The Importance of Community for Marginalized Faculty

Like most institutions of higher education, my College has been trying to diversify its faculty and student body in all facets. To most people this ‘initiative’ or ‘strategic plan’ is just rhetoric meant to fuel the tanks of the ever stratified system of education. But to those of us working within this system, these types of initiatives are what enable us to get up every day and work in an environment where we are perpetually ‘the only’.

Yes, we knew when we accepted the coveted tenure-track offer that we would be joining a campus whose diversity tapestry (I heard a Dean use this phrase and I kind of like it) was threadbare. But we joined because like any teacher, we have hope. Hope that one day we won’t be the only or that we won’t represent the voice of all women/racial and ethnic minority/queer/religious minority/disabled/low income/working class people. We hope that on the first day of class we will have the pleasure of watching students from all backgrounds enter the room. We hope that the anxiety we carry with us will dissipate and be replaced by a sense of community and belonging and acceptance.

Community. That is what I really want to talk about. This abstract thing that can’t be quantified or measured, but is at the heart of interpersonal interactions. That is the heart of any college campus.

I didn’t realize what a big role community would play in my professional life. I always thought of community as something relevant to your personal life: your family, neighborhood, friends. And while having community is indeed important when I am not working, I am finding it is more important when I am working. Community—people—are why I do what I do. I want to create community, enhance communities, sustain communities.

And I do that in a myriad of ways: through teaching, through service, but most of all, through friendships. Some people call this collegiality, but I call it friendship. Because true communities are built upon genuine bonds that extend beyond proximity; they are about shared emotional experiences, shared values, shared lives.

My College has a fairly large (given our small size) LGBTQ population among the faculty but we are lacking in ethnic and racial diversity and in age diversity. While the latter will change with time (eventually older faculty retire and are replaced by young faculty), the former only changes with concerted effort and careful reflection of the College climate and the general climate of higher education. And it looks like we’ve got storms brewing.

The institutionalized microaggressions experienced around issues of diversity in higher education are overwhelming and obvious to the nuanced eye. The lack of recognition of the rigor of interdisciplinary scholarship surrounding issues of race and gender is paramount. The subjugation of requests for financial and personnel support to grow interdisciplinary programs/department is intolerable. The expectation that faculty of color teach and research issues related to people of color is offensive. The failure of ethnic minorities and women and nonnative English speakers to get tenure is alarming. The constant ignoring of valid issues brought to administration by students, staff and faculty speak to the underlying and not so implicit desire to keep things as they always have been. As my father likes to say: Things aint changed all that much!

My College has over 200 faculty members. Within that 200+ count are roughly (I am sure I am leaving someone out of my count so add 5 to be safe) three African American women, one African American man, Two Asian women, one Asian man, four Indian American women, two Indian American men, five Hispanic men, one Hispanic woman, and a handful of international professors. Of those people, 13 were hired in the last three years. That is progress. But it is only half the story.

While we’ve done well to hire many faculty of color, we’ve also missed out on opportunities to keep faculty of color. This year alone the College is losing three men of color from its ranks. Last year we lost a woman of color. The year before we lost two men and a woman of color.

I acknowledge that the College cannot make people stay any more than it can make people apply for jobs; however, I feel that colleges in general can do more to create a sense of community for marginalized faculty. With the addition of three faculty of color (TT) this year, my community expanded in a meaningful way. But every time I gain a friend, I lose another so each year I am breaking even. That is not growth. That is stagnation.

And it hurts. It’s painful to watch my friends pack up their offices and leave. It is painful to have to tell students why a course they really want to take won’t be offered next year. It is painful to realize that come August I must start anew building new bonds, creating new relationships and work even harder at sustaining a fragmented community. This wears on me emotionally.

The sense of loss I feel eventually turns to anger. Anger at myself for being in this situation, anger at the College for not caring enough about diversity—about me—to invest in people I could call friends, anger at the system for continually talking about diversity but doing nothing to enact it.

I need the support of people who understand my experiences. Who understand why sometimes I need to get up and walk out of meetings or why tumblr_mbgpu25P5X1qenxhzo1_500I have tears in my eyes when I’m speaking on behalf of students who feel they can’t speak for themselves or why I chose to buy a house ‘out East’ instead of downtown near campus. I need people to call when I have questions I’m not comfortable asking others. I need people to laugh with when the stress of being in battle is wearing me down. I need people to stand beside me and fight with me against outdated policies and antiquated thinking. I need people to see beyond my skin and ever-changing hair styles to see the value in me.

That is what I have in my very small, every changing community. I just hope it lasts.