Last night, @OU_Unheard from University of Oklahoma and @WakeUpWSU from Washington State University launched a hashtag #WakeUpandHearMe to address the challenges underrepresented students, particularly students of color, face on their college campuses. (Read about why the hashtag was created here). Within hours, the hashtag was trending as students shared powerful stories of microaggressions they experience daily and the impact it has had on their identity, their community, and their campus.
As a student affairs professional and administrator on a college campus, these three tweets really resonated with me:
Working in multicultural affairs, I have the privilege of listening to and advocating for students from underrepresented communities. What is so apparent to me is that students have salient identities and experiences that they bring into the classroom and onto our campuses. They are impacted and affected by the world around them, especially recent acts of injustices across the nation that have empowered people to speak up and take action. So, why can’t we take a moment to stop, process, and talk about it?
Recently on a student of color panel at my institution, students shared stories of faculty in their classes who were uncomfortable approaching the topic of race and were not equipped to address racial and gendered microaggressions in the classroom. One student shared that they believed their professor didn’t address one student’s offensive comment about a person of color during class because they did not want to make the majority of the class feel uncomfortable; however, in catering to the majority, the faculty member unintentionally de-valued the experience of the student of color in the room. She asked, “Why does their comfort trump mine?” All of the students on the panel thought there could be more education, more professional development opportunities for faculty and staff to make the college a more welcoming and inclusive environment – a place where all students feel valued and a part of the community.
In higher education, we often cater to the majority and in doing so, we silence the marginalized. What makes #WakeUpandHearMe so powerful is that these are students who are telling us that they want to be heard and for us to realize that they haven’t been heard and we haven’t been listening. So, what can we do as professionals?
1) Listen. People who are silenced over and over again deserve to be heard. In this recent article, Why Don’t My Friends Talk About Race? Here’s What They Told Me, the author shared that “often anger is a manifestation of not being heard…Last night all I wanted was for someone to hear me and know that I was hurting.” As she had conversations with people who listened to her frustrations and pain, her outrage abated. What I’ve learned is that something we all want, is to be heard and that the greatest gift we can give someone is to listen, be present, and have empathy. Sometimes just listening can solve a lot of our problems. Create a space where people are safe to express, and then hear and validate their concerns – this is the first step in healing a community and creating a community of belonging.
2) Don’t be afraid to have the conversation. People might be afraid to engage in these conversations because they don’t know what to say or do or don’t want to make a mistake and offend. If you have your own concerns or are unsure of what to say or do, then just say that. People appreciate the honesty and vulnerability and would rather see your willingness to try to engage rather than your silence on an issue that is important to them. If you are unsure or uncomfortable, be honest about it, and do more listening and ask how you can help. Just know that you have experiences and perspectives that you can offer too. Like I said in a previous blog post, you can’t fail at being you so just show up to the conversation. Once we hear and validate the concerns, we can provide perspective, advice, and resources. Sometimes it’s just a matter of communication that can help solve an issue.
3) Actions speak louder than words so, what are you doing? Of course not all concerns can take top priority and we can’t change everything overnight; however, as staff and faculty, we do have some circle of influence and control – what can you do in your sphere of influence and are you doing it? When incidents like the one at WSU happen, how does the institution respond? How do we respond as staff and faculty? What efforts are there to educate and prevent future incidents? How can we (and educate our students on how to) be intentional in our approach and actions in order to create the change we want to see? As a professional and as an institution, we have to be courageous enough to do what we say we will do and to show our values in action.
4) Don’t give in to the “us” vs “them” mentality. We need to all care. It’s not the job of one person or one office. Know that you are an administrator so when students call out administration, they mean you too. It’s not the “bad” administrators on one side and the “good” on the other or staff on one side and faculty on the other. It’s easy to point fingers and place blame but we must be a united front. Just like I tell my students, we are all part of the same campus community. When something bad happens on campus, it is everyone’s responsibility – and I mean everyone – to take some personal responsibility in making sure that it gets addressed and resolved. Just like when something good is happening, we should all take pride in it and our campus community. As a student affairs professional, we have the complex role of serving students and working for the institution and when the needs of these two groups are seemingly in conflict, then we need to work together to get back on the same page. Addressing inequities in higher education is going to take the work of all of us.
5) Commit to this on-going process. Systemic issues are not going to be resolved in a day, but there are things you can do every day. Change takes time and it’s okay to celebrate the small victories while working towards a better future. We also need to make a personal commitment to further our own understanding of issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice. Our students are demanding a level of understanding and competency from us so that we can create a culture of inclusion on campus. Therefore, we need to provide on-going educational opportunities, trainings, and professional development for all students, staff, and faculty and/or seek out these opportunities on our own.
Ultimately, we need to be doing all of these things not just because students have called us in to action but because it’s the right thing to do. To students: thank you for your courage, your resiliency, and your voice. I hear you.