#ACPA16 Reflections – Fear, Challenge, and the Path to Being Better

This morning I woke up thinking I may just be ready to put some of my thoughts into a blog post following a[nother] transformational ACPA (College Student Educators International) Convention in Montréal. I have taken some time to reflect and unpack many of the conversations and teachings I had taken away, but could not shake the feeling that I was maybe ill prepared to express myself while still struggling through some of the components.

At the beginning of the Convention, when the Elders in Residence had been introduced, I tweeted that teachings come to you when you are ready or in need. This prompted a great response from Simone Williams:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.41.02 AMOver the last number of years, I have focused on becoming a reflective person. I spend time thinking through why I did or said something that didn’t align with my actual thoughts or beliefs, I have challenged myself to say something when I witnessed behaviours or exchanges that directly contradicted my values in a way that would elevate and not escalate the conversation, and I really explored my own limitations and sense of self. Throughout this process, whenever I was challenged the most, something appeared to directly or indirectly provide clarity.

the fear

So, if all of this resonates with me, why the fear of blogging about an issue you’ve struggled with for the last three years? In short, because the topic I’ve been confronting the most as a result of attending ACPA Conventions, is a topic that I fear may be difficult to engage in and with in a developmental way. My professional goals include building stronger, broader networks with my colleagues to help me learn more and identify areas for growth; to eventually be brave enough to apply for an Ed.D. program to formalize more of this learning and be exposed to and mentored by other leaders in the field; and what happens if, by publicly sharing my frustration and concern, this hinders these prospects?

If you’ve met me, you likely wouldn’t imagine that at times I am maybe not super confident. For one reason or another, I do tend to project confidence and I work really hard at this, not because I want to trick people, but because this is the process through which I have found it. For me, fake it until you make it has been the best advice I could have received. When things get tough, I play a song in my head that forces me to add some pep to my step; I tell myself that I am an eloquent speaker with intelligent, critical questions that need to be answered; and my sense of style… well, it requires you to be ready to confront some ignorant responses. With all this in mind, today’s confidence came from the ACPA President-Elect, Donna Lee.

After being ill for most of the tail end of the week, I wasn’t fully up on my social media accounts. We are welcoming prospective students and their supporters to our Discover Nipissing (Open House) events, we are filling some long-standing staff vacancies, and heading towards exams – things are, as always, aplenty (my replacement word for busy). This morning when I opened my laptop to consider writing this post (and opened Twitter to admittedly distract from this aim), one tweet was almost illuminated on my screen:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 9.59.34 AMThis was what I needed. I needed the reminder to seek the “uncommon space” where I had permission to learn and engage with my peers, some of whom may not agree with what I was processing and feeling. I needed the reminder to bring what Irshad Manji referred to in her call to action as “diversity of thought” to the conversations outside of the Convention.

The Challenge

What is it that has me so troubled? Values. You know, the things we are supposed to use to guide our practice, scholarship, and profession. I use the word supposed intentionally. For the last three ACPA Conventions, I have spent my time challenged by the prospect of working and learning in a profession that espouses such great values daily, but struggles to enact them. Now, this isn’t to condemn a profession and field that I love; but rather to share that this awareness brought me into the rabbit hole from a rather pleasant, imagined universe where I would continue learning from professionals who had it all together, all of it, ALL of it. Much like the child who first realizes their parent or supporter isn’t perfect, it was a bit to take it. Not because I thought that we, as Student Affairs had it all together, but because I was thrown off by the ways in which we did not.

Over the last three ACPA Conventions, we have discussed barriers to access and inclusion for our own members as the lens through which we can see our deficiencies – among the concerns were those for international members and transgendered and gender non-conforming members. Surely, as a group of folks who focus so intently on enhancing student living and learning experiences, we would be able to accomplish these ends from within? This was not the case. Within our own associations we were unintentionally marginalizing our membership through language, space, and systems; and we didn’t know how to fix it.

Here’s the good news – at every ACPA Convention that I’ve attended, we’ve talked about it. Openly, honestly, directly. Our ACPA leadership, the members, and the guests at our conventions have spoken about the issues that we need to address, the importance of living our values, and building structures and systems within our field to ensure that this can be done. We may not know how to fix it yet, but we are working together to sort it out. What happens when the problems and issues we face as an association and field are systemic? We host many sessions at Convention on culture change and restructuring, but have we considered that these concepts may apply outside of our office and department walls? Do we just keep adding Commissions and/or Communities of Practice to embrace diversity, or do we work harder to foster a culture where these voices are included in all of the dialogue? How do we get to a point where our inclusive language choices of “our” actually reflect the entire group and not require qualifying language? Is this not the essence of what we hope to do?

the pathway

That’s the macro; fortunately, we all have to deal with this at the micro-level as well. I use the term fortunately, because I believe this holds us accountable to not just having this be an annual discussion point that we leave in the host cities. Each year, when I return from Convention, I prepare to discuss my learning with the department team. This is usually staggered to ensure that new ideas and concepts don’t negatively impact the work already in progress. It happens formally in team meetings for broader concepts, one-on-ones for referrals and brainstorming, and over coffee to dive into areas of particular passion.

Each week, in our meetings, we talk about living our values. We discuss what steps we have taken each week to meet our goals, and identify ways for improvement. This keeps us accountable and helps create critical dialogue and promote diversity of thought amongst our team. It should be noted, I don’t Chair my team meetings. This is an intentional choice, to show the group accountability to the work that we do. Everyone is able to bring agenda items, everyone takes turns chairing the meeting, and everyone is accountable to our outcomes. This in itself was a pretty big symbol of a culture change. As Manager, relinquishing direct control over the meeting structure was an important step in building the type of team dynamic I wanted to foster. I admit to being a lifelong learner and it was important to me to demonstrate that by also admitting to not being an expert on every item that would come to our meeting table. The results have been better than anticipated. We openly challenge each other, positively, to improve our work. We consistently coach and encourage each other to be and do better in alignment with our values and to promote student academic, social, and personal development and success.

With that, I had the opportunity to discuss with a team member an image that had gone around the internet this week. The image’s purpose was to represent barriers to access that were structurally or systemically build into that particular institution, preventing the student from feeling as though they belonged or were welcome members of that community of learning. We then began replicating that exercise for our summer orientation program, New Student Orientation. We discussed the value of the exercise, and that it needed to be brought to our stakeholder group for them to process things in the same way. Once we named these barriers, we could start brainstorming how to address as many of them as we could to best enhance the student and supporter experience of this program, and our university.

Similarly, another team member and I brainstormed our challenges of funding non-student participation in broad events and initiatives and the ethical implications of such decisions. To resolve our struggles, we reverted back to our purpose, discussed our values, and then outlined barriers to access for these students. While THE answer isn’t clear, AN answer was. I was able to share my thoughts from ACPA, my university, and relate them to their feelings about the programs they facilitate to have an open, values-driven dialogue to better support students through the work that they [we] do.

The results of my ongoing reflection are equal parts frustrating and enlightening. We model our values by engaging in conversation, challenging ourselves to confront difficult realities, and including dissenting voices and opinions in each part of the process. This process cannot just be about diversity, or the lip-service approach to representation; it has to be about inclusion, the voices and opinions need to be engaged throughout each stage. We need to hold each other accountable. The Yik Yak drama of NASPAs 15 and 16 show us that. How can we possibly move our offices, departments, functional areas, or field forward if we struggle to enact our values in day-to-day life? Sometimes we all need that person to let us know that what we do as individuals matters just as much as what we do as a collective. We can’t let the fear of potential shame limit our voices and we certainly cannot accept status quo as a step toward growth and development. How can we better identify the barriers to access or to being our best selves? How can we encourage others to reflect on the inconsistencies of our heart, mind, and action? How can we give others permission to tell us when they are disappointed in our choices or when we misrepresented ourselves, not to shame us, but to elevate us? Espousing a set of values and beliefs is no longer enough. We need to make sure we carry these with us, through us, and keep them on our minds and hearts at all times. I’m a ready, willing student who is looking everywhere – before, during, and after – for the teachers that come to me to help me get and be better. Let’s do that for each other in our individual work, and our collective practice.