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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Do You Know How Important You Are?

If you've kept up with my postings, you'd know that I'm in a "writing mood" lately. It's a creative outlet for me and when i take the time to write something, I REALLY put in some effort.

Today I was watching a show I had Tivo'ed called "Iconoclasts". It's a show that comes on the Sundance Channel. I had heard about this show from a friend and it just so happens that I came across the show one day. I didn't have time to sit and enjoy it so I set up the Tivo to capture the episode. This particular episode featured Dave Chapelle and Dr. Maya Angelou. These are two people that I admire in different ways and i was deeply interested in how this meeting of two well known, black celebrities would work out.

As i was watching the episode, it just began to move me. Dave Chapelle is my age and he's talking to Maya Angelou who reminded me of my maternal grandmother - extremely wise and full of love. I was thinking of how much love Dave Chapelle must be feeling because I was feeling it just from watching the screen.

Maya Angelou talked about her life and the people she knew and had met. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, among others. It's just amazing to hear of the life she was made to live.

In the episode she talked about how she could tell when a young adult was raised properly - by how they respect their elders. She also commented that while you should respect your elders, you don't necessarily need to agree with them. That reminded me of my own upbringing. It also reminded me of a story i was told the other day in which as a teen ager, this person would have fist fights with her mother. Something is clearly wrong with that picture. I also thought about how I treat senior citizens and how I give them respect. My parents made sure to instill this in me.

Maya Angelou was speaking with Dave and told him a story. In this story she said two things that resonated with me. 1 - "Don't pick it up and don't lay it down." and 2 - "Do you know how important you are?".

I'll tackle the easiest to explain first. I was confused when she said the statement, "Don't pick it up and don't lay it down." What in the world is that supposed to mean? I was confused. Then she explained. If someone says, "You're great!", "Your work is fabulous!", "You do everything fantastically!" you should consider accepting the compliment because if you "pick it up" you're also going to have to "pick up" the criticisms. If you choose to "pick up" the accolades you can't just "lay down" the crticisms. That struck a chord with me and my career and my art. If I accept all of the positive discussion about what I do I need to also accept the negative. If I'm not ready to accept crticism I should just graciously and humbly accept the compliment and move on without relishing in the thought that someone thought I was "great", "good", "awesome", etc.

The second thing Maya Angelou said is, "Do you know how important you are?" As a black American... this is EXTREMELY important.

Maya Angelou was telling Dave Chapelle how she had to have a conversation with a young black man who was angry at another black man and using foul language (she does a MUCH better explanation of this than i do). She asked him "Has anyone told you how important you are?" Again, my ears perked up and i listened intently and rewound it to hear it again. "Has anyone told you how important you are?" Wow - that is SO profound. So profound that I had to pause Tivo and grab my sketch book. I wrote down what she said word for word. Maya said, "Do you know our people slept - laid spoon fashioned, in the filthy ashes of slave ships in their own and each others excrement and urine and menstral flow so that you could live 200 years later? Do you know that our people stoof on auction blocks so that you could live? When is the last time someone told you how important you are?" The person Maya Angelou was speaking to was Tupac Shakur on the set of Poetic Justice.

Think about that. Think about HOW profound that paragraph is. The very thought of understanding where most black americans originated from. How they arrived to America. Think about the pain and agony our ancestors must have gone through. Think about the journey on those slave ships - the trauma of being captured and shackled. The pain of being whipped and abused. Raped and robbed. To have survived all of that so that WE can be here. This is what makes being a black American important. We carry on the struggle for what our ancestors lived through. We are the result of their successes in staying alive. We are a result of their fighting for freedom; for civil rights; for equal rights.

To be a black American and not "get that" is not understanding our history in this country. It makes me realize how thankful I am. How grateful I am to have been given the life I have and a sense of urgency in making my life have meaning and importance because I know how "important I am".

After the episode, I also got to thinkin' about why certain words and actions are unacceptable in black American society. For instance - dressing in black face - totally unacceptable just because of the history behind it all. Shirley Q. Liquor is a white man dressing in brown makeup and over-the-top clothing, representing himself as a poor, uneducated, single parent of MANY kids. It's like we stepped back into time. This is NOT the days of the menstel show! Then to have another person argue that it's no different than Eddie Murphy dressing up as a Jewish man in Coming to America - they MUST be smokin' somethin'. I don't recall a black man dressin' in white face makin' fun of June Cleaver.

Then there's the whole use of the word Nigger and any other version of the word (nigga, nicca, et al). Let me clarify something. I don't use the word UNLESS i'm trying to educate - so at this moment it will be used freely. I've heard people say, "Well how come blacks can say it and I can't?" Well, think about it... if you still don't get it, you probably shouldn't even consider using it. I don't even like to hear black people say it. It's a term used to hurt us and our using it doesn't give us the power it ONLY gives the power to the people who are CURRENTLY in power. As long as you continue to say the word, the more they'll continue to believe that's all you are. You might say "Nicca" or "Nigga" but the rest of the world is hearing NIGGER. If you want to be treated with honor and respect you have to begin with treating yourself like you deserve it.

It's so amazing how something like this can flip a switch in your brain. i feel so compelled to do something; to be expressive - much more than just writing this blog. This week I will create something artistic to show the importance of black Americans in the 21st Century.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Moments of Clarity

There are moments as a student affairs practitioner where you want to pull your hair out. There are also moments where you understand your role to be the most ideal career choice you could have ever made. If there were a tangible way to measure these moments as elements with mass and volume, the latter would be the heaviest.

When I entered the field of student affairs I wasn't so much concerned with affecting change in students lives. I was more concerned with affecting change in my own. I wanted to make a living by enjoying what I did, which would be event planning and programming. Student Development Theory was low of my list of priorities as I strived to make my grand exit from my graduate school program.

Upon entering my first position as a hall director my new priority was treading water. I don't suspect that many people wake up one day in their youth and say, "When I grow up I want to be a hall director". It has to be absolutely one of the grimiest positions in the field. Late nights, large students staffs, committee work, and let's not forget the on-call responsibilities. However, having this position allowed me to begin to understand who and what I have become today.

Day in and day out we interact with students. Those interactions might be intentionally developmental, passive, and interactive. While we probably focus more on our intentional interactions it's probably the unintentional interactions that are often remembered. Those moments when a student realize that you are an individual who has a life that exists outside of the office; those moments when they begin to understand why you've made the choices you've made; and those moments when they begin to respect you for all that you do in your job. It is these interactions that fuel a student affairs practitioner to continue to do their work.

About 18 months ago I was declaring my departure from my current position. I was sure that it was time for me to move on. I had done everything I needed to do and I thought I was ready for my next adventure. Fast forward to the unintentional interaction with a student that I advise that took place during the fall semester of 2006. I have a comfy couch located directly across from my desk. This student came into my office and sat on the couch confidently and began to have a general conversation about the organization that I advise. After giving more than an hour of my time to this conversation I began to consider how important that conversation really was. Not only for his sake but for mine as well. I contemplated this conversation and its meaning over the weekend and came to a conclusion. I am not ready to leave because these moments are why I'm here.

This is the time when students across the world are graduating. These are the times where, as an educator, you are purposely reminded why you do what you do each day. The culmination of all interactions with your students and colleagues has resulted in the march of Pomp and Circumstance and the presence of a new graduate.

Last month a student called to ask if I would be interested in attending his graduation dinner with his entire family and friends. He said that I had been influential in his college experience and wanted me to be a part of his celebration. I was honored and accepted his invitation. His appreciation for the work that I do each day and the understanding that it all has a purpose moved me.

More students will pass through my life. More students will sit comfortably on my couch. More students will remember their experiences and hopefully, think positively of them. More students will graduate. For each moment that was intentional and unintentional I will continue to remember why I am here - because I enjoy what I do on a different level. Whether it's developing a program for students, creating opportunities for them to learn or try something new, or provide a venue for open dialogue where we can learn from one another. I am grateful to have followed this path and arrived to this point in my life.

This epiphany of not only understanding why I am here doing the work that I do and having those I am connected to understand and begin to believe in the work that I do is heavy; especially when you consider the impact you are having on the world. I hope to continue to make a difference and I hope you do as well as we plan for a new year.