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Monday, August 27, 2007

Do They Realize How Important They Are?

Last night I held an on campus event for Target. It went fairly well and you'll catch it on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. I'll post the airdate once I find out - but back to this blog.

At our event I saw quite a few of our black students and it made me think of a blog I wrote back in May 2007. The blog was in reference to the show, Iconoclasts on the Sundance channel. This particular episode featured Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou and there was a point where Maya really hit home with me. She was speaking about black men and how sometimes they forget their importance in society with regard to what most of our ancestors had survived. It was pretty deep.

At the event I got to thinkin' how students really have no concept of it. How they are here because of the pain and struggles of those who came before us. That they have this GRAND opportunity to attend pretty much ANY university they choose to apply themselves to the work it takes to get accepted. It also made me think of the type of student I was in high school and how I just barely got by. I guess it's still fresh in my mind because I watched Roots: The Next Generations last month. After having seen people go through so much, why would any black student want to NOT succeed or be successful? I don't think they don't want to be successful, but I do think that the perception of what successful is is vastly different than the traditional views of what a successful adult is. Is it money, power, material things?

Since school has now begun for most campuses, I thought I'd share the blog that keeps Dr. Maya Angelou's question, "Do you know how important you are?" fresh in my mind. Maybe it will inspire you in the same way it has me and enable you to inspire others.

May 22, 2007

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 criticisms. 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 criticism 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 menstrual flow so that you could live 200 years later? Do you know that our people stood on auction blocks so that you could live? When is the last time someone told you how important you are?"

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.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fishin' Season Has Now Begun!

I have my tackle box in hand and my fishin' pole. I heard from a friend that they're justa bitin'! Students that is...

Today I learned of three people who are nibblin' at the idea of having an opportunity to be members of an organization (RHA) that I advise. It's interesting how they swim in schools and see one person thinkin' about going after the bait and they all realize, "Hey, I want some of that bait too!"

My question is, "Is the bait the only reason I've lured you?" That bait being a nice discount on their housing. I worry about that a lot. Are these students just being interested because of the financial help they'll get? I mean, being an RA is totally for that free housing first and foremost. We'd just like to pretend that it's for all the RIGHT reasons? You know.. because "I really want to help students". It's totally not because they're just itchin' to jump out of bed for a random emergency like a fire alarm that just won't turn off. It's the all mighty dollar - but hey.. that's reality and I'd be the same way.

To catch nibbles with this generation - I always try to use my best lures. Sometimes I squirt that fish oil stuff on the bait that will help in attracting the student - you know what that is... The "It'll look GREAT on your resume and you'll gain some awesome experience" mixed with a "I think you would be an excellent..." I've even gone to the extremes by saying, "Think of all the money you could save and you won't have to be on duty!" That last one just never seems to matter to folks. I mean, there's no way I can equal $0 for housing and meal plan for a mere discount each semester.

The school year won't officially begin until August 27. I already have three nibbles and I haven't even put out my fish finders yet (my ads). This is a good thing. I do think they're genuinely interested in positions that are available.

Of the fish that I caught last year, I think they were my prize fish. Many of them have gone on to become RAs. I think they enjoyed their housing experience and want to be more vested in the process (oh, how very student affairsy of me) - I just hope they don't turn bitter by the end of the year. The pond's they're now swimming in are MUCH different than the pond I provide.

Each year it's a battle for the best of the bunch. Yep, a battle between recruiting RAs and RHA members. A lot of times I feel that becoming an RA is more highly valued than being a member of RHA and being the facilitator of community. Both facilitate community, however - RHA facilitates community on a much larger scale. Basically, all the students I "catch" and restocked into a smaller lake are much more easily caught by that fisherman (or woman) that is casting a line out for their own needs. I've become that stocked man-made lake!

I guess becoming that stocked lake is a testiment of what I do but it always causes me to enter into a fishing frenzy at the beginning of the year to find people to replace the fish that get "hooked" into being an RA. Are we doing a disservice to ourselves if we're just taking people who might very well be better suited for one position or another that don't last an entire semester? That's something that I've always wondered about. If a student becomes an RA that probably is more suited for RHA, how do we best serve the community? By having a body in a position or someone with talent for maintaining a floor, building a rapport with students, or building community? I don't really have an answer just yet, but I'm definitely thinking about it all.

Within the next couple of weeks I'll see what my "catches of the days" are. I have my bucket ready. Happy fishing and I hope you catch the "Big One"!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Free to Be?

For the last week or so, I've been struggling with how to tackle this particular topic - AUTHENTICITY. How many of us truly live authentic lives? Are our professional lives separate from our authentic lives? Do they blend nicely or is there a Mason Dixon line present?

I felt it was time to write this blog because it just seemed as though I was being presented with hint after hint to write this blog. First it was a conversation, then it was something I witnessed at work, then it was an article I read, then another conversation. Today was the tipping point when the topic on Oprah was being who you were meant to be - living authentically without fear. This episode featured Ellen Burstyn, Sheryl Crow, and Dana Buchman as well as many other prominent women in entertainment talking about how they have finally been able to be the person they feel they were meant to be.

I like to think that I live pretty authentically at work and in my personal life. Granted, there are things that are too personal to talk about at work - everyone need not know ALL of your business! However, I think there's merit to being "YOU" 24/7 as much as possible. Choosing to do things because you want to not because you feel obligated. To feel comfortable in sharing your opinions and standing your ground with your beliefs. Being able to share who you are with the students you work with confidently, without feeling like you'd be judged by them OR your supervisor - I mean.. we DO try to teach civility and acceptance, right?

I read an article today to research this topic. I knew what it feels like to live authentically but I couldn't articulate it. However, this article does it really well.

"Truly being your Self in any given situation means you are: at peace with your Self, in love with your Self, into your Self or at one with your Self. When you're being your Authentic Self you feel empowered, powerful, confident, capable, strong and One with All That Is."
(Excerpt from The Freedom of Being Authentic By Melissa Van Rossum)

I know for a fact that I hadn't been authentic until I made the move to Las Vegas. In undergrad I wasn't being myself. I joined a fraternity and did a half-ass job of being myself. The fraternity gave me a lot of my personality for 5 years - and honestly, I needed one badly because I was so afraid of knowing who I was so that was something that defined me. Then there was grad school - and I was still undefined. Beginning my first student affairs professional gig - I was on the cusp of living authentically.

A journey of authenticity - scary, huh? Yeah it is scary. The first year I decided to be me 24/7 I began by putting a rainbow sticker on my car in 2003. I wanted students to be able to identify an ally and a member of a specific community. It's a part of who I am just as being black is. In doing that, I was officially stating my orientation to EVERYONE at the university and community. It was scary and liberating - it was also a way to say it without me actually "saying it". Still a bit cowardly. Four years have passed and I now sport Marshall University paraphernalia on my new car rather than rainbow anything. I've gotten to the point where it's easier to talk about with students, staff, and friends. Living an authentic life on and off campus. I've empowered myself and now I'm able to help empower others.

Feeling empowered, confident, capable and strong is important for anyone in any field - the only difference for those in our career is that while we're pushing to be all those things while we're tryin' to help others to arrive there too. Do we ever make ourselves vulnerable to our students? To our colleagues? Are we being "too real" too often and where do you stop being real and being professional? Is it based on your own comfort level? If it is your comfort level, then we're back to square one - are you comfortable with who you are and what you represent? Shouldn't we be role models?

Let's talk about role modeling briefly. What is a good role model? Someone who appears to have arrived to where they are without mistakes or struggles? Or is a role model someone who will share their trials and errors, their successes and offer guidance on how to become successful? One of my biggest pet peeves in our field are professionals that act as though they've NEVER done anything wrong and chastise students who do make mistakes.

There's a quote that I began to say 4 years ago and I can't remember who said it but it goes like this... "It's much easier to live one life than to live two lives and just as easy to be yourself than to be the somebody someone else created." At the end of the day you only have to answer to one person.. and that's you. Your friends, your colleagues and your students will respect you more for your honesty. Express who you are more regularly and you'll begin to feel stronger, more capable, more empowered because of your honesty. And because of your honesty you'll live a freer more authentic life.

As the school year begins - think of how different it might be if you were more authentic in your work. Consider blurring those lines between personal and professional and allowing people the opportunity to know you.. flaws and all (that's right, Beyonce'!)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

I Went to College and All I Got Was This Lousy Ph.D.

I recently had an interaction with someone from the faculty side of life. I met this character during a random chat about professions and I had mentioned that I too, was an educator. He got excited to find another educator at the same university and quickly began to talk faculty lingo.

"I'm a mathematics professor, and I just got tenure and I'm 30!", he told me as if he were tryin' to strut his stuff like a fancy peacock.

"Oh that's cool. I'm an educator too. I work in Campus Life", I replied.

"So, what do you teach?", he asked.

"I don't teach in a classroom. I'm administrative staff. I teach and try to develop leadership skills to students", I answered.

He quickly replied, "Well that's not teaching. You can't teach leadership! You either are a born leader or not. You said you were an educator and that suggests teaching. You just work in Campus Life."

In the blink of an eye, my mood sharply changed. "I do teach. I'm working with these students everyday and if it's not learning how to be a better leader, it's teaching them civility. If I'm not teaching civility, I'm teaching on diversity. If I'm not teaching diversity, I'm teaching some skill that will help them in some form or fashion. A lot of times I'm teaching lots of thing in the span of a few hours", I said in a tone just 5 degrees shy of reaching a level of hot tempered.

"Well I still say it's not teaching" he said with a smirk on his face.

It was at that moment when I began to ignore him.

I went to bed thinking about what this random person just told me. He discounted all of the work I do. WE do... As if his work is more important. I quickly realized that I was being like this person by trying to discount his tenured track role. Being judgemental. I think it's cool that he has tenure. But I think it's uncool that he fails to see the value in the work of Student Affairs Professionals.

Thinking back on what this person's college experience was, he may have not had much of one. I surely would have asked him had he not been so arrogant. Did he fly through academic programs without stopping to smell the roses? And what awesome roses they are - all varieties, sizes and fragrances.

Can you imagine what it might be like if we didn't provide the activities, leadership programs, training, etc? Number one, it would be UBER boring. Number two, we would never learn as much about other cultures, races, religions, etc without the social interactions, trainings, workshops, etc that we provide. Number three, students would fail to see life globally. Number four, many students wouldn't have an opportunity to have a better sense of self. There are many positive results that come from the work that we do. We don't reach ALL students but we surely make a valiant effort.

So, if you fly through college like a speeding bullet do you miss out on something? Most Student Affairs practitioners would probably say yes. It's a time to try and learn new things. A time to figure out who YOU are and what you believe. A time to be that person who leads; one who contributes to community service; one who understands or attempts to understand differences among people; one who contributes to the world and not to forget - their contributions to our Gross Domestic Product :0)

I think it's important to get more from your college experience than earning degrees. There is value in knowing your coursework and there is value in knowing you've had an experience through some sort of involvement. It's important to enjoy your journey, take plenty of photos and have a ton of memories of the experience as opposed to going on a vacation, staying in and never leaving your room and coming back with a souvenir as the only proof of having had that experience. You would never spend $1000 on a vacation and do that - and I would expect a student to not do that with a $20,000 (or more) education.

College is a journey of many paths. Take time and see the different views. Take pictures. Develop connections and save room for memories. Don't let your degree be the only memory you have of the experience.

Well, now I've said all that to preach to the choir - but I feel so refreshed now that I've gotten that out of my brain.