I was invited to attend a mentoring session for junior faculty. Typically I don’t have time or I find some reason NOT to attend. You know, one more meeting. Although I consider myself a “team player” (depending on the game), I am just not “feeling” those little get-togethers anymore. Now don’t get me wrong, I attended such forums at one time; however, they focused more on the unique needs of faculty of color. They have since eliminated that office. After all, we do have a biracial president, which I assume implies issues of race are over (next article, someone please!).
Nevertheless, I decided to go. You can always learn something, I figure. Besides, I could grade papers, text other friends in faculty meetings or just leave on some emergency around the middle of the session at last resort. You know, sort of like what happens in our classes when we are not as stellar as we ought to be, or think we are. Besides, I told myself that I would more than likely find something during the session to write about. The muse seems to hit me during blah, blah, blah moments.
During that session, they talked about developing oneself as a scholar, a teacher, focusing on a research agenda and becoming a good leader. But I kept waiting for the piece that would speak to folks of color about dealing with issues of racism in scholarship, teaching courses about race and leading as a scholar and administrator of color- about the specific battles we might face as a faculty of color. I wanted to hear the counter stories from scholars of color. I wanted to hear about how they negotiated this academic space – without turning into something …. that I will not name in this text. I wanted to know how people of color, on this campus, negotiate the administrative terrain and remain their authentic selves and for those who feel as if they need to change, in order to fit. Why?
In fact, I began to think about the colloquiums that specifically address leadership, scholarship and teaching for faculty of color – through a critical framework centered about race. Actually, everyone needs to attend to this because obviously everyone seems to believe in the same reality. While there have been numerous scholarly, pedagogical and leadership developmental colloquiums and seminars aimed at junior scholars over the last few years, I have witnessed few that have a specific focus on addressing issues of race. I also wondered, who is the person that does that work on this campus? Where is that leadership institute, on campus, that attends to faculty of color and teaches from a curriculum centered on the uniqueness that the construction of race might bring? Who does that work? What is that organization that builds a discourse about the institution’s own structural and systemic racism? What organization really speaks to how one moves up the administrative ladder in the academy – without becoming Stepford professors who carefully ride the coattails of so-called mentors? I have been unable to find the office or organization, fully funded that does that work.
Oh don’t be surprised. We have all witnessed it. We just don’t name it. It’s called mentoring-privilege. My colleague reminded me today, while the mentees may talk themselves into believing hard work keyed their success, that is not always the case most of the time. Even research supports the notion that the key to moving up is nothing more than a good hook up. Further evidence you say? Well just as one can pick up a sharpie and connect the dots from advisory board member to editorial board to published author for many tier-one journals, you can pick up the same sharpie and play connect the dots, or better yet, play two degrees away from Kevin Bacon and you will find that, with few exceptions, the folks who move up quickly and from nowhere on a college campus are connected. It’s no different from the business framework. It’s called, the old fashion way – and it has nothing to do with earning it or hard work, but everything to do with who ya know. Ask yourself tonight, how did fill-in-the-blank get where they are today? Count the hookups, and they have nothing to do with IQ scores or blood, sweat and tears.
So, after that session I began to look over my notes – which strangely had nothing to do with helpful hints from the session but everything to do with what was missing. I pondered; how do people of color negotiate those spaces? Who supports faculty of color in negotiating the rough terrain? I believe some faculty of color know “the who” that supports folks in systems of inequity. At least from what I and perhaps others have experienced – they are informal mentoring and support spaces.
In fact, from my experience on this campus, many faculty of color turn to three people. Clare and her couch, Kay and Cedric -(all are pseudonyms) all of whom share something in common and familiar and critical for faculty and staff of color (I know this is critical in my case). They are all faculty and staff of color. Anytime I need to speak to someone about mentoring, leadership or scholarship, I consult with these three people. The time is therapeutic and necessary – specifically in racialized spaces.
For instance, Clare’s office stays busy with a cadre of folks walking in and out from sun up to sundown. I don’t know how she gets “university” work completed because someone is always sitting or laying on her couch. Clare is a senior-level administrator who has worked on this campus for 30 years. Her 7-foot-long couch and third eye has kept me as close to sanity and Pan African realism that I so desperately need in order to continue to move my academic life forward. More importantly, she provides me with a form of mentorship that is not offered in those generic little colloquiums. She speaks from where she has been and what she has seen and what has worked for her and others from a Black historical context. She does not offer me the 10 steps to success that have nothing to do with the framework or paradigm from which I come or live (and may never experience in this lifetime). She is real in her intentions and reminds me (as if I need reminding) that this academic space is a racialized context and that means something different for each campus community member. No one semester or two-hour session can capture what I have learned on that couch over the last four years. The door is always open and you will find me stretched out on the couch at least once a week.
Kay is another upper-level administrator who has told me on more than one occasion to stand down, think and strategize before acting or engaging in battle. Her leadership philosophy suggests that we all should surround ourselves with culturally engaging leaders, people and scholars. She has taught me and many others about how to negotiate in an academic space that might resemble a battlefield of equity (see notes from The (battle) field for equity in education in Leadership and Policy and Schools). She supports me and countless others on this campus and throughout the U.S. through her mentorship. The beauty is she practices what she preaches in her own thoughtful scholarship. She also teaches that an ethic of love can make a difference to the leadership of men and women in color.
Cedric has worked in this university system for 30 years. He engages me in down “home” mentorship. His discourse includes tough-love and collective-identity philosophical tenets. He often tells folks, don’t forget from whence you came and don’t let folks run over you because others have led them to believe that they have so-called power. They are human. We fought for years for freedom, so don’t forget you have every right to speak up. The 20-something crowd would claim he keeps it real and I believe that realness is critical in this academic space. In fact, all three keep it real.
This culturally engaging counterspace is what I have needed to help move my scholarship forward. I can appreciate this form of mentorship and what it does for others, not just me. I can attest to the roles it has played in my professional and personal growth. All three mentors have guided me into a direction where I can live authentically. This is not to say that other mentoring spaces are not needed. I believe junior faculty need many counterspaces from which to choose, but I equally believe Clare, Kay and Cedric have provided me and others with prolonged and thoughtful discourse centered on race and how it may impact scholarship, leadership opportunities and teaching that is seldom offered in those generic spaces.
Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the School of Education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.