Doing the work and the power of personal reflection

BY SONYA STEPHENS

The College’s Strategic Plan for 2021 articulates four priorities, one of which is: “Mount Holyoke will shape and sustain an increasingly diverse, global and inclusive community of students, faculty and staff in an environment of mutual respect in which all thrive and contribute to the flourishing of others.” Our distinctive diversity demands nothing less. And yet, like many colleges and universities, and like society more broadly, we still have a long way to go to fully achieve this aspiration. 

BOOM! (Building On Our Momentum) was conceived to recognize many years of energetic work on the part of students, faculty and staff to advance equity and make Mount Holyoke a place of belonging for all members of the College. It serves to surface any challenges to equity and inclusion on our campus, or impediments to progress, as well as to generate ideas and recommendations, and so to shape a collaborative vision and plan of action for this work. 

BOOM! engages the Mount Holyoke community in a collective experience that acknowledges the past and provides a space for the expression of anger and indignation about injustice, while enabling exchange in the present. With BOOM! 2018 well underway, this is a moment to take stock of what has been achieved, as well as to renew our collective commitment to social justice — and to each other. 

We engage in this work together, knowing that change is possible, committed to learning, and understanding that the relationships we build will drive that change with direction and purpose, and through action and policy. Such conversations across difference require us to suspend our assumptions, to be spontaneous and sincere in relationships that may not be well-formed, and to be vulnerable with each other. And the greater the stakes, the greater the likelihood is of mistakes.

I know this from experience. In a recent conversation with Mount Holyoke students, faculty and staff, I created conflict and caused injury when I invoked a book, the title of which includes the n-word. While my reasons for referring to this work were in support of racial justice — and were, paradoxically, a reflection on white privilege and historic (colonial) economic, social and cultural oppression — the use of this word in any context is hurtful and inflammatory. My saying it made it all the more so, given my racial and national identities and my educational privilege — not to mention my current role as acting president of the College. 

The visceral reaction to this word comes, we know, from its long history of derogation, from the wrongs of whites and the struggles of African Americans — even in the instance of group discussion, where its use is of normative reversal. So, while there may be a difference between using a word as a slur and the use of that same word with a different intention — whether citing it in a title, reading it in a literary, historical or critical text, or singing along to music — impact matters, and any utterance is offensive when the speaker is white. 

Why, in a conversation of this kind, invoke a book at all? The simple answer is that I was using it as a shortcut to a body of knowledge. And, in that moment, perhaps because I was working out my role in this conversation, I engaged as a faculty member — one prone to all the conventions of academic culture, privileging knowledge and a respect for bibliographic convention over a fundamental respect for otherness. This wasn’t a classroom situation; the body of knowledge wasn’t shared; I hadn’t built a relationship with my interviewers; and it wasn’t the place or time to explore complex historical examples or their presumed relevance.

I deeply regret that, in this moment of genuine engagement, I turned to a book and to one with a slur in its title. My apology in the moment marked the start of an intense period of self-reflection, as well as sincere engagement with generous colleagues and the examination of some institutionalized behaviors. I learned something more than I already knew about my own privilege, about role confinement as well as role confusion, and about how deep learning can be when it is embraced as a process and pursued with honesty, when it is nurtured by the grace of others and powered by empathy for others.

This is an object lesson, laying bare the exclusions of conventions and systems; the strategies of academic (or other forms) of distancing that assimilate yet more power and privilege to the speaker; and all the challenges and responsibilities of role. 

As we continue our work to create and sustain a diverse, socially just, equitable and inclusive environment, we must all take care to avoid unproductive language and to engage otherness respectfully. If we can collaborate with reflexivity and empathy, we will deepen the learning that brings transformation. My hope is that, in so doing, we might also practice the courage, candor and grace that Professor Dorothy Mosby described in her Convocation remarks last fall, first citing the author and scholar bell hooks:

“Our devout commitment to building diverse communities is central. Like all beloved communities we affirm our differences. It is this generous spirit of affirmation that gives us the courage to challenge one another, [and] to work through misunderstandings. In a beloved community solidarity and trust are grounded in profound commitment to a shared vision.” 

Mosby then challenged us “to do our part to make this place, this community, our home, our MoHome, a place where we can all thrive, where we can all learn from each other, challenge each other, and be able to give each other grace.” 

Only by acknowledging mistakes and using them to deepen understanding, only in vulnerability, transparency, and sincerity in our engagement with each other, will we build the trust  and shared vision to make Mount Holyoke the socially just and equitable place it must be. A place of continuous individual and collective inquiry and learning. A community that knows that this work is ours to do, and that we must all put our hearts and minds into doing it.

 

Sonya Stephens is the acting president of Mount Holyoke College. 

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