Dear Black women in higher education,
2023 should have been a wake-up call to our community, yet the red flags persist. The untimely deaths of two Black women presidents, JoAnne A. Epps of Temple University and Dr. Orinthia T. Montague of Volunteer State Community College, was a signal to all other Black women in higher education. Now, the death of Dr. Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey rings the alarm that our wellness must come first. We each have only so much time to do the good work, but work cannot be the totality of our lives. We must make room to live, laugh, and love ourselves and others each day as if it will be our last. As we navigate the treacherous waters of 2024, let us honor those we have lost by being mindful of the debilitating structures we are up against.
We haven’t gone past the third week of January, and we are witnessing another tragic death of a Black woman in higher education. Our hearts are heavy, and we equally seek to maintain a wellness practice to save ourselves as we aspire and climb upwards. Many of the factors impacting our well-being could be beyond our control, yet we must take hold of how we care for ourselves in a methodological and incremental manner. We pose a question that one of the healers in Toni Cade Bambara’s (1980) Salt Eaters proposes to the book's main character, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” At this time of reflection and goodwill, we challenge every Black woman in higher education to take a moment and step back from the hustle and grind of deadlines, budgets, and things we “must do” for others and question, when was the last time we prioritized our health and wellness?
We understand the importance of nails, hair, and wardrobe in how we are perceived and equally, how we feel when we enter the board- and classroom, but what are we doing to ensure our wellness mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and even financially? Consider your position at your institution. Whether you are a researcher, professor, or president, when was the last time you felt stress in relation to your position? Some of us are the only people of color in our departments and find ourselves carrying the heavy load of doctoral students who want to work with us because they identify with some form of our many identities. How does it feel to have 15-20 graduate students under your helm and what impact does this have on your writing, research agenda, and wellness? Data from the 2023 American College President Study suggests that 12.5% of all college presidents are women of color and while they mostly reported having a strong support system to lean on, many of them felt that their institutions could have done a better job explaining the challenges facing their institutions (Melidona et al., 2023). They started these positions with high hopes but did not truly understand the barriers and challenges which lay ahead of them, which undoubtedly caused them to experience higher levels of stress. The pressures of leadership as a Black woman are daunting enough without adding a lack of full disclosure when taking on positions such as chairs, deans, and executive presidencies. We must consider the impact of stress and unwellness on our bodies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation” (World Health Association, 2023). Black women as a whole can teach a masterclass on navigating “difficult situations,” but when it comes to discussing rest, saying “no”, and prioritizing wellness activities, we undoubtedly struggle. The effects of stress transcend our mental state and have a way of manifesting throughout our bodies. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), stress affects our muscles, specifically the neck and shoulder muscles, which can trigger headaches and pain throughout our backs and hips. Long-term stress affects our circulatory and cardiovascular system, leading to an increase in hypertension and consequently higher chances of heart attack and stroke. While there are many other effects of stress on the body, including hormonal changes, weight gain, and insomnia, it is important to remember that we do not have to live this way. We do not have to be martyrs in the name of academic institutions.
We challenge every one of you to create a plan, a wellness plan, that prioritizes your personal wellness. Moreover, for those in the community and on teams with Black women, we encourage you to support them to prioritize their health. To support you in this process, Dr. Marshall has created a resolution for each month that Black women in higher education can follow to center their wellness and well-being throughout 2024. This is something the Frederick D. Patterson team at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) intends to do alongside you.
The Black Woman Leader Wellness Plan for 2024
January 2024- Reflect on the ways you have or have not prioritized your wellness. Buy or create a journal to write down your reflections. Have a conversation with your body about what you have done to it and apologize if necessary. Start every morning of January with the affirmation, “I want to live a long and joyous life.”
Homework: Before bed jot down three things you did throughout your day to honor your affirmation.
February 2024- What role does love play in your career? Participate in a conversation with other Black women in higher education about the role love has played throughout your education career into your current position. Do you love what you do? What about how it makes you feel? Start every morning of February with the affirmation, “I deserve to love what I do.”
Homework: Spend Sunday evenings centering love. Read, write, sing or create something reflective of the love you have for yourself.
March 2024- What type of physical habits can I create to combat stress? How often do you move your body? What in your life is creating barriers to your physical wellness? Make movement an essential part of your day for at least 15 minutes daily. Whether seated, dancing, walking, or at the gym, one minute out of every day and say the following affirmation aloud to yourself, “I want to be physically well.”
Homework: Directly following any 15-minute (or more) activity you decide to participate in for your wellness, write down one word on a sticky note about how you feel. Place them on your mirror. Change them after every activity.
April 2024- How does your work honor your commitment to being well? At this point, all thoughts of the new year and many of our resolutions may have fallen by the wayside. Take out the journal you created in January and review where you started this year. Next reflect on how your career can support you in your path to wellness. Does something need to change? The affirmation for this month is “I honor my commitment to being well.”
Homework: Reflect on your commitments. Who do they serve? Journal weekly about your progress in honoring your commitment to wellness.
May 2024- Where do you see yourself next year? If you continue working at your current pace or continue centering your wellness, where will you be in May 2025? Do you picture yourself healthy and thriving or do you think 10–14-hour workdays will have caught up with you? Whenever you look in the mirror this month say the affirmation “My future is filled with joy.”
Homework: Use whatever medium you prefer to create something reflective of where you are today on your wellness journey. Indulge in the arts. Draw, write, paste, paint or craft your reflection.
June 2024- Are you financially well? What can you do to secure your financial wellness? Take stock of your current financial situation and ask yourself are you making choices that support your overall wellness. Are you saving enough money for a rainy day? When was the last time you took a trip that wasn’t work related? Say the affirmation “Money is a tool I wield with skill.”
Homework: Plan a day, weekend, or weeklong trip for yourself. Create a vision of the place you will visit and things you hope to experience while on this get-a-way. What do you need to do to bring your dream to fruition?
July 2024- Check in with your spirit. Do you feel spiritually well? We each have our own spiritual or religious traditions. How are your practices feeding your spirit? What needs to change? This month affirm “My religious/spiritual connections feed my whole being.”
Homework: After participating in whatever religious or spiritual tradition you practice, make a video or voice note to your future self. Share how you feel at the moment. Save it to your device.
August 2024- August marks the return of students to campus, and as we prepare to begin a new school year, ask yourself “How can I support others on their wellness journey?” You have over half a year of practice in the art of wellness. Now it’s time to take some of your lessons and share them with others. Take a moment each day and say this affirmation to yourself, “As I become well my community prospers.”
Homework: How can you impact change in your department, college, or campus? Brainstorm some ways you can help your community institute a wellness practice at the beginning of the semester. Pick one idea and follow through.
September 2024- What does it mean to have life and work balance? Now ask yourself, do you have life and work balance? When do you make time to enjoy your friends and family? As a Black woman in leadership, it is our connections with others that often gives us the strength to navigate the barriers and roadblocks we often encounter through our positions. During every off day this month affirm to yourself, “I love spending time with those who love me.”
Homework: Make a life and work balance plan. Commit yourself to taking advantage of your appointed off days. Honor special events with family and friends by being present, mind, body, and spirit, whenever possible.
October 2024- As the season transitions, honor the shifts you have made towards wellness this year. Review previous journal entries. How have you changed over the past several months? What areas are you looking to improve as we approach the end of the year? Every time you start a walk, run, or workout affirm to yourself, “I make shift happen.”
Homework: Write a letter to your future self and open it on New Year’s Eve. What do you know now that your future self will benefit from knowing?
November 2024- What are you thankful for and when is the last time you expressed gratitude to others? Love starts within us and once we offer love to ourselves our hearts grow by offering love and gratitude to others. This month affirm to yourself once a day “I give love to myself and receive love freely.”
Homework: Write one thing you love and are grateful for once a day. Feel free to write it in a personal journal, on social media, or even leave a sticky note on a loved one’s desk.
December 2024- Rejoice. You have made it through the year. Plenty of things have tried to stop you, but you have persevered and get to reap the rewards of living. What are you going to do to celebrate yourself? Affirm to yourself every Friday evening, “I deserve to celebrate my accomplishments.”
Homework: Begin writing out your resolutions and affirmations for next year. What are your personal, familial, and financial goals? Where do you want to be in 2025. Create a wellness journal for the next year using the lessons learned in 2024. Outline each month with goals, affirmations, and activities that support your wellness.
In all, Black woman educators, researchers, chairs, deans, directors, and presidents play a vital role in higher education. Your students, faculty peers, and fellow leaders want you around for the long haul. Whether you already have a wellness practice or are new to the idea of prioritizing your wellness, the benefits are plentiful. Use this guide at the beginning of the year and revisit it throughout the coming months in order to stay true to your resolutions. This is not about perfection, any month is a great month to reflect, revise, and commit yourself to being well. Audre Lorde (2017) reminds us that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare,” and the world needs you in the fight. Remember you are loved, and your brilliance is needed, but above all things, truly remember that you are loved.
Dr. Danie Marshall is a research associate at the United Negro College Fund.
Dr. Nadrea R. Njoku is assistant vice president of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund.
Bambara, T. C. (1980). The Salt Eaters. PenguinRandomhouse.Com. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/8085/the-salt-eaters-by-toni-cade-bambara/
Lorde, A. (2017). A Burst of Light: And Other Essays. Courier Dover Publications.
Medaris, A. (2023, November 1). 6 things researchers want you to know about stress. Https://Www.Apa.Org. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/research-findings
Melidona, D., Cecil, B. G., Cassell, A., & Chessman, H. M. (2023). The American College President: 2023 Edition.
World Health Association. (2023, February 21). Stress. https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/stress