A couple of weeks ago in the midst of facilitating an activity for colleagues during a staff retreat, I received a direct message on Twitter from ACPA. I was excited to hear that ACPA’s President, Gavin Henning, had caught wind of my social media and was wondering if I’d be interested in an interview. After a couple of emails we settled on a date, time and topic. The first couple of minutes during the interview were dedicated to Gavin getting to know a bit about me and how I ended up in higher education, more specifically Fraternity and Sorority Life. The opportunity to share my story with someone in his position is something I’m really grateful for but our interview was focused on diversity, equity and inclusivity in our profession and the association. Below is our conversation and I hope that you find it insightful (I’ll share my reflection at the end):
Keith Garcia (KG): It’s timely that we have this conversation today because I just posted on my personal social media about “being a steward to your students in their activism” needing to be a course in graduate school. So the first question I crafted for you is “What do you believe the role of student affairs professionals is in societal dialogues and movements (i.e. #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #TransIsBeautiful)?”
Gavin Henning (GH): I think it’s like a lot of things in higher ed where people can play different roles and they’re all appropriate. There are some people who don’t necessarily play roles in these dialogues/movements but still can have an impact on social justice education. When you asked the question, it made me think a little about “what should our roles be” or “what can our roles be?” I think there’s an opportunity for ACPA to really be involved. Our goal is to help students develop and help ensure their success. And so I really think dialogues and movements like these help raise awareness, not just for students but also for campuses. They can help create awareness that could change the culture on a campus, or at least begin moving towards culture change because it takes a little bit of time to do that. That has an impact on the culture within which students are able to thrive. I think participating in these types of dialogues, even in terms of observing for people who want to lay back a little bit and then get more involved later, raises one’s own awareness. It definitely has raised my own awareness, in terms of me as an individual but also in terms of me as an educator. It can also raise other peoples’ awareness either the campus’, departments’ or student groups’. It allows us to be better advocates for our students and change agents on our campuses. The challenge for some folks’ is that they see the value in it but they’re trying to figure out how to navigate and what role they want to play or what role should they play? As you know, there are a lot of things going on and competing for time, so how do you prioritize that? Obviously student success is at the top of what we do as professionals and everyone in student affairs does it because they love students. People I have worked with give up their personal time to be available to their students and we don’t have traditional hours, we don’t punch in at 9am and punch out at 5pm. The more that I think about it, it’s like an identity issue as to how you want to play a role in these dialogues/movements because it can clearly have an impact on our campus and for our students but how does one build that into their identity? If that makes any sense.
KG: I think it makes a lot of sense. For me something that I am taking away from that commentary is that observation is a form of engagement. And as someone who has challenged colleagues for either being absent from the dialogue or silent, it challenges my notion that silence is not engagement. I’m in the process of working with a student who, I believe, needs some guidance around their activism and so it’s something to consider. With that said, you briefly mentioned that ACPA has a role to play in these dialogues. “What are some things the association is doing to engage people in the dialogue?”
GH: So as you know, I think about the four elements that really distinguish ACPA and social justice is one of those. We’re not necessarily a social justice association but rather a higher education association with a strong social justice value. The way I see it, social justice is and should be infused in everything we do. And so when thinking about what our role is, some of it is just having conversations. There is continual raising of awareness that takes place at an association level but even more so among our members continuing the conversations and raising issues that keep these dialogues at the forefront of our work; not in the back, not as an afterthought but as something that we should always be considering. But in terms of what concrete examples exist of what ACPA is doing, one of the best examples would be the community conversations that happened last year right after Ferguson. What you mentioned about that observation piece is actually one of the issues that came out of that conversation. Some folks were really upset because there were folks who were on those calls but not actively participating. And when I think about the student you mentioned, with this being a form of identity development, we have to meet individuals where they are. Some folks are going to be really far ahead as social justice advocates with a lot of training and are very passionate about it. Then there are people who see the value in it but are a little uncomfortable given their knowledge base, maybe what their skill level is and so they may be sitting back and learning for a little bit; that’s OK too. It’s kind of like that kid that never really talks in class much but is clearly engaged and talks after class with students. So we have to be thoughtful about that. So I think those community conversations were once piece of what we’re doing. And there were challenges that came along with that but it’s part of the learning process. The other concrete piece are the ACPA Videos On-Demand. We launched these videos, which are short videos that surround a variety of topics but the first set of videos we put together covered racism. There’s a whole channel on that topic which includes a lot of interviews with folks at St. Louis University because they were in the middle of all the protests and a lot of the work in Ferguson. Our hope is to continue to add videos to that topic in particular.
KG: I think those are great resources. I’m a huge fan of self-directed professional development and so having the opportunity to engage with the material on your time and when it’s most convenient for you is important. I’m looking at my calendar and realizing I’ll be diving into September and won’t come up for air until October so having that available to me at a time when I can access it is great. The other question I have for you is “How have the challenges made to ACPA by marginalized groups (i.e. Trans* and Undocumented members at last year’s convention) informed your approach to leadership within the association? Has it affected your work as Director at New England College?”
GH: For the Tampa Convention we had already scheduled this Equity/Inclusion forum. This was after the conversations that arose from the T-Circle and other conversations which occurred around undocumented members — about how members and students who were undocumented would be able to make it to Montreal. So during that forum there were more topics that came to the surface and it was really emotional for me, both as an individual and as a leader, because it was difficult to hear the pain of our members. They expressed not only the microaggressions but the other aggressions they as members of the association experienced, both in terms of what ACPA hasn’t done but also in terms of what it has done that has harmed people. And so it was really difficult and I left that session just stunned while wondering could I even lead the association. But that was good. It was incredibly painful for everyone but it helped me realize, in a way that I would have never otherwise realized, what the experiences are and what the issues are. So it definitely sensitized me to what’s out there and what our members are going through. This was regardless of what the topic was because a lot of issues were raised. It helped me understand the actual feelings and the actual experience to then think about what do we need to do as an association? It also made me think about what the impact was on student learning and development? We’re an association where, if you look at our mission statement, our goal is student learning and development; so how does this impact our ability to be better college student educators when individuals are feeling this way? They’re not connected as much as they want to be. They feel like their professional home is not as welcoming as it should be. We need to figure out what to do differently and within an organization of more than 6,000 people, what does that look like? So I left thinking what do we need to do in order to move the association forward? I didn’t have any answers. We actually used the governing board meeting right after that just to debrief and talk about what we needed to do moving forward — we continue to have those conversations. At our July summer meeting in Montreal, which brings all of the entity leaders together, we spent a whole morning talking about intercultural competence within an international light. We continue to have these conversations so that we can raise the cultural competence and intercultural competence of our leaders so that we can do a better job. It really helped me to see what I need to do as an association leader and as an individual. It helps me to be more thoughtful and to translate those ideas, feelings and direction into the Masters program and Doctoral program I direct. And it’s a bit more challenging here in the Northeast because it’s still not very racially diverse within our program. And people aren’t as open about their identities and their overlapping identity so I have to figure out how to create a space where people can feel comfortable exploring those identities. It’s exciting to have students working on dissertations around LGBT issues; we have a new student interested in looking into the challenges experienced by Trans* identified students on campus. And so that’s exciting, to know that students feel that they can openly talk about that in our program. And while that feels good, we still have a long way to go but it helps me realize where my knowledge and skills are lacking so that I can figure out ways to improve.
KG: I appreciate that as a recent graduate of a masters program. I believe the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s graduate program has evolved to have a strong social justice focus. When I speak to friends about my having been in the Midwest, Nebraska specifically, and having had that experience they’re often surprised. Most folks assume that these types of dialogues aren’t happening in Middle America but when the Coordinator for your program is the Chair for the Commission on Social Justice of ACPA it’s possible. It was by no means easy for those that held multiple dominant identities but it was a space for learning. To get us back on track, my last question: “Is there anything that you’d like to communicate to community members within our profession who grapple with societal issues daily while simultaneously doing their work?” As an example, when the news broke about the lack of indictment in Ferguson I was a graduate assistant working in the multicultural center. When the news broke I was in the center with my students and they were broken; deeply affected by the decision that had been made. But I was dealing with those feelings as well and still needed to show up for work. And so what are your thoughts or is there something you’d like to say to the community that is both grappling with the issues personally and still needing to show up; be present for students?
GH: It makes me think about my classes. I used to love being the “sage on the stage.” Because it was fun to talk and profess things. But then I realized it was much more effective to construct knowledge and construct understanding together. And so I think we can do the same thing in a lot of other venues. I believe we almost put too much pressure on ourselves to be the leader in every situation. What if we were just the facilitator? So that reduces the pressure and allows us to create a space where we can create meaning along with other people, be it our students, colleagues, and/or families. We need to provide opportunities to have some really meaningful conversations that allows us to work on our own stuff as well as work with students. I think that may be helpful but it’s also important for folks to find support wherever they want to find support. Hopefully there’s some support within ACPA that can be helpful either before those conversations, during or after.
KG: Absolutely. I think for me, one of the things that’s really important and stands out is when White colleagues express support. I’m a part of several groups on social media for the profession and when a post is made by a White colleague specifically for colleagues of color that expresses that “we’re here to support” it feels good. That’s great in that it creates space for people like myself who often feel like there isn’t a place to just feel what we’re feeling and express ourselves. We, as marginalized groups, don’t often get to create those spaces and so talking with you as the President of ACPA it’s important for you to know that those with privilege have a role to play in creating spaces with that privilege. Those spaces need to be open and welcoming of folks’ complexity as well. I’m not just a gay man but a gay, Latino, man from New York. So having a space that allows for all of me and not just parts of me is important.
GH: And to that point, some identities will be more salient than others at any given time. So it’s important to create spaces where people can be who they want to be in that moment with those identities.
KG: Absolutely. Well I want to say thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m truly appreciative. It still feels a bit surreal as a new professional to have this opportunity. It definitely speaks volumes about the association and is affirming for me as I consider ACPA my professional home.
GH: I’ve enjoyed the conversation as well and I hope that the opportunity meet in Montreal presents itself.
— THE END —
It was truly a privilege to interview Gavin. Our conversation made me feel as though the leaders of our association were moving in a great direction with awesome leadership. Given the happenings as of late (i.e. Commentary by candidates for political office, hostility towards protesters on our campuses — Iowa State, etc.) I think these types of conversations among colleagues are vital to making sure we’re prepared to help our students meet the challenges they face but also developing our ability to do so as well. I hope you enjoyed the read and look forward to the next opportunity to share with you all my #SAThoughts.
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