When Nonsense Replaces Nuance – The Reality TV Campaign

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Let Bartlet Be Bartlet

If historians don’t someday call the 2016 election campaign the nonsense versus nuance one, then I will gladly coin the phrase as that’s how I will refer to it, #NonsensevNuance. This will forever be so for me following last week’s disastrous Commander-in-Chief Forum as interviewer Matt Lauer was deservedly criticized, in my opinion, for seeking and obtaining sound bites from our two party system finalists in a half hour each format, rather than obtain and allow for nuance while discussing some of the most important parts of the job of the Commander-in-Chief.

This significant forum opportunity which was both needed and excellent in concept suffered from poor preparation and execution, while doing a disservice to all involved including the American people voting this November. Following this televised event, and the continued ridiculous Reality TV style election cycle that televised media has provided for us, I got to thinking about sound bites as I did again this weekend following the story and accompanying hashtag #basketofdeplorables concerning Hillary Clinton’s remarks about “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” who happen to support businessman and Reality TV personality Donald Trump for president. So, this weekend got me thinking about The West Wing, the television one at if not the real one.

During season three of The West Wing, the reelection campaign of the president is a major storyline. In “The U.S. Poet Laureate” President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is caught making an alleged gaffe while doing a series of TV flash interviews from inside The White House. A television reporter lingers on camera after the formal interview to bait Bartlet regarding an opponent, as it’s implied the nine interviewers before her tried as well. Previous interviewers failed and President Bartlet said nothing, but while speaking to a TV network in Philadelphia President Bartlet said the following when the interview was over, but with the camera light still showing green (i.e. he was hot and the station had him on b-roll):

 “I don’t know Leslie. I think we might be talking about a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world.” President Bartlet

Throughout the ensuing episode the viewer comes to learn that the campaign of Bartlet’s opponent keeps the story alive in hopes of embarrassing the president or getting him to apologize for the remark alluding to his opponent’s lack of intelligence. Instead, the opponent’s campaign persists in drawing attention to that very substance of the comment itself, that the opponent is deemed not to be intelligent enough to be president, but easily digestible by the American public because of his personality.

By the end of the episode we learn in a conversation with Press Secretary C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) that President Bartlet’s intention all along was to create the sound bite because he knew the campaign and the press would keep the sound bite and story alive and thus without realizing it forcing the coverage to be about the substance, or the nuance required in being the president.

BARTLET: Didn’t turn out too bad.

C.J.: No sir, it didn’t turn out too bad at all. In fact, the whole country’s talking about whether Ritchie’s smart enough to be President. And you didn’t take hit, ’cause it was an accident. You know, it occurs to me that even your choice of language was interesting.”A .22 caliber mind, in a .357 magnum world.” That’s unusual for you, a gun metaphor…Toby mentioned to me that when each interview was over, all the interviewers wanted to talk to you about was Ritchie, and you took a pass each time. Until Philadelphia…Mr. President, is it possible you saw that the green light was on? 

President Bartlet used nonsense to get to nuance and refocus the conversation on the substance of the individuals rather than the sound bites that make up a news cycle. That episode debuted in 2002. Fourteen years later our news cycles are even more immediate and quite often dictated by the inane in the hopes for better ratings than an opponent over better news for our citizens.

This political strategy of turning directly into the pitch about President Bartlet’s intelligence as his major asset ultimately derives from a conversation two episodes earlier that provides one of the series’ best exchanges in the seven season run of the show, one between President Bartlet and Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).

Toby: You’re a good father, you don’t have to act like it. You’re the President, you don’t have to act like it. You’re a good man, you don’t have to act like it. You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken…Do not – do not – do not act like it! 

President Bartlet: I don’t want to be killed.  

Toby: Then make this election about smart, and not…Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight…

The two discuss what the campaign should be about, smart, engaged, and qualified, not simply what the voters are fed that it should be about. And although The West Wing was a fictional political world that had not yet experienced the juggernaut of Reality TV, as the first episode of Survivor had arrived on American televisions in 2000, this exchange between Toby and President Bartlet regarding how campaigns should be about substance over sound bites is alive and not well today. The West Wing (1999-2006) was and will remain brilliant television because it mirrored politics and The White House then, now, and will again tomorrow, which is what makes it relevant, a classic, and significant.

Let Clinton Be Clinton

I return to this moment in television history as a fan of The West Wing, but also of our country’s goodness, and the people that create and share that goodness worldwide. I also do so not as a Democrat, but an ordinary voting citizen concerned with nuance, not nonsense, and I believe this fictional TV moment in a Reality TV campaign possesses great informative value on where we are today.

I have to believe that someone or more than one someone in the Clinton campaign, or Secretary Clinton herself, has had to make a calculated political strategy that this election is different. So, previous political strategy may not work the same way in 2016, although that depends on who is talking and which candidate they are talking about as to when the old rules apply or the new ones. It’s usually an accepted rule to not disrespect the voters, your own or others, which Secretary Clinton is being brought to task for this weekend by some and being praised for by others. Yet, her opponent in Mr. Trump arguably doesn’t respect a whole lot of American voters or people from other countries and has communicated as such from day one of his campaign, but these points are for journalists to report more upon and they should continue to do so.

Deplorable: Deserving strong condemnation; shockingly bad in quality.

Nuance: A subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound; to give nuance to.

Nonsense: Spoken or written words that have no meaning or make no sense; foolish or unacceptable behavior.

Considering this televised West Wing moment, there is honestly a part of me that even wants to believe that the sound bite from a woman usually very particular in crafting what words she uses (both fans and haters alike would usually even agree on this) was made strategically to get voters to consider the actual substance over the sound bite between now and the election. Maybe Hillary Clinton took a page out of the Josiah Bartlet playbook. Yes, Secretary Clinton has since clarified her remarks, or “regrets” her generalization of “half” of Mr. Trump’s voters, although she did use the words “grossly generalistic” in her initial remarks anyway. However, let’s also remember that she apologized for the percentage used, “half,” the sound bite, not the substance.

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clinton deplorables 2.JPG

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She almost immediately had another opportunity to revisit her remarks and I’m sure she’ll have more. I cannot help but wonder if that’s not what she wants is to take back the microphone from the loudest person in the room. She may want to remind her opponent that whether liked or not, she is smart, engaged, qualified, and that she’s the political heavyweight and Mr. Trump is simply dead weight on an election and on a political system where both Democrat and Republican elected officials in different ways allowed this Reality TV campaign to be possible. Yes, the “news,” or entertainment media obsessed with sound bites over policy and nuance has surely helped that, as has our cultural obsession with Reality TV. For without how our media works now and how our viewing habits have been shaped by RealityTV, in the past a Trump candidacy never gets off the ground because he is historically unqualified and that is a fact. This will upset some people, but it doesn’t make it untrue. Others will accept it as true and admit that’s why they are voting for him because he’s not qualified the way those in the established political world are and that is seen as a benefit.

I’m sure Secretary Clinton wanted to run another campaign on the road she hopes will make her the first female president in our country’s history. She could have very well been in that room with Toby and President Bartlet seeking to run a campaign on smart, engaged, and qualified. Unfortunately, for her, and for us, that’s not the campaign we’re getting or that we surely deserve. We are in 2016 and instead of The Celebrity Apprentice we’re getting The Presidential Apprentice. Secretary Clinton, a policy wonk, clearly wants this campaign to be about that because she believes that is what matters substantively, regardless of whether people agree with her on policy or not. Now, in September before a national election she finds herself in a street fight where either accidentally or purposefully she will have to find a way to make sound bites into substance and nonsense into nuance. This weekend that fight finds itself under the hot street light talking about isms in our culture. Secretary Clinton better hope that the media and the electorate are smart enough and engaged enough to make sense of nonsense and maybe even enter into an authentic dialogue about racism, sexism, and the like rather than have these hateful beliefs and behaviors remain in the shadows.

As I write this post it’s literally in the hour of the fifteen year mark of time since 9/11. Oh the places we’ve gone and shouldn’t have gone since that early morning of September 11, 2001. My desperate hope is that we as Americans can return to the essence of that ‘bullhorn moment’ of George W. Bush following the events of 9/11 when most Americans stood beside a president and remembered it’s in our very fabric that we are “stronger together.” There are many that mock the Clinton campaign slogan now for various reasons, but it doesn’t make it untrue just because it’s her slogan; it really is an American slogan no matter who we vote for, which is exactly why one man, or woman, can’t fix Washington. If one person could fix it all we wouldn’t be such a mess. Democracy by its nature is messy, but it’s most certainly messier when we have “become inured to the incivility, exhibitionism, and celebrity obsession caused by the narcissism epidemic”  (The Narcissism Epidemic by Twenge and Campbell) that makes us think one person or one party has all the correct solutions all the time.

There are plenty of actual policy critiques to make of presidential nominee Clinton and Democrats which are fair, and should continue to be made, but stronger together should not be among them. But the nonsense contingent will keep the drumbeat alive on this recent sound bite because she said ‘half’ while the nuance contingent will stop and consider the entirety of the context and who she was actually taking to task. She was very clear that she is talking about racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamophobes, and a candidate who cradles those who hold such beliefs and practice such behaviors rather than seek to understand who they are and call them out himself and challenge them to knock it off, otherwise America cannot be great. Mr. Trump cannot do this because the shelf paper of his entire campaign has been lined with these beliefs and behaviors ever since he came down an escalator and called more than “some” Mexicans criminals and rapists. Mr. Trump began with deplorable and only a week ago finally gave voice to the expression “a new civil rights agenda.” Perhaps, he should have led with that message from the beginning and this campaign would have been one to make Toby and President Bartlet proud.

trump-rapists

Graphic borrowed from The Huffington Post

What Kind of Day Will It Be?

Whether we like it or not these are some facts. We are living in a country in 2016 where both leading candidates are seen as unpopular and untrustworthy, for entirely different reasons. We are enduring a campaign that is absolutely painful to most of us whether Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other, also for entirely different reasons. We are living in a country where people are fearful, hopeful, and sometimes both. And we are still receiving political and policy talking points from all directions that often times are nonsense rather than nuance delivered through a media glad to give it to us that way in between a constant serving of Viagra commercials, or now campaign advertisements.

On The West Wing, a consistent theme of both moving on to bigger and better things while in the fast paced world of work in The White House came up in the form of a question, ‘What’s next?’ Unfortunately, during this election cycle in our history many of us begrudgingly ask ourselves that very question in a different way, ‘What in the holy heck can possibly be next?’ Unlike life on The West Wing we’re not usually eager about the answer, because we’ve all become involuntary participants in this season’s long con known as The Presidential Apprentice. What should be next should be a dignified campaign and debate about substance over sound bites, nuance over nonsense. Spoiler alert: that is not what we will be getting these next two months as that’s not what we’ve had from the beginning. Why start now?

@scaddenFNL If ppl of #faith defend #BasketOfDeplorables behaviors: racism, misogyny, xenophobia etc what are we against? #AMJoy #religion #theology

On this one issue of comments about those voters who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic, whether it was a gaffe or not, it will be called a gaffe, because the media needs it to be one for their very survival. What the media will have a hard time digesting is that we can still respect the voters’ right to think and believe as they choose while at the same time not respecting their actual beliefs or behaviors that perpetuate acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. Personally, I would respect an individual more if he or she said I’m racist and here’s why, rather than deny it because it’s the politically correct thing to do. For supporters of Mr. Trump who are offended by the remarks because they consider themselves none of the above, then I would suggest at least equal outrage be directed at those fellow supporters who are giving you a bad reputation, as well as demand that your candidate have substantive conversations about such issues that are required of a “civil rights agenda” he suggested last week.

What kind of day has it been in this incredibly strange election year in this incredibly great country that remains deeply flawed? It’s the kind of day when the candidate, who was brought to us by his Reality TV persona and his birtherism agenda to delegitimize the nation’s first black president, will somehow obtain credit for not being crystal clear about what is and what is not deplorable in our country that continues to struggle with civil rights and civility, despite Secretary Clinton making herself abundantly clear. What kind of day will it be? Hopefully each day between now and election day and well beyond will be ones where we do not surrender to nonsense. Instead may we all actively choose to be a participant in, or recipient of, the nuance expected of a great nation and leader in the world.

May God bless the United States of America.

 “The bottom line is that we cannot afford suddenly to treat this like a reality show.” President Barack Obama

****Update

Not even 24 hours from posting this blog entry comes exactly what I anticipated only more spot on if you listen closely. “People like you, you, and you, deplorable” which was immediately preceded by identifying those very traits/behaviors in voters who fit the mold of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. So, this new ad will continue to remind all voters who listen closely that it’s not about hard working it’s about the deplorable behaviors which candidate Trump just excused in his own campaign video.

 

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*For fans of The West Wing, or for those who have never watched,  it may be found on Netflix and you may want to check out the new podcast that weekly details each episode called The West Wing Weekly (http://thewestwingweekly.com/,@westwingweekly, #TWWW).

Guess who should be coming to dinner? Larry Wilmore

Larry Wilmore

This blog post submission was received and accepted by The Student Affairs Collective (https://studentaffairscollective.org/) for posting on their own blog site located at https://studentaffairscollective.org/guess-coming-dinner-larry-wilmore-recruitment-retention-roasting-may-required/

I recommend those interested in creating  the best peer-to-peer learning network for student affairs professionals to visit their blog site and read other posts on fascinating topics.

Below is the excerpt from that post:

A recruitment and retention roasting may be required.

“FT Can talk retention & should but SA also needs 2talk about Shame of Unemployment & Underemployment #sachat”

Since watching the last White House Correspondents’ Dinner (WHCD) (http://bit.ly/1Otnep9), I’ve curiously imagined comedian Larry Wilmore coming to a dinner to roast Student Affairs. All things considered, the profession would benefit greatly from a healthy roast from Wilmore. (Per Vulture.com “A good roast joke is undeniable; it’s comedy at its most immediate and visceral.”)

The most undeniable material for Wilmore is found in the many ironies of professional recruitment and retention. He will jab institutions overworking employees, yet silencing them for asking about overtime, or calling them burn outs as if the organization has no responsibility. He will do a bit on the absurdity of educator instigated workplace bullying. And he will throw some shade at inclusion talk from any professional dismissive of those who don’t have the “right” degree/experience, despite having knowledge, skills, and abilities in inclusively recruiting/retaining employees.

I anticipate Wilmore will lose some in the room as with the WHCD, which means he’s providing “comedy at its most immediate and visceral,” by creating discomfort skewering unwritten/unspoken truths and rules. Wilmore will equally gain credibility from those expecting barbs directed at undeniable truths. Many professionals lack safe platforms or status to question such truths, especially those who have ever experienced underemployment or unemployment (individual experiences not widely shared). Yet, a roast may illuminate with a blink of one comedic eye roll from Wilmore as he zings busy leaders keeping their most passionate people quiet, while concurrently bemoaning the struggle of finding or keeping quality employees.

Wilmore may use Dr. Ann Marie Klotz recent blog post as illustrative (http://bit.ly/1q9uhNH) when she transparently speaks an undeniable truth by saying “we are awful at recruitment and hiring practices.” Wilmore will continue his comedic dousing by discomfort returning to Klotz’s words “too long,” “boring,” “repetitive,” and “poor at communicating with candidates,” and offer the logical punch line that if we are awful at these practices, it’s surely no better with retention. This is especially true for retaining those who are not privileged to be in the room for the jokes or for decision-making. Wilmore will cement his satire by reminding folks “too long” and “boring” are preferable to educators marginalizing, practicing cronyism, and disqualifying or shaming the underemployed or unemployed, thus denying them full capability work(http://bit.ly/1JeyIPI, http://bit.ly/1hJ7EMO), safe professional platforms, or a desire to be retained. Wilmore will then seek a laugh by noting “I’m not the retention expert, but those who are should first talk to the elephant in the room at table eleven who knows the discomfort of professionals already lost and left behind.”

Before dropping his own mic at the WHCD, Larry Wilmore, in a moment of seriousness, reminded us how not long ago we lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. There are roast worthy jokes containing uncomfortable and undeniable realities in Student Affairs that professionals may not be ready to accept. If Wilmore’s job will be to deliver those jokes, then everyone else’s will be to laugh and hopefully reflect. We can’t retain what’s lost, but there is still hope for others, including new and experienced underemployed and unemployed professionals. This hope will require understanding truthful experiences that are undeniable, visceral, and yes, awful. So, whether or not Wilmore will be funny or lose the room will be far less significant than what Student Affairs will be ready to accept and advocate for immediately.

 

“Sometimes in life you can get kinda stuck and you feel like you should’ve changed chapters by now, but you can’t.” Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff

 

Transparency: recruitment, interviewing, and hiring in the #SAsearch

This blog post submission was received and accepted by the ACPA Commission for Social Justice Educators (https://acpacsje.wordpress.com/) for posting on their own blog site located at

https://acpacsje.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/transparency-recruitment-interviewing-and-hiring-in-the-sasearch/

I highly recommend those interested in the areas of diversity and social justice education as they related to colleges and universities to visit their blog site and read other posts on fascinating topics.

CSJE snip

The Commission for Social Justice Educators’ mission is to provide a collaborative home for college student educators working in the areas of diversity and social justice education. ACPA has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to multiculturalism and social justice by actively supporting a diversity of ideas and identities within its membership and member institutions. This commission reinforces and focuses that commitment by providing a place for college student educators committed to a broad range of social justice issues to network; share knowledge, tools, and resources; collaborate across institutions and identities; and provide support. This Commission supports those working towards social justice and diversity issues across the wide spectrum of student affairs positions. The Commission also provides scholarship and other resources for college student educators working in multicultural and other diversity centers and offices on campus. The Commission for Social Justice Educators compliments the functional and identity support work being done in other Commissions and Standing Committees, while providing a unique opportunity for creating partnerships across institutions and identities.

 

Below is the post shared initially on that site:

 

In August, the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies were updated for the profession. Training camp season of summer was over and the regular academic season was upon all professionals. These competencies and their noted changes regarding Social Justice and Inclusion, as found in the section titled “Summary of Changes,” aimed to frame inclusiveness in a manner that does not norm dominant cultures but that recognizes all groups and populations are diverse as related to all other groups and populations.”This section goes on to state that “Bell’s (2013) definition of social justice further necessitates that social justice include ‘a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. This definition subsumes the construct of equity as more than a goal, but a precondition of a larger good.’”

Just over a year ago I wrote a widely read blog post called “If It’s broken and we don’t talk about it, is it still broken? The #SAsearch” (http://bit.ly/1oxAxxs). The questions I posed then, as I continue to do today, address this very same vision of society, and profession, in which the distribution of resources is equitable and that this equity is more than a goal, but a precondition of a larger good. Therefore, what is the social justice and inclusion responsibility of this profession as it pertains to what many including myself consider to be broken recruitment, interviewing, and hire processes within many organizations and institutions of higher education, or those supporting higher education? My belief is that employment is a social justice issue and one that is infrequently framed or spoken of as such, because that causes potential discomfort and poses challenges to power and privilege within these same organizations and institutions. Instead, staffing is treated as a game by far too many with tricks, tips, and diverse human beings known in some instance as either red flags or celebrities.

Employment is not a game; it’s a real life significant matter to each of us for different reasons. Among the surface problems of not ever hearing back from employers to unprofessional/unethical behavior of interviewers, there is one example of a deeper social justice and inclusion problem corroding credibility in the profession. This injustice is what I call the “fraudulent search” process. I define a fraudulent search as when a position in student affairs is available on a university campus and that university’s human resources, ethics and compliance, equal opportunity, or other designated university officials state that for available positions an “open search” must be conducted and the individual division, department, or hiring manager has already predetermined the hire, conducts the search process, and hires that predetermined candidate as always intended.

This search process is one that intentionally deceives and breaches a confidence with all applicants seeking out a posted position. To employ the competency of Social Justice and Inclusion directly, I believe the fraudulent search is directly opposed to what CSJE members and all professionals are being directed not to do in order to be considered a competent professional. This specific competency is “…defined as both a process and a goal that includes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to create learning environments that foster equitable participation of all groups and seeks to address issues of oppression, privilege, and power” (ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, 2015).  Improving the practice of conducting searches that removes deceit from the equation and relies upon “representing the department and institution honestly and accurately” (ACPA Ethical Principles and Standards) to me is one of those things we can disagree about the how, but most certainly one we have to talk about consistently. Creating an entire competency for Social Justice and Inclusion gives all professionals the safe space to have the conversation, as well as to hold one another accountable when professionals are not being socially just in all instances, especially in the recruitment, interview, and hiring of staff, be they students, graduates, or professionals.

I believe that other competency areas that inform this social justice matter also include Personal and Ethical Foundations and Organizational and Human Resources to name just two. With these new competencies, and these three in particular, student affairs professionals should find greater affirmation in being successful practitioners and those served by such professionals can bring the “fraudulent search” into the transparency of the light of day and be clearly in line with keeping with the “spirit and intent of equal opportunity.”

  • Organizational and Human Resources: “Assess the costs and benefits of current established political alliances, in particular, their relationships to fostering collaboration and organizational transparency.”
  • Personal and Ethical Foundations “…competency area involves the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to develop and maintain integrity in one’s life and work”

I have observed this practice from the college/university side of the search table and I’ve appropriately raised such concerns when I have. I have also experienced it as a candidate myself during my own job searches. It’s been reported to me through the experiences of numerous professionals who I have assisted in their professional job searches over a fifteen plus year career. When matters of social justice and inclusion are not spoken of on the staff level and the questions of power, privilege, and politics are not permissible to be asked as a professional educator, then how is it possible to “do better,” in the words of ACPA’s president, as advocates for equity, inclusion, and social justice for students and communities and for search processes if professionals sense danger in the doing?

“…a hiring manager will be breaking institutional policy regarding an equal opportunity for full consideration by giving some indication beforehand that a specific candidate will be selected even if the others walk on water. That hiring manager’s manager ought to discipline for such a declaration, as failure to follow policy.” – anonymous head university diversity officer

A “fraudulent search” does not include a fair and equitable outlined promotion procedure or succession plan, when done ethically and with all stakeholders and employees appropriately instructed as to how such matters happen and how every employee remains eligible for such opportunities, when permissible.  No, the “fraudulent search” is one that does the opposite by obstructing fair and equitable, while hurting professional access, opportunity, and career mobility on all professional levels in addition to hurting the veracity of the job search itself and any possibility for a professional or the organization to be an authentic champion of social justice and inclusion work. These hurts do often end up resulting in encouraging professionals to treat employment and competencies as a game. They may promote dishonesty or lack of authenticity, or lead a caring profession to commit other unethical behaviors to succeed. On a fundamental level it violates the very principle of “Do no harm.” “But it happens all the time” people will say, without ever calling it what it is – a “fraudulent search.”  Student affairs as a profession possesses strong ethical professional values and standards and competencies espoused by the field, so, that is the fertile soil to grow from and what everyone else is doing simply doesn’t matter. This profession has higher standards crafted and created in order to influence social justice, not merely imitate it for a brochure, sound bite, or a position description.

 

A Rey of Hope – The Force Awakens

The Real Silver Lining Significance of Star Wars’ Success

Rey banner snipRight now…

  • “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

This is not the blog post I was expecting to write a month ago after leaving the theater following Star Wars:  The Force Awakens. In my enthusiasm leading up to the premiere, I would often say to my wife “This is the movie I’ve been waiting 32 years to see!” She’d laugh and believe I was kidding. “Didn’t the last Star Wars movie come out only ten years ago?” she asked. “Yes,” I’d say, and again repeat but “This is the one I’ve been waiting 32 years to see. Those other movies were the prequels.” The prequels simply don’t count in my Star Wars universe. My wife knows of my dislike of the prequels, but I hoped with a Force Awakens success she may better understand why and join with me on my side of The Force.

There are Star Wars fans who did like or even love those prequel movies. Many were more likely the ones not alive in the 1970s or 1980s to see the original trilogy. Regardless, this debate between the original episodes IV-VI vs. the prequel episodes I-III could be a dissertation and probably is somewhere. The debate will continue in person and online until the end of time for those speaking of Star Wars significant things only. I’m so not a fan of the prequels that on premiere night in December I would not even get a T-shirt featuring the names and release dates of all the Star Wars movies on the back of it because it recognized episodes I-III and I wouldn’t be caught anywhere wearing a shirt recognizing something like Episode I, The Phantom Menace (sorry George Lucas).

It’s from this point of view that now leads me to refrain from using the “P” word and if I mention them at all I’ll call them what I usually do, “those other three movies.” Thankfully for me, the first significant success of Star Wars:  The Force Awakens was my personal disinterest in even comparing this movie with “those other three movies.” As a fan going in, I felt that was the predetermined post I’d write upon departing the theater. I dreaded the writing exercise of a comparison piece alone. Leaving the theater, I had an entirely different perspective. Right then and there, following just over two hours of pure entertainment and an ending scene that may go down as my favorite in a Star Wars movie ever, The Force Awakens earned its uproar of applause in the theater and its immediate significance as a success by being the only movie I wanted to discuss that night or in the days to follow.

After just two minutes into the The Force Awakens, I received immediate validation and was already assured that this would be the movie I was waiting 32 years to see. The very first line of the movie told me what I needed to know – “This will begin to make things right.” This line was significant in establishing the events of The Force Awakens story, but it was also far too specific to my own hearing of those words that directly communicated that this movie will make things right again with the entire Star Wars universal story. At that moment, I felt like director J.J. Abrams shared a private wink with millions of movie goers who felt as I did that this would be that movie I was telling my wife I’d been waiting to see. During the movie, as I sought to barely blink so as to not miss a thing, I did realize at one point whatever I’d come to write of The Force Awakens was going to be on its own merits of success and significance  to me then and while I anxiously await Episode VIII. #StarWarswinning

Empire cover 082115

Right here…

Part of making things right and contributing to this significance and success of this movie is that it blasted the door wide open for possibilities and conversations for all of us who always cared about Star Wars as part of one’s upbringing (me), those who have casually cared about it as good entertainment (my wife), and for a potential new and diverse generation of fans embracing it and enjoying it for the first time. Despite treating us to character and story call backs to the original trilogy, including Harrison Ford’s iconic role of Han Solo, The Force Awakens is forward and future focused, which allows all of us receptive to it to once again discover excitement and a youthful spirit in that galaxy far, far away. The movie begins with a premise of the past but soon finds us in the right now flying through hyper-drive alongside a new set of heroes like Rey, Finn, and Poe played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac.

In another time in our history, if you were to say that a Latino male (Guatemalan, Cuban actor Oscar Isaac – Poe), a black man (British, Nigerian actor John Boyega – Finn), and a white English woman (English actress Daisy Ridley – Rey) walked into a room together you would be expecting some sort of punch line to an off colored joke. Well, another silver lining of success here is that we’re living in 2016 and the joke is on everyone as these three diverse human beings not only walked into a room together at Comic-Con last year to sell this movie, but they just walked the red carpets for it and now will be household names forever.

These successes are not to say that The Force Awakens is a perfect movie without fault and should be best picture. That honor for me still goes to Spotlight if I had a vote. However, the acclaim and even the critiques surrounding The Force Awakens in its lead up and in its wake, justified or not on either end, have also contributed to its success and significance beyond box office records. It’s successful simply because we’re talking again about quality Star Wars story specifics and even socially significant ones, beyond merely comparing episodes to one another.

 Character development over CGI

Some fans and critics say the movie is much too similar to the original Star Wars (popularly known as A New Hope). This is a fair complaint, but not one I personally share because it needs to be more like the original than “those other three movies” which did not nearly resemble enough what fans of the original saga loved and knew by watching them in the theaters, on VHS, or now on Blu-ray (although the Blu-ray versions are actually not the true originals). I would remind people that this movie had to reintroduce a multigenerational fan base back into a world where there has been a 30 year storyline absence. It was impossible to provide all things to all people and I commend co writers Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt for having the restraint to tell this tale in just over two hours, rather than inflate it to three plus hours and end up with so much heavy exposition that the awakening would put us all into a deep sleep.

This success of the script is that it allowed thirty years to pass without feeling the need to tell us everything. That bold choice was significant. This brings up the corresponding concern that each of the new characters including the three new leads, Poe, Finn, and our main protagonist Rey were all underdeveloped. Has anyone with this concern watched the original Star Wars? This seems like an Episode VIII agenda item, not an Episode VII concern to me. The viewers were brought into this galaxy’s existing story via outsiders Rey and Finn, who, like us, were missing much of the same thirty years of information, with Rey even acknowledging she thought some of it was a myth.

While some fans and critics were frustrated by unanswered questions, I see this as the movie being viewer friendly as if we’re entering the Millennium Falcon with new characters along their journey for the first time. Still, we know there is a history and future of unanswered questions we want answers for…which is why we have Episodes VIII and IX. This story also intentionally creates enough depth of character but not so much so that the next two writer/directors are boxed into maintaining them  instead of growing them. If recent rumors are to be believed, Daisy Ridley’s Rey has been so beloved that there have been some recent script rewrites on Episode VIII in order to further her development even more. And if you are a Star Wars fan isn’t the success here that once again we’re actually debating, questioning, and theorizing about the significance of both the story and its characters, and not the use or overuse of CGI?

Talking race because of a Star Wars’ trailer

Although familiar, this was not the Star Wars we grew up with as we began to learn that the three new heroes represented more of the world we actually live in with regards to gender and race. This was evidenced almost immediately with a growing social media movement to boycott The Force Awakens because, god forbid, there was a black male playing the role of a storm trooper. This eventually is easily explained in the film for those folks claiming not to be racist, but just pro Star Wars canon. Yes, I used the word canon. Star Wars in popular culture terms exists in Biblical proportions as we actually talk of it in light of what is and what is not considered canon, much like with the Bible. The social significance of Star Wars the last thirty plus years can at times be simply mind blowing.

What appeared to be a genuine success in hiring a great cast and improving its diversity for a new generation, this critique surrounding the black storm trooper came about as the first movie trailer dropped. In a recent New York Times interview, actor John Boyega, who plays the just mentioned storm trooper in question, was asked about the boycott. He replied with the following:  “I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man. A confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate man. I’m proud of my heritage, and no man can take that away from me. I wasn’t raised to fear people with a difference of opinion. They are merely victims of a disease in their mind. To get into a serious dialogue with people who judge a person based on the melanin in their skin? They’re stupid, and I’m not going to lose sleep over people. The presale tickets have gone through the roof – their agenda has failed. Miserably.”

Boyega could not have been more right in his assessment about ticket sales and how ultimately insignificant the boycott was. Not to be lost in this boycott absurdity, but it’s also significant to note that Boyega is great in the movie as Finn and another example of an actor creating another new beloved Star Wars character. Even in controversy and critique Star Wars found significance and an unplanned success by using this opportunity to dialogue about diversity in entertainment, Star Wars specifically, and by listening to this younger generation of movie leads like Boyega speak confidently about his own identity and heritage. As a fan, I’m super glad to have good characters, but as a person I’m even more grateful to have diverse ambassadors for the Star Wars universe beyond the theater.

  • “I’m not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on-screen…It’s about getting people to drop a prejudiced state of mind and realize, Oh shit we’re just watching normal people.” John Boyega

The trailer was too short I guess for the public to get into a tizzy over a Latino actor, Oscar Isaac, flying an X-Wing fighter. In the movie itself we come to know his character Poe as quite the pilot and maybe even better than a white Luke Skywalker ever was? Let that outrage sink in there for a moment, right? Strange, there was not as big of a blow up over this casting choice as for Boyega’s role. Isaac’s character of the three newest leads is the smaller one so far, but J.J. Abrams when commenting on why Isaac – “Oscar is a far more sophisticated actor than one might get for a role that could be looked at as just a daring, kick-ass pilot…But I needed a great actor—not just a great-looking guy who also acts.” Boyega and Isaac, two diverse actors proud of their heritage, also seem to be two great young actors based on their own merits. Period.

I don’t want to hold your hand

daisey ridley breakthrough

(Apologies, as I misplaced the link, but I believe this was taken from Collider.com)

Another significant area of conversation that flared up around Star Wars was the idea of gender roles. There are those who thought Rey played either too prominent a role in the new movie (a woman as the next Jedi?), or others who thought she was not feminist enough or lacked character depth fitting her into the “Mary Sue” mold. This “Mary Sue” idea is explained in one of the attached articles below if you’re unfamiliar. The essence on both sides of contention seem to be that Rey is a strong woman, which bothers many because they are accustomed to that being a man’s role especially in Star Wars (Leia aside), and on the other side it’s that she’s a woman representing perfection and wish fulfillment as a type, therefore a “Mary Sue.” I will not spend time on the former concern as Boyega best sums up that from his previous quote “…we’re just watching normal people.” The “Mary Sue” argument I find personally humorous as a moviegoer since men have dominated the movies based on this very sense of perfection and wish fulfillment my entire life yet we’ve lacked the outrage (anyone ever see a James Bond movie?). Just in Star Wars itself, look at the perfection of Anakin “the chosen one” or the wish fulfillment of Luke blowing up an entire death star on his own after hearing about The Force an hour earlier in the movie.

Rey is obviously a woman with a complex past that we’ve not completely been told about yet (see character development above), except that she managed to survive on a planet by herself living as a scavenger. This woman demonstrates loyalty and compassion, but also shows clear signs of frustration and anger. She flew the Millennium Falcon, while admitting she’s flown before. She endeared herself to Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn almost immediately, despite almost getting them all killed by unleashing the monsters Han Solo was smuggling on his freighter. After an encounter with The Force at Maz Kanata’s she prevents Kylo Ren from reading her mind without her consent and escapes from Ren without the need of rescue. Yet, she still accepts help to fight off Ren and escape from Starkiller base itself. Perhaps, one of the more significant pieces of dialogue regarding Rey comes earliest in the movie when Finn, the former storm trooper seeking to protect Rey (the woman), grabs Rey’s hand at least twice to which she rebuffs him with the comment “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” Rey is her own person:  compassionate, complex, courageous, and still fearful, or what Boyega would call “normal!” In Episode VIII we may learn she has another name, but her name will not be “Mary Sue.” Again, a success because we’re talking about a Star Wars female lead at all and the intricacies of her story and the prominence of her character.

  • “(writers Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams and Michael Arndt) They saw in her someone capable of carrying the most loved space opera odyssey into pop culture history – they saw in society a sophistication and readiness to embrace a bona fide, female film hero.” Monica Tan, The Guardian, writing on Rey’s character
  • “But despite my excitement that she was bored (who isn’t?) by Disney stories that ended in marriage, I felt troubled by the embarrassing lack of women in the Star Wars episodes she was now binge watching. This wasn’t just the manufactured concern of an over-enthusiastic feminist parent. My daughter raised the concerns herself.”  Patricia Karvelas, The Guardian

#WheresRey

falcon minus rey

An extension of the last topic had to include perhaps the most unexpected disturbance in The Force and actually seems to have arisen from a marketing and merchandising failure. Daisy Ridley’s Rey was always going to be one of the lead protagonists of The Force Awakens, but you wouldn’t really know it if you were looking for toys or other merchandise with her being represented. Thanks to the movie’s success with diversity and thanks to a breakout role by Ridley’s strong performance, observant consumers of Star Wars merchandise took to social media with the hashtag #WheresRey because they witnessed the inequality first hand between what they found in the mass produced male toys, and the appearance of the lack of equitable representation of the character of Rey.

The Force Awakens was shrouded in mystery of how it all would play out and merchandise was allegedly released so as not wanting to give away specific plot points (leaving Rey out), which is in question, by even J.J. Abrams himself. Through marketing leading up to the movie the audience knew Rey flies the Milennium Falcon and she would be at least one of the two main protagonists, but she was not included with the new Monopoly game as well as a number of other merchandising fails, including her exclusion from the the Millenium Falcon toy itself (see above). Someone miscalculated on that one, or did they? The growing uproar, which has been preceded by previous merchandise fails with other recent popular female characters, has been building over how toy companies and their executives may contribute to social engineering of “boys” and “girls.” This now culminated in the perfect storm surrounding one of the most successful money making movies on this planet ever. The subtle irony of this preventable fail in execution and ensuing PR mess is that one of the genius aspects of original Star Wars creator George Lucas was his innovation in forecasting how significant the merchandise of Star Wars could be and how incredibly correct he was then and now.

There are plenty of pictures (including the one I inserted above), tweets, and news stories that further this merchandise fail. This #WheresRey phenomenon has led to significant dialogue about how we still segregate toys for “boys” and “girls” in 2016 rather than have a section for children, or young adults. Star Wars is diverse in its fan base around the world. To executives who sell toys, apparel, and other items it seems unthinkable that a little “boy” would want to play with a Rey action figure or that a little girl would not want to play with a Kylo Ren action figure. Another frequent response was that the toy company did not realize how popular Rey would become? Really? So instead of mass producing Rey toys for the latest movie in case she pops, let’s keep flooding the toy stores with Jar Jar Binks as if that won’t make finding Rey toys all the more maddening to true fans (see Phantom Menace re: Binks). Heck, I’m over forty and I finally found a Rey bobble head for my wife for Christmas and it wasn’t for lack of trying to find other merchandise. I could not even find a Rey T-shirt for myself to proudly wear to the premiere. Executives should remember toys come in boxes, but people surely don’t. 

  • “…one or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the ‘Star Wars’ products…Eventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all ‘Star Wars’-related merchandise, says the insider. ‘We know what sells,’ the industry insider was told. ‘No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.’” From reporting by Salon’s Matthew Rozsa

I especially wanted to include these three tweets below shared by a good friend and even better parent who weighed in on the #WheresRey controversy:

  • “Maybe we can also resolve that Daisy Ridley should get a big cut of the profits on sale of Rey merchandise, since her labor made it popular”
  • “I hope that manufacturing moreRey figures w/Star Wars merchandise supports girls, but I’m resigned that it will simply make an elite richer”
  • “As father of 2daughters, I support merchandise portraying strong women, but I know that beneficiaries of merchandising are a few white men”

This is #WheresRey as seen through the eyes of a long time Star Wars fan, professionally educated ethicist, and a father of two daughters. I so appreciated his tweets and the thousands of others for the significant societal issues challenged because the success of Star Wars and its characters like Rey. The Force woke up in December with the release of the movie and to my pleasant surprise I not only got the movie I had always wanted, but I got some pretty socially significant considerations to take away as well.

 “The Ways of the Force”

The original Star Wars has had various forms of success and significance ever since it was first released, so much so that 38 years removed from its original release in theaters you can walk into a theater, as I did again yesterday, and see an audience of seven and under and seventy and older all enjoying this story from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” I’ve thought often since seeing the early premiere that J.J. Abrams returned to me the Star Wars of my youth while also delivering to me The Force Awakens needed by my adulthood. Clearly, Abrams and composer John Williams didn’t forget Rey (see Rey’s theme below), but instead the entire creative team has given me hope that all generations of Star Wars fans, already so diverse themselves, can be highly encouraged by a woman not only chosen to be the franchise’s new movie star, but indirectly chosen to represent so much more in the story itself and in our society. My hope for my friend’s daughters and others is that this movie can be socially significant enough to further us down the path of comfort in accepting and embracing equity and diversity in general and that another generation may comfortably accept the portrayal of strong women like Rey as both exciting and normal.

“The women in it definitely are as important as the men. We’re living in a time where, more than ever, everyone has a voice. And the people that don’t are beginning to grow one. There are so many people who are underrepresented everywhere. But to be part of a film that is both diverse and equal among the sexes is as it should be.” Daisy Ridley, The Force Awakens – Rey

I’ve shared several significant successes I’ve observed from The Force Awakens, but I’d like to end on a personal one. My wife, who I mentioned earlier, never grew up with the original movies. She did not play with all the toys, read the comics, or watch the VHS tapes till they barely worked in the VCR. Instead, she was introduced to Star Wars via the Special Editions in 1997. She did not have a lifetime of knowing the significance of “I am your father” or The Force itself, although she’s been a fan of the universe. In the last month alone I can honestly say her level of being a fan has dramatically increased. In short, here’s the moment when it happened. When we departed that night from our first viewing (yes, there have been more since), we immediately stopped outside to talk, process, and so she could ask questions. Here’s the personally significant part. My wife who rarely tears up or cries in movies looked at me and said almost immediately, “I started to tear up at the end.” I was pleasantly surprised. I asked which part, assuming the obvious for anyone who has seen the movie. Instead, she said no it wasn’t that, “I teared up when that lightsaber goes flying through the air into Rey’s hands.” I looked at her with enthusiasm and pride as any husband and Star Wars fan would and said to her, “me too.”

In that one moment not only did my wife begin a deeper connection with something I had discovered 38 years earlier, but if the packed theater we were in was any indication, the Star Wars universe and its new generation of fans also had a revelation in that moment as well. The audience applauded enthusiastically as if they had been following Rey’s story for years, or were as excited if it were Luke Skywalker himself appearing from the shadows. At that moment, the medium of film contributed to our daily conversation where generations from child to senior citizen were shown the visual of this new normal, only this time it was through the massive IMAX viewing of the phenomenon of Star Wars. Rey appears to be not only the main protagonist of this trilogy, but the next female Jedi at that. More important than even her lineage itself is that she’s a woman we can all cheer for, respect, admire, and accept as a legitimate movie star and Jedi to be. Because of the sheer size of something like Star Wars, Rey can be a force and symbol for equality, like her peers Boyega and Isaac, that can maybe move boys and girls, men and women, young and old, to a place of tears of joy of what’s possible on screen and in our world. One can hope; and this one certainly will.

“Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades. She is the real deal – smart, formidable and loyal.” Patricia Karvelas, The Guardian

The Edge of Student Affairs: Professional Spotlight on Shadow

Professional Competency Response to House of Cards Politics

Pete:  “…you care about this place; it’s why you do what you do; it’s who you are. The people need the Church more than ever right now…you know, you can feel it. And the Cardinal, eh, the Cardinal he might not be perfect, but we can’t throw out all the good he’s doing over a few bad apples. Now, you know I’m bringing this up to you because it’s Baron’s idea, his agenda…”

Robby:  “This is how it happens, isn’t it Pete? A guy leans on a guy and suddenly the whole town looks the other way.”

1. “This is how it happens…”

There have been several profound movies over the last year with Spotlight high on that list. Spotlight not only appeals to me on a personal level as a born, raised, and educated Irish Catholic from Boston, but it also rings true to my professional values of ethics, social justice, and intellectual curiosity, or as I also like to think of it – diversity of thought.

Spotlight is a captivating portrayal of the work of the real life Boston Globe Spotlight investigative journalist team that led to shedding the light of day on an overwhelmingly dark shadow cast by the decades-long sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Church clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston and the cover up and lack of accountability by an institution of great power and privilege (both the abuse and cover up ultimately were shown to be far more systemic). The movie chronicles these newspaper men and women whose own professional competencies, ethics, and sound work practices were desperately needed to question, challenge, and at times think completely outside of the box, or even go so far as to ignore the political box of living and working in a city and metro area where the politics and influence of the Catholic Church were extensive and deeply entrenched.

Through each meaningful moment that contributed to their investigation, these journalists not only had to manage the politics of the Church, the paper, and the legal system, but they also had to transcend a corrupt and corrosive kind of politics we’ve grown accustomed to in America 2015. These professionals had to practice an advanced level of ethical competence and care to establish an impeccable level of credibility in order to create the influence required to report this difficult story and shine a light on the darkness.

This is not a post about this movie, religion, or child abuse. It’s only a post inspired by the truth telling essence of the movie and specifically by the single scene above as example of a corrupt and corrosive form of politics that acts as the very agency for shadow itself. I found this scene to be monumental in its simplicity in both message and meaning. It speaks to the message delivered regarding abuse of power and privilege by utilizing a socially normalized practice of the way politics works, but here I’ve referred to it as a corrosive or toxic form of politics. It also leaves one to question the meaning or worth of an individual life when such political methods are taken to their worst degree as in the example of “a guy leans on a guy and suddenly the whole town looks the other way.”

  • Politics:  “the science or art of political government…the practice or profession of conducting political affairs…political affairs…political methods or maneuvers…Political principles or opinions…use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc.” As defined by Dictionary.com

Politics may be everywhere, but that does not mean everywhere they are corrosive or corrupting influences. In student affairs (or higher education), I believe political methods used knowingly, and accompanied by intentional deception and damaging means, in order to protect power and privilege at the direct expense or equity of others or to maintain practices of oppression or marginalization are corrosive politics contrary to the profession. When equality, opportunity, and freedom are threats to an individual’s or an institution’s agenda, success, or appearance of social or professional credibility, regardless of a desired change in policy, belief, or position, this becomes what I will call from here onward House of Cards politics (or Scandal politics if you prefer). Politics can also be a constructive and still competitive practice when political methods used knowingly employ appropriate, ethical, and lawful means intended to influence a person or persons by developing and implementing the most compelling and transparent argument or agenda, fully absent of intentional deception or damage, that legitimately changes policy, belief, or one’s position. I’ll simply refer to this positive kind of political influence as position politics.

Unfortunately, House of Cards politics seems too often to be the only accepted kind as its focus is on palace intrigue, privilege, and power, and aimed to get others to look the other way (#ShinyObjectSyndrome) or even unknowingly go against or harm others’ beliefs, interests, or positions. Despite seeming to run contrary to the profession itself, these politics do exist in student affairs. A secondary problem to be wary of in this culture of politics is the fear and shame, as seen in Spotlight, when unprofessional, unethical, or illegal acts often go unreported in a timely way if at all in great part due to the particular influence of people or institutions. This fear or shame as political methods may indirectly or directly influence individuals or sometimes groups of people who don’t want to damage their career  by rocking the boat or risk throwing out all the good from institutions or a profession when so many professionals are doing good things, the competent things, because of a “few bad apples.” This is especially true when the “few bad apples” are actually those in positions of power and privilege in institutions and are the influencers themselves.

The scene above depicts two professionals gathering for drinks at a bar. One of whom uses House of Cards political methods and maneuvers to praise, guilt, pressure/intimidate, influence and ultimately blame a few for the abuses of the many by characterizing the situation as a “few bad apples.” This person willingly excuses abuses of systemic power, privilege, and oppression all while the same institution in place to protect minors from harm looked away to protect the greater good of the abusers, the institution, and the reputation of leadership. Try watching the scene again and remove the fact it’s about child abuse by clergy, but is instead something relatable to you that you deal with in your workplace. Change the words in the dialogue above from city to campus, church to university, and Cardinal to Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, for example. Now what? Consider how you’ve felt in the past if ever in a similar situation, or reflect on what you would do today if someone approached you directly or indirectly about looking the other way. What do your professional values and competencies tell you? Hopefully they inform you that these politics do in fact run contrary to what this profession is and you will be the educator to someone else by saying “this is how it happens.”

  • “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” @SpotlightMovie

The reality of “this is how it happens” may play itself out when facing external or internal forces practicing House of Cards politics on issues such as sexual assaults, room assignments, alumni donations, discrimination and harassment, inappropriate use of funds, not reporting an athlete’s conduct, taking credit for others work or research, workplace bullying, defunding or overfunding offices or initiatives based on favoritism, practicing exclusionary hiring, or providing special access in decision making processes to friends over other colleagues. This also is happening in furthering the visibility and credibility of those with power and privilege, or creating it or “celebrity” status for those who are favored for reasons that have more to do with the influencer accustomed to privilege rather than with the professional’s qualifications, experience, or other relevant factors, thus depriving a wide range of professionals from the values of equity, inclusion, equal opportunity, and the diversity of their thoughts.

“This is how it happens” in every profession I am told so often as if I hear it enough I will ultimately embrace House of Cards politics as the only way student affairs can function. The difference in the student affairs (and higher education) profession is the higher expectations and the requirements to maintain certain values, standards, and competencies in place to practice so the profession is not corrupted by these very same House of Cards politics. In fact, the student affairs profession has one entire “top ten” competency dedicated to social justice and inclusion (SJI) alone, as many colleges and universities have also embraced these values and continue to do so. Earlier this year in the ACPA president’s blog http://www.myacpa.org/blogs/presidents-desk/we-must-do-better the phrase “We must do better” was invoked concerning equity and inclusion. These words must be applied as a socially just and inclusive response to House of Cards politics so professional dialogue is not cut off due to fear, but rather free to examine the shortcomings of blaming a “few bad apples.” This is an opportunity to advocate and explore and even tear down structural barriers for full inclusion prevented by this form of politics so professionals can be character driven and truly collaborative in using their accompanying competencies and respond confidently with…this is why it will not happen here.

 

equality and oppression

2. Equity as a precondition of a larger good

“…we aimed to frame inclusiveness in a manner that does not norm dominant cultures but that recognizes all groups and populations are diverse as related to all other groups and populations. Bell’s (2013) definition of social justice further necessitates that social justice include “a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. This definition subsumes the construct of equity as more than a goal, but a precondition of a larger good.” From “Summary of Changes” in the updated ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies Released; Monday, August 24, 2015 http://www.myacpa.org/article/updated-acpanaspa-professional-competencies-released

This leads me to a Forbes article that’s bothered me from its hiding place on my desk since spring when a colleague sent it to me, “The 9 most frustrating facts about office politics” http://www.businessinsider.com/rules-of-office-politics-2015-3?utm_content=buffere29b4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer%20%E2%80%A6. I didn’t do anything at the time but saved it for later. The version I had of it included a House of Cards picture, which reminded me to name these undermining practices and methods of politics as such. Coincidentally, on the rear of this copy of the article I had written something another friend said who I spoke to around the same time. This particular friend has worked with congress for many years and told me “Shane, the only thing more political than my job in this city (D.C.) is higher education in our country.”  I’m sure she could have come up with other examples had I asked for more, but it was a telling enough statement from one of the most ethical, socially just, and intellectually curious people I’ve ever known.

I didn’t write about office politics at the time not due to any fear of speaking of that which shall not be named or because of the article’s scare of “politics can make or break your career.” The time finally felt right now and the inspiration of Spotlight sure helped. Following all the incidents being continuously pulled into the spotlight by digital media and other means on college and university campuses and just about anywhere in our society, it seemed the appropriate time heading into an American political year 2016. Advocating for position politics, while seeking to shed a spotlight on the shadow of House of Cards (HOC) politics, matters in my opinion as this brand of  HOC politics knowingly deceives and does damage to people, professionals, and the profession. When this type of politics may be making or breaking careers in student affairs, then this requires an accountability check on the professional competencies and institutional power controls as this would be a failure to the very competencies of the profession, starting with social justice and inclusion for one.

My depth of concern with this office politics article is its very relevance to a profession that should be challenging the notion of growing accustomed to, or being introduced to, practicing privilege rather than social justice and inclusion. The article depicts from outset to end the reality that office politics are “not fair” and people should accept and even “embrace the politics whatever they are,” without any acknowledgment or serious discernment as to their professional ethics. The article even goes so far as to admit that “people pay more attention to the politics than they do their jobs.” This form of work ethic would seem to be an obvious concern for the value of personal and ethical foundations in student affairs. Yet, many know all too well the truth of that observation.

The article does provide clear examples of what these frustrations in the workplace are (which also contributes to why many professionals leave their employer), although the writer just presumes the House of Cards version of politics as the only way. That’s why this article matters for student affairs professionals to consider how to respond, report, challenge, or transcend House of Cards politics, as they are corrosive and contrary to the narrative the profession wishes to believe about itself. When student affairs professionals can knowingly identify them as contrary, they will become more than simply frustrating. They will be seen as debilitating professionally for a care based profession that holds and demands other values, standards, and competencies that specifically require professionals to protect “equity as more than a goal, but a precondition of a larger good.” (ACPA/NASPA Competencies 2015)

 

education darkness to light

Each of the ACPA/NASPA Competency areas, newly provided in August 2015, could have an entire chapter or volume written detailing their components, case studies, and consequences of inaction and action. Consider these office politics frustrations and how professionals can rise above what’s become acceptable but not equitable and advocate for a position politics for the good of all rather than a House of Cards politics for the good of the few by relying on and being informed by the competency areas:  Personal and Ethical Foundations; Values, Philosophy, and History, Assessment, Evaluation, and Research; Law, Policy, and Governance; Organizational and Human Resources; Leadership; Social Justice and Inclusion; Student Learning and Development; Technology; and Advising and Supporting. Below are just three I considered in revisiting this article.

  • Social Justice and Inclusion (SJI) (as found in the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies):  “…defined as both a process and a goal that includes the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to create learning environments that foster equitable participation of all groups and seeks to address issues of oppression, privilege, and power.” (ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, 2015)
  • Organizational and Human Resources (OHR) (as found in the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies): “Assess the costs and benefits of current established political alliances, in particular, their relationships to fostering collaboration and organizational transparency.” (ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, 2015)
  • Personal and Ethical Foundations (PEF) “…competency area involves the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to develop and maintain integrity in one’s life and work; this includes thoughtful development, critique, and adherence to a holistic and comprehensive standard of ethics and commitment to one’s own wellness and growth.” (ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, 2015)

The nine frustrations of office politics conveyed by Bonnie Marcus in her article are listed below with a relevant highlighted quotes I pulled out from her piece. For ease, I separated them into three groups so as to respond thematically. Overall, the student affairs profession and its competencies calls upon its professionals to not live with the frustrations, or “embrace the politics” just because, especially if those professionals in the field know these politics directly undermine things like social justice and inclusion, ethical foundations, and organizational and human resources.

You can’t escape it. It’s everywhere – Have you visited your children’s classroom and observed the dynamics? Aren’t there politics at play there as well? Children seeking favor with the teacher or other students is a common behavior. They learn at an early age what it takes to have power and influence and what it takes to succeed.” Politics can make or break your career – “Many of us believe that we will be rewarded for our hard work and talent. After all, we succeeded in school because of our diligence. But the rules in the workplace are different. It’s not a true meritocracy. It’s not a level playing field…In order to be successful, you need to not only do the hard work, perhaps even extra work, but also create visibility and credibility for yourself. Otherwise, you run the risk of remaining invisible in a crowded and competitive environment.”

  • I don’t dispute that activities related to power and influence are learned at a young age, but if what it takes to succeed in student affairs, or throughout any form of education really, is determined by only one type of politics, the kind I call House of Cards politics, then the response by student affairs professionals must be that other forms of politics and influence not only exist but are in fact what professionals are called upon to practice. Professionals should not throw in the towel on the entire case for positive influence from the get go by saying that only one type of politics works and it’s the corrosive, toxic, and corrupt kind that we know uses deceptive and damaging means. Student affairs and higher education is about creating the changing influence needed for the world to become more ethical, more inclusive, and more socially just. This profession should not be taking cues from a dysfunctional politics or shadow cast that perpetuates the belief and practice that “It’s not a level playing field,” therefore depriving oxygen from opportunity and aspiration. If professionals in the field are prohibiting access to visibility or credibility, therefore creating invisibles, then the very nature of social justice and inclusion is being corrupted.

The unwritten rules often rule – “In fact, some unwritten rules are sacred and you need to know what they are or you can step on a landmine that will sabotage your career.”  The rules are constantly changing – “It’s a full-time job staying abreast of people’s rules and the importance they attach to their rules at different points in time.” There are constant shifts in power and influence – “Senior leaders come and go and the culture changes, the rules change, and as a result, the power and influence shifts.”

  • Workplace environments change all the time. This is especially true in education on every level. That is acceptable and expected. What is not is the notion that because there is constant change this excuses organizational and human resources failures to provide consistent, clear, and comprehensive communication strategies. Through sound change management an organization can provide the opportunity for everyone in the workplace to have access to known information as appropriate, rather than allow for unwritten rules to be divisive among professionals and disruptive to the service being provided to staff, students, and community. As I brought up in a previous post, “Widening Inequality:  Educating for Fair and Equitable by Doing Away with Unwritten Rules” – http://bit.ly/1zSpmTG,“If we have to provide unwritten rules, this implies there are parts of the profession that need to be cleared up for everyone in order to benefit. If this is the case already and we further the need for unwritten rules in this profession we’re moving further from fairness and equity rather than toward it, creating a widening of inequality.” 

People who get promoted aren’t the most qualified – “It seems that these people pay more attention to the politics than they do their jobs…For they have mastered how to work the system, and they have aligned themselves with people in the organization who have power and influence.” All decisions are influenced by politics – “Some people get special attention because they happen to be in favor with decision makers and influencers. These people are plugged into the power sources and benefit from it… You will soon see that decision makers have a network of influencers that they consult. These informal networks of influencers have tremendous power.” There are informal networks within the company that have power and influence over all decisions – “There are informal networks, sometimes referred to as the Old Boys Club, that have the ear of senior management.” The informal power networks are extremely difficult to penetrate (especially for women) – “This is certainly frustrating if you’re an outsider to these networks, because it means you can only react to decisions and not be proactive in the process.”

  • When frustrations are seen through the student affairs lens it clearly shows a reinforced politics of exclusion. This leads to creating everyone’s favorite word “silos” rather than a collaborative community where it’s possible to celebrate the successes of all employees, not just those provided “special attention,” “tremendous power,” or part of the “Old Boys Club.” According to the professional competencies, to be an advanced professional in student affairs is to “exercise mutuality within relationships and interconnectedness in work/life presence.” (ACPA/NASPA 2015) A professional’s personal and ethical foundations in student affairs must encourage developing and supporting ethical organizational culture while also role modeling for integrity. To do this with expected integrity means transferring “thoughtful reflection into positive future action.” (ACPA/NASPA 2015)  Positive future action does not exclude women or anyone fully qualified and participating in the profession or seeking professional status and it does not mean working the system to create a new “Old Boys Club” by aligning oneself with those who have power and influence and actively dismissing those who don’t have it, either in perception or reality.

“Identify ethical issues in the course of one’s job…Appropriately question institutional actions which are not consistent with ethical standards.” As found in the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, Personal and Ethical Foundations, 2015

sat with broken

3. The force awakens

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” The West Wing

This blog post ultimately is a corresponding plea that “We must do better” in work and in life when it comes to equity, inclusion, social justice and the politics practiced to achieve these ends. It took the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team considerable time and energy to unearth something insidious that was sitting directly in front of so many people for decades protected by a certain kind of politics that allowed for this shadow to continue. We’ve seen very clearly this week alone how House of Cards politics, when employed, can turn rational, good, caring people into the very worst representations of themselves. That should be challenged in life and in the workplace.

If you’re concerned because an office is being questioned by human resources or equal opportunity, or an institution is under federal investigation for a Title IX violation, or you have to confront a peer or even a supervisor about an ethical violation or a social justice matter, then revisit your competencies. If you’re feeling the pressure to lean, deceive, or damage because of politics, remind yourself in a reflective moment and remind others too of the difference proclaimed early and often in this profession of student affairs that you’re supposed to be on the side of the spotlight not in the shadow, whether the matter is great or small. That is what’s expected of the students too after all.

The old saying goes that politics is all about relationships. This is true. What almost always gets left out of that statement is what kind of relationships are they and just how are they practiced?  Accompanying relationships with competence will inform the inception, integration, and influence of legitimately using position politics to influence for social justice and inclusion, organizational integrity, and professional ethics. Doing this will change the narrative for the better for so many people. A message inclusive of accountability, transparency, and active protest that professional and social goodness can happen here, wherever your here happens to be, matters greatly. If the professionals can use provided competencies to respond to House of Cards politics that individual lives hold meaning at all times in student affairs, then consider what that will do for workplace culture and what that role modeling will do for students and the world they will be entering. That is truly a force to be awakened.

courage grace under pressure

“There’s fair & there’s unfair, and I’m always gonna vote for the fair. I’m always gonna vote for the good guys” @MichaelKeaton Screen Actors Guild Awards 2016

Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Practitioners -http://www.myacpa.org/professional-competency-areas-student-affairs-practitioners
Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The findings of the investigation that inspired the major motion picture Spotlight – http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Catholic-findings-investigation-Spotlight/dp/0316271535/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1451831780&sr=8-1&keywords=betrayal
“The nine most frustrating facts about office politics.” – http://www.businessinsider.com/rules-of-office-politics-2015-3?utm_content=buffere29b4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer%20%E2%80%A6

Absaroka: The Place that Netflix Wouldn’t Let Us Forget

longmire banner

“Your life impacts mine.” Deputy Vic Moretti to Walt Longmire, Season 4/Episode 10

It’s how you come back that matters

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming:  the actor Robert Taylor and his fictional character have filled some large TV shoes in the last four years. This character, first found in the pages of author Craig Johnson, has impacted viewers of the show in his own way as his persona impacts those characters around him on the show itself, and thanks to season four’s streaming source many more individuals are getting to see Why the World Needs Walt Longmire (http://bit.ly/1fctB4y).

Thankfully, for a great many fans, seasoned and fresh starters, Longmire has come back from cancellation and it matters to a whole lot of viewers seeking not to lose quality shows because the tallest of pop culture trees (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Scandal, etc.) often overshadow some of the more serene but no less significant spots in the entertainment forest. The how of Longmire’s return from the cold hands of the cancellation reaper at that other network with the duck show seems attributed to a number of sources. Rest assured, though, as the show was saved not salvaged from the side of the highway like roadkill that saw its best days behind it. No, Longmire does come back not with a hesitant whimper but with an emotional and philosophical bang to match or surpass the one literal bang from a weapon that ended season three. Season four remains as consistent and engaging as the previous three installments, if not more so by the reactions of many fans on social media. 

One contributing source of Longmire’s return has been this persistent and enthusiastic fan base including those part of the “Longmire Posse” and fans of the original mystery novels, as well as many others. Among these many fans, there definitely includes more than one demographic alone, despite popular belief. That one particular demographic was seemingly demeaned and dismissed from importance with the show’s cancellation by entertainment ageism. We read or heard named and unnamed sources exercise the audacity to just call out Longmire viewers as old and therefore insignificant. These assertions of being both older and a TV viewer were as if they were being shamed to not watch anything at all they may actually enjoy, or it was as if they were constituting an entertainment crime itself worthy of Deputy Ferg taking them into custody in Walt’s own jail cell.

When the show was cancelled, all viewers, including those presumably “old” ones did not take the situation lightly regarding a quality show they believed in while it was being put out to pasture in order for a loyal audience to get yet another helping of fast food entertainment fed to them on a regularly basis. Fans did what fans do on occasion; they organized and peacefully rebelled a little bit, and pretty consistently. I’d be curious if the creators of the show or the network that dumped it knew Longmire fans were going to be those fans not going away without a fight, but that’s exactly what they did and deservedly so earned their movement an online name of the Longmire stampede!

Dear A&E, those “old” people you took for granted empowered themselves along with other demographics of your audience who felt distanced and disengaged by closing off their road to Absaroka County for good. These fans did not just silently protest. Some like me fled your network, others wrote letters, sought out new networks, and a great many participated in that stampede in the hopes someone heard the calls for a second chance. In many instances the Longmire stampede learned to participate in a social media campaign to join others who were already practicing their dissent online. Together, fans of Longmire, the fictional Absaroka County, and those of the reservation community shared a love of people and place and sought to not just say “too bad so sad.” They sought to find somewhere to raise these characters and this show from the literal and figurative ashes from a powerful season three finale. 

“It’s just been so inspiring and resilient and inventive, and the whole thing is humbling actually that there’s that many people that just really connect with the show and want to see it keep going.” Actor Robert Taylor, Walt Longmire

The sources these fans sounded off to were listening. For they too clearly saw a show that mattered not only to their fans but also mattered a great deal to its many creators and caretakers and Warner Horizon Television. This was evidenced by the support, outreach, and dedication from the author who has created this world of Absaroka County, a great cast and creative team like John Coveny, Hunt Baldwin, and so many others (far too many to name, insert IMDB here) who have been so gracious with fans online, and of course through the Longmire Days festivities held in Buffalo, Wyoming, and other outreach events. Longmire Days, in fact, is an annual summer event the American Bus Association has declared one of the top 100 events in North America. The show also matters to the greater Santa Fe community where the show films each year as a very suitable stand in for Walt’s Wyoming and the local Cheyenne Indian Reservation. I know it matters across Wyoming beyond just places like Buffalo and Ucross, home to author Craig Johnson and about twenty plus other people. I’m sure both New Mexico and Wyoming have seen an uptick in tourism as we at home see places on our televisions, laptops, or tablets that some of us may only dream to see in real life, or others may visit regularly and return as often as they can.

Last but certainly not least, the Longmire stories and characters must have mattered to the folks behind the still relatively new kid on the entertainment block in Netflix. As a fan of Longmire from the beginning, I have seen more marketing, featured articles, and more news or “buzz” created about this fine show in a couple of months than in the three years previous on that other network. I suppose I have the folks at Netflix to thank for that. 

“When Warner Horizon Television came to us with the idea for a new season of ‘Longmire,’ we were intrigued because the series is so unique, and consistently great. We are thrilled to help continue Walt Longmire’s story for his large and passionate following.” Cindy Holland, VP of original content at Netflix

My wife reminds me to be forgiving of that other network after canceling Longmire, since they they gave us this show to begin with and without this pothole in the road Netflix could not have intervened and infused life, marketing, screen time, and more room for character development than could have or would have been done previously. Netflix rode in from the horizon and obtained what seems to be a unique and consistently great storytelling score for the talented people at Netflix who have shown they know how to produce a quality product through their streaming service. On top of all of that, Netflix now claims a passionate fan base and a show that after three solid seasons may have had one of the best season finales I’ve seen (“Ashes to Ashes”) that with each return viewing literally brings tears to my eyes, from Walt finally dealing with both his grief and his profound love for his deceased wife to the profound serenity of Henry Standing Bear driving down the freedom highway, with his head out the window and wind in his face. This scene with Henry is probably one of my favorite scenes in Longmire so far in the series (not to be forgotten is the beautiful music selection of House’s, Big Light to go with it by http://www.housesmusic.com/).

I can’t comment on what did or did not transpire behind closed doors of why we almost never saw the likes of Absaroka County again, or how it is that Netflix came to save the day literally like western classics of old. I don’t know what happened and never really will despite what I can read on my own or infer from what those involved have indicated. All I know is that last August I was concerned Durant, Wyoming of Absaroka County would just be another ghost town like many places out west that time forgot. Netflix gave Longmire back to its known fans and those yet to be found as indicated by the famous “second chance” slogan touted by season four.

Lomgmire not only came back but it appears to be thriving in season four at #LongmireonNetflix, as of September 10 Netflix is now showing seasons 1-4. Viewers can follow along and connect with other fans via the @LongmirePosse on Twitter and on Facebook with pages such as the following: Longmire Possee Official Fan Site – https://www.facebook.com/LongmirePosse?fref=ts, and Longmire TV Show https://www.facebook.com/LongmireTV, and of course it still thrives through the individual stampede of those online, including cast and crew (the cast and crew are some of the best in television in interacting and responding personally online), still sharing about Longmire, re-watching and Tweeting episodes, reading the books, and encouraging friends, family, and strangers to do the same. Of course, for true Longmire fans, many of us probably polished off season four that first week as I did. Now, what matters is that I return to watch it again and see what I missed. While doing that I’ll be sure to encourage others to subscribe or watch it on Netflix, take the time to thank those who make the show possible, hope for what I imagine will be a season five, and help welcome others to Absaroka County for their first time.

Longmire lives

As for the show and this season itself, even if it can follow the mystery procedural playbook at times, which itself can provide intrigue and comfort, I still feel it’s really only a mechanism to dig at the deeper stories and character traits of these people and places. In over four seasons, and especially this one with twenty more minutes per episode (a key benefit of a new home on Netflix), Longmire delves further into the complexities of the Indian Reservation unlike any fictionalized show that I can remember watching. I know being a city born Bostonian I surely haven’t seen enough of this diverse population, their stories, their struggles, their spirituality, and their contributions to their community. I admit I possess a bias for the American West and the stories that are told there, but not only as history lessons from long ago, but stories that have both a past and a present and even showing that small town life is sometimes as vastly different or all too similar as we may not have imagined compared to our own perspectives. Longmire lives matters because we still have an opportunity to see stories of success and struggles that could be happening in today’s west that we have no idea even matter to people different from ourselves or they may resonate with those out west who may be all too familiar with what really matters.

“This isn’t to say that the series, created by a pair of producers from “The Closer,” is a complete procedural throwback. It began with an overarching mystery — the death of the wife of Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor), sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyo. — and that mystery is still playing out at the beginning of the 10-episode fourth season, which just became available for streaming. Three episodes were given to critics, and they provide further closure, though it seems likely that the repercussions will continue throughout the season.” Mike Hale, The New York Times (yes, that New York Times!)

This season even more than previous ones furthers the stories of challenges, the conflicts, and the communications within the reservation community and beyond with Walt and the “white world,” as well as how these stories consume the small confines of the sheriff’s office itself. A large part of the season four story in a very fascinating way mirrors the television show Longmire lives idea itself with the continuation of season three events and what results in the significance of season four that “Hector Lives.” Hector has been a pivotal character, whether seen or unseen, who those living on the reservation come to in hopes of obtaining justice when they believe it will be nowhere to be found. Indirectly, Hector launches a major thrust of season four’s pivotal story involving the ever impressive Lou Diamond Phillips in his role as Henry Standing Bear and his later involvement with an integral performance by Julia Jones, playing Gab Langton, a young woman on the reservation who has suffered great violence with little hope for obtaining justice or healing.

Under Longmire’s new life at Netflix season four gives us a more morally complex Jacob Nighthorse (the excellent A. Martinez), some more collaboration and even some rare smiles from the reservation police’s own Mathias (the ever-engaging Zahn McClarnon), and a critical appearance of Tantoo Cardinal as a medicine woman as season four heads to an inspiring reflection on the opportunity for change and transformation. According to IMDB, Cardinal received The Order of Canada recognizing Cardinal for contributions to the growth and development of Aboriginal performing arts in Canada. All of these characters, including our other fan favorites, and several new faces make for a full speed ahead year in Absaroka all in the backdrop of the bright lights of the casino finally coming to town.

Of course, this season obviously confronts head on the remnants of last season’s outstanding cliffhanger and Longmire doesn’t make you wait ten episodes for the payoff. Instead, that payoff of what happens to Deputy Branch and his father Barlow and Walt’s involvement in what happens next, in addition to “Hector Lives,” drives this second chance season at Netflix into the continued exploration of many more of those deeper issues that makes Longmire stand out among the crowded televised landscape. Longmire has a subtle manner of contemplating the nature of our humanity, our ethics and morality, and the likes of spirituality like the depiction of the life of the Cheyenne people as shown in Gab’s visit to a sweat in season 4/episode 6 “The Calling Back” to seek healing and rebirth.

Moments like this with a new character like Gab, a loving and authentic interaction between Walt and Cady in a car ride, Cady’s continued protective instincts for Henry, and the absolute disgust of violence and corresponding injustice that sees Cady, Vic, and Walt drinking away their anger on something other than Rainier beer are the true heart beating moments that allows us to feel the pulse of Longmire in season four. Despite the uncertainty of a Netflix move, Longmire remains in its essence the same show grounded in its foundation of loyalty of relationships, considerations of both respect and resentment, thoughts of guilt and forgiveness, a responsibility for self and community, the consequences of income inequality, justice vs. injustice, issues of race and culture, and this season even includes a unique look into the face of evil that Walt will not soon forget as it will change the show forever (“High Noon”). Ultimately, this season persists and culminates in the philosophical questions of who and what we are, as they are most pointedly expressed in season four’s finale by the consideration of the very nature and possibility of transformation itself. These are both human questions and quests if there ever were some to wrestle with as to the meaning of things, which keeps me and probably others returning to the essence of our own humanity as seen through these characters in a little place called Absaroka.

When this season ends, undoubtedly viewers will be talking about Walt’s own continued transformation through grief, the changing and almost tense dynamic between he and Vic, as well as that season finale yet again. The other huge takeaway is the development through time and space for the portrayal of Phillips’ Henry Standing Bear, as he literally bears the emotional and ultimately physical pain of what has transpired in seasons three and now four that further articulate Henry’s character as more than a sidekick to Walt. Henry is not only his own man, but his very nature is to be a Standing Bear to those around him, including those on the reservation and as always to his lifelong friend in Walter Longmire. This was a very full ten episode season by the time viewers arrive at the season finale episode “What Happens on the Rez…” Surely fans will anticipate and believe Netflix will allow for the continuation of Longmire in season five following another jaw dropper ending in Absaroka County. I don’t think it would be at all of a surprise to also say those same fans knew they’d want more Longmire long before they ever got to the season finale, because no matter on what device they watched season four before they could ever get to the “Rez” the cast first had to begin by meeting in episode one “Down by the River” in a powerful springboard to what many are still calling the best season of Longmire yet.

“Down to the River to Pray”

O fathers let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O fathers let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

P.S. “There’s no place like home”

LVNV Longmire Corner

Just the other day I happened to make a Longmire pilgrim’s stop in downtown Las Vegas, New Mexico, one of the primary shooting locations for the show. Las Vegas features the exterior to Walt’s office and the Durant town square. While walking the square, I began speaking to a woman named Dorothy. She was a friendly woman who could have easily been the Sheriff’s office manager Ruby and a resident of the fictional Durant, Wyoming. Dorothy said she had moved away from her home in Las Vegas only to return again, because she missed it, loved it, and to some people there really is such a thing as “no place like home.” Dorothy was one such person who believed this and in absolutely no way did I change her name to make it fit here into a tidy Wizard of Oz reference. This Dorothy was not wearing any ruby slippers! Sometimes life has a way of giving you the people and places you need just when you happen to need them. This Dorothy and I talked briefly of some of the other movies and TV shows filmed in Las Vegas and the greater Santa Fe area. We then obviously came back to Longmire and its significance in Las Vegas and the area and how the characters and places in that show were still needed.

Despite the murders and the mysteries and now all the tourists and oil rig workers frequenting Jacob Nighthorse’s casino, Longmire’s Absaroka County continues to change from a quiet place in the early days of season one when Walt is left to initially ask himself “What the hell is happening to my county?” I would say there are many of us that probably find ourselves asking a similar question of where we live each day. Yet, the Longmire universe inclusive of Absaroka County, Wyoming doesn’t seem like such a bad place to at least call a good fictional home to pass the time at the Red Pony with the likes of Walt and Henry, Ruby and the Ferg, and yet still enough wide open spaces and diversity and complexity of its people to always have an opportunity to discover second chances and even a possible transformation of our own.

Thank you Netflix and all involved in bringing this show and fictional world back to life on the screen. Thank you for not letting us forget Absaroka and allowing so many more people to be welcomed to this place for the very first time. May they too may find a fictional place to call home with some great storytellers and even greater characters with much more left to do still in season five.

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For more Walt Longmire mysteries, check out the stories that started it all by Craig Johnson. http://www.craigallenjohnson.com/

“I’m of the belief that everybody has a writer in them, but they also have an editor that strangles the writer to death before the writer gets anything down on paper. I think you’ve got to fight that to a standstill and say ‘OK, I’ve trained my whole life for this. I’ve worked for this, and it’s time to sit down and do this.” Craig Johnson, as quoted in the Buffalo Bulletin

****You may also want to check out Longmire’s first season 4 teaser trailer featuring “Bones” by musical artist @jaidadreyer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJLzVEAPE3M&feature=youtu.be

****Because LDP is a talented and gracious man.

LDP longmire Tweet Oct 21

Life’s too short to not be yourself

emerson being yourself

Usually, I spend my time writing consistently here in this blog with content of much greater length than this. Today I simply felt like sharing this in the hopes that for me and for others if you wish to be yourself you may be able to do so, or will at least have people kindly in your corner to create opportunities to be yourself rather than something else entirely. Life is too short for us not to at least have the opportunity to become our best selves. Thanks R.W. E.

Careers in the Air: Name the Shame of Unemployed and Underemployed in Student Affairs & Higher Education, Part 2 of 2

*This blog post, like the previous one, remains focused as a direct-reflect piece with real people sharing their professional voices and experiences, presently or previously unemployed or underemployed (or both), who responded to participate in this project during May/June 2015 through interviews and or questionnaire responses. I thank each one of them for sharing their knowledge, their professional experiences, and sometimes personal ones. I’m still listening, still caring, and I hope others will continue doing so, or begin to do so, for all professionals in every state of being, but especially for those who have or are experiencing this as part of their professional journey. This post and the previous one were written by compiling direct quotes or indirectly crafting from the words, thoughts, ideas, and expressions of emotion derived from those participants’ responses who reached out to share their experiences. I consider myself humbled to have had the opportunity to listen and read about their experiences and I hope these two posts may honor their intentions to remain as educators and bring awareness.

Long form – in three sections

Regaining control of your professional narrative

  • “The minute you orphan that story, it owns you. It defines you the minute you do that, and then you consciously or unconsciously work your life around it. When you do differently, you become the author of it.” Brene Brown, Salon, Aug 25, 2015

B Brown Rising Strong back

1. Foundation, foundation, foundation

We’ve all heard the real estate refrain “location, location, location” as being paramount to finding success in property value.  The professionals who provided the flesh and bone of these last two blog entries range in diversity from within six months of graduate school to seasoned professionals with fifteen or more years experience, and even included those possessing terminal degrees. What they share in common, aside from their experiences with varying degrees of unemployment and underemployment, is their desire to own and author their personal and professional narratives rather than have them be orphaned by the side of the professional road or have their narrative be shamed, silenced, or abducted by another person who has zero knowledge of that individual’s reality because nobody has yet sought to understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Perhaps, these professionals, and any true believers in the field, could reclaim voice in their own refrain of professional value – “foundation, foundation, foundation.”

  • “I learned that the support and unconditional love from a significant other was critical. I learned who valued a relationship with me because of who I am rather than what position I hold.” Anonymous unemployed professional when asked about what you learned about yourself

Whether new or seasoned, one clear message received from my interviews is that these professionals have witnessed serious foundation concerns. They have all observed cracks or craters in the foundation of the profession they value, or are still fighting to maintain the integrity of that value. These cracks and craters are seen in the foundation of the employment systems and practices themselves (recruitment, hiring, promoting-when allowed). They can also be seen in the clear lack of dialogue pertaining to the reality of underemployment and unemployment – resulting in, or contributing to, a lack of understanding and recognition of either. These holes, large or small, are also seen in their very own personal foundations of learning to be a professional in varied instances. In others, cracks appear as failed foundations demonstrated in disconnected graduate programs to practice (regardless of the degree itself), cultures of fear, bad policy, unethical behaviors and habits, and even ineffective leadership on campus and across professional organizations, which Brene Brown herself may refer to as “…a lot of BS from people who have grabbed the attention…where I don’t see the discourse.” In this instance, the discourse would be about the importance of employment, unemployment, and underemployment, and the significance of advocating trusting and transparent conversations about each. Some in the field would openly or anonymously call Brown’s attention grabbers the leadership celebrities, or the talkers vs. the walkers, as opposed to those leaders who do actually eat last. (Simon Sinek)

Despite a foundation that may provide the illusion it’s really on quicksand itself, these professionals seek hope and strength from the foundation of the field. Regardless of bad seeds, poor growth, or prolonged full-capability employment droughts in the field, most will endure because they believe in the work. They find hope in the founding elements that inform a meaningful career. They aspire to make meaning in their own contributions to educational value. They see hope in leaders who act with integrity and authenticity. They hear sounds of hope in a growing call for accountability in the practice and professionalism of how the field recruits, hires, and employs by the shining examples and word of mouth spoken (or through social media) of those who do these things well professionally, and with justice and equal opportunity in mind for everyone, not just someone’s favored or known one.

Maybe, there is even a little new found encouragement because the contributors to these posts, the many readers and generous respondents to the first entry, in addition to contributing to the last post’s success in getting it shared and read, more importantly will create the originally desired awareness for those facing or who will face unemployment and underemployment and speak up and show up for the social justice issue that is employment. Now, there may be professionals with hope that system failures within employment processes (previously written post specific to higher education/student affairs http://bit.ly/1oxAxxs) may find a place in the room for discourse and direction moving toward sustainable staffing systems because more professionals know they are no longer alone in their experiences even if everyone has yet to own all of their experiences.

  • “Why did I get a master’s in this – I can’t pay back with what I’m being paid.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about that has been learned about the profession during underemployment
  • “We need to talk about ageism and the residence life funnel/bottleneck for young professionals. I joke with a friend that ‘friends don’t let friends get stuck in res life’ but there is a grain of truth to that statement.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about that has been learned about the profession during underemployment

Stephanie Stradley (Houston Chronicle writer for the Texans, lawyer, and legal analyst on the NFL’s recent football deflation lawsuit) recently wrote something which was not only interesting, but seemed directly applicable to the consideration of professional foundations with regard to employment status in the field:  “Once a course of action is started by powerful people in organizations (the NFL), it is hard to walk it back. Many organizations do not reward people for speaking up against the course of action of what has been chosen by their superiors.”

This applicable course of action in this instance is the field or even institutional employment practices as they currently exist, which seem hard to walk back, because at the very least there are people who don’t want to do so, because they are secure in their own power by not doing so. There are also many organizations/institutions in this field that are known to not reward people for speaking up against the chosen course of action even if it’s for the betterment of the profession and despite doing so respectfully and having ethics, standards, education, and social justice on their side to support their informed contributions. Speaking up would likely mean time spent revisiting of processes or traditions at institutions or throughout the profession in the macro sense. In the micro sense, it certainly would force institutions and the profession to consider what if anything is done to prevent or respond to unemployed or underemployed professionals. Both would require questioning effectiveness and ego, and that is difficult to digest for many in education as it is in the NFL. If a week or a month of unemployment or underemployment is a burden for just one professional, what does nine months to two years or longer look like for one or more of them? What does leaving the field entirely due to unemployment or underemployment do for individual careers and the legitimacy of the field as a whole? What can or should be done to walk back, or course correct, and are leaders of organizations open to considering such innovations?

There is actual human evidence of fractures by not talking about the unemployed and the underemployed because it clearly makes those persons accept a positive, happy, or comfortable personal narrative that simply may not exist, because to speak of anything more could be seen as disruptive. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the way anything other than the perception of positive became all “negative,” “whining,” or “corrosive.” Rather than discerning and addressing the behaviors of those individuals being maliciously negative without a desire to contribute to solutions, those speaking up for a lived reality, asking critical questions, and considering and contributing ideas for sustainable staffing have been suffocated in the same blanket, which goes back to feeling silenced or shamed as a professional. Institutional or organizational brand management is as important as ever, but PRing another professional’s truth, feelings, values, identity, or well-being to get them to be a non-diverse human being, seems by the observations of many to be a bridge too far and is in itself its own negative and intellectually corrupt act.

  • “While it saddens me that this happens period – I learned that others were having the very same and in some instances worse experiences than I was having.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked about what has been learned about others during unemployment

In the 2009 Academy Award nominated film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays the somewhat unlikeable character of Ryan Bingham. Bingham travels the country as a contracted termination specialist for employers who don’t have the courage to fire their own employees. The movie is a social and economic commentary about where we’ve been and where we are with the “American Dream,” a foundation value for many, especially as it relates to how we find our identities and dreams defined by our jobs rather than the diverse souls who perform in those jobs.  Dispersed throughout the movie non actors share their experiences of what it was like being without work, including the song at the end of the movie. Those moments of reality stand out and are jarring, but consider these voices are out there in this profession and they’re too frequently not being heard or helped, which is in essence what these two posts have all been about.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92dkdlnDalQ Up In The Air, by Kevin Renick

  • “Anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now and because they sat there they were able to do it; that’s the truth.” Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air

With each professional I communicated with, I couldn’t help but hear Clooney’s Ryan Bingham saying the above packaged quote as part of his positive spin to the newly terminated. In the interviews I’d hear the frustration with the positive-only campaign by the use of messaging intended to be uplifting such as, “Trust the process,” (previously written post specific to higher education/student affairs http://bit.ly/1u4emP2), “Hang in there,” “It will all work out,” “You will get a job,” “It will all come together in good time,” “It all happens for a reason,” and “With every closed door is one more closer to an open one.” Even if these sentiments come from the right place originally, they come across as privileged or simply detached statements from someone else’s present reality. It obviously bothered people more when this wisdom was provided from another professional who actually had to live through unemployment or underemployment and now has seemingly developed both amnesia that they once went through it and lack of empathy that others were going through it now.

  • “Half of the on-campus interviews I went on didn’t end up filling the position, which is incredibly frustrating…and the transparency/feedback was minimal and I really didn’t know what I was doing wrong and why I wasn’t getting hired…When you have someone spend 8+ hours with you for an interview, the decent thing would be to call and tell them they were not selected…” Anonymous underemployed professional

In the words of one interviewee, “These are things we would instruct our staff members not to say to those in difficult times; haven’t these people ever heard of silence or presence?” Empathy and communicating effectively with those who are unemployed or underemployed can be tough work, but not so tough that a profession such as this one shouldn’t be talking about it, including every professional and in every graduate program on campus. One series of connections was definitely not considered tough work to comprehend- it’s that professional employment concerns are an always priority and are not something solved by a once a year focus on a recruitment season, TPE (The Placement Exchange) is an event not a silver bullet, and far “too many people are placed on search committees for their own professional development without any training at all by their department, division, HR, or equal opportunity on how to do it ethically, effectively, or legally.” To many, employment priorities are perceived as a “I’ll get to it after the important stuff” rather than one or more leader’s persistent  #1 priority to develop a sound organizational staffing structure of service to all constituents who are served by the organization. For such an important aspect of effective organizational operations there appears to be an undervaluing of the professional’s contribution to the business of education, but also the practice of prioritizing the foundation and future of employees.

(Break)

TOD value and worth

2. Employment gaps to well-being ones

Whether it was a conscience or subconscience choice to wait until now to release the second part of this blog I really don’t know for sure, but the fact that Brene Brown’s new book came out on Tuesday, Rising Strong, leads me to believe that it is more probable than not that it was a premeditated choice. In an article published by Salon on Tuesday, August 25, Brene Brown shared the following relevant observations:

  • “I do think that we have somehow, in our pursuit of comfort and happiness, shifted a lot of value to fun, fast and easy. But it’s counterfeit value. The amount of energy it takes to live a life where you never fall down is so much. We’re enamored of grit, tenacity, courage, and perseverance, I think because they’re so rare. They’re truth. We have a sign in our house that says, “We do hard things.” We’re going to be called upon to do hard things. We can weather disappointment. I think people are desperate for that. I think they want to believe they’re brave and they want to be brave, but what they don’t understand is how difficult it is. There’s this cultural obsession with happy and comfortable. But what we really respect are people who can have tough conversations and get things done. In order to do that, we have to be very awake to our emotional lives.”

Unemployment and underemployment are not fun, fast, or easy in reality or in conversations at all whether it’s dealing in employment gaps or well-being ones. They are tough conversations, when they’re even had at all. And if they’re not being talked about, then they certainly can’t be addressed with any sense of organizational health in mind and then all involved run the risk of damage to their wholehearted self, which may as well be emotional death rather than awakening to emotional life. Higher education and student affairs should be willing to have difficult conversations at any time concerning issues confronting employees. I’m sure one of those conversations or priorities for employees, and hopefully for organizations, would be well-being. However, I would contend the profession should be especially supportive of well-being as it pertains to those in unemployment or underemployment, or those transitioning into or out of those professional places.

  • “To appreciate how much our careers shape our identity and well-being, consider what happens when someone loses a job and remains unemployed for a full year. A landmark study published in The Economic Journal revealed that unemployment might be the only major life event from which people do not fully recover within five years…our well-being actually recovers more rapidly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment.” Wellbeing – The Five Essential Elements, Tom Rath and Jim Harter

There is a legitimate case to be made for re-framing the well-being conversation not around happiness and comfort, but instead as living emotionally congruent lives as best as possible with or without employment or full capability employment. If any part of the professional foundation has failed its professionals, then everyone should have an interest in working to solve it for the sake of the advancement of the field, even if that means ultimately supporting professionals in the field to obtain or craft the needed skills and abilities to move on from this profession because there is no room to sustain their own personal or professional success and ultimately their well-being.

train people well enough so they can leave

In their book Wellbeing, Tom Rath and Jim Harter write of well-being “the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities. Most importantly, it’s about whether these five elements interact (career, social, financial, physical, community).” I mention this book and include the image below as a simple reference point for any status of employment really. I know everyone I spoke to about underemployment or unemployment clearly communicated their well-being was not thriving during these times, without even providing this framework specifically. Interviewees had a diverse range as to how well they communicated thriving, but clearly their employment status was impacting one or several areas. In thinking about this, I was left with one of the more simple questions:  If professionals in the field who are underemployed or unemployed are likely not thriving in one or several areas of well-being, what is the role of higher education/student affairs to intervene in collaboration with or on behalf of these professionals? Higher education and student affairs professionals would not think twice about intervening on behalf of students struggling with well-being, no matter the reason. So what should professionals expect from the profession they aim to serve?

wellbeing gap

First generation students:  Interventions for them. Underrepresented students: Interventions for them. Students who are high performing, athletes, students requiring pet therapy animals, transfers, veterans? They all require some form of intentional, well considered, policy, plan, or practices of care to ensure that their needs as student, or customer, are being met or at least recognized in order to find pathways to succeed. Whether professionals in the field of higher education/student affairs are employed, unemployed, or underemployed, shouldn’t their well-being be a priority also by someone or more than one someone other than just the often isolated professional? And if by someone other than them means hiring managers or search teams using perceived well-being issues against those unemployed or underemployed professionals in recruitment and hiring, then consider that vicious circle of irony for a moment for the caring profession that this is intended to be. Then take a look at The White House’s Best Practices for Recruiting and Hiring the Long Term Unemployed as just one example that may provide assistance to those in employment need that this profession could use as a framework for seeking to support professionals whether unemployed or underemployed. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/best_practices_recruiting_longterm_unemployed.pdf . Below are just some responses related to well-being from those interviewed:

  • “I’ve learned that my spiritual faith was critical to my sanity during the time of strain/struggle. I also learned who my true friends were in the business as they regularly checked in with me to provide encouragement.”
  • “My self esteem has definitely taken a nose dive since my first full-time position, but I’ve tried to improve my attitude. It’s definitely been hard as I remain unemployed, but I try to be optimistic.” 
  • “I was working for an abusive boss who engaged in disparaging and berating behavior…clearly a workplace bully. It became such an uncomfortable and hostile work environment that I opted to leave. It was affecting my health, family life, and academics.”
  • “I may die $100,000 in debt, but I have been independent and taken care of myself.” 
  • “I was disappointed that I hadn’t secured a new job before the old one ended, so my confidence and self esteem took a big hit there. That also affected my attitude toward working hard for a new opportunity.” 
  • “I have a wonderful family and friends that know I am struggling and are trying their best to take some of the financial burden off of me until I can secure a real job. But because of my weird hours in retail, I often cannot go out to see them or socialize so I am isolated and feel alone, even though I know they are there for me.” 
  • “I started to see a counselor to help me navigate some of the attitude, confidence, and self-esteem challenges in addition to parent/child relations issues.”
  • This was one of the most challenging years of my life and the fact that I made it through and am still happy and standing is a miracle.” 

What well-being issues are heard here in these responses? What could be others? How can professional peers and leaders of the profession better seek to recognize, understand, and authentically support professional colleagues while they are unemployed or underemployed?

3.The Bully Pulpit

In the beginning of the previous post I wrote about shame-free professional narratives and anonymous educators. Shame and living in the shadow of anonymity are evidence of many things including organizational cultures navigating from a place of fear rather than courage, transparency, and transformational leadership. Indeed, there are challenges to leadership to display courage, transparency, and transformation, but when leaders of campuses or professional organizational have such roles of privilege and power, it’s not enough to have them, but it’s what is done with them. When we speak of the U.S. presidency, the coined term is having the “Bully Pulpit,” or the authority and opportunity to speak out on many and hopefully important issues. I believe this applies in this field as well and in fact should be the only time we hear of effective bullying at all as our leaders use their pulpit to advocate for adhering to and growing the foundational values of the profession and the institutions and organizations such as higher learning, ideals that will influence the students and global citizenship so we all do better than expected, not simply resign ourselves to lower expectations. This “Bully Pulpit” is not only for advancing the tough and truthful conversations about student issues. It should be used to advocate for inspiring and influencing staff too as well as taking on employee concerns such as unemployment or underemployment. Although it’s not often in the same conversational breath, employment is a social justice issue. The courage to talk about employment practices as moral practices as educators talk about budgets as moral documents does not mean everyone will ever wholeheartedly agree, but for the sake of a sustainable profession and a successful employment culture there must be enough voices invited to the dialogue from the bottom up, and leadership on these matters from the top down.

In the immortal words of TV’s famous The West Wing President Josiah Bartlet, “What’s next?” Leaders of any profession are called upon to answer the “What’s next?” questions. They are expected to seek diversity of thought and conduct formal and informal research on the “What’s next?” questions. They must care to understand the varied issues involved within and beyond their own scope of interest and their own professional field. Without this, leaders will likely continue to be part of the problems and will never be part of creating solutions or inspiring others to create them. Especially important from a dual employment and education lens, if educational leaders help professionals and the profession accept their own wholeness through the integration of all our experiences, which may include journeys in unemployment and underemployment, then this same profession and its professionals will ultimately better support students, if or when they are faced with the same challenges. Professionals in this field would never in good faith communicate to a diverse student body to just be silent, not be authentic, or not speak up regarding their whole story, even if it involves unearthing deep personal scars that may be both truthful and not positive, so why on earth would we expect differently from diverse professionals.Professionals need leaders to let their professional truths be heard as well.

Interviewees shared ideas about the “What’s next?” questions. Not all of them were certain. Not all of them even knew if they could figure it out because they were so worried about staying afloat as an individual or as a family. In some conversations, the talk of creating an undergraduate degree in higher education/student affairs did come up on the list as one of the things not to do next. This idea recently seems to be a whack-a-mole that may be entertaining to play on a Twitter chat, but when the profession regularly has people who are underemployed or unemployed, entertaining that game seems tone deaf to larger past and present problems that don’t seem to be going away.The moral of the story, regarding what comes next, is that these professionals want to contribute something that would be helpful to the profession, whether the participants in this project even remain in it.

Each of the following pieces of advice for peers and leaders could easily lead to their own blog posts. In the end, what these professionals wanted all along is awareness, more people to have the courage to ask questions of the profession itself and how these professionals are doing as people, and even the empathy to consider underemployment and unemployment not as a professional character flaw, but instead something that exists within this profession and in the world at large. the same would be true for educational leaders, but also with the added burden of hearing and advocating for the “What’s next?” as it concerns issues of professionals serving or seeking to serve students and staff. There are professionals waiting for answers to questions already asked and to those that are probably not being asked due to organizations not valuing them speaking up. Either way, so long as unemployment and underemployment is an issue there will always need to be both questions and answers and the opportunities created by leadership to speak freely about both.

When these professionals were asked about advice to those underemployed or unemployed in the profession, these are some of the responses:

  • “Stay professionally engaged and keep networking…”
  • “I will say that I took a temporary position at a university thinking that it would be easier to find a job from a job and I don’t think that’s the case.”
  • “Work to understand why it happened, if possible. If you have character flaws to correct, get to work on that.”
  • “Obtain certificates or get another degree.”
  • “Success comes outside of your comfort zones…you’ll never know who or what you’re looking for- if you don’t put yourself out there and make yourself vulnerable.”
  • “Don’t take things personally! The process is EXTREMELY subjective. All you have to do is try your hardest to succeed as that’s all you can control.”
  • “Feel comfortable disclosing information (professionally of course) what could explain a short gig on your resume.”
  • “When you’re unemployed you have to let ego go, getting caught up in titles and responsibilities; unemployment benefits only last so long…”
  • “When you’re underemployed you have to have an honest conversation with your boss what to do to survive.”
  • “Don’t sell your authenticity for a job. It’s ok not to feel ok. You trusted the process like you were supposed to and it failed you. You do not need to package up those feelings into a pretty little box labeled ‘learning experience.’ It sucked and it happened. That is a legitimate feeling.”

When these professionals were asked about advice to those in leadership roles in professional organizations regarding staffing the profession, especially pertaining to those unemployed or underemployed, these are just some of the responses:

  • “In SA I feel like it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, what you know, and how you package it, and how you’re packaged. Getting a job seems just as much chance as it is skill.”
  • “Just because a referral is from a friend doesn’t make it right as friends are not always right. You have to take chances on someone. You have to take a chance on yourself.”
  • “Be more creative in staffing to reward people with good work ethic as creative as they (leaders) are when moving around problems, making up titles and positions or retirement planning for those not doing the work.”
  • “The issues facing the recruitment and selection process of professional full-time staff has hit a level of embarrassment for the profession. The mere fact that people are leaving or consider leaving the profession because of it should be an alarm. It is very hard to preach social justice, diversity, professionalism, and ethical standards when our very own institutions across the country are not engaging in such behavior…maybe some of these leaders…should establish an anonymous blog site where individuals in search processes can express their challenges, concerns, and experiences.”
  • “If networks already formed (as a leader) then be open to new professionals (unknowns) who want to be part of this field.”
  • “Encourage institutions who are interviewing at (conferences/placements) to inform candidates when they are not selected following an interview. I found most of the places I was not selected were institutions where I submitted my resume and cover letter through (conference/placement), and was thus not in the official HR system.”
  • “Every application you get are people, not spam in your inbox…people apply for all different reasons and take considerable time to apply so acknowledge the person; you never know when that person will come back around.”
  • “Be considerate of others! Don’t list something you’ve already chosen someone for. Also, make sure you communicate with candidates (reasonably).”
  • “You have to be willing to fight for the people who work for you. Go to the mat…use capital to help people and not be afraid to fight for it.”
  • “…Great candidates might have “gaps” in their resumes and employment…I imagine I would advocate for changing any official/unofficial ‘policies’ that deemed currently-unemployed candidates as less viable…”

Again, employment and labor concerns are social justice issues that impact the lives of real people we may know, or that we may know and not ever even realize it. Sometimes these people are us. Unemployed and underemployed professionals want the opportunity to live lives of thriving well-being. They want to be dedicated to their jobs serving others, but not fighting survival to do so. They want to reclaim ownership of their professional narrative, and they simply want their very own opportunity to each day ask themselves “What’s next?” and to answer the call with heartfelt effort and enthusiasm.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7IMmsRGRpA Sufjan Stevens: Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)

________________

Dear Nobody – 2012

After hearing about my project on Twitter, a fellow professional shared the following resource with me and I thought it was a perfect end note to this post. So, all credit and thanks to the creative talents of Kayla Cady for the artistic representation that I believe compliments this post well. http://kaylacady.com/installation.html

Careers in the Air: Name the Shame of Unemployed and Underemployed in Student Affairs & Higher Education, Part I of 2

*This blog post would not be at all possible without the many contributions of approximately 40 volunteers, presently or previously unemployed or underemployed (or both), who participated in this project during May/June 2015 through interviews and or questionnaire responses. I thank each one of them for sharing their knowledge, their professional experiences, and sometimes personal ones. I’m still listening, still caring, and I hope others will continue doing so, or begin to do so, for all professionals in every state of being, but especially for those who have or are experiencing this as part of their professional journey. This post and the next have been written by compiling direct quotes or indirectly crafting language from the words, thoughts, ideas, and expressions of emotion derived from those participants’ responses who reached out to share their experiences. I consider myself humbled to have the opportunity to listen and read about their experiences and now know them better as people. I hope these posts may honor their intentions to remain as educators by bringing awareness to others.

Long form – in three sections

A Shame-Free Professional Narrative

  • “Because whether you are recently out of school or toward the end of a long career, you deserve the chance to earn a living.  All Americans should be confident that if they put forth an effort, they can find a job, care for themselves and their families, and retire with dignity.” President Barack Obama
  • “Implore them (employers/hiring managers) to recognize the human aspect of the job search; recognize extreme emotional and mental struggle and self doubt is real. Then, we get nothing. No communication. We must be transparent with applicants and candidates. I’m a person, not just a body.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked for advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment

1. The Anonymous Educator

Summers on college and university campuses may range from tranquil to just as terribly busy as any other day during the academic year. Now, with the prior year celebrated and closed out, student affairs and higher education professionals are looking ahead to the frenzy of fall, in addition to keeping up with the daily summer pace for many universities who operate at high impact levels all year long. For full-time/full capability (see below) professionals currently employed and those considered underemployed, no two diverse professionals are in the same state of being. Just as these working professionals are presently in diverse states of being, so too are those unemployed professionals within this same field.  

Whatever diverse states of being professionals are in before this academic year, this post asks of its reader to hear a compilation of several professional voices experienced in being unemployed and underemployed in the field who have both unique and significant perspectives and contributions to make to any dialogue about states of being, but especially as it pertains to employment and working, not working, or not working to full capability, sometimes referred to as underutilization of labor.

  • Unemployed: (Department of Labor) “Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Workers expecting to be recalled from layoff are counted as unemployed, whether or not they have engaged in a specific job seeking activity. In all other cases, the individual must have been engaged in at least one active job search activity in the 4 weeks preceding the interview and be available for work (except for temporary illness).”
  • Underemployment: (Investopedia) “Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers that are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers that are highly skilled but work in low skill jobs and part-time workers that would prefer to be full-time. This is different from unemployment in that the individual is working but isn’t working at their full capability.”

out of work

Unemployment is usually the easier one to identify, measure, and report upon. Underemployment is more debatable and requires more challenges in identifying, measuring, and reporting. In part, this is because underemployment does not only mean a part-time job at Barnes & Noble or Home Depot. These underemployed professionals are also working both part-time and full time (but not full capacity), in low-paying and low skill jobs on college and university campuses. Although they are not often perceived as ‘underemployed’ because they are working in the field, they may be making as much as if they were working for one of the aforementioned employers or be “severely exceeding the capacity of the professional position,” as noted by one interviewee. However, the end result is the same if you speak to the professionals I spoke with who were among those underemployed on a university campus, whether part-time or even full-time by title or classification:  they were highly skilled…but not working at their full capability.

underemployed comic

 

  • “I would honestly say that being underemployed has left me with an overall feeling that my life has stagnated. I cannot start to live my life or even feel like a grown up because I have no way to take care of myself.”  Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked what has been the biggest obstacle during this period

Most of these experienced underemployed and unemployed professionals I interviewed spoke to their emotional exhaustion or it being “difficult mentally” from experiencing discouragement, embarrassment, abandonment, or shame with or directly from family, friends, or colleagues. To some it was a blaster shot to the belief of “invincibility” or being “indestructible,” while possessing excellent references and resumes, experience, and institutional pedigree. This is a field that overly communicates professionals are not competitive with one another (not everyone’s experience), are willing to help others, and that there are lots of postings, while at the same time there are also lots of quality applicants who are actually competing for those same jobs, are not willing to help, and the postings may seem many but perception of quality employment and reality are two entirely different things. Others talked of having a crisis of identity, especially today where it seems to be all about classifying one’s identity only by what you do, not who you are as a holistic person.

Many have had financial difficulty because of their own admittedly unwise financial behaviors or choices or simply their crushing change in employment circumstances (expected or unexpected). Sometimes it may be a combination of both, or the not simple reality of learning how costly it is to be lacking an income at all, or being paid one in an unemployment check or at an underemployed job that is so low paying that it’s almost a detriment to your ability to live and meet your financial responsibilities. Some have been fortunate to be privileged enough to have family, friends, or other safety nets to support them, which sounds a lot less like a privilege to the folks in the profession for 5, 10, 15, and 20+ years. Yet, others are struggling with already diagnosed mental or physical health issues that unemployment or underemployment is not helping improve in terms of their finances or their personal or professional well-being.

Not to be forgotten, either unemployment or underemployment consistently brings up not only a person’s career and vocational questions, but ones of faith and spirituality, or maybe even now lack of having it, or dependent upon it to make it through the day like never before. These are all deeply significant states of professional and personal being that real people and colleagues have found themselves in due to these circumstances, as are the questions they are asking themselves and others. Who in student affairs or higher education are asking these professionals about their state of being or the larger systemic reasons for these professionally debilitating obstacles? Do you know who your colleagues even are that are struggling with these dilemmas, or are they hidden from you by their choice, or your own choice? If anyone is asking them how they are, what are the unemployed or underemployed willing to say? Or, what do they fear saying about living in either status in a professional field that in perception and practice may continue to marginalize or shame many of them? What they have to say about where they are at may not be received positively by someone else who may not ever understand their experience, even if they’ve lived it by the same name, as it has a unique nature to each individual person. There is obviously an absence of trust on these matters.

  • “I found that unemployed people with the least were the ones willing to help the most…others could have helped and didn’t as if it was my fault that I was unemployed.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked what had been learned about others during this time

I have no delusions at all that I would not have received as many inquiries or as many volunteers had I not guaranteed 100% confidentiality to the participants in this project. Considering how almost all of them were unknown to me prior to this activity, it was abundantly clear they wanted to be heard and reestablish some level of trust, and they graciously trusted me to hear them. Almost every single one of them made the point “I know I am not the only one to experience such things.” In addition to not wanting to experience unemployment or underemployment again for themselves, they most certainly don’t want others to have to experience them either, or feel so “isolated” in doing so. There would appear to be a paradox problem:  there are professionals who want to help other professionals and the profession be proactive and respond to those unemployed or underemployed, but they can’t seemingly do so because they are generally cautious, lacking trust, or shamed to a place of only doing so anonymously.

Since the latest great recession there are plenty of posts and places to read about the politics, the economics, and the mental health consequences of unemployment, underemployment, discouraged workers, etc. This post is not that post. This one is a direct-reflect from questions asked and answers received by voluntary participants, without judgment by me of their professional narratives. That’s not at all to say the national organizations and functional areas within student affairs and higher education on the whole don’t need more specific research on staffing the education business and economics of the profession and the systemic problems that lead to this field’s employment crises. I hope to see more of those dialogues, posts, articles, research, and books. This post captures moments in time from real people enduring or having endured through a professional period perceived by at least one person as “invisibility,” with no disrespect intended to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

  • “Unemployment and underemployment is a research area that needs further development.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked for advice to leaders in professional organizations re:  staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
  • “Know when to leave a situation that is damaging professionally or psychologically.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked what has been learned about the profession

(BREAK)

2. Believe It or Not

  • “Candidates need to ask about culture more and more. We don’t talk enough about culture or ask about it, including personality, leadership, and management style of the larger organization.” Anonymous unemployed/underemployed professional, when asked how either experience has impacted the perspective on the view of recruiting, hiring, or employment practices in the profession

Some of the more frequent thematic elements expressed by those with experiences in being underemployed or unemployed in this field are feelings of disappointment and failure, questions of who is honestly and ethically in one’s corner, being driven vs. being desperate to find a job, personal and professional priorities and values, vocational identity, and of course the continued lurking gremlin of shame. There is even a strong showing of regret or at least serious reconsideration of pursuing or practicing in the field itself and the values it allegedly professes vs. the many of the ones it chooses to live by, although this was not expressed by everyone. There are even feelings of deception, especially for those newer to mid-level professionals as if “misled” that jobs will be there for them at the start of their careers, or even as they progressed in the field that they could be obtained in a fair and ethical manner based on achievement and work ethic rather than in a less significant manner, or even in some instances considered to be shallow or not considerate of an employee’s character, merit, or value of who and what they are to their current or potential employer, professionally speaking.

Several of these pros who felt deceived spoke to fake and unethical searches and promotion processes, the persistent lack of communication during a search or after, the inability of the profession to live up to the values it says it holds people to during searches and on the job, that they were sold a “bill of goods” about the university or their projected expectations of organizational “fit,” and several specifically addressed the excess of what they considered entry-level housing positions, which appeared incongruent with their graduate and professional preparation (which is an entirely different post that needs to be written). Even with those topics and so many others, more often than not, I still heard realistic notions of resiliency, self reflection, inspiration, the willingness to ask for help, prioritizing love and friendship, the rediscovery that personal and professional well-being matters, and the will that no matter where they found themselves, they would continue to find ways to create new beginnings in the washed away sand, even if “only one day at a time” and under less than positive circumstances.

  • “I need to get back my poor person scrappiness. I got complacent and that’s why I got screwed.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked what have you learned about yourself during this time

shame corrodes

 

As hurtful and frustrating or “emotionally demoralizing” as it can be to live professional journeys where many of these unemployed or underemployed professionals may be “living on a friend’s floor,” struggling on an unemployment check to pay the mortgage and feed a family with multiple “teenagers who eat everything in sight,” challenged by explaining employment gaps simply because of a requirement to move a lot for a spouse’s job, and facing ridiculously hostile work environments and workplace bullies, there was something else present too. There was a calming sense of humanity shining through these conversations, despite what they have experienced.  These conversations were so very human and healthy that it’s incredibly unfortunate that they would seem so rarely discussed because of some reasons previously mentioned and perhaps too to recognize that even in higher education, home of the alleged best and brightest, employees don’t always get to possess a shame-free professional narrative.

These professional narratives often exist in silence, or professionals are merely taught to “never burn bridges” even when the bridge was blown up on them from either side like blasts from a Death Star. These professionals must “package it, then present it as polite and positive,” which makes it all the easier for the burden of stigma and shame to become such corrosive elements to the very professionals who advocate integrity, holistic development, and counseling services to everyone but themselves. These individuals still want to belong professionally, want to know people who still hear and care, and they want to know that they can actively contribute to changing their circumstances and that of others who have experienced what they have. They still care greatly, but they also know they need leaders across the profession to hear, care, and empower all professionals to consider changes for the betterment of all, rather than the few.

This may sound unbelievable to some professionals reading this. Guess what? It probably once sounded just as unbelievable to those professionals reporting about their experiences with unemployment or underemployment. We know it’s the reality facing a large number of people in the United States and to think that crop duster of unemployment or underemployment skips over those working in this particular field or who are wishing to do so (and at full capability) is simply not realistic. These professionals are unable to follow their vocation, drive, interests, or they can’t even just do a job so as to care for themselves and their families as they have been prepared to do by graduate programs or the experience of a long career. Instead, they find themselves absent from the profession entirely by unemployment, or they feel as merely an afterthought, or simply disengaged from the workplace, because they are underemployed, taking on the fundamental and devastating question of “Why bother?” In the worst of scenarios, it’s not even that these persons ultimately leave the profession, it’s that they are bordering on becoming discouraged workers from the notion of work itself who will then give up on looking all together and thus will not even be counted among the unemployed.

  • “None of my work really matters in the long term. I’m not getting hired on, I’m not able to get raises, I don’t have vacation days, I don’t get insurance or any other benefits. I’m not here long enough to set goals, and in my current job I don’t even know how to set goals. I do a good job, but I don’t go above and beyond because I’ve been shown very little loyalty…there is absolutely nothing in this for me once I leave, except for a recommendation…I miss being good at something. I want to be good at my job again. I haven’t felt that way in a long time!” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked if the experience of underemployment impacted your perspective on how you think about work or your own work ethic
  • “I know many professionals in higher education…and they just seem to be surprised that I am struggling as much as I am to find employment. They are all emotionally supportive and encourage me to keep applying to jobs, but they can’t really offer any specific help because I’m either doing everything that I can, or they are not party to the hiring process of their department.” Anonymous underemployed professional, when asked about what has been learned about others during this time

There is nobody in the education business that gets through a Twitter feed without reading daily of serious challenges facing higher education. Interviewees wonder how often, if ever, are departments, divisions, universities, and professional organizations talking openly about the unemployed or the underemployed professionals in the field or no longer in the field, beyond just talking about conferences and professional development opportunities? Where are the questions, concerns, or social justice challenges to advocate for colleagues who are unemployed or underemployed? Where are the calls to reexamine a recruitment, hiring, and staffing approach that may not be serving all the professionals of the profession itself?

What seemed to be a deafening silence on individual and systemic issues like these led me to the place where I decided to go ahead and ask those experienced with underemployment and unemployment – what’s been some of their experiences and what’s to be done about it through their eyes of that experience? There is most certainly a perception that professionals who fall into the category of unemployed or underemployed are somehow “damaged goods,” “red flags,” or “have issues,” rather than being simply professionals and humans who are unemployed or underemployed, despite the fact most of us know these things are so often out of our control, presenting yet another paradox. As identified by an interviewee above, why are educators worried about assigning blame to those who find themselves at this fork, bump, or pothole in their professional road?  If these are just some of the perceptions, what education must occur to change the narrative on this subject and when does that education begin?

(BREAK)

3. Life Happens

The reasons are varied why professionals find themselves as either unemployed or underemployed and this is not an inclusive list:  laid off; victims of division or university reorganization (in one example from an interviewee “four reorganizations in five years”); non contract renewals; being let go for cause, for institutional “fit,” or simply for being an at-will employee with no officially provided reason; having to relocate for a partner; only low wage or low skills jobs available to be had; employers discounting transferable skills and experience; taking a low skill or low paying job just to fill an employment gap; or some folks may just want a part-time or low skill job, but that last one I don’t recall as being anyone I interviewed.

Some professionals actually choose to leave their job on their own for their own personal or professional reasons, whether it’s part-time or full-time/full capability, without one already to move on to next. This too colors someone as unconventional or possibly a red flag, but it too is a reality that happens as life is far from idyllic and sometimes just happens. Some reasons for this include the following:  some leave from a place of privilege and others desperation; others state compromised values, physical and or mental health and well-being concerns, family reasons, lack of professional opportunity or salary growth available, incompatible ethics with supervisor, organization, or practices; some depart due to a hostile environment or working directly with or for a workplace bully; and of course others walked away to live their true lives and that was not in their current job or career, so they took a chance on a dream because life’s too short. From the professionals I spoke to almost all spoke to the hope of finding a job or career and putting in the effort to earn a living that pays well (read fair and equitable/appropriately valued, not rich) and one that matches their high level skills expected of the profession that includes “working at their full capability.”

unemployment line

 

No matter the demographics or characteristics of the professionals there is a persistent concern, anxiety, or outright fear concerning explaining gaps in employment or why people leave jobs, no matter the legitimate reasons, or even having the chance to explain the reasons at all. In this profession where integrity, fair and equitable, social justice, and being authentic, are professed so many professionals begin the relationship with employers feeling the need to lie or make up something that sounds believable to the employer, feign perfection, or hide even from failure (especially during the interview question about failure). Otherwise, professionals run the risk of being dismissed for one item, having integrity, when scores of other professionals in the eyes of many are manipulating the system to get the job regardless of the honesty or credibility of what is actually said, so long as they get the job (keeping in mind the previously mentioned “it’s not a competitive field”). This is not a problem unseen in other careers, but in this one, with the history, philosophy, and values or practices espoused, there are more people that find fault with such behaviors because of its direct hypocritical nature to what the profession allegedly stands for in the eyes of those employees who have expressed wishing to belong to it.

  • “We’re as phony as any other profession. We’re not held to a higher level. So, I’ll not be as nice as I’ve been, I’ll be phonier and look out for myself.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked about perspectives on work, job, or own work ethic

For those professionals who find themselves underemployed, there is another particular ugliness of direct or indirect shaming by hearing things from other professionals like, “at least you have a job.” This may in fact be a healthy perspective in a global sense, but it’s absolutely diminishing and dismantling to the individual being spoken to in terms of meeting them where they are, because where they are at is the worst place for them. I believe something about “seek first to understand” would come into play there. When master’s level or terminal degree level pros are working in low paying and low skilled jobs in student affairs and higher education or elsewhere, and sometimes a second or third job (if not too overqualified to obtain them), just to supplement income to be able to make rent, pay medical bills for a new baby, or forced to consider if/when they will buy food today just to make this profession work, there is a problem that goes well beyond just personal responsibility, financial literacy, or the sense that a person may sound privileged.

There may be a strong disconnect of empathy if we feel the need to judge first without questions and make others feel bad for not feeling even worse than they already do because there may be those who are technically worse off than they are currently. That of course goes to one’s measure of what’s worse and we must ask in order to know. If we’re unable to listen, lift up, or empower the ones closest to us or that we have access to each day, then we likely have zero chance of hearing or helping those furthest away from us.

  • Don’t automatically discount a candidate simply because they aren’t currently employed or employed in a stop-gap job that seems out of line with their previous experience. We’re all just trying to survive out here.” Anonymous unemployed professional, when asked to give advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment
  • “This actually happens (unemployment/underemployment) and it exists so let’s recognize it and start a dialogue as to how we talk about it.” Anonymous unemployed/underemployed professional, when asked to give advice to leaders in professional organizations re: staffing pertaining to unemployment and/or underemployment

Over the last five to ten years we have seen a rise in caring and concern for the hungry and homeless students on campuses because we know the harsh economic impacts on them. Because whether professionals realize it or not it’s been naturally understood that what John Lennon once sang remains true, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Well, it may be worth considering the harsh economic impacts squeezing or crushing those same employees being asked to provide five star quality care for those students on campuses across the land if they feel they have full capacity employment opportunities of their own suiting their education, experience, competencies, and leadership skills.

There are without question colleagues out there hurting, in need of help and opportunities to thrive, and yet so many still remain helping others on campus, in the profession, or in the global community as best they can. The hope they all shared for this project and blog post was to raise the very awareness that professionals in student affairs and higher education recognize or remember that unemployment and underemployment happens in this field. I think they’d like to also see more professionals contributing to listening, leading, understanding, and ending the silence and shame in order that all professionals can get “busy making other plans.”

  • “For a profession that should be aware of exactly how little has changed in terms of the economy and how hard it is to enter the professional field, you would think that there would be more awareness and support. I haven’t seen it.” Anonymous underemployed professional when asked what’s been learned about the profession during this time

_________________

Dear Nobody – 2012

After hearing about my project on Twitter, a fellow professional shared the following resource with me and I thought it was a perfect end note to this post. So, all credit and thanks to the creative talents of Kayla Cady for the artistic representation that I believe compliments this post well. http://kaylacady.com/installation.html Check out this website and some of the excellent artistic work found there.

*A note for those who consider such matters: the like or share numbers of this post have been dramatically reduced since correcting the date of this post, which changed the URL and set those back to zero. 

To be concluded in Careers in the Air:  Name the Shame of Unemployed and Underemployed in Student Affairs & Higher Education, Part 2 of 2 http://bit.ly/1hJ7EMO

 

 

Failing Forward Into Our Future

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.

Consider

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”

Silence of our friends mlk

Create

“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.

Collaborate

“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)

Caution actions and words

Commit

“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.

Oppression

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/