What a significant time to be a student affairs professional! The past few weeks have been a very eye-opening time in the United States. I hope you have not turned a blind eye to it. Race relations and systematic oppression are still a prevalent issue in the land of the free and home of the brave. The two most recent injustices, the tragic loss of the lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of law enforcement, showcase the work that still needs to be done.
(Please note: Students, though this message is directed at your advisors and supervisors, I hope you still read it. Feel free to forward it to administrators on your campuses to start a dialogue on how they can better advocate for you. Or, send it to the administrators who have been active allies, to thank them.)
A relative at Thanksgiving Dinner asked me, “Are you ever concerned that putting your views on the internet would have negative ramifications for your business?” At first, I was a taken aback by his inquiry, but trust he had my best interest in mind. My answer, paraphrased, was: “NO.” No, I am not concerned that putting my views about high-profile, social matters will impact my business. In fact, if the core of my messaging to student leaders and professionals is about the importance of being authentic, then I had better be practicing what I am preaching (respectfully at the appropriate time and place) regardless of fear of being challenged, disliked, or losing business. I want and need to be a role model for standing up for what you believe is right.
I am not interested in stunting my morals to stay in my comfortable place of privilege, to sit on the fence and not show my hand, or to placate anyone. I AM interested in standing up for what I believe in through educated dialogue. I AM interested in challenging others’ flippant, uneducated, and frequently ill-informed remarks and jokes. I AM interested in using my own platform and audience, which I am eternally grateful for, to bring awareness, understanding, and action to these important issues. I AM interested in pushing you to find your voice of advocacy.
So, what about you? What do you advocate for? How do you use your platform? These past few weeks, have you spoken up? Or, do you hide your eyes during those awkward silences when a tense topic is brought up in staff meeting? Do you ask questions to become better informed? Do you do your own research? Do you listen to or read other’s perspectives (including varying news sources)? Or, do you flip through Instagram and try not to look at the person of color in the room?
As most of us know, one of the most widely accepted student development theories out there is Sanford’s Challenge and Support Theory (1962). In short, it states that for growth to occur in a student, the appropriate balance must be struck between challenging and supporting that individual. For a more thorough summary of his theory, check out this great article (don’t worry I won’t tell your grad professors you looked).
When it comes to advocacy I think student affairs professionals fall into 1 of 3 teams:
- Team Avoidance: I see there’s a social justice issue but I am choosing to do nothing about it. I am looking forward to the meetings I have scheduled when the protests and dialogues are occurring. I will not educate myself about the matter at hand or process how I feel about it.
- Team Encouragement: I will encourage my students to speak up if they would like to about the social justice issue but I will leave myself out of it because I want to cover my ass and not make waves. I will potentially attend protests and dialogues, if they fit in my schedule, but I will stand in the back. I may educate myself about the matter at hand and process how I feel about it.
- Team Action: I will discuss candidly with my students why the social justice issue is just that, an issue. I will respectfully and intelligently speak about the issue around my fellow Student Affairs professionals. I will move meetings to stand WITH students at protests and dialogues. I have educated myself about the issue and will continue to do so while processing how I feel about it.
So, which team are you on? I find that a lot of the student affairs professionals I have interacted with are somewhere on Team Encouragement. They hide behind the “challenge and support” theory and say they are their for their students but these SA pros rarely put themselves out there and stand up for what they believe.
What I am trying to figure out is, what keeps more of us from being on Team Action? It drives me NUTS to attend a social justice-related dialogue or protest students are putting on and seeing administrators standing around the outside or in the back. What is stopping you from being WITH your students? Is it fear? Are people afraid of ruffling the administration’s feathers and losing their jobs? Or is it a lack of education or training? Are individuals not confident in their ally abilities?
Athlete Ally founder and activist, Hudson Taylor, recently tweeted: “Ally 101: Understand your privilege. Do your homework. Speak up, not over. Apologize for mistakes. Know that being an ally requires action.”
We ALL, as student affairs professionals, have a responsibility to educate ourselves about issues that effect the members of our communities. It is an exciting time to to stand up and speak out against a flawed system and learned biases that are preventing everyone on our campuses and in our country from feeling safe and hopeful. So, I ask again, what team are you currently on? What team do you want to be on? Educate yourself and feel free to switch teams when you are ready to stand up for what is right.
Sincerely, your colleague,
James T. Robilotta