Jesus said to them, “Cast your net to the right side of the boat and maybe you will find some (fish). When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.” John 21:6
Have young Black professionals at Historically Black Colleges and Universities been working too hard ‘on the wrong side of the boat?’ Have we reached a point where we are casting all of our nets with no avail? For some of us, the short answer can often feel like yes. For the rest of us, typically the upper-side of the Millennial Generation, the answer is found in navigating ‘the system.’
As a 26-year-old Black male, I am aware that I do not have the years of expertise in education as some of my colleagues do. This lack of experience has caused me to cast all of my nets to one side of the boat, often leaving myself in a space of frustration that has led me to feelings of anger, defeat, and hopelessness. While I have mentors in education who have assisted in my transition from K12 to Higher Education, all while finishing my doctorate, the conversation on navigating these spaces were not blatant until I was in the midst of the crises that arise during the first year of professional work.
Higher Education institutions all have their issues, therefore, I do not want to call attention to any particular institution. Instead, I want to address a number of concerns that seem to be prevalent at most, if not all, HBCUs. Though I have not been employed by all of these schools to speak on their issues, I am well connected with many and have gathered stories, anecdotes, and real-life examples of the happenings at other HBCUs.
Institutions with nearly a few thousand enrolled students or less seem to also have staff sizes that are comparable to the size of the student body: small. This can cause staff members to be forced to wear multiple hats to address the resources necessary to combat low student retention, low funding, and high rises in mental health related-issues. Even the family atmosphere that makes HBCUs so welcoming can cause staff and faculty members to be overly accessible to students and can be taxing on the mind and body of staff members. Let us not forget that the young professionals are often the first ones called on to stay late in the evenings to serve as programming advisors for Student Government Association, Homecoming, and SpringFest, often attributed to the fact that most of us are single with no dependents at home.
Earlier this month, I was asked to serve as the emcee for the 2019 Arkansas HBCU Summit, hosted by Congressman French Hill, who serves as the vice chair for the Bipartisan Congressional HBCU Caucus. Amongst all of the distinguished guests, I met Johnathan Holifield, the executive director of The White House Initiative on HBCUs and author of The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness: How Demographic Trends and Innovation Can Create Economic Prosperity for All Americans.
During his opening speech for the first breakout session of the day, Holifield cited Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, in which he used the phrase, “cast down your buckets where you are.” This speech made reference to the story of a ship lost at sea until it sighted a nearby vessel that could save it. The lost shipmates cried for help, yelling “We die of thirst. Send us water.” The nearby vessel replied, “Cast down your buckets where you are.” Those in distress did not take heed and, instead, continued yelling “We need water.” Then, the captain of the lost vessel took heed to their instructions and lowered the buckets, pulling them back to the ship filled with fresh water from the mouth of the Amazon River. Booker T. Washington used this story to encourage friendly agreements and amicable space between Negroes and White citizens. Holifield used this story to make a plea to philanthropic organizations, business executives, and governmental agencies to save HBCU funding in the state of Arkansas.
Today, I am using this story to challenge myself and other Black professionals at HBCUs that we must “cast down [our] buckets where we are.” Some of us are lost, some of us are thirsty, metaphorically, but we must all learn to cast down our buckets where we are and allow our institutions to help us. What do I mean by this statement? Simple. We, the young student affairs professionals, faculty members, and support staff are tired. I understand that we are a different generation than the ones before us. We recognize that we do not fair well with remaining in the same position for more than 3-5 years. Many of us have short attention spans and utilize unconventional methods to remain relevant and timely, sometimes overworked. Moreover, many of us have attended graduate school at both PWIs and HBCUs, reading countless books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and op-ed pieces that taught us all the student affairs methodologies we know. The problem is that the practices we learn in Student Affairs courses and Higher Education programs do not work at most HBCUs. The same system that was designed to keep us out cannot teach us how to circumvent itself. Remember, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (Lorde, 1984).
So when we realize that we can not learn how to properly serve Black students at an HBCU from the materials read in an imperialist, White supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal student affairs program, as bell hooks may describe them, and we learn to cast down our buckets where we are, we begin to look differently in the workplace.
What does this new viewpoint look like, you ask? It looks like healing in our own spaces by finding community, finding mentors, and seeking healing.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African Proverb
This is a call to leverage the resources that you have around you. There is an existing community of young scholars and student affairs practitioners not only at your own institution, but at many others across the nation. In this modern age of technology, there are GroupMe chats, Facebook groups, and text threads full of these professionals that are all in the same boat, no matter what their institutions look like. They have experiences, materials, resources, and healing practices that you all can share amongst each other not just to survive, but to thrive. Let’s face it – we are all the future of HBCUs and our failure means the institutions fail.
Holified also mentioned another strategy for the survival of HBCUs. In his book, he talks about his AOL method and, no, he is not referring to our initial days of instant messaging and dial-up internet. AOL represents Aggregate, Organize, and Leverage. During his summit talk, he used the AOL method to excite HBCUs and philanthropic companies to optimize collaboration; however, here, we need to implement these steps with each other in order to thrive on our campuses.
- Aggregate to form coalitions and unions, research-based, best practice-based, or experience-based, finding and sharing methods that work on our campuses.
- Organize these methods and groups, as well as the people finding and utilizing them, noting that there is strength in structure. Organize on a grander level than just leadership roles. Instead, organize the materials you share in online databases, compile leadership development tools, event strategies, marketing plans, and even funding and grant opportunities. This new library of information can become the syllabus for Higher Education at HBCUs. We can shift the information taught in Student Affairs programs to becoming more culturally relevant for those intending to work at an HBCU.
- Leverage everything you have. Form partnerships with those on campuses near you and watch the power of inter-campus collaborations in the form of visiting scholars/practitioners, internships/externships, and collaborative grant proposals. These institutions come from monumental historical backgrounds that paved the way for Black education. Do not take that lightly. Leverage what you are worth.
Though it sounds cliche’, finding a mentor is necessary for growth and healing. Reach out to those who have been in your position. As we often work in silos at HBCUs, it is important to remember that there are colleagues in administrative positions, and even in entry-level positions, that have gone through these trials and tribulations at a similar, if not the same, HBCU. I am not perfect. I understand and fully embrace that. Being a young professional in a system that I am still learning how to navigate, one of the best pieces of advice I received from an administrator is to learn how to circumvent the system or leave the system. I have a small circle of mentors that have dug the very trenches in which I stand and fight for my students everyday. One call to them with a quick question can turn into a coaching session. That coaching session can turn into a life lesson, and that life lesson is transferable no matter where I go. Of course, some of us prefer learning the hard way, but even in those moments, the advice of a mentor is often like the advice of a parent — it pops into your head when you most need it. Good mentors and coaches know that their experience is not exclusive to any one institution, but often the experiences are common across many HBCUs, regardless of funding, structure, or student population.
Finally, seeking healing is as necessary as staying hydrated to remain alive. As young professionals, these issues are not new to us, but the environment may be new. Protect yourself by protecting your energy and your boundaries. These systems are flawed, we know that. There are people and processes in place, both knowingly and unknowingly, that sometimes hinder us from doing our best work for the students we serve and, my God, that can be frustrating. Take care of yourself so that you can keep going and continue fighting. Seek counseling, if necessary. Take a mental health moment, hour, or day, if necessary. Ask the support group and the mentors, as discussed, to be your healing when you need it, but, most importantly, find healing within yourself because they may not have the capacity to do so. Remind yourself that you are human and that you have limits to what you can do. Do not try and save everyone. As Iyanla Vanzant said to Le’Andria Johnson, celebrity gospel singer, and her manager, “…you have been protecting her from hitting rock bottom, forgetting that God made the rock.” It hurts, but sometimes we have to watch our students save themselves, remembering that we are doing the work to heal ourselves – and that takes precedence.
Today, after completing almost one full year at a small HBCU, I am learning to say that I am a 26-year-old professional, who is healing himself while working to circumvent the issues placed in front of me everyday. HBCUs are not perfect, but we must commit to keeping these schools – our schools – alive and to revitalize their campuses physically, spiritually, and emotionally/mentally. Keeping them alive starts with healing ourselves so that we can best serve our students. Commune with each other, colleagues, and while you are communing, cast down those buckets. Someone will fill them up.
Dr. Michael J. Seaberry serves as the coordinator for Retention Services and is the director of the S.T.A.R.T Summer Bridge Program at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas.