The legacy of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis was on the minds of presenters at a webinar hosted by the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).
“I had the honor of sitting with John Lewis in Atlanta—he was a mentor of mine,” said Dr. Anneliese Singh, an associate provost for diversity and faculty development, chief diversity officer and professor of social work at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Good trouble, Singh said, wasn’t just a catchphrase ascribed to Lewis, who was an activist in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s.
“He would ask you, ‘What kind of good trouble are you making?’” said Singh.
Singh said she wasn’t always sure what her answer should be, but she eventually found it: become maladjusted to the systemic oppression seen in society and in higher education and become deep listeners in the quest to undo those systems.
Singh and other scholars came together on Wednesday to explore ways that university counselors and chief diversity officers (CDOs) can dismantle systemic racism in higher education. Experts called on attendees to break down the siloes separating their fields, for counselors and CDOs to come together and provide opportunities for leadership, faculty and staff to learn the histories of oppressed people, and to listen to students and faculty of color who speak uncomfortable truths about their experiences on campus. Singh pressed the urgency of making equity a priority as the political landscape continues to polarize.
“Look at all the attacks on transgender and nonbinary communities,” said Singh. “You talk about one of the most oppressed communities that exists, especially when you have Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) trans and nonbinary folks whose lives are being used as political footballs.”
The good news, Singh added, is that when members of those communities arrive at a higher education campus, they have an opportunity to experience a different, supportive environment.
“In higher education, we replicate inequities all day—but we can do things differently,” said Singh. “Social justice is just another word for abolition, which should be guiding all our work.”
Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, dean of the School of Education at American University (AU) in Washington D.C., said she liked the idea of college counselors and CDOs collaborating. The two departments, she said, know how to tackle two issues that go hand in hand with oppression: mental health struggles and the need for institutional change.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on the overarching goal of dismantling oppressive structures, and a lot of my skills were born from counselor training,” said Holcomb-McCoy, adding that training taught her two vital skills: how to listen with patience and how to advocate.
“This is heavy work," said Holcomb-McCoy. "It sounds easy, but when you try to do it it’s like swimming upstream. It takes a lot of discomfort—we’re talking about changing traditions and systems that were not made for the changing demographics on campus.”
Holcomb-McCoy said that counselors have the skills required to communicate the need for systemic change with more resistant faculty, staff, and administration. Their unique training can be particularly effective navigating the complicated dynamics at play. Singh agreed, adding that counselors “know where the wounds are on campus, where the heartbreak and healing is.”
But, Singh said, counseling can be inherently limited. Many of its contemporary roots are linked with the legacy of colonialism, she said, and counseling can be "constrained by individual ideas of what it means to be heard."
“Deep listening isn’t just deeply listening—it’s actually understanding the context,” said Singh. “I want to know what it’s like to see the world through [someone’s] eyes. That’s deeper empathy, and that gives you the answers, if you slow down and pay attention.”
Resistance to change can come from a range of places—from a desire to adhere to a school’s traditions, or a lack of motivation by leadership to alter a system that benefits those already in power. Holcomb-McCoy urged CDOs, counselors, and white allies to call out this resistance, “don’t let it sit silently in that space.”
“It goes back to good trouble. It takes courage to make good trouble, to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right, this is what students are asking for, this is why we lose faculty of color,’” said Holcomb-McCoy. “There are real ways to change, but there’s a resistance to change and we have to call our peers out.”
At AU, Holcomb-McCoy created a position to lead resistant or white faculty through the difficult process of self-interrogation, helping them understand their place and role in a system built on oppression. Holcomb-McCoy and Singh both agreed that teaching self-understanding and the history of racism to institutional leadership is a vital step toward understanding and embracing the need to become antiracist institutions.
“When we crash into each other, seeking a deeper understanding of each other, we will have ruptures,” said Singh. “When we work together through those ruptures, we can get to harmony.”
Liann Herder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.