The Kaleidoscope Leadership Institute provides women of color with the tools to navigate the academy.
After attending a women’s higher education leadership conference in 1990 that addressed very few of the challenges and concerns faced by minority women, Dr. Jacquelyn Belcher, then the president of Minneapolis Community College, and a group of minority women administrators decided to create their own conference that would speak to their issues.
With the help of the late Dr. Carolyn Desjardins, associate dean of students at Maricopa Community College in Arizona, and a grant from the Ford Foundation, the first Kaleidoscope Leadership Institute was formed in 1991. Nearly 20 years later, the institute continues to provide, through a cultural prism, intensive training, tools for self-analysis and other skills to navigate the academy.
“The women come to us to understand the complex web of politics on campus,” says Dr. Ding-Jo H. Currie, president of Coastline Community College (Calif.), which hosted the most recent institute in December 2008. “They come wanting to sharpen their leadership skills, wanting to connect with other sisters and to celebrate their successes together.”
Women, particularly those of color, face unique challenges to their entry and advancement in the academy, including finding role models, leveraging their talent, and dealing with promotion inequity and discriminatory treatment, according to data collected by two committees of the American Association of University Professors.
At Kaleidoscope’s annual conferences, no subject is out of bounds, organizers say. Designed for women interested in advancing their careers in academia, discussion topics range from the persistence of racism and sexism to handling conflicts with other women to balancing career and family demands.
Over the course of three days, the strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, goals and even the clothing of attendees are critiqued with the intent of improving their prospects in higher education. Women who have already succeeded in reaching the highest ranks in academia lead attendees through rigorous workshops on career advancement, mentorship, networking and effective communication.
As the landscape of postsecondary institutions grows more diverse with changing demographics, critics of race-specific programs often wonder why a conference devoted solely to the concerns of minority women in higher education even exists. But Zerrie Campbell, President Emeritus of Malcolm X College of the City Colleges of Chicago, insists there is still a need.
“Leadership is ever changing, and it is my view that women lead with a different panache. And, as we support women of color, in particular, there is always a need for a safe place to discuss our issues,” says Campbell.
Research shows that women in higher education typically have a low sense of selfworth. Often women leaders are perceived as timid, preferring to maintain a low profile, write Borough of Manhattan Community College researchers Carmen Martínez-López, assistant professor of business management, and Eva Kolbusz-Kijne, assistant professor of communications and theater, in a 2007 article entitled “Five Practical Actions for Women Accepting the Challenges of the World of Higher Education.”
“Many of the women come feeling confused, abused and misused,” says Belcher, who also led Georgia Perimeter College. “But the transformation is magical. When these women leave, they know who they are, they understand what they bring to the table and understand that there is a seat for them at the table.”
The underlining purpose of Kaleidoscope, adds Belcher, is to validate women of color and to build them up. In addition to workshops, Kaleidoscope attendees gather in small groups to cultivate new relationships.
“When we work in isolated environments, we need those who look like us to reinforce those feelings of self-worth and excellence,” Campbell says.
An important feature of the institute is the one-on-three mock interview with the institute’s advisers. These practice interviews are also recorded for attendees to review later.
“This was perfect for me,” says Shin Liu, associate professor of computer science at Rio Hondo College. “I have interviewed for three jobs and did not get any calls back. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. I really needed to know.”
Kaleidoscope advisers gave Liu tips on her résumé and wardrobe. “All three times, I wore the same dress to the interview. Next time, I will wear something different,” Liu says.
Jennifer Adams, executive assistant to the president at Las Positas College in California, was most inspired by the level of encouragement the women receive at the institute. “There is so much validation here, both personally and professionally. I feel like there are new expectations of me. There are things others see in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com