Why I didn’t march…

I had every plan to participate in or contribute to, in some way, our local Women’s March last week.

The reason I didn’t march is not the reason that most people who know me might think.

I am a critic of (white) feminism. I personally don’t identify as a feminist although I do support feminist efforts- more on that here. Ultimately, feminism and I have a complicated relationship. Feminism and my friends who claim feminism as a guiding value (and one that I admire), ask me to show up in solidarity and sisterhood, without reciprocity of that solidarity. Time and time again. I just can’t do #nicewhitelady feminism because it has historically been at the expense of my own.

But, I wasn’t against the march. In fact, I was very excited. Amidst my complicated relationship with feminism, I also believe that we all need to stay in it, and this collective action mattered to me, to our country, to our world. In the weeks leading to the march, my daughter shared with me that she didn’t want to attend the march. She didn’t say more than that- but she was insistent that she didn’t want to go. I listened, and said okay. And, frankly, I didn’t think more of it. At that point, I did commit to respecting her wishes. I asked her if I could go alone, and again she was adamant that I not go.

On Thursday evening last week, my daughter and I had a chance to hear George Takei speak on campus. Through his talk, she learned bits and pieces about the Japanese American internment, systemic homophobia, different methods of patriotism- including resistance, and how to find your voice to make a difference. When we went home that night, we talked more about the internment. When I was in high school, I had a chance to interview all of the remaining survivors of the Japanese American internment in Houston (yay history fair), and I shared with her pieces of those stories too. We talked about Stonewall, and the courage of collective voices of courageous people. It was an emotional night.

That night, she again shared with me that she did not want to go to the Women’s March. I kept reminding her that I already committed to respecting her wishes weeks ago, but I wanted to understand what she was feeling. At first, she didn’t tell me why. She just kept insisting that we not go. She asked if we could watch it on TV. Follow it on Facebook. Just not actually go in person. Finally, she said to me- chillingly, plainly, bluntly, “I don’t want to go to the march because I am afraid we might get shot.”

Let me offer some context.

  1. A few weeks ago, her school was on lockdown because of a possible armed person in the area.
  2. She recently watched an American Girl themed movie, Melody (which I highly recommend). Because the setting in this movie is during the civil rights movement, there is reference to the infamous bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church that killed four young Black school girls on Sept. 15, 1963.
  3. She has been exposed to some dimensions of the election coverage and current political reality, and has asked hard questions for which I have no answers.

I shared with her that I though it was very courageous for her to share her feelings with me. She brought up all of these prior experiences, and then said, “it is not like we have white skin and people will notice when we get hurt. President Trump does not like people like us.’ We talked about how we have to believe in people.

I honored her wish, although to be completely vulnerable, I have been carrying a great deal of guilt around it all.

My activism that night and weekend, was to hug my baby, hold her close, and be in reconciliation around that decision. I had originally planned to have a mom-daughter weekend, and we did, it just wasn’t the one I imagined. While I haven’t reconciled my discomfort, I am thankful about a few things:

  1. I am thankful that I considered and respected my daughter’s agency. This was a consent conversation. Consent matters. Her consent should and always will come first. As a parent with power, sometimes I still forget that, but I need to continue to remind myself.
  2. I am thankful I chose radical love. It may not feel radical to others, and I am so at peace with my choice, that I also fully and joyfully accept any critique of my decision.
  3. I am thankful for the reminder of the work ahead.

As this current administration continues to test the hypothesis of what a democracy can and should be, I ask of myself and of you- what will you do? Will it be intersectional? Where is democracy situated? If your answer is ‘the people,’ then how are you speaking up in whatever form/practice that makes sense to you?

I continue to personally struggle with feeling not ‘activist’ enough, not ‘politically aware’ enough, ‘not intellectual enough.’ Where I am now pursuing liberation, is that these fears are keeping me from doing what I do know I have, something we all have, which is the ability to ‘love’ enough. That is where I will put my energy (along with the phone calls, letters, community gatherings, voting, and beyond).

Advertisements

finding my way

I started coloring my hair recently. Something I vowed I would never do. When I was younger, I used to color my mom’s hair, and I hated it. I hated how much time it took. I hated that she felt like she had to do this to fit in to the beauty norms of our own Indian community, and society at-large. I vowed I would never color my hair.

I love my grey streaks. I have not been one to align with mainstream beauty standards, so I felt okay with the aging process. My mother’s hair is so beautiful in its natural color, and I really wanted to transition in my aging journey without having to do the same things she did.

I began to feel self conscious because many people began to ask me if my daughter was my granddaughter. I found myself in spaces with my own peers, in a sea of flawless hair, all dipped in the fountain of never-ending youth. I felt it everywhere- picking up my daughter from school, dance class, the grocery store, the pool, with my family, with my friends… I felt that it might be embarrassing for my daughter to be around me.

So I did it. About a year ago, after I turned 40, I started coloring my hair- but I wanted to have my grey still visible- just not SO visible.

Yesterday in the car, out of the blue, Saaya said, “Mamma- I don’t like that you started coloring your hair. You should be proud of who you are.”

I was surprised.  I asked her if she was embarrassed that I looked older than all of the other mothers… I shared with her why I started coloring my hair… and she listened.  She paused for a moment, and then said, “I am disappointed you started coloring your hair, because since you started doing that, when I look into a crowd to find you it is harder for me to find you. Before, I could see your grey streaks, and know exactly where you are. Your natural hair always helped me find my way.”

I haven’t been able to sleep- her words keep going through my mind. I consider myself to be committed to my own journey of self-awareness, and yet in one sentence, my daughter opened up spaces in my heart that need exploration, contemplation and healing. I don’t necessarily know what I will do with my hair, but I do know that I, too, need to find my way.

Polycultural Reflections on Coldplay and Beyoncé

Last weekend, my social media feeds were on fire with the release of Coldplay’s new song featuring Beyoncé, Hymn for the Weekend.  And what a provocative moment! On Facebook, lines were quickly drawn among my family, friends, and colleagues. The ultimate debate. Was this song, and its video representation, cultural appropriation, or not? For those of us who have done our social justice homework, we have great reminders of the components of cultural appropriation– and how the collective impact of these components perpetuate racism. I found myself torn. At first glance, my head, told me- yes, this is absolutely cultural appropriation, or a manifestation of orientalism at least; but I will be really honest, my heart felt something different. It felt deeply conflicted.

I engaged in questions, trying to create my cultural appropriation litmus test.  

  • Is it cultural appropriation (or a performance of orientalism) on the part of Coldplay?  Beyoncé? Both of them?
  • Can people of color of different diasporas appropriate one another’s cultures?
  • Would I have been more easily offended if Beyonce was a white artist?  Why?
  • Do the intentions and identities of the artists, video director, participants in the video matter?
  • What would it mean to be in dialogue around these, and other questions? What would it mean for me?  What are my truths? How will I recognize the truths of others who share different emotions around this topic?

As an educator, I was trained in multicultural affairs, and I quickly asked questions that any thoughtful multiculturally competent educator might ask. But what if the lens of my inquiry is incomplete?  What is my end goal? Is it to diagnose Chris Martin, Coldplay, and Beyoncé?  Is it to imagine a broader humanity? One of the most humbling elements of my praxis has been to interrupt my multicultural affairs mindset- that will be my lifelong personal work.  

One of the most impactful readings for me, to this day, is Vijay Prashad’s book, “Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and The Myth of Cultural Purity”. In it, he applies Robin Kelley’s notion of polyculturalism as a critique to our general mainstream practice of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, grounded in the “liberalism of the skin” binds my thinking and feeling- it forces me to put boundaries around cultures and their dynamic interplay and evolution. It diminishes the intersectional moments of groups, over time, and forces me to ignore the compounding of intersectionality over dozens of centuries. Ironically, multiculturalism forces me to participate in the erasure of the rich tapestries of stories that have emerged from the interplay of complexities of identities. Prashad, invoking polyculturalism, proposes that “unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives made up of a host of lineages” and our job is to “make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives.” Ajay Nair frames polyculturalism as a paradigm that can liberate us to move the margin to the center- which is the core of our work as educators. 

The truth is that there has been a dynamic history between the African and Desi diaspora, for centuries.  (see some references below). When I learned that one of my favorite Bollywood songs from the ‘60s was filmed in blackface, (and another here) I was devastated.  Some of my favorite Hindi music is very clearly borrowed from African musical tradition. Take these three songs (Jumma Chumma De DeTamma Tamma LogeTama)- two from Hindi films, inspired by the third, Guinean artist, Mori Kante. When I served as an advisor to six different South Asian/Desi fraternities and sororities, those organizations embraced the stepping and strolling traditions of African American fraternities and sororities. When Priyanka Chopra wanted us to celebrate being Exotic, in her duet with Pitbull, I also had a mixed emotion moment. These are just a few examples that come to my mind, from my own lived experience. I offer these as other polycultural moments that contribute to the topography of this conversation. And, there is an entire tapestry of moments like this, especially pre-European colonization.  

When we look at this video, in the boundaries of today’s politics, or in an singular national context, we may reach a different- more textured analysis than the one we might consider when looking at this video as a transnational polycultural moment, a jugalbandi of cultural engagements and expressions over centuries. Hopefully our analysis leads us to thinking about ways in which the single-story representations of peoples, genders, traditions, class/caste, and colorism have situated cultures and communities over time, and that we can be empowered to think differently about how we might approach our own practices and decisions.  Hopefully we can also think about the cultural evolution that is happening.  Even in the biological world, the evolutionary process has moments that result in the advancement of species, and processes that do not yield a more progressive or resilient life form. We are watching a cultural evolutionary moment, and our participation in this moment matters. This is complex- and messy. And this is the work most worth doing.  

Is it about right and wrong?  Good or bad?  Or is it about understanding this moment, and all of these moments- in all of their complexities?  In my own early career practice, I was a social justice diagnostician, and my multicultural frame did not lead me to liberation, mutual understanding, and reconciliation. Our practice as educators must be for the long haul, with reconciliation within ourselves, and alongside one another as our goal.  I have found that a process that allows us to ask the right questions, and those that allow for multiple points of entry into the dialogue, take us on the path to reconciliation. The answers matter- and the process to the answers matters more. As college educators, we, and our profession are uniquely situated to be the conveners and facilitators of reconciliatory moments, processes, and experiences.  

Some references:

http://qz.com/440978/meet-the-fast-disappearing-community-of-indians-and-pakistanis-of-african-origin/

http://kafila.org/2016/01/14/the-need-for-black-south-asian-solidarity-lavanya-nott/

https://medium.com/@varathas/connecting-the-disconnected-when-south-asians-accuse-east-africans-of-cultural-appropriation-76527a872484#.276zq4ggu

http://thewire.in/2016/01/18/scholars-suicide-discrimination-in-higher-education-reflects-the-violence-of-a-casteist-culture-19548/

save our children

This weekend, video footage of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma chanting a racist tune vent viral.  When I saw it, I felt a tightness in my chest… and went into what I can only describe as a panic attack.  I felt anger.  I stayed in that emotion for a long time.  I wanted other people to hurt, like I hurt.  I wanted people to hurt like I know that other people of color hurt.  I need to be honest about that emotion- because I have spent a great deal of personal work on myself working on navigating through the anger.  The anger will always be with me- but I also forced myself to look beyond the pain, because I can’t lead from that place.  When I look beyond the pain, here is how I feel.

Since the release of that footage, the president of OU issued a bold statement in response to the actions of the students on that bus.  I have seen an equally viral response to this message.  To date, it is one of the boldest messages I have ever seen from a college president.  And yet- I am unsettled.

Shunning the men is the easiest, most convenient thing that anyone can do in this situation.  Our collective work as educators is not, nor should it be easy.  I do believe the men (and all of the students on that bus) should be held accountable for their actions… and still I have a few observations…

1.  These men were not born overnight.  The way they were chanting this song definitely did not look or sound like the first time they uttered the N word.  How are we going to hold accountable and address the system that raised these young men and women?  We are all accountable- administrators, parents, legal system, K-12 system…  We all contribute in some way to creating the environment that led to this behavior.

2.  The president of OU showed bold leadership.  I admire that.  It was needed.  And it was also reactive.  I would like to challenge ALL of us as educators to think about the distinction between reactive leadership vs. visionary leadership.  Visionary leadership would mean infusion of social justice education into the curriculum.  Visionary leadership would intervene and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for men of color, specifically Black men.  Visionary leadership would mean difficult dialogues at orientation, leadership trainings, and not just limited to the student population- and would include the staff and faculty in schools and colleges.

3.  To my white colleagues- it is very convenient for you to show your outrage right now.  My question for you is how will you stay in it, and show your courage and compassion?  As an educator in the college setting, I tracked that the bulk of my colleagues who were quick to shun the young men of Sigma Alpa Epsilon, and applaud the president of OU, are predominantly white.  To my white colleagues I ask that you take the space and time to discuss this incident with each other.  This is not the time to judge these young men, and distance your whiteness from their whiteness.  This incident is a cumulative and generational impact of not addressing microaggressions, inherited bias, and at how white privilege impacts people of color.  Now is the time for white people to reach out to other white people- and talk about ways to challenge internalized white dominance, and to unpack the knapsack.  Distancing yourself from these white students perpetuates the myth that these are isolated incidents, and not systemic racist issues.  Distancing yourself from these white students lets you off the hook from the difficult conversations and reflections about times when you have acted in ways that are rooted in racism, but have chosen not to deconstruct it- every time you may not have hired a person of color because of ‘fit,’; every moment you track a young black male into special education; every time you have gotten defensive when a person of color asks you to think about your privilege, and you label them as angry or noncooperative… every time.  Those decisions are along the continuum of consciousness that directly lead to this chant on this bus.

I use the analogy of the measles outbreak we have seen in our country. In that scenario, most reasonable people have critiqued individuals who are anti-vaccination, offering perspective that those individuals compromise the common good, and compromise public health in a way that is life threatening.  Even if we work to contain an outbreak, that is reactive leadership, and the casualties/fatalities could have been minimized with vaccinations.  With forward thinking and planning, we articulate clear vision of eradicating measles.

I challenge us to think of this behavior as a racism outbreak… and we have seen many outbreaks this year.  And truly there have been many fatalities.  At what point will we lead with the clear vision and plan to eradicate the outbreak of racism?  For the public good, at what point will we engage in visionary leadership to vaccinate our consciousness?  And at what point will we start with ourselves?

just breathe

It has been a really intense semester.  

I say this every semester.  The statement has almost lost its meaning and impact.  I need to come to terms with the idea that chaos is the natural order of things, and my role is to find stability… stillness… in the chaos.

sthira-sukham-āsanam

This is my favorite line from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  It loosely translates to finding stability/strength/motionless, with ease, in whatever seat you are in.  It is the answer, and the source of my question, How do I find stability and stillness in the chaos?

IMG_4776Today, I am finding that stability by working outside- and by focusing on only the breath that I inhale, and the one that I exhale.  Interrupted by the thoughts of budget, staffing, laundry piling up, groceries not done, dinner not made, conference presentation not done, and, and, and, and… I am trying to pause.  Interrupt those thoughts- honor those thoughts- but still focusing on the breath- coming in… going out.  This is such a difficult practice for me, and yet I find such clarity in the stillness.  Each moment I try to come to acceptance that the only constant is chaos- it is not special- it is normal.

What would my relationship and service to the world feel like if I treated chaos like a normal event, rather than an event that disrupts my normal.  What if I gave chaos the love and respect it deserved?

Wishing all of you stillness in your seats…  one breath at a time.

staying in it

My spirit is hurting.  It aches.  When the grand jury’s verdict came out last week in Ferguson, my heart sank.  I found myself taken back in time to my senior year in high school, when the outcome of the Rodney King decision also resulted in riots and a call to action in our country.

I am trying to have this conversation, and I logically know how to have it.  And I know I need to have this conversation beyond a logical frame- in a heart frame.  As an educator, I am trained to look at ‘facts’ and remove emotion, and yet how can we not consider emotion in this dialogue?  All around me, I see people struggling- good people- struggling, and we are trying to have this powerful conversation in the frame of right and wrong.  We want someone to be at fault and someone to be innocent.  We want to put people in boxes- racist, not racist, good, bad, innocent, guilty.   I completely cherish this.  

But I fear that this conversation is a reductive one.  This conversation in this way does not allow anyone to enter a necessary conversation around race, in a way that makes them whole.  It does not allow for the validity of emotions that come from crying mothers of young men of color who mourn the deaths of their sons.  It does not allow for the validity of emotion of white people who want to do something to be supportive, but are afraid to enter a conversation about race because if they say the wrong thing, then they are racist.  It does not allow for a conversation about the kind of society we want to co-create- because it keeps us in the realm of a reductive binary, where we point fingers at each other.  Either-Or.  Good-Bad.  Right-Wrong.  Racist-Not Racist.  It does not liberate us to imagine a different world for our own future.  

I worked in multicultural affairs for a long time- and I was the educator who pointed out all the ways in which people were {insert …racist, sexist, etc.}, and felt that if people didn’t come to that realization, that they in fact were {racist, sexist, etc..}.  I have also been the person who has resisted honoring people’s truths.  When my friends or colleagues who are gay and lesbian share their lived experiences, I often found myself coming up with ‘logical explanations’ for their experiences, rather than being in it with them, honoring their emotions and lived truths.  

If I was uncomfortable in conversations where someone might call me out on my heterosexism/homophobia, I would sit quietly, or exit the conversation.  When I was angry,  about racism and sexism in my life, I would shut people out, and shut down conversations because nobody seemed to be authentic enough, activist enough, progressive enough.  I said I wanted dialogue in both cases, but what I really wanted was to be RIGHT.  When I  was challenged in my heterosexism, I wanted to prove to people they were wrong.  When I challenged others on racism, I wanted to show them how I was right.  Today I am not sure if being right gets me to my end goal- a better place than yesterday.  Being right, does not guarantee me that I will be  in the relationship(s) that will lead us to reconciliation.

I sit in my emotion- because I want to feel uncomfortable.  I want to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  We have lost that art.  And, if we continue to lose that art, we might lose the most beautiful part of our humanity.  I want to be in the conversation that has us reclaiming our humanity- knowing that this conversation comes with anger, tears, messiness, pain, and rage… before we get to reconciliation and on a road to healing.  

So- I have been thinking about how we talk about race (or any other topic)…

1.  What would it take for us to stay in the conversation, even if someone else expressed an anger that made you uncomfortable?

2.  What would it take for us to honor that anger- and recognize that anger is never a primary emotion, it is a secondary emotion that sits on top of the primary emotion of pain?

3.  What would it take for us to allow people to try to show allyship, even though we are tired of having to explain what allyship should look/feel like?

4.  What would it take for us to sit in a both-and space, rather than an either-or space?

5.  What would it take for us to honor the experiences that people have, without invalidating/questioning the validity of their experiences?

6.  In what ways could we be fully present- but understand that different people are in different places in their understanding of the world- and may not be ready/equipped to be fully present?

I am ready to have many conversations with anyone who wants to join me…  I have so much to learn, and so much to feel.

career advice from my 6 year old

My daughter is amazing.  No seriously.  She is AMAZING.  Amazing story from today below…

We were walking to the car from a campus event this evening.  As we were talking, I shared with her that we would be having dinner with our college’s former president tomorrow, and that I needed her to be professional at this dinner.  She was very excited- she loves our former president.  In fact, she was upset that he hadn’t consulted her before stepping down.

We have an acting president currently, and she was trying to understand the concept of what it meant to be ‘acting’… I was able to explain to her that it was kind of like a ‘substitute’ teacher in school.  That made sense to her.

I was not prepared for the conversation that came next…

“Mamma, well why didn’t you become the president?”

“Well, I wasn’t ready for that job.”

“But aren’t you a vice president now?”

“Yes- I am.”

“So, isn’t the next step after vice president… president?”

“It could be.”

“Well you can’t just be a vice president forever.”

“True- but there are things in life that are more important to me than being a president.”

“Like what?”

“Like you.  If I became president, then I would not get to spend the time I want to spend with you.  That would make me very sad.”

“Because I am so special?”

“Yes because you are so special.”

(wrinkling her forehead, and sighing)  “Well, at some point you just need to think about it.  You have to move on.  We can work it out.  But you can’t be a vice president forever.”

So there you have it folks.  Sometimes you have to move on.  Career advice, courtesy of my 6 year old daughter.  Do you know when it is time to move on?  Do you know who you want to be?  Is the path you are currently on getting you to the wholeness of your spirit?  Do you surround yourself with people who will have these conversations with you?  Do you recognize the wisdom that might come in the forms/voices you least expect?

I am glad to know I have her permission when that time comes.

reflections: ALS ice bucket challenge

As we continue to further unfold into our ‘information age,’ I am so inspired by people who are able to promote awareness, raise reflection, and support causes using social media tools. The viral ALS ice bucket challenge was one of those fundraising/awareness campaigns that really inspired me, while also challenging me to reflect on my own philanthropic and service practices.  I am fully responsible for at times participating in what is not-so-affectionately called ‘slactivism’ or #hashtag activism that may not result in positive change- so I have been reflecting on how I can be more authentic, especially in a time when we are in a state of nonstop sensory overload.

What I loved about the ice bucket challenge:  I loved the amount of awareness that Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) received as a result of this challenge.  I loved that this effort went so viral. Children participated.  Groups participated.  Families participated.  It was a creative and light way to bring awareness and elevated compassion to people who live with ALS, and families who support people who live with ALS.

Where I felt uncomfortable:  I felt uncomfortable being ‘coerced’ into a specific philanthropic commitment.  Thankfully, I didn’t get challenged until the tail end of the viral campaign- so I had the opportunity to really dig deep into this discomfort.  There are many causes for which I have passion, and I felt uncomfortable being asked to give to this specific cause in a public way, with (what felt like) no way to respond.  As I explored my discomfort more deeply, I also realized that I felt guilty for feeling these emotions.  As an educator, I was embarassed by what I was feeling, and I didn’t want anyone to know.  I did not want to be judged.  I also felt guilt that came from insecurity that I always carry- around the fact that I am not sure I ever do *enough* to serve others.  That statement, I will sit in more, in another post.  🙂

From my discomfort, I went to judgment very quickly.  Questions about ‘how could they waste so much water?!’ to ‘are people really donating anyway?’… Essentially, I did anything to intellectualize and subsequently dehumanize the conversation- to cover my own discomfort.

Where I felt inspiration and liberation:  A dear friend from college, Marcie, challenged me a few weeks ago- at the height of my personal tension in all of this.  She did something amazing.  She promoted awareness of ALS, and then she contributed to two causes that were close to her heart.  Another friend, Ankita, raised awareness about the race-gender based violence against Black men based on what was happening in Ferguson, and she also engaged in an #alsstillnesschallenge to get a sense of how much we rely on/take for granted the neurological control we do have.  Yet other friends had #ricebucket challenges and #trashbucket challenges, and just like that people were doing really wonderful things all over the place.

Closer to wholeness:  This whole experience allowed me to be honest with myself.  It made me challenge my internalized ‘stuff.’  It inspired me to take responsibility- of educating myself about issues that may not feel most salient to me; of committing financially to the causes for which I do have passion; and for not feeling guilty about the way that I feel.

I want to continue to work on being more authentic.  More honest.  More joyful.  More whole.  With that, I leave you with my personal favorite captain (Patrick Stewart/ Jean Luc Picard), who captures this authenticity best- here.

beta, have you eaten?: convocation speech, Rollins College

I thought I would share my new student convocation remarks.  The beginning of the school year is my favorite season.  It is a season of hope and optimism- when families entrust us, as college educators, with their students… to facilitate their students’ imagination and creation of a better future than their own.   Would love your thoughts.


I’m Mamta Accapadi, vice president for student affairs. On behalf of the student affairs team, I offer a warm welcome to all of you, the class of 2018 and transfer students!

As you can probably tell, from well… everyone around you, we have been eagerly awaiting your arrival! You are on, quite possibly, one of the most significant journeys of your lifetime. As I was preparing my thoughts for all of you, my daughter asked me what I was doing, and while I explained, she said to me to be sure to talk about love- she insisted that college students needed to hear about love, because that is the most important thing. So- let’s reflect on love.

Now, I am not talking about love that we see in the movies, or something that is fleeting… I am talking about the love that is patient and kind, the love that is anchored in commitment, mutual respect and liberation. The love that is unconditional and infinite.  Love manifests itself in different forms so I thought it might make sense to reflect on some of those forms, as I share my hopes for all of you while you are here.

So while you are here, I hope you all cultivate a sense of love… for yourself. While on your journey to self discovery, what does it look like, what does it feel like, to gift yourself the opportunity to unconditionally and unapologetically commit to your well-being and joy? I encourage you to take advantage of every moment, every class discussion, every service initiative, every conversation, every activity. How will you engage in experiences and explore your passions in a way that bring you closer to understanding yourself, respecting yourself, and creating a thriving learning environment for yourself?

I also hope you cultivate a sense of love of community. Love of community is a part of the fabric of our liberal arts institution, where our faculty and staff create a learning environment that inspires us to apply what we learn in service of others. Some of you will do research with faculty, some of you will go on, or plan immersions, some of you will join organizations- no matter what it is you do- my hope is that it takes you closer to an unconditional commitment, a love, of community and of giving back to others. It is this kind of love that has transformed the world. I share with you a poem by one of my favorite poets, 1913 nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose voice was instrumental in India’s liberation from British colonial rule.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.
Where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
Where words come out from the depth of truth.
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection.
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action.
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Tagore is an example of how a poet can ignite the passion of a nation, and I want you all to have experiences that ignite your passion, in a way that elevates your sense of shared humanity and a shared liberation… in a way that shows your love of community and sustains our democracy. I especially hope you reflect on what it means to have love of community, this weekend when you participate in SPARC Day where you will serve alongside your classmates, faculty, staff and alumni at non-profit organizations across Central Florida to help build a better community.

A crucial component of cultivating love of self, and love of community, is the ability to recognize love. During my first year of college, when I would talk with my mom on the phone, the first thing she always asked, after how are you… was “beta (my child), did you eat?”… Almost as if it was yesterday, I can remember one point in the semester when things were just a little more stressful than usual- and on the phone, she could sense something was wrong… and she asked the question “beta did you eat?”… and I broke down, and began to yell, and cry, and yell. How can you possibly focus on my food, when I am failing physics??

I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now… “beta, did you eat” has nothing to do with my consumption of food- it did have everything to do with my mother articulating in the best way she knew how, that she was there for me. Beta did you eat- was code- for I love you. As you engage in transition into this new community, remember that it is a transition for not just you, but your loved ones, your friends, your peers.

Amidst all this transition, how will we do our best to be our best selves, and recognize that the people around us are hopefully trying to be their best and most loving selves too? How will you recognize the cues of the unconditionally committed folks around you? Could it look like the invitation to a faculty member’s office hours? Could it look like one of your peers intervening in a social setting to make sure you are safe? Could it be talking to one of our counselors in the counseling center? On our campus, you will see that (and I know you have already seen) that there are people ready to serve and support you. A part of recognizing the love around us, is offering gratitude to those who have given so much to us, so we can be where we are right now. Can we take a moment to offer gratitude in the form of applause for those folks right now? My parents often referred to the phrase by the late president John F Kennedy, as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

For those of you who live in the wizarding world, one of my personal mentors, Albus Dumbledore, shared with my friend Harry, that “It is our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Lets talk about the socially awkward, timid, and failed practicing attorney, a 24 year old man from India, who upon moving to South Africa, engaged his love of self and community to become the Mahatma Gandhi we know of today. His choices led him to greatness, not his abilities. In life, we are always at the intersection of opportunity and circumstance- our challenge is to make the choices that leverage these two concepts for the greater good.

So, my hope for each one of you is that you anchor yourself in love- that you can recognize and honor it, that you have love of self, and love of community. And- that you choose the journey of personal liberation, the journey that takes you from who you are to who you never even imagined you could be.

With that, I also leave you with my mother’s words… Beta, have you eaten?

Thank you, and Fiat Lux!

‘passion for social justice’

I hear and read this phrase a lot, particularly from recent graduates and mid-level professionals in student affairs.  It is the parallel to the beauty pageant phrase, ‘I believe in world peace.’

I generally believe in the goodness of people- so when it comes to intentions, I do think that people mean well when they invoke their passion for social justice or their commitment to world peace.  They are both aspirational sentiments- expressions of optimism for a more thoughtful future.

Focusing specifically on the social justice piece, however- here is what I have observed.  I notice that folks often talk about their passion for social justice, and then almost immediately begin to share the ways in which they have experienced marginalization, or ways they have not been part of a dominant group.  So the conversation sounds like the following…

“I have a passion for social justice.  I was a first generation college student, and grew up working class, so I understand the role higher education plays in promoting access and equity…”

“I don’t need social justice training, I have many close friends who are people of color, and as  a woman in a good old boys environment, I know what it’s like.”

Essentially, these phrases translate to, “I fit into the diversity conversation, and I have experienced some form of discrimination.”  What the phrases do NOT say, is “I recognize how my privileged identities situate me to have more access to opportunities than others.’

I hear these kinds of phrases a lot from colleagues and mentees, and I am reminded that I am also someone who made similar comments and had similar thoughts only fifteen-ish years ago (and I probably make the comments now in some coded ways, too), when I claimed that I understood the experiences of members of LGBT* communities because of my own experiences as a person of color.

I have done a lot of personal work since then- and have a lot of work to go.  Almost daily, much like the movie “The Sixth Sense,”  I see my ‘privilege’ everywhere.  My own life changed to truly reflect my ‘passion for social justice’ when I began speaking more about my privilege.  In my case, rather than speaking about or pointing out the racism and sexism that has impacted me, I speak up more about the ways that my actions and inactions in my heterosexist, able-bodied, U.S. citizenship holding, upper middle class (to name a few) spaces have allowed me greater access and opportunities to imagine a better future without barriers.  Naming these does not take away the pain I experience from racism and sexism, but it does give me more compassion towards my own oppressors, because it liberates me to see how hard it is to change in our dominant spaces.

How do you think we get each other to invoke our ‘passion for social justice’ as a personal invitation to name, understand, and dismantle our own privilege? How do we make good on our expressions of optimism so that they are actually blueprints for the ‘world peace’ we say we want?