Draft Sociology of Health Syllabus

I’ve been tweeting about revising my Sociology of Health and Illness graduate seminar class and some folks asked me to share. The draft syllabus is included here: Sociology of Health and Illness_Grad Syllabus 2020_Pirtle

I only taught this class once before, and pulled heavily from the sociology of stress course I took as a student, and other med soc syllabi I found on the web. I didn’t love the class and wanted to change things up.

The first major change is influenced by Cite Black Women movement. Created by Dr. Christen A. Smith,  #CiteBlackWomen is “a campaign to push people to engage in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production”. The second tenet in the critical praxis is to #2 – Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom). One of the best transformations in health studies over the last few decades, I believe, is an understanding of social conditions as fundamental to health outcomes. For instance, acknowledging that it is racism, not race, that shapes health disparities by race. Many black women scholars have lead the way in this regard. Incorporating more black women authors in my syllabus strengthened this critical and intersectional perspective. There is so much brilliance out there I was sad to not be able to fit more in. Per my count, there are 20 black women authors on the syllabus.

health equity

Next, per feedback from former students I added a few more texts (v. nearly all articles).

Finally, I changed the assignments. I added weekly memos, a short writing assignment, and built in flexibility into the final project. The pedagogy here is to make all of us accountable in what we bring to class discussions, and to lessen the weight of one final project that may or may not be relevant to students in shaping the course grade. The short writing is open to student input, but my suggestions are either an OpEd or a book review that might be able to be published in a timely fashion. Likewise, the final assignment will allow students to choose what option is most useful for them (i.e., if they are taking an exam in the area they might use the final to do a practice exam).

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Be Good, You Deserve It

As a self-professed member of the #BeeHive, I love the saying, “You Have the Same Amount of Hours in a Day as Beyoncé,” which seemed to pop up everywhere after she dropped an award winning visual album in the middle of the night. I love it, because I pretty much love all things Beyonce, including how she gets shit done. Image result for You Have the Same Amount of Hours in a Day as Beyoncé

Take her Coachella performance, for example. She was the first black woman to headline the event in its 20 year history, and she did so less than a year after having twins. To accomplish this, she went on a strict diet and worked countless hours to perfect the pathbreaking show. As a result, she rightfully secured the bag, banking 60 million three-project deal with Netflix. She is the Queen. 

 But if we have the same 24 hours in the day as Beyoncé, does that mean that we, too, can break multiple records at a time? Well, not exactly. Most of us do not have the army behind us that Beyonce now does, so saying that we have the same 24 hours that Beyoncé does rightfully comes with a footnote (see image below). Screenshot 2020-01-03 17.06.57.png

As someone who is vocal about the many hats I wear, and more specifically about being a woman of color academic, mother, wife, and engaged citizen, the number one thing younger women like me ask is, “how do you do it all?” 

As a working mother who has struggled to fit in all of the thousands of things I have on my to-do list within 24 hours, I have reconciled that although we all can’t be as exceptional as Bey, we can at least do what we set out to do. We can be great by being good at those things we prioritize to do. My answer is not “Be Beyoncé” it is, “Be Good” at what you want to do. (Therefore, the motto that I really want to resonate here is a more humble Beyoncé, that of #BeyGood.) 

Here is my quick and dirty version of how to Be Good at multiple things. 

  1.   Identify what is most important to you 
  2.    Shape your schedule around these priorities 
  3.   Be Good at them  
  4.   Check in, adjust, re-evaluate, schedule accordingly
  5.   Enlist help if you can 

 It’s simple in theory, and perhaps harder in practice. But you have to make it your practice. I’ll focus on the first three tasks to illustrate how I make this work for me. Currently, my main priorities at this point in my life include: being an engaged and supportive wife and mother, working hard to build a meaningful and impactful career, cultivating friendships and building community, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how I attempt to fit them in, and Be Good: 

 

Family-First 

I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter, aunt, and sister-cuz. I love family, it is my priority. I do what I can for my family and try to work my schedule around them. This means I try not to take my academic work home with me on evenings or weekends. I put effort into planning vacations with and to see my family, and I treat these as breaks. I enlist a babysitter on occasion so I can still have date nights with my husband. I cook healthy meals a few nights a week for my family, schedule all the doctors appointments, read books at night with the boys, and try to make my family laugh as much as someone with bad humor can. 

I am not mother-of-the-year. Both of my kids have been in full time daycare since about 8 months old. They have the same basic lunch every day, and don’t always eat their veggies. They also have a fair share of screen time. Sometimes I get the number of years wrong that my husband I have been together, and I am known for misdirecting an attitude or two towards him. I don’t call my family back east enough. I always forget to send gifts in the mail on time and only sometimes remember to do the belated online gift cards. I am there for my family. I am good at family. I am not a supermom. And that is enough. 

 

Academic Career 

 As an academic, my job encompasses three main duties: research and publishing, teaching and directed student learning, and university and discipline service. I am good at my job. I work to fulfil requirements in all of these things, setting aside time daily for researching and writing. I seek out opportunities to improve the classroom experience and mentor students. And sign up for committees and advisory roles at my university. I write for the public and give research talks all around the US. 

I likely won’t be prolific; I am somewhat slow at publishing. I miss deadlines sometimes, my inbox always has a couple hundred unread messages. I only agree to a couple of conferences a year and I can’t attend all the student events I’m invited to. As hard as I try, sometimes my lectures are boring and other times they have errors. I do my job, and I really love my job, which means I am a good academic. But I recognize it as my job, not my identity. And that is enough. 

 

Community-Engaged 

 It is a priority for me to be a part of the community I live in, and to be a part of the community that works to make it better. For me, this mostly means volunteering. This past year, for instance, I sat on three difference committee’s related to my sons’ schools, spoke at a community event, and volunteer as a member of two special interests organizations. I also spend time cultivating a more intimate community of friends and social support by organizing girls nights outs, coffee meetings, and playdates. 

Sometimes I take my kids with me to community meetings that they inevitably end up disrupting, other times I miss meetings. I don’t attend all of the marches or city hall meetings, or social hours that show up on my calendar. I mostly buy from big box stores instead of buying local. But I show up when I can, working behind the scenes if that is beneficial, and advocate whenever I have a platform. And that is enough. 

 

Health Conscious 

I schedule my gym time, like any other appointment, and work out at least 4 times a week. I often workout with my partner, which is such an added bonus when it can be “our” time. I try to make sure I am nurturing healthy bodies in other ways, like going to the doctor when I need, scheduling chiropractor and massage appointments (guilt free y’all – It’s not indulging, it’s a preventative care!), and I have used counseling services when needed. 

In order to keep up this routine, I drag my kids to the gym daycare – even after they have gone to school all day. I also eat junk food, and take the kids through the drive through when I can’t muster the energy to cook. I sometimes bottle things in, and skip appointments at times. But I seek balance for my body and my life. And that is enough. 

 

For me, it is good enough to be good. I have no hobbies or side hustles. I won’t ever secure a bag as big as Beyoncé’s, or hold myself to such a strict diet. For me, that is not what I want. I have simply decided to be good at the things that I love and prioritize, because I know I cannot do it all. Being just good at the most important things to me allows me to maintain all of them, whereas being great at just one of two of them, means I cannot be good at the rest of the things. 

Some might take my goal and call to Be Good as the easy way out, but I actually think it is radical, especially for women of color. As women of color, we are told explicitly and implicitly, that we must work twice as hard to get the recognition we deserve. We are asked to stretch ourselves and shrink ourselves to fit into other expectations. We take on burdens from generations before us and shelter whole communities. We are forced to break records just to get a headlining spot. But I say, enough is enough. I just want us to Be Good.  

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Discuss This

I enjoy lots of things about conferences (see this post on conference fun and another post on conference inspiration), but I actually only sometimes actually enjoy presenting. Early mornings, small audiences, and lack of engagement can lead to a major let down after time spent drafting an article and preparing for the presentation. However, I’ve realized one thing distinguishes memorable and productive(!) experiences of presenting at sociology’s major conference, ASAs, from the less positive experiences is the level of engagement of the “discussant”. 

I have had the role of discussant only three times, but find myself enjoying it more and more each time.* Yet, inevitably, each time before I find myself in a panic about what am I supposed to do. I think most academics have little training or conversation about how this role works (though, be sure to check out this fantastic write up on a (queer) discussant role and this helpful informational). Since I have spent some time agonizing about it myself, I thought I would outline different tactics that can get the job done, and some that are sure to help elevate the panel overall. 

Expired**

  • Skip reading the papers and furiously jot notes down during the presentation (while simultaneously missing new information shared) and then wing the discussion portion 
  • Ask a straight-forward question that has been addressed in the paper ( like the “how did you measure X variable” question I once received) or a question that can be answered simply (ie., yes or no questions). 

Fired

  • Read the paper and formulate a well-thought out discussion question for each panelist. 

Tired

  • Name something the author did well, give constructive feedback for something they might improve for publication, and ask a detailed, well-thought out discussion question for each panelist. 

Wired

  • Think of a thread, puzzle, or debate that ties each piece together, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, state how each paper contributes to it, and direct questions for each panelist within that conversation.
    • Doing so allows you to pose a larger question to the whole room (i.e., “let’s all think collectively about X problem”), and a contextualized question for each individual piece (i.e., “here is how you enter into debate, now, how would you address this additional question that arises?”). 

Hired

  • Think about a larger thread, puzzle, or debate, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, then state how each paper contributes to a smaller, related thread, puzzle or side of the debate.
    • This allows you to put the papers into direct conversation with each other – sharing how one author might consider another’s contribution, which jointly can offer more significant implications.
    • Doing so provides constructive and critical feedback about each paper, the larger theme pulling the session together, and encourages the audience to think about the panelists collectively, which I find ultimately shifts the levels of questions from the audience.*** 

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A few additional considerations: 

  • Email the authors prior to the session so all can be acquainted, and let them know about the format, including your basic plan for engagement, speaking deadlines, etc. 
  • If you have written feedback, send it to authors after the session. 
  • DO NOT take up more time than the panelists. I suggest a max of 10 minutes. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* Honestly, if you’re not presenting at all or only once, I suggest volunteering for this role. You’re name is still in the program and you get the opportunity to read only a handful of smart working papers on a related topic (as opposed to all submitted papers as the organizers do). 
** Please excuse use my corny use of this meme (or phrasal template), but I’m trying to stay young the labeling seemed fitting.  
***I’m still working on this. But I’ve witnessed my PhD Adviser, Tony Brown, do this masterfully a few times and it is such a provocative route. 

 

 

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Racialized Tracking: Research and Experience

As a sociologist, I am trained to focus on broad trends and large generalizations. As a mother, I am trained to focus on my children and their well-being. As a black sociologist and mother, I try to do both simultaneously in order to protect my children and the systems they are embedded within. This means I must also think about others’ children too. But after volunteering in my children schools for a few years now (how I attempt to do both), I’ve learned I am in a minority in this approach. Even those who know the research see to put themselves about it when it comes to their own. And it is absolutely infuriating to me.

Early this summer, I sort of subtweeted some of my anger– about how parents in my local district use unspoken privilege to navigate the gifted and talented program, and about how the NY specialized public school system totally failed black students, which is symbolic of larger trends. I didn’t think much of this until an editor at The Atlantic reached out and asked me to write about my tweets.

My first thought was “who me?” Despite the fact that I am a sociologist and a mother, my imposter syndrome told me that I didn’t have the expertise.

But then, some other training kicked in – most specifically the workshop I did with the OpEd Project where I learned about the underrepresentation of people of color and women in media, and where I was reminded of the importance of experimental knowledge. I talked myself up and I agreed – but on two conditions:

  1. I would cite as many women and scholars of color that I could that have done important work on the topic, and
  2. I would use my experiential knowledge to write about us and for us

So, with the help of my expert friends (Yasmiyn Irizarry and Ebony Duncan-Shippy) and Atlantic editors (Rebecca Rosen, Amal Ahmed, and Julie Beck):

 I wrote and published my piece: The Other Segregation.

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It seems mixing the personal with the professional was a good bet. The reception I got was amazing. Messages of encouragement from students and advocates of racial justice in schools, emails of support and queries from superintendents and school principals, invitations to moderate national panels and call in for public radio. Even emails from academic press editors asking if I might write a book on the topic (well, maybe I should?)

It was a powerful lesson for me & I am sharing because maybe it could be a lesson for you:

USE YOUR TRAINING AND SHARE YOUR VOICE. 

 

 

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Semester Plan Template

“Every Semester Needs a Plan!” I believe this saying with my whole being. But you don’t have to put your faith in me to believe it. This is a saying that comes straight from the academic ‘you-can-be-productive-and-still-have-a-life’ GuRu, Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s mouth. Something that she has since built her empire off of, and something that has changed thousands of lives. Seriously, if you have never heard of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity you are missing out. If you have never completed the Faculty Success Bootcamp Program you are really missing out. If your university isn’t an institutional member, y’all are all missing out.

It was in the bootcamp that I learned about semester and weekly planning and that helped me not lose my sh*t completely my first year on the tenure-track. Therefore, I don’t want to give away all the goods in this short post, but I do want to share a specific template of a semester plan that I have adopted/adapted and that has been really helpful for me. (I have asked for lots of sample templates and I know I probably didn’t come up with this myself – I think its an amalgam of samples. So if you shared with me, thank you!!!)

I tweeted about the template I used and lots of people asked for a copy so I figured this might be the easiest way to share. To recap:

I use one excel sheet to house all of my semester plans. Each semester is on a different tab. Within each tab, I include writing goals, teaching goals, service goals, and personal goals. Laying out all aspects of my professional and personal goals in one spot serves as a homebase; a place to return to check in, update progress, celebrate successes, and regroup when needed. While personal goals (like raising children) and teaching goals (like showing up for class) do have built in accountability, it is the writing goals that probably benefit the most from this sort of planning.

The excel document allows me to think about semester plans in a tabular form. The days become one axis and the things to do another. That way, each day correlates with something to do, all of which will help me reach my goals by the set deadline.

To set this up, the first column lists the weeks of the semester, the next the specific days, and the next is for special dates — dates that have events that will likely interfere with my typical daily schedule.

The next column is for my writing goals. At the top I list out the major writing I want to accomplish for the semester. This usually means the number of papers I want under view, or the number of chapters I need to have drafted, etc. At the start of the semester I fill in writing goals for each week that, if accomplished, would allow me to complete all of my writing goals.

The teaching and service columns also start with major goals (often with the number of things I want to limit). I then list out major dates, like when exams are given or when papers need to be returned for teaching, or speakers and committee deadlines for service. Finally, in the personal column I list out a pretty consistent set of goals that just remind me to pay attention to my whole self.

On my template, I also have a column for “time” next to each of the major goal columns. For those interested in tracking how much time a task takes (either to help figure out what a doable plan is, or to limit the amount of time you take on a task), adding this column can make that tracking easy.

The biggest thing to remember is that this is a template of a semester plan. If adopted, it should be adapted to fit your needs. It is also a “living document” that you will hopefully add clarity to each week – during your Sunday weekly planning meeting where you fill in specifics – and one that you will likely revise as needed throughout the semester.

If you want to read more about how to set up your goals – please read my colleague, Tanya Golash-Boza’s post on her wonderful blog, Get a Life, Phd.

And now, here is a sample semester plan template of mine. I have just filled in lose parts to help give an idea of what this might look like. I’d love to see your plans!

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The Childcare-Conference Conundrum

I was really looking forward to the annual meetings for the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS). They are taking place in a city I have never been, and the conference themes are #lit: Feeling Race and The New Black Sociologists. I am not on the job market and not attempting to sell my book idea to publishers, so I don’t have to deal with that extra anxiety. It seemed like it was going to be a fun, productive, and powerful conference season.

And then I checked the daycare and back-to-school schedule… and the frustration set in. 😩 Once again, the university daycare my youngest son, Myles, attends was closing for the same three days that I would be in Philly. The conference scheduling also coincides with the dead week in summer (a.k.a. the week before school starts so all summer camps are closed) and the start of the school year for my oldest, Jackson. My husband, an Assistant Principal at our local middle school was already scheduled to be back to work. These final days leading up to the new school are treated almost like black out days for administration, you do not miss. Extended family was also non-viable, as we live 2000+ miles away from our parents and siblings. In other words, I was stuck with no clear childcare plan for my 2 and 8 year old sons.

So here I am, once again, weighing all of the possible options on how to make this conference season work. Do I miss the conference? Do I fly the kids out with me? If so, do I find someone to fly out to watch them? If I don’t, who do I find to watch my kids?

This *Children-Conference Conundrum* is not new to me. As a mother of two, who had my first in graduate school and my second on the tenure-track, I have attempted to manage the children-conference conundrum in what feels like every different way imaginable. I know I am not only person stuck in this conundrum – this also affects most single parents, primary caregivers, and two academic households – so I decided I would write about this conundrum by outlining the benefits and drawbacks I have had to weigh when deciding how to manage a conference and childcare. I end with a short pitch for what I see as the best solution: institutional and financial support for conference attendance with dependents.

Option 1: Miss the conference.

Now, if your main goal is to attend the conference then of course this isn’t a viable option. But if this isn’t a crucial year and you don’t want to attend the conference, family commitments might be a great excuse for missing. I missed the conference cycle the year after my first was born and the year I was pregnant with my second. To make it work I declined any panels or roles requests for that year and encouraged them to reach out again in the future. Then I followed the Twitter hashtags with envy but also kicked up my feet with some adoration for a more relaxing start to the school year.

  • Pros: The obvious benefits include saving money and time.
  • Cons: The drawbacks include missing out on valuable networking, fun socializing, and opportunity for feedback on work-in-progress. This drawback is amplified, however, when you can’t attend for multiple years.
  • Tips: Enjoy the break. Think about a smaller local conference if you really need to add presentations to you CV.

Option 2: Attend the conference with kids (and arrange your own childcare)

I have only attended one conference with my child alone and when there was no on-site childcare. It was ABS in Memphis in 2016. Myles was under 2 so he could fly for free and it was on this trip I learned I had reached expert level in public nursing by feeding him squished in my middle seat on a small airplane. I was rooming with a close grad school friend, and she was (thankfully) excited to see the baby. She also had her car at the conference and offered to help provide transportation. My biggest concern was how I would present and lead the session I organized with a small baby so I decided I would try to find someone to watch Myles during this part of the day. To do so, I reached out to the local conference organizer and trusted wonder woman who I knew had small children and asked if she had any sitter recommendations. She responded by saying that my son could join hers at the home daycare she used consistently and ran by a cherished granny. The plan worked pretty great for that day. However, I didn’t have as much success when I tried to bring Myles to the sessions with me the following day. He was a little noisy and I was stressed that he was distracting presenters. So I darted in and out of sessions for a bit until I reclined to hanging out in the lobby.

  • Pros: This options allows you to attend the conference and be with children (added bonus when kids are still nursing).
  • Cons: One of the more significant drawbacks can be the added costs. We all know conferences are absurdly expensive (a recent facebook thread suggests we spend about $2k for ASAs). So, in addition to the exorbitant fees of conferences you will may have to add additional airfare fees for children over two, and then and money to feed the children. (For instance, if I took the kids with me to Philly, the flights would be an added $1100 alone). An additional important drawback is the pre-conference work to arrange the specialized childcare and stress that comes with that, having to manage presentation of self + children during conferences, and not being about to be wholly committed or present during sessions. For these reasons, this is my least favorite option.
  • Tips: Be creative and ask for help. I am super thankful to the conference organizer and my friend for helping out with rides and Myles.

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(^ me, Myles, and grad school friends at ABS)

 

Option 3: Attend the conference with kids (and use onsite childcare)

I used it once and I was sold: the onsite childcare at ASAs is great! The staff was professional and friendly and my kids enjoyed hanging out with other kids. I was still breastfeeding, so I could pop in and nurse my son without any major interruptions to either of our schedules. I did this option when I attended ASAs in 2016 in Seattle. Since Seattle is on the West Coast, the flights were reasonable and my whole family attended, however my oldest and husband had to leave a day earlier to make it to the first day of school and the youngest stayed with me for an extra day.

  • Pros: Can attend conference and be with children in the evenings. Having an excuse to travel and expose your children to different places can be an added bonus in this case.
  • Cons: As with the drawbacks of Option 2, the costs can be the biggest deterrent. In addition to the extra flights and extra food, are the more significant childcare costs of onsite care (its $55 per child per day at ASAs). Another drawback is that the childcare closes at 6:30pm, which means you either have to miss out on receptions and dinners or take the kids with you.
  • Tips: Inquire about stipends to pay the ASA childcare fees.

Option 4: Attend the conference with kids (and bring along partner or other family)

I’ve seen this option done fairly frequently – a partner who has time off from work can attend the conference and hang with the kids. I think it is a great option for those who have the availability. I actually did this last week when my husband had a conference in San Diego. He went to the conference and I took the kids to the zoo one day and Legoland the next. Sometimes it’s a sister or grandparent that tags along. Sadly, the timing of ASAs makes this nearly impossible for my family.

  • Pros: The benefit here is that you get to spend time at the conference and with your family. This is really great when you can carve out time to explore the city as a family.
  • Cons: Consistent with Option 2 and 3, the cost is a major drawback. Another drawback I felt when I did this was the work-life tug. When I was at the conference I wanted to be with my partner and kids. When I took time away from the conference to hang with them, I felt a little bad that I wasn’t doing things I had planned to at the conference. And when I was the person in charge of the kids – I was exhausted from exploring a new city alone and wanted to crash by the time by partner was done. Despite the cons, this is still probably my favorite option.
  • Tips: Communicate with family about your schedule and make sure they are up to what it entails. Another great idea is to try to find a sitter so you and the partner/family member can get a little adult time together as well.

Option 5: Attend the conference without kids (and arrange childcare at home)  

This year my Mom planned a visit to California when I had a conference. I took the opportunity to go to New Orleans for Southerns with my partner while she watched the kids. This was wonderful and I wish we lived closer to family so this could happen more. For ASA and ABS this is not feasible and, as I mentioned above, I really struggled to figure out a plan. I was finally able to arrange childcare ‘swaps’ with other parents. For one family, I will watch their child today and they will watch my kids on Friday when I am gone, and for another family they will watch my kids on Monday, and I will watch theirs the Tuesday I return. This means the week before the conference I am home with Jackson all week and one of the days babysitting his friend, and then babysitting two other children the day I come back. It works, but is a lot of work. (And if you wondering about other sitter options, the student sitters I use are gone for the summer and watching two active children is hard high school students for full days – I tried it last year – so this is the “best” option).

  • Pros: Can attend conference and get uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room to yourself.
  • Cons: Figuring out childcare plans in a pitch is never fun (and, once again can be very costly). For me this includes additional work pre- and post- conference. If you are nursing and leave your children at home, it can present additional obstacles. I remember the one time I pumped in a public bathroom was at a conference in Chicago.
  • Tips: Plan ahead. And when you are gone try to enjoy the alone time.

 

No matter which option I choose, the work-family supposedly life balance tug-o-war is heightened when it comes to conferences. When I am away from my children, I miss them and often feel (undeserved) guilt for being away. This typically equates to me trying to attend the most minimal amount of days. When the children are with my at the conference the tug is also hard, as I worry about their temporary childcare plans or think of all the fun they are having without me. It’s hard to find the perfect balance, especially with the weak support system we currently have.

 

Many have begun talking about what we would like to see to improve support. One recent article in PNAS, authored by Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science, outlines their proposal for CARE and I want to amplify their proposal here. To me, this proposal hits nail right on the head for what caregivers really need:

  • Childcare – financial support for childcare, either onsite or at home. Some conference offer a grant for just this. I think ASA should be added to this list.
  • Accommodating families – this includes family friendly dates (i.e., NOT the start of the school year, and more conferences during the week) and conference scheduling (perhaps childcare in the evening).
  • Resources – this can include further financial incentives and also physical resources such as ample closed spaces for nursing and changing areas, and better accommodations for children with disabilities.
  • Establishing a conference-specific social network – this would provide more social support for parents and caregivers, where they can arrange child care swaps, schedule activities and provide support.  

 

Bringing more CARE into conferences can help solve the Childcare-Conference Conundrum and open the doors for more parents and caregivers to attend conferences while attending to their dependents. This is especially important for diversifying the academy, as it provides support for women who are most harmed by the baby penalty. I hope that sociological organizations – who are full of scholars who understand the ways institutions can either harm or help those attached to them – can take steps to ensure more support and equity in conferences soon.

 

 

 

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Honoring MLK Day through recognizing Black Women; Reclaiming a Seat At the Table

I was honored to be asked to keynote at my city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, one that they named “Moving the Dream Forward”. I am a new-ish transplant to the community and have been looking for ways to connect and give back, so I happily agreed. However, a few days after agreeing I was emailed and told that there had been a mix up amongst the organizers. Other organizers had asked another person to be keynote, a black male Reverend, and so now I was no longer to keynote the event, but to become the “Distinguished Guest.” I couldn’t deny that I felt a little slighted, but decided I would make the best of it. And since I was no longer the keynote, I felt more freedom to make the speech that I wanted to make. And I decided was not a speech about MLK, but about black women. Here is what I said:

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirit of love and of fight for racial justice is one to be admired and celebrated and replicated. This day has always been meaningful to me. When I was in high school, in East Lansing, Michigan, we held a sit-in to demand that we observed MLK day and actually won. The next year we had the day off from school. We were able to change the policy in our school district. We were his legacy in action. I am honored to be here honoring him, especially on the 50th anniversary of his passing.

However, I am actually not going to talk too much about Dr. King today. Rather, I want to take a moment to talk about a sector of the movement that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves. I am here to talk about black women, and will highlight three here today.

I am going to start with one incredible great. Her name is Diane Nash. She is a living legend. Diane was a Midwest-born, Chicago raised, witty and determined black girl. She took advantage of educational experiences allotted to her and ended up, at the age of 20, in Nashville Tennessee to attend the prestigious, historically black college of Fisk University. Diane was excited to be at Fisk, the place that taught W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and other’s their critical lens.

But what did not jive with Diane was the overt and explicit segregation that plagued the South. When shortly after arriving in Tennessee she went to the state fair and was forced to use the “Colored” bathroom, she knew her move to Nashville had much more in store for her. She went back to Fisk with a mission to challenge segregation. Nash began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops led by James Lawson, and informed by Mahatma Gandhi. She committed herself to being the most studied and passionate student, and, at the ripe age of 22 she became the leader of the Nashville sit-in movement.

She trained students how to endure verbal and physical attacks when they tried to integrate segregated lunch counters. She led the resisters through her poise and strategic planning. She was unafraid to be on the front lines, and was assaulted and arrested numerous times during these protests. It was Nash that bravely confronted the mayor of Nashville and got him, on record, to reveal that as a person, he believed segregation was immoral. After this public acknowledgment the movement gained momentum and just three weeks later the lunch counters were serving blacks. The Nashville sit-ins spread to 69 cities across the United States, and were a huge success in the anti-segregation movement. She literally claimed a seat at the table for herself and others.

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<Pictured: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, James Bevel, Diane Nash : http://photos.pennlive.com/patriot-news/2015/02/roda_parks_martin_luther_king.html>

Nash would go on to serve many roles in the Civil Rights Movement, including leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from 1961–1965 while under the direction of Martin Luther King. He, too, was impressed with Nash. In 1964 she received the Rosa Parks honor from Dr. King. When asked about herself in relation to King she later said: “I never considered Dr. King my leader. I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side.” This is not, in any way, a dig at Dr. King and his leadership. It was just a recognition of her own merits. Indeed, this self-assurance shaped her very understanding of what freedom means. According to Nash,Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leader.” Nash exemplifies a leader, a freedom fighter, and a civil rights hero.

Nash, like King, taught us many lessons that we can implement today:

  1. Don’t allow others to define what is right. Segregation was the norm in the South and Nash could have accepted it. But she knew it was not, and followed her own conscious in decided she would fight against it.
  2. Become studied before you jump into action. Seek out others doing similar work, study various types of movement strategies, and practice the plan of attack so you can increase the successfulness and replication.
  3. If a space is not open to you, it may be up to you to change it, even with your presence. Claim a seat at the table.

I try to implement these lessons in my own life. So now I am going transition to covering the second black woman—I am going to talk about myself 😉 Nash is definitely a woman I personally relate to in many ways. I, too, was also a Midwest born and raised, witty, brown girl, who ventured to Nashville in my early twenties in seek of my own freedom. You see, I grew up pretty poor and we lacked a lot of resources. My single mother worked hard to provide and support me and my three siblings but I often felt trapped by what we didn’t have. Where we couldn’t go, what we couldn’t eat, and what thoughts we couldn’t put into words. However, unlike Nash, at this point in my life I was deathly shy and rarely ventured outside of the box. I knew what injustice looked like, I witnessed and experienced it, but I wasn’t vocal enough to speak up, even if I wanted to.

But education – that is one thing that helped free me. I first learn to escape through books. I read a lot. I first engaged with autobiographies of people I admired, like Diana Ross and then shifted to others like Malcom X and Assata Shakur and Barak Obama. During my education, I, like Dr. King, decided to major in Sociology. I soon learned about injustice and interwoven systems of oppression. This freeing of my mind was powerful.

But education freed me in other ways. I was able to earn a full tuition scholarship for my Bachelors. I was able to study abroad, and see things I would have never imagined, like Volcanos in Nicaragua or Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Those experiences also allowed me to see what poverty and inequality looked like at a global scale. Most importantly, these experiences gave me the vocal skills to put curiosity and critiques of the world to words.

I decided that the skills and knowledge I was gaining had to be used in a way that mattered. This is something that was central to Dr. King’s teaching. In his speech titled, “A Time to Break the Silence” he powerful instructed, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

You see, unlike how some would like to remember him, King was radical. This idea, of speaking truth to power and disrupting the hostile world, led me into various roles, On example being a founding member of a group we called, Act on Racism, in college. Our group went into classrooms filled with our- primarily white peers – and staged plays in order to showcase the racism we had experienced there. I knew at that point that it was no longer ok for me to be silent.

The freeing nature of education then pushed me to pursue my doctoral degree, which is why I, myself, landed in Nashville at 21 – to attend Vanderbilt University. And it is also why I am here today.

Well, where am I today? First, honored to be standing here with all of you in this theater. But as my bio describes, I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at that new school down the road – the University of California, Merced. I didn’t know this before I arrived, but I was hired as the first black women in the School of Social Science, Humanities and Arts at this newest research university in the United States. I now have a seat at that table.

Now I am not on the freedom fighter level of Diane Nash – that is only something I aspire to be – but I would like to think I am at least a freedom agitator. That I can take those lessons Nash and King taught us to heart—that I can use my voice, my presence, and my skills to help free the minds of those I come across, and use my work to help dismantle oppressive structures as well. But it remains central to my being to lift as a climb, and leave a trail of seats in my wake.

The final woman I will, just briefly, talk about today is Solange Knowles. You have now heard me say, “a seat at the table” a few times and it is no coincidence that A Seat at the Table is the title of Solange’s Grammy winning album. Solange recently revealed why she went back to New Iberia, Louisiana to make this amazing album. Her maternal grandparents lived in Louisiana, but were run out of town because of tense race relations after that came to a head after her they left her grandfather for dead in a mining explosion. Solange chose to return there to produce the album to pay homage to her roots. As she explained in her NPR interview with Ari Shapiro, she wanted to “reclaim that space,” she went on to say: “I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honored them.” That is likely where these powerful lyrics come from in her song Rise:

“Walk in your ways, so you won’t crumble

Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night

Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise”

That is my message to you all here, and especially black women. Reclaim space. Make a seat at the table. Follow in the footsteps of Solange. Diane. Coretta. Ida. Rosa. Sojourner. Assata. Angela. Michelle. Follow the words of Maxine Water “I strong black women. I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined.”  We must reclaim our space and reclaim our time and rise.

This is a message Diane made clear when she herself gave a speech last year at Yale University for Martin Luther King Jr. day. She said:

“Martin was not the leader. He was the spokesperson.…It was not Martin’s movement, it was the people’s movement. And that is an important for you to understand, because when we see things that have to be done today, if you think it was Martin’s movement, you might say: ‘I wish we had a great leader like Martin.’ … But if you understand that it is the people’s movement, you would say, ‘What can I do.?’”

Please ask yourself that: “What can I do?” Think about the lessons that Diane taught us with her service: to decide for ourselves what is to be fought for; to create a plan of action; and to make space with our presence. This is how I believe we can move the movement forward, by doing this, but also by recognizing that MLK’s movement will not move forward without black women.

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^me trying channel some Diane Nash vibes

 

 

 

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