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From Compliance to Compassion (Part 2)

If you haven't read Part 1 yet; check it out here.

After being given a tremendous gift of feedback that was new to me, I started my social justice, equity, and inclusion journey focused purely on how doing the work would be advantageous for me. It wasn't initially helping others or making the world a better place, if I am honest with myself. I saw it as politically savvy, helping me get positions, be put on committees, etc. It was a move to expand my power. I made changes that I saw as beneficial for me. My goal wasn't building capacity to be more inclusive as a leader; contrary, it was about increasing opportunities for leadership. Pure and simple, that is what it was.

My focus was on "the right words to say" or "topics to avoid" that could hurt me professionally and personally. It was about navigating a minefield; NOT removing mines so that others would benefit. I wanted to be around different people, but I ALSO didn't want to be uncomfortable. I would avoid spaces which might be deemed challenging. As the vernacular moved from diversity to multiculturalism, there was a lot of opportunities to avoid the topic. Yay! Diversity is great. Oops. Multiculturalism is great! We appreciate and CELEBRATE differences! We aren't a melting pot, we are a SALAD BOWL! All the while thinking to myself, "I'm not sure I believe this, but hey, it's what I am told I am supposed to say, and I am no fool."

We lived in California, after all! We are ahead of the curve on diversity issues! The rest of the country is backwards! Look at how enlightened we are! We are making the world a better place! Look at MEEEEE!!!!! Give me my diversity badge!

Things honestly started to change for me as I watched colleagues I cared for (who did not look like me) start to leave the field (and our region) out of frustration. You see, serving on committees on campus, being with colleagues on committees, I had rich and deep relationships that I valued. These relationships provided data that created cognitive dissonance for me. I listened as colleagues shared how they navigated the field I loved, and those experiences were different than the ones I experienced. But I listened.

I am sure at first, I was dismissive. I likely said “but that’s not the field in general – that’s just a few problematic folks!” or "That's not how it is everywhere!" However, I continued to see great colleagues whom I cared for and respected continue to choose to leave this field I love so much.

They shared how tired they were. Tired of fighting to be seen. To be validated. To be heard. But I was starting to become aware of a pattern. I heard stories of feeling erased. Excluded. I will never forget attending a session for Black Resident Directors led by good colleague Sam Prater. For me, it was the first time I had been in a space in which the lens of the work we do as educational professionals was completely different than my own. I listened, and I engaged, and I probably said some things that were erasing. The message, though, was clear and one story in particular hit home.

A black professional (I won’t use a name here because I don’t want to out them) shared how they advised the Black Student Union on their campus. This was around the time of #BlackLivesMatter really started to gain steam. The BSU wanted to do a rally on campus, and the students asked this advisor to be a speaker at the rally. The RD did the right thing and asked their supervisor for permission to speak. Their supervisor gave them permission.

The day of the rally came, and five minutes before getting up on stage, the Senior Student Affairs Officer on campus came over to them and said “whatever you do, do not say “Black Lives Matter” you need to say “All lives matter.”

Sit with that for a moment. Especially if you are white professional. Just sit.

I listened to this story. This experience. Honestly, it was transformative. Because I knew the professional who shared it. I felt their pain in needing to decide quickly which was more important – loyalty to their institution and their leader, loyalty to the students they advised, and/or their own personal integrity. I also knew as a white professional, I would NEVER be put in an ethical dilemma quite like that. This was the moment for me inclusion work became less about me, and more about compassion and sustainable change for OTHERS.

Finally, I also knew I was complicit. Because as a white person, I would have likely said the same thing and not recognized the hurt and harm it caused, and the emotional labor it would create for my staff.

I knew I never wanted to be that Senior Student Affairs Officer who put their staff in that position, even unintentionally. I committed within myself to those I supervised and those I worked with to always consider other lenses in how I managed people. This is when I started switching from my own personal success and striving for a “diversity badge” to working towards making the world a better place. I am not saying I am perfect, but I am merely sharing with you the moment it changed for me. There were plenty of other moments. When I was called out on my own lenses. But this was the moment it moved from me to others. But I still wrestle with personal gain here, right? I mean, I am using this story to write a blog. I wrestle constantly (and I am NOT complaining here, it is the labor that needs to happen) with balancing my ego and benefiting others; making the field more inclusive as a whole.

Because you see, after this moment, for a while I did a lot of work behind scenes; not wanting to take credit on inclusion, not wanting to rock the boat. Wanting to not engage on inclusion issues because I didn't think I had anything to offer, because it was all about others. As I processed though, what was really going on internally was fear of hurting my career. Fear of making people with power angry and impacting my family’s opportunity to live. And then I was challenged on playing it safe. Then I started engaging on my campus, and in social media. And I started to really build capacity. I allowed for the notion of people calling me out publicly. And I made a CHOICE (and it is a choice grounded in privilege) that when someone (anyone) called me out publicly, I was going to CHOOSE to concern myself more with the feedback I was given and less about my reputation. I was going to reflect on being called out (as so many of my colleagues of color have shared) as a gift. Being called out is not a threat; its the gift of feedback to make me a better professional. And you see; once again- it comes back to my benefit. And maybe that’s not so bad, right? I benefit from speaking out when I see “my people (read white or cisgender or male or heterosexual)” who I know are good people, making statements and comments that erase the humanity of others and their experiences. I have a choice; do I engage in a manner where I sacrifice my soul for external rewards (like career advancement) or do I choose to benefit internally and potentially harm my career. And even then; it’s a choice out of privilege. Mainly because I can easily avoid the question. There is no requirement for me to even broach the issue. I can live my life never needing to consider it, should I choose. For my friends and colleagues, they don’t always get to choose. Sometimes they do. Anyway; those are the thoughts I have as I am processing my own personal journey away from compliance on the issue of inclusion towards sustainability and compassion. Where are you at on your journey? Are you engaged in this work as a white professional because it benefits you? Or are you working to create sustainable change?

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