Black. Female. Leader: Reflections on Social Justice Work in ​Majority White Communities

Below is the text of the speech I gave at the Washington Ethical Society on July 16, 2017. Please check out their Facebook Page to view the talk.


Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I would like to thank all of you for this opportunity.

I’ve heard about some of the amazing work you are doing as a congregation and specifically about some of the goals you have– one of those goals being to enlarge the number of people of color in your congregation and another to foster some leadership within those ranks. Today I’m going to reflect on experiences I’ve had doing anti-racism and multicultural work as a person of color in majority white communities similar to this one.

I know I may not need to say this but I will anyway– I do not speak for all people of color, nor do I profess to know what every person of color needs in order to be successful in majority white communities. However, I hope the stories and insights I share with you today will aid in your understanding of the trials people of color face when we try to secure leadership positions in our current society. I also hope to leave you with some nuggets to reflect on as a congregation and individually because I believe all of you arrived here this morning eager to grapple with these topics.

So, to state the obvious, I’m Black. More specifically, I am a nearly 6 foot, black, female with dreadlocks down my back. This makes me very black for many people both as an administrator in an independent school in Northwest DC, on the street, at the grocery store, and even in the park with my 7-month-old daughter. There is no hiding my frame, my color or my gender in my everyday life. Nor would I want to, typically. I’ll admit, I’ve awakened on more than a few occasions hoping to be invisible. Praying that today would be the day I was seen for who I am and not simply what I look like. Just for one day, I’d walk up the street and there’d be no lingering eyes inquiring what I’m doing in this neighborhood, or in this section of the plane, or in this hotel, or at this restaurant, or at this musical. Have you fantasized about just being able to breathe without being harassed? Have you sat in a business meeting and questioned your reality because surely in 2017 people aren’t actually saying, “well, what do black people think?” as they stare at you? No. Good. You must be in the majority.

I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For those of you unfamiliar with that city, it is neglected, corrupt and impoverished. Through sheer grit, I graduated from high school and went on to attend Bates College for undergrad and then Hopkins for my masters. I started teaching in Baltimore over a decade ago. I’ve written curricula for public and private institutions and have published articles on topics ranging from the stages of social-emotional and academic development to being black in America vs. being black abroad.  I married Tope Folarin, who many of you know is an accomplished author and speaker, a Rhodes Scholar and humanitarian. And I gave birth to our first child in December. I’m currently the Head of Lower School at an independent school in Northwest, DC and I purchased a home within walking distance of my school. I’m also privileged enough to work with some of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I’ve ever met. However, each day at my current place of employment and in the greater community I am constantly proving my worth, while on display.

Being a black female administrator in the independent school world is a challenging yet rewarding task. As some of you may know, independent schools were originally created to be a refuge for white people from people who look like me. Even today, independent schools struggle to add racial and ethnic diversity to their student, teacher and administrative ranks even if those schools have mission statements that speak to social justice. This congregation can relate to that struggle. I chose to move from teaching in the public school world to integrating my current administrative team because I wanted to see how effective I could be leading in this type of institution. I wanted to learn to communicate with a group of parents who were vastly different from the public school parents in Baltimore and from the people I knew growing up in Bridgeport. And I’ve definitely achieved that. Not only are the current families I work with different racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically, but I believe there are major differences in parenting styles, parental involvement and worldviews. The culture is different, the expectations are different and the opportunities to create and even innovate are different. For example, when I was teaching in Baltimore I was respected as an educator. Parents looked to me as a competent authority when I spoke about academics and social development. When I started working in independent majority schools here in DC, that trust was nonexistent. Even as I moved up from teacher to lower administrator to senior administrator I’ve noticed that trust in my expertise simply isn’t there. My degrees, years in the profession, national presentations, and publications still aren’t enough to garner trust and I know this because when I am in parent meetings, teacher meetings and community meetings I’m regularly questioned, actually interrogated is a better word, and oftentimes someone with less experience than me is consulted  for the answer or is consulted as a person who can validate or invalidate my expertise on the subject.

Because my cultural background isn’t considered relevant–or more simply and probably more accurately, my cultural background isn’t considered–at times I feel undermined, disrespected and dismissed. At other times, I feel like no matter what I say I am being placed in the angry black woman category. I used to think that I was viewed negatively because I was a young administrator with a lot of energy and urgency.  But now that I’m a little older and a lot wiser, I realize that my age has little to do with it. My height, hair style, and cocoa skin are the real cause for alarm.

There have been so many occasions over the last ten years when I’ve been in conversations with white liberals and they have mistaken me for another woman of color. So much so, that they have attributed characteristics to me that belong to someone else. And in a few instances, they’ve told me about a fight I had with them that they actually had with a different woman of color. It’s only after lengthy conversations with these people that I’ve realized this mistaken identity issue was occurring. I’ve had to stop entire conversations to explain that I was not the person they had an argument with last month because I don’t work in at department, or nope that wasn’t me that blew off a lunch with you because I eat lunch with the students, or nope that wasn’t me at that particular party in January because I was on maternity leave, but it sounds like it was fun, thanks for sharing…I think. Do you hear what I have to do? I can’t just say, “that wasn’t me,” I must offer a researchable rationale that exonerates me or these conversations don’t end. My word isn’t enough. And my face and others aren’t even distinguishable.

Black men, women, boys, and girls are being shot and killed each day, yet in my community no one has asked me how I feel about it. I’ve really felt this lack of kinship since becoming a mother. I was recently told by a white liberal that he was intentionally avoiding me on the days that black murders made the news because he doesn’t know what to say and he’d rather be colorblind than say the wrong thing. Ugh. I can unpack that statement for the next ten years but in short, I need to be seen and when things repeatedly happen to people in our society that look like me it would be great if the community I’m in acknowledges that I may need support. We don’t have to sing kumbaya in the hallways or on the street, but an acknowledgment would be great.

So if you’ve come to a point where you are attempting to relate and are thinking, “Stephanie, I understand what you are saying because I’ve traveled both nationally and internationally and have been the only white person,” that’s not really going to work because your white privilege traveled with you. Together, we will figure out how to make my struggle real to you so that you can affect change.

In order to be a true white liberal, you need to relinquish power. You need to decide not to be in charge. You need to sacrifice your power for equality. This is a step most white liberals are not willing to acknowledge and therefore people of color remain subjugated. Recently, I was trying to figure out where to place a new teacher (this teacher is of color) and I was working with a veteran teacher (a self-proclaimed white liberal) on some logistics. In my opinion, the veteran teacher was being so flexible with me and had some amazing ideas about placement and curriculum and so forth. I genuinely enjoyed those conversations and the entire process. Unfortunately, it turns out this veteran teacher was sharing with others in the building that I was using her as a “white placeholder” and I wasn’t interested in what worked best for the school but I just wanted to have another person of color in the school. Yes, I did and do want more people of color in my majority white school but I will never hire someone simply because of their race. But that aside, I work at a school rooted in social justice education and to hear that this white liberal woman only saw the conversations we were having and decisions we were making together in a negative light was unnerving. In a school dedicated to social justice, I never thought I would have to defend the need for more people of color in the institution or that I would ever have to explain that no one is a placeholder, however, in an attempt to advance the mission of the school everyone should be willing and ready to be uncomfortable.

Discomfort comes in many forms, on the adult level and with children. A student called another student a nigger last year in the lower school. Developmentally, the use of harsh language and even hate speech are common in lower grades. Children hear words at home, on television, on the radio, and use them because they are attracted to the emotional response those words evoke, not because they have some deep-seated hatred. Soon after the student used this word, the teachers, a parent and some administrators decided to create an education plan for parents. We decided to host a parent coffee to share with parents how we discuss hate speech in the classroom. We also wanted to reassure parents that we were protecting their children and meeting them where they were. The lessons and activities that our brilliant teachers created were right on point and our planning meeting was coming along beautifully. And then it happened.  Someone said, “as the white people in the room, we need to give black people a voice.” Ouch! I was the only visible person of color in this planning meeting. I sat back and waited for someone else in the room to speak up about this problematic statement. As I sat there I thought, “No, that’s not what you need to do.” Black people and all people of color have a voice. We don’t need permission to use it. We just need the majority to step out of the way and allow us space to use it. We need to be heard and our voices need to be respected equally. Luckily, another person in the room spoke up and said exactly what I was thinking. That woman was a Latina who could pass for white. The lesson in a moment like this is: white allies need to correct other white allies– use your position to support one another. That is something I won’t be able to do as a person of color.

What keeps me going each day is knowing that I am making a positive difference in the lives of students and my faculty.  I see these negative moments as areas of growth for those around me and I see the blatant acts of racism and sexism as the unfortunate side-effects of American and world history. My goals each day are to create the best learning environment for the students in my school, to support my teachers in their professional and personal lives, and not to worry too much about the safety of my 6 foot 4 black husband when he walks out of our home. Nothing I’ve shared today can’t be overcome within a community that sees, hears and respects all of its members while acknowledging that different groups of people need different things in order to feel and actually be supported.

And if you are truly serious about supporting people of color in general and in leadership positions in this congregation, it can’t be just lip-service. You have to work with that person when he or she handles something well and when he or she makes a mistake. Growing a leader isn’t just something you say, it requires dedication. I encourage you to schedule meetings to discuss aspects of the position and to discuss people in the community that may be impediments to that leader’s success. Be honest. Supporting any leader means communicating critically and respectfully. It also means supporting that person publically and helping them to analyze mistakes privately.

In the future, I hope that people who look like me won’t be told that they are too strong-willed, too pointed, too pushy for change, too forceful in conversation, not friendly enough, not soft enough… and on and on… when really the issue is that they are too black, too female, and the boss. I hope for a day when my work speaks for itself and I no longer have to defend my every action because of what I look like. I hope that in the future people stop expecting me, and people who look like me, to cower in a corner and just be an ornament in the community, but that we are taken seriously, promoted appropriately and respected equally.

Relinquishing power is the key to equity and justice. I challenge you to think about the power you have as a community and as individuals as you grow your congregation and become more culturally diverse. If you are truly interested in supporting leadership of color I believe it is imperative that you think about what that means for the power that you wield. In supporting growth and development for people of color you must relinquish power or the natural yet divisive instinct to yolk that leader and make them what you want them to be will render your actions ineffective.

You are a congregation of hope and change. You are a congregation rooted in reflection and correction. Make this a place that grows leaders of diverse backgrounds and then sends them out into the community to show others how it’s done. There is so much positive energy in this space. So many innovative and inspiring ideas waiting to be hatched. I challenge you to live your Purpose Statement and “affirm the worth of every person.” To open up pathways for growth for all who walk through those doors and to be at the left and right sides of those leaders, offering a hand when support is needed, a pat on the back as accomplishments are achieved, and thoughtful and careful conversations as those leaders develop.

Thank you.

 

The Coming of Our First Child

1.

To You,
You are a living manifestation of the love and yearning of your parents. In our quest to better ourselves and this world, we created you. We know that you will spring forth from my womb with purpose and determination and in so doing, you will be all that we dreamed and prayed for in our progeny. Remember, forever, that we made you in love, birthed you in hope, raised you in prayer, and love you infinitely and with all that we are.
From,
Mama

2.

When You Dream

When I lay my head down at night, my dreams are filled with passing images of you. I wake with a sense of comfort and a bone-aching fear; I suppose both feelings are normal in parenthood. The current images of you in my subconscious are not crisp but I know it’s you. Soon those blurred and distant outlines will come into focus.

When I lay my eyes on you I’ll know it’s you and I hope you’ll know me too. I wonder if my image will populate your dreams. Am I in your mind now? Does my voice echo when you sleep? I wonder what feelings I will evoke in you when we formally meet.

Safety, Trust and Excellence

Managing people is one of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of being a leader. In my professional career, I’ve found that the stress of managing personalities decreases when management is approached as a process that is focused on creating avenues of success. As an educational leader, I find myself in a challenging position–I’m charged with ensuring the  academic growth of my students and the professional growth of my faculty. One can’t happen without the other. To accomplish those goals, I believe I must make sure that each member of my teaching faculty feels safe.

Ideally, I want everyone who walks into my school building to feel an overwhelming sense of positivity and warmth. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the morale of my teachers. It’s something that is seemingly intangible but can have an enormous impact on the learning and growing environment of any school. After having many conversations over the years with various administrators at different schools, it’s clear to me that some administrators believe that they are not responsible for the social-emotional health of their teachers. They believe that teachers should learn to manage their own feelings, just as lawyers, plumbers, nurses, and other professionals must do in order to complete their daily job functions. I can understand this line of thinking; however, my counterargument is that teachers’ feelings and opinions about a school can leak into their teaching practice no matter how professional they are attempting to be. I strongly believe that if my teachers feel safe and happy then my students will be safe and happy. And the only path to that happiness is a path built on trust.

Building trust is a challenging yet worthwhile process in every institution. Specifically, in a school, trust needs to be given initially by all involved and monitored frequently by the community. Families trust a school immediately when they drop off their children at the school doors, and administrators trust immediately when they hire a new teacher. The factor that is a bit more difficult in this equation is a teacher’s trust of the administration. I sometimes wonder why those relationships are often so tenuous.

When I was starting out as a new teacher, I feared that the administration at my school expected perfection from me, and if I could not attain perfection I would lose my job. I felt stuck in a power vacuum and that feeling consumed me. Looking back, I know I wasn’t working at my best because I was super stressed. From that experience, I’ve learned that negative feelings breed a sense of insecurity. When I became an administrator I vowed to make sure that none of my teachers ever felt the way I felt back then. I purposefully approach each day, each person and each interaction in my school as a moment to build trust between myself and my teachers. I truly believe that when teachers feel safe and there is trust between them and administrators the school can grow into being excellent.

I believe that everyone can and should strive toward excellence. To be clear, I don’t expect each individual to be excellent at my school because I don’t even know if attaining true excellence is possible in a school. I simply believe that if everyone strives to be better each day then that dedication will inevitably make the school excellent. Each day, I am charged with guiding, pushing, even at times carrying my teachers toward excellence.  I take these hard tasks on because I believe in the mission and vision of my school and I trust that my teachers believe in them too.

Administrators are just humans managing humans, and as so we must be clear in our communication, honest in our feedback and discussions, and open to reflection and change. When administrators remember to do these key things, the entire school will be afforded the reality of safety, trust and excellence.

“A Party for the Colonel,” and Me Too! (spoilers)

The room has turned into a pressure cooker. You can feel yourself sweating. You want to scream, run, escape. Fear builds up in your throat. You want to scratch it away but if you start scratching you won’t be able to stop, but the fear has infested you. You’re panicking but when you look to your spouse for support, you realize that, like always, he is oblivious to your discomfort. You are drawn into pointless conversations that teem with stereotypes and disrespect and you just want to scream. You look around for someone, anyway who may be able to break you out of your prison of despair. Your eyes are wild from searching and out of nowhere you hear a freedom cry that you wished departed from your lips.

Amandla!

The lid is off the pressure cooker and you are finally free.

T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is a story that’s not too preachy on discrimination or inequity but drives home the point that all people should be treated fairly and equally for the betterment of society. There are several minor conflicts throughout the story, but the present struggle of the nameless wife reflects the reality of 1977 South Africa, the setting for this tale. Each main character, the Colonel and his wife, are richly described and never appear one dimensional. This story has a well-developed theme, appealing plot, interesting and real characters, a clever setting choice, and an engaging style; it’s an all around solid story.

Kola introduces us to the Colonel and his nameless wife in a ballroom in the wealthy area of town where the Colonel is being honored because he’d, “become the first agent of the Gold Lion Insurance Company in South Africa to earn more than 25 million ran in insurance sales.” (pg. 2) Similar to the privileged life that she dreamed of as a child, the ballroom was in contrast to her expectations/reality. Instead of being plush and comfortable the ballroom was grubby and depressing. However, blind to the physical state of the venue, the Colonel enjoyed being admired and this party allowed him the chance to be placed on a pedestal for all to do just that; relish him, gawk at him, envy him for all of his accomplishments. The sad yet true part about the entire affair is that the only reason the Colonel was able to attain the vast amount of wealth for the company and rise to the number one salesperson was because Indians, Blacks, Muslims, Malays, and Coloureds weren’t being approached by the white salesmen in the company. The only person willing to ask the masses about life insurance was the Colonel, who is Indian; therefore he’d reached the mountain top because of discrimination not because of raw talent on an equal playing field.

Throughout this story the Colonel believed that, “Money was the great equalizer,” and that if he worked hard enough the people around him wouldn’t see his color/race but they would only see his social status and he and his family would be accepted into the elite. The party celebrating his accomplishments was the fruition of his dream. Although his wife felt like an alien or a caged zoo animal on display during the party, the Colonel felt like he was in the company of equals. The Colonel was unable to realize that despite all of his efforts to assimilate his brown skin made assimilation impossible. Even when a party-goer blatantly shares his opinion about people that look like the Colonel, the Colonel agrees with his discriminatory point of view instead of reflecting:

“I tell you what,” and here the man leaned forward, “if more people were like you, keeping their heads down and making their living, we would be a different country. There’s a lot of complaining here, but no one works hard and gets himself a forward momentum. No matter who or what you are, I believe you have to prove yourself, you understand?”

“That’s what I tell my son,” the Colonel said. (pg. 17)

The lack of self-awareness is undeniable in this scene.

The Colonel came from poverty. He’s the illegitimate son of his father’s mistress and was born in a  town in a remote area of South Africa. He dreamed of becoming an important person. When he first married his wife he was a well-respected mathematics teacher and over the years he worked his way into the insurance business. He and his wife wanted more children, but they were only able to have one, Mohammed. Unlike his father, Mohammed never wished to assimilate into what he viewed as the oppressive white culture around him. Instead, Mohammed rebelled and protested against the atrocities of Apartheid which led to him being jailed and his parents caring for his son, Riyaz, on the night of the big celebration for the Colonel. Reality comes to the forefront when little Riyaz finally speaks at the end of the story:

In the space between the Colonel and the guests, Riyaz appeared a solitary figure on two strong little legs, and lifted a fist up in salute. “Amandla!” he shouted, and then paused, giddily proud, looking around at the multitude of faces that stared at him, as though he quite enjoyed the stunned and confused silence that he had, all on his own, been the cause of. (pg. 30)

FT-Kola_large_2-759x500There is no room for doubt, no space for assimilation and nowhere to run. In that moment, the brownness and whiteness of the people in the room are exposed. This final scene is shockingly refreshing not only because the tension that was building throughout the story was released but because right now all over the world people of color are looking for their “Amandla” moment. Kola is able to capture the feelings and emotions of people of color beautifully and seamlessly in this short story. She writes with such clarity and with perfect pace one would think she’d been writing for decades when, in fact, this is her first published piece.

Now and then the Colonel’s wife could hear the sounds of the distant crowd: the static-filled cries of Amandla! shouted by some young man through a microphone, followed by the responding roar of the crowd’s Awethu! Power—to us! (pg. 8)

Awethu! Power—to us!

2015 Reflections on the Caine Prize for African Writing Entries

I enjoy reading the Caine Prize nominated short stories each year because they are well written, innovative and thrilling. This year I was once again enraptured by the amazing writing and attention to detail. It was difficult for me to pick a winner, but I came to my selection after much consideration.

logoAcclaimed writer, professor, and Chair of Judges for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, Zoe Wicomb, announced the five writers shortlisted for the 2015 prize on May 5. Wicomb described the shortlisted prose as, “an exciting crop of well-crafted stories,” adding that, “the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics.”

The nominees are:
Namwali Serpell (Zambia) with “The Sack
Elnathan John (Nigeria) “Flying
Masande Ntshanga (South African) “Space
F. T. Kola (South African) “A Party for the Colonel
Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) “The Folded Leaf

Afolabi was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 and Serpell and John were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010 and 2013, respectively.

caineprize2015image

Although F. T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is the most traditionally written story it is my pick for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Kola takes the reader on a  long emotional journey and during the trip, the reader is forced to reconcile issues of physical and emotional isolation, rebellion, bondage, and racism. The dramatic ending, in particular, makes the story a refreshing and inspiring narrative worthy of the Caine Prize.

I must admit Kola clenched the victory for me because of the swift and impactful conclusion of her story. Right up until those final few scenes I had Elnathan John’s short story, “Flying” as the winner.  The misery and mystery of “Flying” reads like poetry more than prose. Clever yet approachable, John is able to spin a masterful tale through the eyes of a child.

“The Sack,” “Space” and “The Folded Leaf” are all fantastic stories. Within them I witnessed the beauty and tragedy of friendship and love; I lived, once again as a wayward child; and I found my sight through blindness.

Good luck to all the nominees.

An in-depth review of “A Party for the Colonel,” by F. T. Kola will be posted soon.