Selma, Social Justice, and Student Affairs – Part II
“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
In my previous post, to be concluded here, I began my thoughts on Selma, social justice, and student affairs by recounting the James Lawson Affair at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 1960. In the words of Reverend Lawson, he said – “You take positions for change that you think are correct, right, and compassionate, and you expect to pay the price.” I liken this quote to at least one of the College Student Educators International principles to “Promote Justice” where “the values of impartiality, equity, and reciprocity are basic” and student affairs professionals should expect to pay the price to uphold these principles and others. Just recently on Twitter another student affairs professional Megan Wyett @MWyett asked Jed Bartlet’s famous The West Wing line “What’s next?”- “1 wk since #NASPA15 & a month since #ACPA15 what takeaway or connection have or have you not utilized?” For me, my takeaway was the words of Reverend Lawson and the surrounding advocacy for social justice in his day and how I have and will continue to integrate social justice in my life. These were the echoes in my head when I returned from #ACPA15 (College Student Educators International) and while I followed the proceedings of #NASPA15 (Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education) online and through those who were present.
Unfortunately, I missed Eboo Patel’s keynote at #ACPA15, but since I was only able to attend one day, I chose Saturday. I was thankful for my opportunity to attend at all. I was grateful for the diverse people I met, new and familiar, the sessions I attended, and especially the incredible diversity offered by the Pecha Kucha speaker series (for more on what this means go here: http://www.pechakucha.org/). Because I am a product of my environment (which I detailed a bit in my last post), as present as I was physically at ACPA my mind and heart would often relocate to Selma, Alabama as I was missing the coverage of the day’s events and President Barack Obama’s speech to commemorate the acts of courage demonstrated at Selma on March 7, 1960, and those before and after it.
Despite my own observed privilege, and even in those aspects where I lack such privilege, it’s with gratitude to my own divinity school experience and its rich social justice message that it makes it impossible for me to forget the multitudes, to see the world as airbrushed, or to have any notion to pine for a past that thankfully we have progressed through, even if far from complete. My wife, the teacher, refers to this sense of memory or viewpoint affectionately as my own social justice scar tissue (coincidentally, one that she now bears through the gift of marriage – “what’s yours is mine…”). “Vanderbilt University Divinity School scarred you,” she’ll often say jokingly, to which I frequently refer, “Yes, it did, in the toughest and best ways possible.” While attending ACPA there were many moments I found it tough to focus on all the stimulation surrounding me and not to think about what was going on elsewhere, especially while attending a conference on student affairs and the work of higher education, where attendees were presented with the conference theme to do the following: Consider. Collaborate. Create. Commit.
During my ACPA day, my mind was unsurprisingly filtering sessions primarily through the lens of social justice. I sat in a session about Supporting Wellness During Unemployment in Career Services. I thought about student loan access and interest rates, unemployment, income inequality, mental health and access to health care, poverty and those without homes, cars, or a roof of any kind overhead. I attended a session on Greek Life Hazing and Violence. I thought about racism, sexism, sexual assault, domestic violence, and oppression of personal identity of any kind. I went to a session on Promising Places to work in Student Affairs. I thought about access and retention of underrepresented populations, student poverty, employee pay equity, equal opportunity in hiring, workplace bullying of professionals and graduate/student employees, campus safety/support for LGBTQI employees and other personal identities, and even the fear of campus gun violence. In between sessions, I talked with a peer and friend about unethical and exclusionary hiring practices formed out of bad habits that are obstacles to social justice rather than strategic mechanisms for equity and inclusion. I found my Saturday filled with social justice implications and conversations. As if I needed more takeaways, at day’s end all the social justice messages I walked away with from so many Pecha Kucha presentations had my head spinning for days, now weeks. This head spinning and life itself spinning honestly both contributed to the delayed follow up to my last post.
There was the “value equal education” pronouncement by Director of Student Life Tony Doody from Rutgers. Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students at Agnes Scott Donna Lee shared her son’s college visit inquiry of “How socially conscious is this campus?” A question I encourage anyone looking at colleges to inquire, as a student, parent, or loved one. Vice Chancellor Zebulun Davenport (Indiana University – Purdue) also granted the permission and blessing in his great commission by simply offering to “fail forward,” which if this is true of being a student affairs professional, then this also includes being one who embraces social justice advocacy as part of that profession. It was a day where the multitudes were not only commemorated, but they were being represented in today’s day and age, while still imploring us to march on, even if failing forward, because we are “not yet finished.” (Obama)
If social justice is a process and a goal, then I am gratified by the goals we have reached in my lifetime that we can share with one another, but am also in awe of the processes as described in the words of President Obama, by those “who crossed that bridge in Selma before us,” “gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York,” or the “slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.” I ultimately entered a field such as student affairs to be part of the processes of whatever considerations and actions come next in the prophetic movement of social justice in higher education. There are clearly still too many things to come next when my own last consideration for that evening was one that came to me while on a dark drive to my friend’s house after 11:00pm. It was not lost on me that evening of all evenings that we have come so far in my country of the United States, yet, never have I had to worry in my entire life of what it was like to suffer from DWB (“driving while black”) (Donna Lee) as many still do in 2015.
“We believe that social justice is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of our resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. We envision a society in which individuals are both self-determining (able to develop their full capacities) and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others). “ Lee Anne Bell, “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice”
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
The most thought provoking session of my day at ACPA by far was entitled The Other F-Word: Practicing Failure in Higher Education (provided by Sean Eddington @seanmeddington, Charlie Potts @pottscharlie, and Lisa Endersby @lmendersby). Almost on point to Dr. Davenport’s later commission to “fail forward,” we discussed in that session that in higher education and student affairs we have fallen into a trap of perpetual perfectionism or reporting successes while creating an overwhelming force to fear failure, either backward or forward. I pondered the social justice implications there as well. I considered civil rights and Selma and I wondered how many people called the marches there or others a failure, or whether the sit-in movement coordinated by Reverend Lawson in Nashville, or any other facets of the fight for social justice then and since then were failures. I wondered how many people labeled James Lawson a failure for being expelled from Vanderbilt. Clearly, the fight for civil rights had failures in leadership and tactics, the pain of not only broken dreams but “the gush of blood and splintered bone” (Obama), and too much loss of life itself, but those failures and imperfections did not stand in the way of a continued reach for “our highest ideals” or “marching toward justice.” (Obama)
I heard each person in that presentation room share what I presumed to be authentic and I did not see failure by itself, but instead failure as part of one complete tapestry unable to be fully seen even during the length of one extended session. These moments could not be examined in isolation. What I saw and heard in that room, thanks to presenters and participants, was recognition of failure, owning of failure, daring to be vulnerable with failure, and the courage to report or use failure to create something incredible in student affairs and the university experience, rather than allow ourselves to be either consumed or finished by this notion of failure as finality. I think back to Reverend Lawson and Chancellor Branscomb and owned errors (see previous post). Vanderbilt University created one of the finest school’s in this country because of their experiment with failure in 1960. I thought back on Selma and the civil rights movement and what that movement created because of their embracing and learning from failures, often tragic, often soul crushing, often life stealing. People who believe in “…positions for change that you think are correct, right, and compassionate, and you expect to pay the price” (Lawson) do not pretend failures did not happen nor is our life’s reputation “dependent on mistakes we make” according to the Reverend Lawson.
We must be willing to “look upon our imperfections” (Obama) as part of a process, in order for student affairs and higher education professionals to create the environment for the courage to march confidently over our own bridges that stand before each and every one of us each day. It is a process of confronting clashing messages and cultures of preordained privilege, power, perceptions of the positive, and perfectionism with that of the freedom to “fail forward” and still be able to create. Through failure we can create ourselves anew, create new paths for success, create equal opportunity for all, and most of all to still create the safe space as educators to say: “Yes, I failed, and I’d do it again if it teaches me, my students, our university, or our world something we need to learn for our future.” We need to create campus laboratories in student affairs to experiment wholeheartedly in failure because in the words of Brene Brown, “If you’re not failing, you’re really not showing up.” And if we’re not showing up for social justice to integrate it into our practice with every breath and movement we make, rather than just holding a seminar about it, what on earth are we doing on college campuses with our students by telling them to “Be the change?” I departed that session on failure, now seen through my personal lens as creation. On that day with Selma, social justice, and student affairs all on my mind and heart, the message I walked away with was far more significant to me, professionally and personally, than perhaps any time in my recent memory.
“The Americans who crossed this bridge were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities – but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before. What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
Student affairs and higher education are “not some fragile thing” (Obama) and the professionals who inhabit it surely are not finished with the goals or processes of social justice in the education profession even though it is surely appropriate now and again to celebrate the many successes achieved. However, as social justice educators and advocates it must be highly unsettling when there are graduate students and professionals, new and seasoned, who live in fear of both educating and advocating for social justice, because in many instances they lack authentic collaboration for either the goals or the process beyond campus or even on campus. Many professionals know leaders and peers on campus or in the field who say they are champions for social justice, but then step quietly aside when it may cost them their power and privilege, sacrificing what is ours to save what is theirs (Simon Sinek), for either personal-protection politics, or because the process of “full and equal participation of all groups in a society” (Bell) truly does not meet their own individual or organizational goals.
While this is happening, there are plenty of others with or without any elected office, or official role or position of authority, but they feel isolated and afraid to lend their voice aloud because they have nobody to count on to show up in their corner as they seek to educate, empower, and advocate regarding social justice concerns. Others feel marginalized and dismissed, and perhaps still afraid, but lend their voice anyway. Either of these is sadly not abnormal, no matter how many positive tweets we record in the field in a day, week, or month. The fearful or marginalized souls in the profession don’t have the power to hide behind as they hope to advance perceived or actual taboo social justice issues through intellectual collaboration, whatever they may be, on campus, or within the profession. These souls don’t have the privilege of collaborating on substantive issues of social justice often because it’s not popular with the same person(s) crafting the very message on campus or for the field that student affairs professionals are social justice advocates. These souls, more often than not, simply want to go forth and promote and protect equity and inclusion and so often can’t because they fear retribution from individual “higher-ups,” losing their jobs or professional opportunities, being bullied by a peer or supervisor, or fear receiving a bad reference because they are exercising their educated and informed voice to show up on social justice when we desperately need more leaders to do so.
These are not the ones we can afford to “dismiss,” “throw away,” “marginalize,” or risk “losing from the profession” (all quoted terms used by real student affairs professionals). These are exactly the people we want to include, integrate, and invite to collaborate to ensure that this profession has removed the veil in order to have the very audacity “to engage supremely uncomfortable subjects precisely because they are tremendously important to students’ lives, campus life, and the lives of the nation and the world…” (Eboo Patel). This profession is “strong enough to be self-critical” (Obama). This profession must be able to see failure, or imperfection, and live and learn its way through to the other side in order to align with those highest ideals, or we run the risk of destroying that very bridge of progress so many people have given their lives for in so many ways. Then, the only way across will be the long way around, or simply never, because we will fear the future instead of grabbing hold of it.
If we are to acknowledge our ethics, values, competencies, and other documents critical to success, then professionals cannot help but know that there are tough choices involved. Some knowingly or unknowingly make the tough choice to stand opposed to progress, change, and social justice because it’s not the right time, or the right battle, but it is for the student affairs professional or the student who does not have the luxury, privilege, or power to wait a moment longer. Many of these issues of social justice are time sensitive, and that time was yesterday! For those willing to navigate social justice with courage and possess the will to go all in as campuses and this profession have encouraged professionals and graduates to do as collaborators, they will see and will remember the choices of those who oppose, hide, discount, or defer social justice concerns.
These collaborators will be disappointed, or even discouraged, but most important they will know there are others out there who have the desire and willingness to collaborate, even if it means embracing failure and imperfection along the way across whatever bridge awaits. For the profession to influence the lives of those in it and those served by it, the inspiration will come from the endurance of those who show up together who want in on social justice. And when those advocates, or collaborators on social justice, say things like they are eager to “fight the good fight,” they are not seeking fights, protests, and instigation as first options, but they very well may be seeking disruption and healing. These educators and advocates are seeking to end way too many injustices in the world, not to mention those observed in the profession and on their own campuses, so we need these folks as they too are “boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.” (Obama)
“It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
“We wanted to raise the issue of voting to the point where we could take it outside of the Black Belt [counties]…We were using Selma as a way to shake Alabama…so that it would be no longer a Selma issue or even an Alabama issue, but a national issue.” C.T. Vivian, Civil Rights Leader
Social justice concerns in our world and in this profession all too often seem to be addressed as things that come up rather than systemic injustices that persist. The thought that we were suddenly post-racial because we elected Barack Obama president was folly considering how infrequently we still lack substantive dialogue and action on race among many other issues. This profession itself which seeks to lead on conversations of race, transgender concerns, or sexual assault still struggles with training, talking about, or integrating professed standards of ethics, values, and practice, as was brought to light following the Yik Yak incident from #NASPA15 (which included presumed inappropriate, crass, or disparaging comments by conference attendees). As a profession and a people we are not post a lot of things yet. We are not there yet; but my belief is there are more of us who wish to be there than not. There are undoubtedly more failures ahead, but I also believe if more of us are willing to report our failures and create around them we will also be better off than not.
I know many people saw the Yik Yak incident as a failure of professional maturity and legitimacy. Others saw it as a minor problem by only a few. My professional belief is that it’s a symptom of a larger excused pattern of behavior related back to the professional standards we’re not talking about or integrating into our work with reason rather than reaction. On the heels of Yik Yak came the heated debates about protesting the NASPA 2016 conference in Indiana because of their religious liberty bill. Whether it’s Yik Yak, Indiana, or the incident back at the University of Oklahoma, these developments can be good for at least one reason. Through recent reactions there is now an opportunity to reflect, recommit, and respond as professionals as to why student affairs is value equal and how social justice is a key component in influencing not only the professionals, students, and surrounding communities, but the very nature of the world itself, that despite being a “work in progress” (Obama) can still be one of more justice than not. This is the perfect time to pull apart the entire rind of the orange and get our hands messy and see what’s inside in terms of social justice issues facing not only our students but the professional employees who commit their lives to serving these campus communities that educate and inspire our hope for tomorrow.
There are student affairs and higher education professionals participating in individual marches that will never be as bloody as those in Selma. Professionals march from conference session to session, meeting to meeting, campus office to campus office, and go about the day often professing the goal of social justice, when many students and staff on the campus know nothing of the process. Everyone thinks it’s somebody else’s job. In order to make the commitment that it’s to everyone’s benefit to show up for social justice, leadership in national and functional area organizations and those on campus must ensure that social justice is not another cool phrase we put on promotional materials or in framed goal statements alone, but something put in strategic planning, staff and student training, work and curricular integration, organization development, and in proposed professional competencies now under review at ACPA and NASPA.
As I wrote earlier, I missed that speech from President Obama the Saturday of ACPA, although I watched it as soon as I could that Sunday. Throughout these last two posts I have included some of his words as he spoke them on March 7, 2015 because in order for them to be more than rhetoric we have to hear or read them and consider how we live them through their successes and failures so we can find our better futures through understanding the past of social justice and our professional lives and values. The very fact that Barack Obama is the one saying them on the 50th anniversary of the Selma incident is not only ironic, but it continues to inspire and give me hope that movement is a possibility, change is a reality, and transformation itself is something we can believe in because it does happen. Still, even in the progress of my lifetime, I must remind myself daily that we are not all the way there yet, and we will not be without higher education and those in student affairs doing their jobs to ensure that our future continues to be better than our past. It will take navigating with courage and more than likely a great deal of discomfort to think, speak, and act around social justice processes. This entire profession and the university communities served by its professionals absolutely deserve this consideration, collaboration, creation, and commitment to understand why we must continue to march on and act with continued willingness to improve. We must show up and commit to the processes and goals of social justice as a “we” issue, not just a you, me, or them issue.
“Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
“Since Selma, our understanding of racial justice has evolved as well. Racial justice is about equal justice for all Americans. We have need to emphasize all, without neglecting the historic experience and particular concerns of any racial or ethnic group. It is about equal treatment under the law for African Americans for sure, but it is also about equal treatment in law enforcement and the justice system for Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Arab Americans and Euro Americans.” Reverend Geoffrey Black, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ
“In time, their chorus would reach President Johnson. And he would send them protection, echoing their call for the nation and the world to hear: “We shall overcome.” President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015
“We Shall Overcome”
Bell, Lee Anne. “Theoretical Foundations for Social Justice.” Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. Ed. Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, Pat Griffin. 2007.
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1999.
Obama, Barack. President Barack Obama, Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches, March 7, 2015. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches
Other items of interest
Black, Geoffrey. “Commentary: The Next Chapter in the Struggle for Racial Justice.” The United Church of Christ, March 12, 2015.
Wiley, John D. “Obama’s Eloquent Expression of Exceptionalism in Selma,” The Christian Century. March 11, 2015. http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-03/obamas-eloquent-expression-exceptionalism-selma
“The American Promise” — LBJ’s Finest Hour http://billmoyers.com/2015/03/06/american-promise-lbjs-finest-hour/