“Centering Down” For Faculty Of Color: Reflections From A Retreat

Young Woman Meditating on the Floor. Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis. Spit-Fire: https://flic.kr/p/aiFMox.

Image by Royalty-Free/Corbis

In late July, right before my one-month hiatus from blogging and social media, I attended an overnight retreat for faculty and staff of color at Spelman College, and co-hosted by the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS): “How Good It Is to Center Down: A Courage and Renewal Retreat for Faculty of Color.”  Seventeen other people — mostly women of color (especially Black women) faculty — and I participated in a contemplative retreat  to “pause, reflect, and renew—and prepare for the 2015-2016 academic year.”

My only complaint is that the less-than-48-hour-long retreat was much too short; but, I am confident that the retreat simply planted the seeds I needed to continue to grow as a scholar.

Invitations And Introductions

We kicked off the retreat with a delicious meal and light conversation.  The energy in the room reflected our excitement to get started, meet other faculty of color at liberal arts colleges in the South, and be away, albeit briefly, from our usual routine.  After lunch, Dr. Veta Goler and Dr. Sherry Watt, serving as co-facilitators and -organizers, welcomed us and explained the structure of the retreat.  For activities and discussions involving the full group, we were seated in a circle, with a small table with flowers and some information in the center.  Rather than pressuring us to “share or die,” the co-facilitators invited us to participate and to “speak into the circle.”  This set a tone that felt safe, that one could simply listen if necessary or speak if desired.

We were invited to introduce ourselves, including our names and institutions, what we hoped to gain from the retreat, and anything we needed to set aside to be fully present at the retreat.  (I appreciated the recognition that we are human, and thus are carrying a lot with us into any given event — pain, excitement, emotional baggage, dread, illness, joy, etc.)  Only a few attendees had introduced themselves by the time the first person had become emotional.  Just acknowledging that the space invited us to practice self-care, and reflection, and be in community moved some of us to tears; we had permission to actually care for ourselves and be whole human beings.  No one shared specifics, but there seemed to be a universal allusion to pain and trauma from repeated experiences of microaggressions, harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence.  I was particularly struck by hearing Black faculty who work at HBCUs — even Black women who work at Spelman — say, “this was a toxic year.”  Apparently, none of us are safe from racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression in academia.  And, without regular reflection, self-care, and access to community, we don’t even realize how much pain we carry around with us on a daily basis.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and Reflection

Unlike typical academic gatherings (e.g., conferences, department and faculty meetings, classes), the retreat was nontraditional and unconventional in its emphasis on meditation, mindfulness, and reflection.  There were a few moments of meditation, quiet reflection, private journaling, as well as walking and talking to reflect with a fellow attendee.  I’d say the most enjoyable of these activities was walking through Spelman’s labyrinth (see below).

Photo by Germaine McAuley.

Photo by Germaine McAuley.

Some activities were introduced by the group reading of a poem related to the activity.  Attendees took turns volunteering to read part of the poem; then, we were all invited to speak into the circle certain lines that resonated with us.  It felt as though we were invited to savor the phrase that left our lips.  We moved beyond merely reading the poem to actually feeling and, eventually, experiencing the poem.  For example, we participated in an activity called “Where I’m From,” wherein we wrote a poem about our upbringing and home.  We started this activity by group-reading (and savoring) George Ella Lyon’s poem — “Where I’m From.”  The imagery of his poem — “I am from fudge and eyeglasses // From Imogene and Alafair.  //  I’m from know-it-alls // Ad the pass-it-ons… — helped to put me into the reflective and creative mindset to write my own poem.

I admit that some of the more creative activities, including drawing, painting, and making a collage, initially felt silly to me. As a quantitative sociologist, I deal with numbers and statistical models.  But, as I actually started to participate, I felt a part of my brain (and my heart and soul) opened up to reveal things otherwise unacknowledged by me.

In one activity that emphasized self-care, we were invited to reflect on, and then draw, the “work before the work”; that is, what did we need to do to prepare for work, to be fully present at work, to enjoy our work.  This is somewhat akin to the practice of free-writing, wherein you start a writing session by reflecting on your personal connection to the topic; the personal (at least in my field) tend to be stripped away from traditional academic writing, so this practice can help to ease the process.  But, the “work before the work” can be much broader.  Through this reflective practice, I realized that I needed to feel that my academic career was connected to my social justice values and advocacy (see below).  I cannot feel whole if I must leave my Black queer activist self at home while I go to work in a suit and tie.  The task that lies ahead of me now is to find ways to do so.

The "work before the work."

The “work before the work.”

In the collage activity, we were invited to visualize what self-care looks like.  In my interpretation of the task, I chose images of freedom, authenticity, and uniqueness (see below).  Once finished, we were invited to share our collage with another attendee, who was invited to ask questions that help us dig deeper into self-discovery.  With my partner, I realized that all of the images I selected were of women — women who look strong, brave, and free.  For the most part, the reverence I hold for femininities is unsurprising to me, particularly as a genderqueer-identified man.  But, that these images were reflected at the exclusion of pictures of men and masculinities did surprise me.  I suspect the affinity I feel for strong, brave women is that they are defiant in being themselves, while, for men, strength and bravery are demanded, expected, and rewarded.  At any rate, what initially felt childish proved to be quite insightful.  In no way were we asked to enjoy every part of the retreat, or promised that every activity would prove useful to us.

My self-care collage.

My self-care collage.

In a third activity, two other attendees were invited to paint a reflection of your “birthright gifts” — the positive things that you offer to the world.  We began this exercise by reflecting on the five people we would invite as our guests to a dinner party.  I selected Oprah, Ghandi, Audre Lorde, Martin Luther King Jr., my late cousin Danny, and my late grandfather Sylvan.  The first four represent significant activists and difference-makers who are important to me; the latter two are relatives who lived life meaningfully, who didn’t waste a day on negativity or to adversity.  As I shared my dinner guest list, two other attendees painted surprisingly similar pictures: a utopian world either protected or created by me as I overcome oppression, violence, and hate.  I’m sure I’d probably offer a more humble version of this description of myself.  But, it is quite affirming to see what you value reflected in how others see you.  And, more importantly, that others see you as valuable, and see the gifts that you offer to the world.

On Day 2 — a short, but no less impactful day — we were introduced to Parker J. Palmer’s concept of the “third way” from his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life:

[W]e learn a “third way” to respond to the violence of the world, so called because it gives us an alternative to the ancient animal instinct of “fight or flight.”  To fight is to meet violence with violence, generating more of the same; to flee is to yield to violence, putting private sanctuary ahead of the common good.”  The third way is the way of nonviolence by which I mean a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul (p. 170).

Nonviolence — the third way — involves asking honest, open questions, inviting others to share their stories, and encouraging truth-telling in organizations.  But, Palmer warns that this third way is no easy task — as to be expected for choosing an alternative when society presents us with only two appropriate actions.

He goes on:

So people who wish to serve as agents of nonviolent change need at least four resources in order to survive and persist: a sound rationale for what they intend to do, a sensible strategy for doing it, a continuing community of support, and inner ground on which to stand (p. 171).

I have yet to read the full book, so I lack more context for his proposal.  But, the possibility of a third way of living and, specifically, of trying to make the world a better place, struck a chord with me, particularly the notion of acting “in every situation in ways that honor the soul.”  Thus far, my career has felt limited to two options: fight or flight.  Conform or retreatDo well by mainstream or traditional standards or reject everything.  Palmer’s proposal — but, more importantly, reading his proposal among other scholars of color seeking a better way of living — felt like the now-obvious alternative approach.  It allowed me to give myself permission to prioritize authenticity, and to recognize the ways I have already been authentic in my career.  This career will be so much easier when I remember that there is always a third way.

Planting Seeds

Veta and Sherry, our co-facilitators, noted that most of the retreat was based on the practice of “courage work” — the writings of and workshops led by Parker J. Palmer.  Feeling energized by the retreat, I decided to pick up a copy of one of Dr. Palmer’s books.  To my surprise, I had already purchased a copy of The Courage to Teach without knowing anything about the book, its impact, or the perspective and politics of Palmer.  I decided to take it on my August vacation/blogcation, hopefully continuing the work I started at the retreat, and mentally and emotionally preparing me for the new academic year.

When I sat down to read the first chapter of Courage, I felt something within me that suggested this book would be transformative for me.  One chapter in, I was both hooked and felt Palmer spoke to the demons I’ve been wrestling with for years.  His first chapter is on identity and integrity in teaching.

By identity I mean an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self: my genetic makeup, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and to my self, the experience of love and suffering — and much, much more… By integrity I mean an whatever wholeness I am able to find within that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life.  Integrity requires that I discern what is integral to my selfhood, what fits and what does not — and that I choose life-giving ways of relating to the forces that converge within me.

Palmer argues that a good teacher must be whole, that dividing one’s self into personal and academic will ultimately lead to frustration, burnout, and resentment.  He takes a strong stance against the “objective” approach to teaching and, instead, teaching from the heart; this is a healthier approach for teachers, and proves more enjoyable for students.  In general, he calls for a more communal approach to learning, as well for teaching.

His anecdotes of “divided selves” and “dismembered” teachers read like a future eulogy for me at the rate I have been going in my career thus far.  As I was taught, I have practiced an “objective” approach to teaching, hiding behind facts just as much as I hide behind suits and ties.  I have felt equally detached from my own research, which has demanded objectivity.  In my heart, I have predicted that I would quit before I even went up for tenure if I continued to work as I have.  To my credit, this has been more about fear than than valuing objectivity in teaching and research; nonetheless, I’ve lacked the courage to teach the way that my heart demands.

Final Thoughts

In the past year, I’ve become fed up with the dissatisfaction I’ve felt with doing things the way I was trained to in grad school.  I’ve made my bed, and now I’m fortunate enough to lie in it.  I’ve pursued a career that equally values teaching and research, and an institution that celebrates my intellectual activism rather than asking I hide it or wait until who-knows-when.  Through my own desperate search, I am finding that there are other, better ways of being a scholar.  In fact, I now believe that there is no one way to be a successful scholar.  And, more importantly, there are other ways to be professionally fulfilled besides “success” in a conventional sense.  Others have already discovered this, perhaps after pulling themselves out of a professional rut, too.  I need not reinvent the wheel, nor do I need to continue to suffer.  I have the power and, now, resources to create a self-defined career — one of synergy among teaching, research, service, and advocacy, of authenticity, and of self-care and self-discovery.

Would my life have been easier if I had stayed true to my values from the start of grad school?  I don’t even want to entertain that thought.  With great clarity, I recall my decision making process.  I pursued a degree that would open the most doors in academia; I earned it and it helped me to get my current position, so I need not feel a twinge of guilt or regret.  I’m choosing, instead, to see the good that has come out of all of this — a tireless effort to envision a different way to be a scholar in the 21st century.  To get there, I will continue to attend retreats like this one, devour all that Parker J. Palmer has written, and pursue other resources that promote authenticity and social justice in teaching.  With time, I hope to offer these resources to future generations of scholars and scholar-activists.

One thought on ““Centering Down” For Faculty Of Color: Reflections From A Retreat

  1. Thank you for writing this post and introducing me to Parker J. Palmer. Best wishes!

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