Presidential Remarks Delivered at the 2016 Convention
From the President
Donna Lee, ACPA President
Ubuntu. I am because we are. I am because we are. Ubuntu is a beautiful concept in African culture. At its most basic, Ubuntu can be translated as “human kindness” but its meaning is more vast and carries so much more depth – it embodies connection, community, and mutual caring for all. Ubuntu is about the essence of being human…for caring, sharing, and being in harmony with each other. Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. You seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.” And when I reflect upon my life’s journey, and the experiences and encounters leading up to this moment at which I stand before you, I am struck by the power of Ubuntu. I am because we are.
I have never been able to forecast where the steps I took in life would lead me, but I have always trusted in my inner voice, my intuition, my spirit to lead me to those destinations I am meant for. If you had asked me several years ago if I saw myself as a dean or as a vice president, or now as the President of ACPA – College Student Educators International I would have said, “no way!” Yet, now I stand here as the 77th President of our Association, the 7th African-American to step into this position of service.
I must first pay homage to and honor those who have come before me, who through their acts, words, and deeds, have forged and paved paths, opened doors, and created spaces for me to be the woman I am today. I thank them for the strength of their shoulders, allowing me to stand upon them. I give honor to those who have trail blazed a path for me to be here, especially my mother and my grandmother. I pay homage to May L. Cheney, Mary T. Howard, and Anne S. Pruitt, women who made it possible for me to stand here before you today. I have a responsibility to hold close by these pieces of my history. And I have the responsibility to exalt those values that enabled these phenomenal women to persevere. The tears once held back by my ancestors can be shed, but now as tears of joy that come from knowing that their energies have been transformed into the hope that we see represented in our present.
It is important that I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to their elders past and present.
I honor those in my present – sisters like Patty Perillo, who honored me with her generous introduction and who has been a source of friendship, inspiration, and love throughout the years…and the colleagues, friends, and leaders throughout our Association who have supported and nourished me, especially over this past year, my colleagues on the Governing Board, members of the Assembly, the staff of the International Office, and brothers like Kent Porterfield and Gavin Henning whose sage and gentle leadership have guided and paved a way forward for our Association. I thank the professionals and friends with whom I have been privileged to serve at Rollins College, Agnes Scott, and now at my new home, Macalester College. I thank those in my present for their powerful arms and hands outstretched to steady and guide me. I honor those who will come after me – I ready my shoulders to hold them up.
I am because we are.
I am Donna Lee. I sign my name using my middle initial A…for Ann. I use the pronouns she, her, hers. I am a woman of color, single mother of a beautiful brown boy, educator, change agent, feminist. I am reminded by Audre Lorde that I am the product of my multiple identities and the intersections between and among them. I am from New York, oldest child of a working-class family, the product of a multiracial family – confusing and sometimes hurtful as I was too dark in some worlds and too light in others. As a young girl, I was a very introverted child, reflective and pensive. I attended parochial school during my early years. I remember my teacher giving a lesson on love. “God’s love is everywhere,” she said. “He watches over all that is good. God watches over his children. God will never let you fall, never let you get hurt.” As I looked down at my scarred and scabbed knees – knees that suffered from my many falls from the tree in my back yard or where I hit the sidewalk as I was running or skipping, or the numerous times I would fall off my neon green bike with the banana seat. As I looked at my knees I questioned my own worth, my own place in the world.
When I was teased by my white peers about the color of my skin…skin that they called dirty, and my hair that they called “Brillo,” my beautiful grandmother helped me to embrace and love my beautiful brown skin and my lovely coiled hair that I could style in oh so many wonderful ways. My journey of self-discovery took me to the military, where I discovered my voice as a woman, an education at a small, private liberal arts institution, where I discovered my niche, a degree in counseling where I discovered a passion for empowering others to be their best selves…all these things helped me to define and get a sense of who I am. My calling, my responsibility in life is to make the world a better place, and I have found a vocation that enables me to use my gifts and abilities to touch the lives of others in ways that are transformative.
I am a work in progress. At times, my confidence wavers. I make mistakes. Fear and self doubt sometimes invade my psyche. I remember my surprise when asked to serve in the role of interim dean. I think part of this was attributed to the fact that most of the models for me in this role were white men in suits. I have typically worked in predominately white environments, and I have always been very aware of the impact my presence had on my colleagues – I usually wear my hair in braids, twists, or cornrows; my jewelry is ethnic, and my dress is not always considered to be conservative. I know that for some, my presence makes them nervous…makes them uncomfortable…
When I transitioned into the role of a SSAO, I was advised that I would need to take out my “dreds” if I wanted to be successful…I was wearing cornrows.
I felt blessed to have been selected to serve as a VPSL, but experienced conflicting feelings about my role. It was an honor to be recognized as that college’s first black vice president, but at the same time, I was troubled by the fact that in the 21st century that my brown face was a cause for celebration.
I continue to agonize over the fact that there is still much work to accomplish across our institutions of higher learning. I have been vividly aware of the lack of a critical mass of faces like mine in key roles, and often I am the only brown face at the table. Because of this, I sometimes feel an enormous pressure to represent.
Reflection carries the connotation of bending back, mirroring, and returning to oneself. It calls upon each of us to look, examine, turn and return, and bend our understanding of self and the impact we make. It was the birth of my son, Jonathan, that gave me greater pause to engage in this bending, mirroring, and understanding who I am, who I will be, what I am purposed to do. When I looked into his innocent eyes, I was filled with almost an unbearable and conflicting mix of emotions…overwhelming love and joy and a profound sense of peace and connection… and at the same time, a sense of guilt and pain…and fear. I had just brought an innocent life into a fractured world…a world that would judge him for the color of his skin…a world plagued by chaos, devastation, and strife. I realized quickly that the fear I was feeling was obscuring the hope that could be. And as I look again into the innocent eyes of my son, I recognize the light of the future breaking over him, and I realize my responsibility in doing my part now…in the present…to make the world a better place. To do my part in mending our world.
My story is the why of my work…why I show up the way that I do. My story informs how I construct my identity, make choices, take action. My story tells why I feel called to serve. But I am because we are. And it’s the weavings of our collective stories that become the tapestry that is ACPA. And the story of ACPA…the story of us is a compelling one.
We serve as part of a noble profession, one that transforms lives, transforms communities, transforms our world. Our work is intentional, grounded in theory and guided by best practices. ACPA is a community of learners, educators, professionals, colleagues, and friends with a shared commitment to being instruments of change. Our story is one that is rooted in a history of dignity, equity, inclusion, and justice that goes all the way back to the time when 9 bold women noticed a gap and filled it. Evolving out of the disciplines of counseling and human development, we have remained steadfast as we are guided and defined by those things we value: our students and their learning, diversity and multicultural competence, dignity and respect, openness, inclusion, access, involvement, growth, outreach, advocacy, and action.
Our story is one of community. The root meaning of community is derived from the Latin word, communitatus, meaning “the changes or exchanges that connect people.” The earliest form of connection among groups of people was seen in the social divisions within traditional and indigenous societies. Kinship was at the center, and there was a distinct sense of identity and belonging, a sense that strengthened its members’ ability to bond and survive. Life was profoundly egalitarian. Hierarchies, dominant groups, class structures, and other status systems did not exist. Leaders needed to be modest, generous, and selfless; leadership was transient and situational. The process of making decisions was open to all as all voices were welcomed and valued. Honor, respect, pride, dignity, and responsibility were core values. Behaviors not aligned with these values were confronted quickly. There was an emphasis on communal sharing, caring, and taking care of each other. There was a spirit of cooperation and a genuine compassion for others. There was an underlying ethic of reciprocity…you did not take something from another member without giving something in return. Life was cooperative and reciprocal. This is the same understanding behind the meaning of community: the changes that we go through, the exchanges we experience with others, the connections we make with one another, the ethic of care are the very things that nurture us, teach us, bond us, heal us.
And as we continue to nourish the things that make us ACPA, lifting up and weaving together the thousands of stories of us, we create our community, and in creating real community, we need to covenant with one another. We need to work together. We need to commit to an honorable reciprocity, never taking from one another without giving something of substance in return. At the core of a strong community is a genuine compassion for the welfare of others, a collective responsibility for the common good.
In an increasingly complex and global world, in a time where the issues and challenges of our world can feel overwhelming, I focus my attention on the light of the future – the work that we do, for what we do, what we teach is what will change the world. Our curriculum is one of hope and transformation…the light of the future. And as we work towards the common good, we must never forget the power that is ACPA…the interconnections among us, the importance of turning to one another to discover what we might create together, how we might help each other, how we might strengthen one another. The truth is that we can only persevere through challenges when we truly work together.
Three years ago, my friend Kent Porterfield reminded us of the transition we were experiencing as a community, describing the phases we would move through as we forged a way forward: the first of these being a “letting go” phase, a process of ending a former era; the second, the “in between,” a time of shaping new ways, a time of foundation-laying, of building, of creating new identities. Kent Porterfield and Gavin Henning shepherded us through these phases with a bold vision, a tireless energy, a passion for our work, and a lightness of touch. I am deeply indebted to them for their powerful leadership. Because of them, we are now moving into the third phase of that transition – the “new beginning,” a time when the seeds are beginning to sprout – new identities emerge, ideas are fully formed, the impact of changes are becoming visible. It is with humility that I stand before you readying my back and shoulders to provide leadership as we embark upon this new and exciting phase in our Association.
All around us we can see the fruits of our labor:
Research and scholarship continues to ground, inform, shape, and guide our practice. It is a tenet of who we are and will continue to define our future and the future of higher education. We have made great strides in the promulgation of our research: About Campus, our scholarly magazine, will now have a wider reach via an online profile, and work is underway to use social media as a way to further engage readers. The Journal of College Student Development remains one of the most highly regarded journals in higher education, especially around issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion. Through our commissions, coalitions and networks, state and international chapters, senior scholars, task forces, and other entity groups, we promote scholarship and new knowledge in social justice education, student learning and success, assessment, global learning, mental health, sexual misconduct, and many other critical issues. As we look to the future, this commitment to research and scholarship must remain one of the highest of our priorities, and we will need to continue to invest in this priority, with a particular emphasis on linking our research and scholarship to our practice. We must continue to create opportunities for emerging scholars – both faculty and practitioners, supporting new research, exploring new ways to disseminate knowledge, enhancing existing initiatives, including research grants, programs like Dissertation of the Year, the Writers Workshop, and other opportunities aimed at amplifying the voices of our scholars. This strategic investment is critical as we continue to shape and impact policy and practice in the field.
Professional development remains a cornerstone of our Association, and we are on the cusp of harnessing the powerful ways it shows up throughout ACPA. A partnership with NASPA resulting in the publishing of Professional Competencies provides a roadmap for our professional development. MyPROfolio will innovate the manner in which we engage in our professional development, providing an intentional and universal tool to reflect on, document, and deliver learning and knowledge. As we continue to immerse ourselves in this new tool, reflective and reflexive practice will become our norm.
Our entity groups have been the major source of content for our digital platform, ACPA Video on Demand, significantly expanding the reach of information and making professional development more accessible to our members…and even beyond our membership; this past year, over 42,000 individuals accessed digital segments through this platform. We have an opportunity to package this work in such a way that positions ACPA as the go-to Association for professional development.
We held our largest Residential Curriculum Institute in our history and created a new model for the Donna Bourrassa Mid-Level Managers Institute, increasing revenues while maintaining the high quality curriculum. Perhaps this model is one that can be applied across our institutes.
Nurturing a community of mentors and mentoring relationships through the spectrum of our membership – practitioners to faculty, undergrads to senior professionals – is a unique and special part of who we are and is an integral part of the journey of growth and development. We will continue to develop strategies and create initiatives to support and lift up the beauty and power of mentoring.
Much work was done to get us to this point of having our first Convention outside of the U.S., and key partnerships with global leaders and educators have brought us closer to realizing who we are as ACPA – International. It is important that we continue to engage in a process of understanding what International means to us and how we can authentically live this out. Following up on the work of the feedback group created earlier this year, we will begin to develop a salient plan to move forward. My commitment is to create a working group that will partner with me in this endeavor. If we are to be truly international in our membership and global in our scholarship and practice, it is critical that we continue to push beyond the borders of the U.S., but it is just as critical that we not proceed in ways that further marginalize any group. It is important to acknowledge that the impact of us being in this space today has meant that members of our community – in particular, structures exist that may exclude members who identify as Trans from being physically in community with us. This kind of dissonance is something we need to reconcile as we nourish the community we want to be.
It was with intentionality that I shared my story with you. It is through the sharing of our stories that we begin to connect across our common humanity. Each one of us has a compelling story to tell, and it is incumbent upon each of us to give space for those stories to be told and shared…to nourish strong relationships within our community…to weave together the story that is ACPA. In this endeavor, I encourage you to begin reflecting on your own story…who are you? What are those beliefs you hold close? What are those things that encourage your heart? Who are the people…what are the experiences that have shaped and defined you along your journey? What is your “why?” As leaders, we need to employ both our heads and our hearts in pursuit of building community and affecting positive change. I recognize, however, that because of issues related to power and privilege, bias and oppression, hierarchies and systems, some stories are not heard…or even told. You may be familiar with StoryCorps. That initiative is a mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. The sharing of stories is “to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” I am committed to lifting up each of our stories, building on the work that has already been done: training and education of ACPA leadership, opening opportunities and casting a wider net to ensure diverse and representative voice in leadership roles, examining practices that may inadvertently create barriers to hearing our stories. The strength, power, and beauty of our community can be heard in the symphonic notes played by each individual member. The work of the Leadership Pathways provides a foundation upon from which we can begin to think about ways that we can capture and project the stories that make up our community.
I also commit to engaging in a thoughtful process to review and assess our structures, our governance, and our practices, ensuring alignment with our core values and identifying strategies to enhance, transform, restructure as needed. We need to hone in on what matters to our community, getting really clear on who we are, clearly articulate our “why”, and then create the structures that will serve to advance us. The governing board has already begun to immerse themselves in these critical conversations. This undertaking will involve an intentional process of listening, gathering information, documenting experiences, finding where the gaps are, noticing where voices are missing, and engaging in an iterative and reflective feedback loop. This will take a shared commitment across our membership and a trust in each other and the process to create the community to which we aspire.
As we enter this “new beginning” savoring the fruits, continuing to water the seeds, preparing the soil for new crops, we must move forward with a fearlessness, for when we are fearless, we are motivated by what is in our hearts, and we remain grounded in our core values. Fearlessness also has love at its core, and this love is coupled with reflection and discernment, allowing us to move toward what is good and right. And in this unprecedented time in higher education where the work that we do is under such scrutiny and in a world that is getting increasingly complex and messy, the light of the future is in who we are as ACPA…an Association…a community with almost a 92 year legacy of values-based practice, research, and education, an Association that centers student learning and development, an Association whose commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice is just what is needed to change the world. Moving in this fearlessness, we can define the agenda for higher education. Moving in this fearlessness, we can open, create, and shape the spaces that empower students to find, raise, and place their voices in the world in ways that are transformative.
The Hopi Elders share words of wisdom:
Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift,
That there are those who will be afraid,
Who will try to hold on to the shore,
They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore,
Push off into the middle of the river,
And keep our heads above water.
And I say see who is there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history we are to take nothing personally,
Least of all ourselves, for the moment we do,
Our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
And as I stand before you today I focus on the light of this powerful Association. I can let go of the shore and move forward with a fearlessness, inviting in what the world offers me, not seeking a destination, but my direction. I take time to breathe and pause, staying in my present, but with an eye to the future, staying focused on taking one step at a time. I wade fully into the water, keeping my head above, buoyed by the work, words, acts, and deeds of my foremothers and fathers, and supported by the outstretched arms and hands of the people around me. And with each step I continually ready my back and shoulders, making them strong for the next generation of leaders to stand on. Ubuntu. I am because we are.