How does one mentor, coach and lead oneself through a
bad uncomfortable situation?
At one point in my career, my place of employ was undergoing a five-year strategic planning process. I have my own thoughts about the efficacy of strategic plans, and how they relate to independent schools. But, I will leave it there for the time being.
On the morning of the second installment of the strategic planning process, I was already feeling skeptical, detached, and a lack of investment. I anticipated, based on what I had noted from the two pre-strategic planning meetings, that there would be no significant component involving the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color, faculty and staff of color in senior leadership positions, recruitment of students of color (mind you, the independent school in question resides in an urban area), and, developing a more positive and productive relationship with the community, which is two-thirds people of color.
Oh, how I do hate being right about such things…
The core group – 30 faculty, administrators, and “friends of the school” – had devoted the entirety of the previous day planning for the second installment. One of their activities was developing five focus areas. To my lack of surprise, there was not one focus area dedicated to discuss diversity/multiculturalism/race. Not. one. This created a significant dilemma for myself and two colleagues – who represented three-fifths of the Black faculty and staff. We. had. nothing. Not that conversing about enrollment, or financial viability, or academics, or community relations, or, even progressive education, were beyond our capacity. Of course it wasn’t. What was, however, beyond our comprehension, not to mention very frustrating and disappointing, was that the core group didn’t seem to think it necessary or important to discuss diversity/multiculturalism/race.
The process facilitator came to lend guidance and support. After about ten minutes, my two colleagues decided to participate in the community relations conversation. I decided to participate in the progressive education conversation. Having experience and expertise with the topic, having taught for six years at at a progressive school, I thought I could engage productively, despite how I was feeling at that moment.
The progressive education conversation – which lasted about one hour – was engaging. At the end of the hour, the group – there were seven of us – had surfaced what I thought were significant talking points: external community perception, national reach and significance, the institution as a leader in professional development re: progressive education, and the why of progressive education for teaching and learning. However, for the second hour, despite the aforementioned, the only topic that the other six members of the group could lock onto in any substantive way was to discuss the creation of a community perception survey. Which was very telling for me on many levels. I very much wanted to discuss in greater depth what the first hour of conversation had surfaced, and, somehow, bring the diversity/multiculturalism/race aspect into the conversation. But, I was unable to find a way in. It was at this point that my survival instincts kicked in. As the only person of color, it was once again, and by default, my job to raise the “R” question. And, let me tell you, it’s exhausting.
Given my personal and professional dilemma, I decided to defer to the will of the other members, and let them have their conversation and discuss their survey. Sometimes, it is best not to say anything. I remained as engaged as I could – nodding appropriately, smiling, and looking at each of the group members as they spoke. I was invited to “get in” to the conversation – mind you, after 20 minutes – but, I was invited, nonetheless. I declined by saying with a smile, “Not at this time, thank you.”
At the conclusion of the two-hour strategic planning session, the process facilitator asked me how things went. I told her the first hour was good, but the second hour, not so much. I explained my dilemma to introduce the race question. She said, “But you have got to raise them.” Perhaps she was right.
On the one hand, I was disappointed in myself: I should have, in fact, taken the risk, and raised the topic. Being a person of color, born and raised in the United States, there are things I see and experience that many White Americans simply don’t, precisely because they are not of color. And, taking up the proverbial mantle, even when it’s uncomfortable, may be the only chance at true revelation that my White colleagues will have at that moment in time.
On the other hand, the sort of mentoring I provided was to myself: One of self-care and self-preservation.