so raw and displeasing I left. As I set meditating, whenever someone made a noise it felt as though a noose tightened around my neck. Literally choking the throat; the sound chakra, truth blocked by lies. So what’s the lies? Maybe that I used the noise as an excuse for my disturbed concentration. Maybe that I was connected at all. Maybe both. Or maybe I was annoyed at this demand being made by the noise makers for attention. How dare they ask to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be given attention?

Brene’ Brown said a lot of interesting things this morning but perhaps the most personally provocative was when she said we need to make a bid for connection. I tell my students all the time to say what they mean to say. Think of the answer you want, ask the question that beckons that truth. Its a difficult thing…to be intentional which requires asking yourself what do I want? What do I want in this moment?

What do I want? When I had to think of a word to describe myself yesterday I knee-jerk came to the word:POWERFUL. To be entirely honest I am not sure where that came from. What space or what place produced that? Am I powerful?

I had a conversation with a woman yesterday and she inquired how she might have been “playing small” in various areas in her life. Then today Brene’ iterated how she had previously purposefully engineered her career to stay small. Her viral popularity was much to her chagrin and she was not prepared for neither the negativity nor the positivity that came as a result of her vulnerability. She aptly professed, When [I] stepped into [my] power, [I] became a lightening rod.”

The thing I find interesting about that particular metaphor is that the rod is not the source, it is the conductor, but it attracts the energy of source power and likely outlets alike. Yesterday I was made an example of when describing how to “command presence.” Then last night, Nicole told me that I have a way of commanding attention. Rather than shrug off the attention, I found myself engaging in dialogue around it. I told her that I am learning to hear it, but I will not allow my ego to make this about me. Its really about the source, I am just a conductor. And really, I am not sure that I’ve fully stepped into my power, but I have more incentive than I did yesterday to do so.

And while my mind continues to wrap itself around this entire experience; what it means for my work, my Self, and my way of being I doubt it strays far from this thought. Make a bid for connection. Stop playing small, a beautiful lightening rod once said it does nothing to serve the world. And I am beginning to really think she had a point.

Close your eyes and leap (or stand still):The Trouble with being a Twenty Something, Single, PhD student

Yes–my title needed to be that long. The trouble is that I want to be done. The other trouble is that, I am enjoying what I’m doing.  Merely hours after I wrote the previous post, I met with my advisor who looked at my neatly organized, color coded, 4-year plan and spiked it viciously into the sand.  So maybe that didn’t happen–but that is how it felt! The thing to note about my advisor is that she is very quiet, and yet she speaks with tremendous volume…so even though its very gentle and soft-spoken, her words are about as gentle as a jab from Ali.  Or maybe that’s just my experience of her when she’s telling me truths I do not want to hear.

So she gently suggets that I slow down my pace and consider doing 4.5 years maybe even 5 years so that I can continue only taking two classes per semester (the recommended course load) and teach and research and whatever else I do.  Whereas I want to take three, and get the heck outta dodge.  This was our first disagreement. I finally just turned my program plan over and said, “Let’s move on.”

Then she asked what I wanted to do when I graduated. This made me frown…mainly because I am not so sure anymore. I keep flirting with teaching, but the idea of the publish or parish lifestyle of a tenured-track Full-time Faculty member just makes my stomach turn.  I just want to teach…and research…and work with students (yes I realize that all of this describes what a FT faculty member does) but saying it out loud? I just do not know that I’m ready for that. Naturally, my advisor gave me until November 1st to make my mind up.  Not for my whole life, just my course of study, but isn’t that the same thing?

Here’s where she got me, though. She asked in her big booming Wizard of Oz voice:


See, here is the problem with being a 20something single PhD student…technically I have no reason to rush. I do not have kids that need raising, a husband that needs attention, hell I don’t even have a plant that needs watering. I just want to be done.  I cannot even convince myself that this is a good enough reason to kill myself for the next two years, but it is not going to stop a valiant effort.  Something I just realized in texting Mass Elle (who, oddly enough has been very present for this whole sham-foolery today)…

Mass Elle: …but I think you’ll be great in it and it’ll be nice in the long run to not cram it all in.
JessJ: I know. I know. I just need to sit on it and grieve my freedom.

It struck me when I said those words that I am feeling stifled. I do this often–I feel stuck and I want out and then I get somewhere and feel stuck again.  The truth is, I am as free anywhere that I choose to be, but I’m always looking for the  next big adventure.  Oddly enough, the book I mentioned earlier honed in on this saying that North Node Geminis often crave freedom.  This also explains why I fancy myself an Air Bender (above all other benders).  I cannot tell you how frustrated it makes me when my advisor is right.

Air is the element of freedom.
— Iroh to Zuko in “Bitter Work“.

Heart and soles

When I started my doctoral program, I wanted to (in the end) be the director of counseling services at a college or university and maybe teach a class in the counseling program. Once I got here, that expanded to me being open to work anywhere within student development and wellness. Now that I teach in the counseling department, the work is a bit intoxicating and my mind wanders through the halls on a faculty high. It just keeps evolving!

I talk with Mo most often about these sorts of things and while she is firm in her higher education lane, labeled very much an academic administrator (and possible faculty) I’m a bit less cemented. My mind makes far too many connections between fields and areas of interest to stay in the higher ed world–not that I don’t love it. I do, but I love it so much that I want to tell the world about it!

I often wonder how to leave a place like USD, or really Soles. Its a literal think tank for innovation in leadership. Not just educational leadership, not just organizational leadership, but all leadership. How do you walk away from that environment? I suppose I’ll always carry it with me. That paired with an already idealistic and imaginative spirit will likely stay with me anywhere that I go, but not every place will nurture it, protect it, and also constructively challenge it.

More than I think of what I want to do, I think of where I want to do it. I have already begun crafting the type of environment I see myself in and praying for it years before it is needed. We both have to be ripe at the same time. I will know it when it comes.

One month into year 2 and I have a topic for my dissertation and am planning pilot study research. I am collecting works and thoughts and stockpiling them for year three and four. I am, most importantly, living. Taking advantage of many opportunities to work with different kids of people because you just never know…

Last week I made mention of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and its explanation that if you know the velocity then you cannot also know the position of a thing. Meaning you can’t know both where something is (position) and how something is moving (velocity) at the same time with any accuracy. Once you start to see clearly one thing, you lose sight of the other. Sometimes I know where I am, othertimes I just know I’m moving towards greatness (or destruction–though not recently). Right now that uncertainty is okay. And according to physics it’ll always have to be.

I think, what an honor to be where I am in such good company. To be able to do what I am passionate about, and encouraged to grow. To be challenged yet supported in my endeavors. And even though in the end my dissertation is my work, everyones fingerprints will cover the trophy.

I suppose that this morning I am just feeling grateful. Happy about everything that lead me to this point. The things fell apart, the things that fell together, and the things that have remained since the beginning. They do not make me, but they shape me and if I had to call it one thing I would call it grace.

You get what you ask for (The Secret)

My grandmother on my dad’s side knew The Secret before the book was written. She told my mom, when you pray you have to be specific because you’ll get just what you pray for. 

I was reading a blog of a friend of mine’s and she was talking about the curse of a day. It made me think of two things, 555 and Where the Heart Is, and October 2nd. October 2nd used to be my cursed day and I remember telling BFFK about it feeling so strongly about its curse that it ended up being a bad day for her for the next few years. How much of that did I bring on myself?

How about the belief that if your right palm is itching you’re about to get some money? I know that’s true for me, but is it because my palm itched or is it because this random body function sets into motion an energy pattern?

When Bill Torbert came for his talk he discussed triple loop thinking. Very simply put, single loop thinking is when we change at the performance level (if I do something different, I’ll get something different). Double loop thinking is when we change at the level of strategy, (if I do it in a different way, I’ll get something different).  Triple loop thinking is when we change our attitudes and intention surrounding the thing (if I believe something different, I will get something different). 

Single and double can be tricky.  For example, say you want a boyfriend. Single loop would change the clothes you wear, maybe even your hair style. Double loop would start to utilize online dating sites, singles clubs, and blind set-ups.

The thing that I love, and believe so immensely is the third piece, triple loop. Why do you have to change to receive a boyfriend? Is that suggesting something is wrong with the you, you already are? Perhaps if you believe you’re wonderful the way you are rather than I’m not enough for what I want, the boyfriend will come. I guess its just willing it in a different way.

If I look at the unwanted things in my life, I have to then wonder, why I have put them there? More than that, what am I currently telling myself to keep them there? Its because I believe that the person I am (the way I look, perform, speak, the place that I come from, my social class, my upbringing, etc.) deserves certain things. Certain miseries, even. And no matter how I change the things I do or the way I do them, my beliefs are energy and like a sirens call I will lure these miseries right back into my life. Here me when I say, I have had enough.

I keep going back to these cards…this isolation and this instruction to let go. Why on earth do we hold on to pain? Why on earth do we hold on to heartbreak? Is it as simple as familiarity? Is it for fear that if we let this pain go, something far worse may be waiting? There also needs to be a reframing of the unknown, when did it become all fear and doom? There is light in all things, I have to choose to see that, too.

I’m ready to let go and clear these shelves. I’m ready to stop telling myself all the ugliness that’s become second nature to me at home in my thoughts. I am ready to put both feet into the unknown.  Lastly, I am ready to receive the things I tell myself are not for me, that are off-limits to me.  I am ready to believe something different of myself and for myself. I am not a person who deserves to be unhappy. I am quite the contrary, and its time I started really believing that.

Bring on the jabberwocky.

Making maps, and I solemnly swear I am up to no good

A fire has been lit inside of me since about 7:15pm. To be fair, in retrospect, the it started way before that but as of last night it is full on raging. I went to a talk by Bill Torbert, an adult development theorist, and he said something that gave me new perspective. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but for whatever reason this time I was able to really hear it.

Fifteen minutes prior to Torbert’s talk, a friend of mine in another cohort, D, talked to me about some transference he was experiencing with our adult development professor. He didn’t call it transference, but in his description of the experience, I am assigning it that name as it is befitting. He also mentioned wanting to work with one of our professors to possibly do a “messy” action research dissertation. I made a face because it seems this topic keeps coming up for me, but it IS difficult and it IS messy and in general I like things tied up in bows, and I really like completion and resolution whereas action research is never done. It works against me in many ways, but here it was again in my face.

Thirty minutes prior to Torbert, I sat talking to Crystal about expectations of self and really what do you do when part of your Self is temporarily unwanted? For example, as a teacher when you are having a bad day, or maybe something bigger like you’ve just experienced a loss…how do you not succumb to the sadness in order to still be an effective educator? As I sat in conversation with her I thought of Liz Gilbert.

“When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience.

The human experience. We all experience sadness, loneliness, heartbreak, and no we don’t want to “fall apart” at work or in class but what does that denial of self do to is? We are never really fooling anybody. What would happen if I were to acknowledge my hurt? If I were to be honest with my students that I was grieving and that in this classroom I was really in need of collective leadership? I suppose that many professionals would be opposed to this. Would the students still respect authority? How would it affect those students who need more structure? Blah blah blah…but I’ve found that, in the acknowledgment of those darker things, when we shed light on them they lose power. It kind of goes back to Plotkin’s autumn…it is the threat or the unknown but not the imminent danger; we act instinctively then. See…when we are in class and something takes us by surprise and we are vulnerable or emotional or “lose it” the class adjusts and continues. I’m laughing to myself, this is chaos theory. The point is, we are full bodied beings and we experience a range of emotions. Why do we only want to pretend the positive ones have functional value? If we as professionals were to become conversant about our “shadow selves” how would it change our students, our departments, our schools, our communities?

Four hours prior to Torbert a former classmate and colleague of mine wrote to me about wanting to present at a conference for student affairs professionals. One of the topics she mentioned was wellness of SA pros. I searched for some work I’d already done on the topic and looked for theorists that might be key in any proposal she wanted to do. I jotted notes but sat on the idea to give it room to breathe and see how it may take shape throughout my day. Torbert spoke about spirituality having a place in his life, and therefore in his work and I thought of my own want to feel alive in both. I did not want to be a researcher who was solely objective and detached from my work. I want, desperately, to acknowledge my place in my dissertation because we are a part of one another. Then Torbert mentioned action research, and ideas began to form. I burst into flames.

My hands began to shake and I started writing. I couldn’t find words fast enough before my mind tied in another theorist and made another note. I wrote and revised and then tried to stop and be present to Torbert’s words but I couldn’t, something was taking shape. As my ideas flowed, I mentally began to draft an email to my advisor. I could see her face, she is a thinker and she always asks more. Namely because it is so hard to explain every bit of my train of thought in person on the fly. When I write, I am simultaneously thinking and working things through whereas in person there might be long periods of silence that generally get filled with rambling. I tried to anticipate some of her questions and wrote to her about my idea. This notion of an action research dissertation, working with higher education professionals, studying their decision making and its relationship to spiritually rooted self-care practices. But even as I wrote it it felt bigger than that and right now in my inability to sleep it has grown.

My point is that we have to take care of ourselves as leaders, including spiritually, and in our ability to best care for the self as a system we also, in turn, more effectively guide our organizations toward its purpose. I feel like there is so much life to this. I see my dandelion seeds of possibility moving through the breeze and many ways this could shape my future. I am excited by this like it was christmas at disney world with harry potter. It has me up at 5am not only writing, but taking notes and jotting down things to look up later.

In one day, how magnificently did it unfold for me to hear and receive this message, this calling? It were as if I solemly swore I was up to no good and the map of my next journey were revealed to me. The theorists were labeled where they existed in the lay of my work, I could see it all clearly before me as if if were always there as such, but wasn’t it? I have to go back to Crystal…I think to myself what world had to die for this new one to be born? I think its the one with the picture of what “okay” or “productive” or “together” looks like. Where we are allowed to be beings that are sad or vulnerable or in various states of grieving, because aren’t we always?

If I have learned nothing else in the first year is that we always bring our whole selves to our work as leaders, whether we intend to or not. So we may as well learn to navigate and make a map of whatever our “loneliness” is. Its there anyway. I just know how beautiful scars can be, and how after we tell the stories of our own we begin to spot fishermen, and it truly liberates others to share their stories. What happens if we all see every part of our selves as powerful?