Women As Leaders & Caregivers: Queering Color. Racializing Gender. Disrupting Heteropatriarchy.

Women As Leaders & Caregivers: Queering Color. Racializing Gender. Disrupting Heteropatriarchy.

Risë Nelson Burrow
Cornell University
Columbia College
Elsie Gonzalez
University of Connecticut
Laila Al-Chaar
University of California – Los Angeles
Sharon Chia Claros
University of Southern California

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

The foundation of this article lies in our narrative stories as women of color serving as leaders and caregivers in academia, in our homes, and in our communities. This article serves as a platform to express our often silenced voices and to discuss the connections and the development of our intersecting identities. The very essence and counter-cultural presentation of our collection of narratives challenge historically oppressive paradigms that are rooted in sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Using the framework of Scholarly Personal Narrative (Nash, 2004), we give testimony to our personal experiences in the academy with the goal of highlighting how we make meaning of how we live our lives in our own authentic ways, outside of what society expects of us. Nash (2004) writes, “…sharing of our personal stories, particularly in the willingness of professionals to listen to the stories of others, that we make the deepest connections with those we are serving” (p. 2). Through giving voice to our experiences as women of color with diverse identities, we hope our narratives will be used to discuss implications for developing culturally inclusive communities in student affairs and to explore the politics of solidarity that speak to the heart of social justice ally development.

Conway Speaks…

So, I’m newly “Gay for Pay,” meaning I get the pleasure and responsibility of working for LGTBQ equality while being paid at the same time. I’m the brand new, first ever, full time Coordinator for LGBTQ Culture and Community at Columbia College Chicago. The first ever person of color. The first ever non-Columbian.


I mean Columbia hired me because I am qualified for the job. I am sure of it, but am I really though? I mean they hired me to be QUEER. An all-knowing, walking resource for all things L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.TS. And I know what it means to be gay. I am gay so I understand what it’s like to love someone that the grander society deems queer in nature. I get the familiar struggles: the struggle to be your full self wherever you are, the constant negotiations on safety… physical, psychological, familial, spiritual… and I know also what it means to make space for myself; to create a chosen family; to know the utter bliss of romantic closeness on my terms.

But I also know that LGBTQ folks just ain’t LGBTQ folks. We are the intersection. We are Queer And…

And well. I only know what it means to be Queer And…


Queer and Womyn

Queer and Middle Class

Queer and Able Bodied

Queer and a Spiritual Seeker

Queer and From Chicago

And this last identity is important because segregation is real here. Really real. So because I grew up on the south side with only black folks and other lower-middle class and po’ folks…well that’s really all I KNOW. But Columbia wants me to be EVERYBODY’S GAY, and the hard fact is I got some major work to do. But we all feel this pressure right?

Hire the magician

Go to that “committee” meeting

Order the popcorn

Write your monthly report, don’t forget the needs assessment

Meet with a student

Be self-actualized so you can be a good model for the students you collaborate with

Prove to your super that it really is a good investment to send you to that national conference AGAIN

Save the world

Learn what it’s like to be Queer and Jewish

Queer and Latina

Queer and Catholic

Queer and Deaf

Queer and A TEEN

Queer and Upper Class

And queer and…

And there are not enough hours in the day, and they damn sho ain’t paying me enough, and honestly I’m tired of fighting for folks to acknowledge how beautiful I am, but c’est la vie, right? I’m out here in this water. That’s a fact, and when I wipe the tears away from my eyes I see that you’re out here too, and I’m starting to breathe again because that horrible weight of feeling all alone in a world full of sorrows is melting away. And I’m starting to think that this whole thing could actually be some fun. Sharing our Queer And… Stories. I start thinking on the swimming unicorns and singing mermen in drag. Let’s dive in.

Not only does Conway’s telling of her story lead to a greater awareness of how she has been oppressed, she can continue her/our struggle to end these acts of oppression and find liberation through this non-traditional approach to self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2010) and work (Delgado, 1990). As her narrative suggests, the issues of place, role and support must be explored in the hiring of pioneer administrators who are also of marginalized identities. One might also consider the ways in which Conway’s approach to reflection and narrative can model to students and colleagues an incorporation of self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2010), queer theory (Hennessey, 1994) and critical race theory (Dunbar, 2006) in social justice and student development strategies.

Reflection and Discussion Notes

  • What is the climate like at your institution for LGBTQIA individuals? Do you feel you can safely be open about your identity as a person who identifies as LGBTQIA or about advocating for the LGBTQIA community on your campus? How does this make you feel, and how does this impact your campus? How can you find courage and community to create change for yourself and/or others to be safely open about their sexual and intersecting identities?
  • As scholar-practitioners, many of us have clear lines between our professional and personal lives, and at times we may struggle to be fully ourselves on the job. How can you model different ways of authentically embracing all of yourself for the students and colleagues with whom you engage? For this question, it might be helpful to complete the sentence, “I am…” with as many descriptive words as are true for you. Then think about which identities are shown/known at work, which of them you’ve hidden, and how you may live all of these out more fully in the workplace.
  • In a perfect world, we are more than qualified to perform with perfection every aspect of our jobs. Most times you will find that there is a significant learning curve, especially when taking on a new position. In what ways can you/do you manage feelings of inadequacy when undertaking a new position or project? What reminders can you give yourself about the truth of your own goodness?
  • The usual workforce pressures of time, funding, space and productivity may seem even more complicated in student affairs, where the boundary between personal and work life may be especially blurred, given the amount of sacrifice of time and self we give up to student success. Conway shared that when she wrote her narrative, she was in tears at her desk because she understood that if she didn’t take the time to release what she was feeling, she wouldn’t be productive at all as a leader and caregiver in her new position. To demonstrate that we acknowledge the sacredness of caregiving, scholar-practitioners must share our stories and take time to care for ourselves. We must also call upon other caregivers (parents and others) working in student affairs to do the same. Doing so, we allow the sacredness of caregiving to radiate through our work through the care that we show to ourselves, our students, to our campus and community partners towards the development of whole learners and communities. What are some of your most helpful tools for self-care? How can you incorporate them into your daily/weekly routine throughout the day? How can you model such self-authorship and radical self-care for students and colleagues as an approach to student affairs and social justice education?

Elsie Speaks…

Okay. Girls in bed. 8:31pm. Here we go…

As I approached labor, I had the feeling I couldn’t stay in the field…How could I take care of 24 staff members, a graduate student, 1,200 residents and my – I need to mention my 2 year old just came down the stairs…

“mami, a book?”

“Estoy trabajando, Eden…”

…“por favorrrrr?” (con esa cara)

Off I go to read a bedtime story!…

It’s 9:03pm. I’m back… It all was too overwhelming, and I was feeling left behind. That past year, all I read were baby books and articles on parenting. I felt clueless as to what was going on in the field. My supervisors offered a compromise: I could flex my working schedule to a later shift to allow me time at home with the baby, and once my partner got home from work, I could go to the office and work with my staff and students. It sounded great and doable… until I was in it! I was a first-time, nursing mom and a Hall Director with very little time for my partner, and forget friends and family…

I felt out of balance, stretched and without community… if there were other working mothers in Student Affairs in my area, I certainly didn’t know them. Are others feeling this? How do they do it? After reaching out through different professional networks and exploring work-life balance groups, I realized—bittersweetly—I wasn’t alone! But reflecting on all our shared experiences, I also questioned whether it was even possible to be a successful working mother in this field.

How can I make this all work?

For fifteen months I concentrated on taking care of my daughter. By day, I read baby books, labeled everything (all in Spanish!—my baby was going to know all about her culture, starting with our language), and baby proofed our campus apartment. By night, I attended programs, did rounds with my RAs, and tried to keep up with professionals in the field. That year and a half stumbled on as I tried to balance my loves—family and student affairs. I was promoted to an Assistant Director position at UConn in Res Life, but WAIT…I was expecting again…

How do I make this all work?

A day in the life of E…

6:00am Wake up, get dressed

6:45am Wake up the girls for breakfast, prep them for school

7:40am Get girls’ belongings and pile them into the car

7:50am Drop off at school

8:15am Commute to work (catch up with family via phone)

9:15am-5:00pm Work

5:00pm-6:00pm Commute home (return calls I was unable to answer at work)

6:00pm-6:45pm- Gym (on a good day!)

7:00pm Home! Prep/eat dinner

7:30pm Girls’ bath, books, bedtime

8:00pm Clean up

9:00pm Time with my partner

10:00pm-11pm Work? Bedtime?

…did you analyze data for that report?… did you see what I posted five minutes ago?… clean the house?… go out with your partner?… are you going to the staff meeting Sunday night?… worship service?….

Just staying afloat …I am

God Seeking












Making it all work.

In creating inclusive campus environments, student affairs practitioners would want to consider the role and identity of mothers in their event planning and office scheduling as well as the prevalent assumptions and behaviors that support or undermine working mothers in student affairs (Nobbe & Manning, 1997). We must rethink the messages that we send to all scholar-practitioners about the life-work balance, evaluation standards and merit structures. In having these difficult conversations and in implementing an equitable (and frankly, responsible) policy change, we show strength in resistance of antiquated, patriarchal norms of caregiving and work commitment. Considering the full unique personhood of the working mother in student affairs, we honor the heritages and identities of our own caregivers, and we create more inclusive environments that are reflective of our value of healthy children and whole communities.

Reflection and Discussion Notes

  • The complexity of balancing family obligations and work responsibilities can significantly impact retention rates and the professional trajectory, particularly for working mothers. When performance evaluation and promotion in student affairs often seem to correlate with hours worked, caregivers may feel that they have to fit twice as much work as the next (non-parenting) person into a shorter work day. This can inform the sense of equity in the office, which can be compounded by factors of age, gender, race, class, faith, and other aspects of identity. Take a moment to reflect on your organizational dynamics and implicit attitudes, evaluation/promotion practices and unspoken expectations, family needs and cultural values.
  • How does your office, division or university currently demonstrate its commitment to supporting the life-work balance as you work to support healthy family and student life? How do you feel you might advocate for yourself or others at your institution or in the field who identify as caregivers so that one does not feel disconnected or fragmented from their family identity or professionally “left behind,” as suggested in Elsie’s narrative?
  • How do/would you honor your identity as a caregiver for your family as your primary priority while successfully carrying out the many meaningful and pressing duties that your supervisor, students or environment—and performance evaluation—may argue are your only priorities?

Laila Speaks…

There are days when our minds won’t turn off, when processing is a necessity, and the feelings take over our day. This piece represents the struggles and ENDLESS thoughts that we as students, caregivers, leaders, and educators can’t escape or stop because life keeps moving. As a proud Muslim, Bi-racial, Queer, Woman of Color I have recognized that my journey to my authentic self will always be a continuous process. The need to gain recognition and understanding by loved ones will always linger, but the struggle to exist freely and authentically will always be present in my life.

As a professional in the field of higher education there is an essence of vulnerability in the work we do. We bring forth the narratives of those that have been silenced in order to facilitate a platform for students to make meaning of who they are and what that might mean to the world. It is within my own personal narrative that I as a woman have found the strength to challenge historically oppressive heteronormative and patriarchal norms. I can only hope that my story will find its way to another woman like myself, who at some point believed that she might be the only Muslim, Bi-racial, Queer, Woman of color, only to find out that she isn’t alone anymore and neither am I.

[Video: Access code: acpaobp]

Beginning her video narrative with the question of “Who Am I?,” Laila navigates through a reflection on self-authorship, eventually exploring how she has come to know what she knows of herself and her reality, and then how she wants to construct relationships with others (Baxter Magolda, 2010). Scholar-practitioners might consider here the steps of sharing their personal stories in order to know not just themselves but their students and their communities in a more connected, meaningful way in the journey towards self-authorship. Knowing who we are, who they are, sustaining these difficult conversations and supporting each other all the way—these journeys towards self-authorship and living authentically are all just stories away, and can humanize the academy and reaffirm our increasingly diverse campus communities.

  • As our personal identities evolve through our personal and professional lives, how do/would you choose which identities to present in the work place? How do/would you navigate “coming out” when your identity shifts (i.e. divorce, having a baby, losing a baby, coming out as LGBTQIA, or differently abled, etc.)? What supports do you need in this process? To whom/what departments can you turn for this advocacy and institutionalized support?
  • The vulnerability with which Laila approaches her narrative and the openness to which she bravely welcomes her students to discuss and share in her story are critical to her effectiveness and reach as a campus leader. Through visual inquiry, Laila also shows herself to be the life-long learner, the researcher of her own history and realities, the scholar of her own experience, synthesizing and making meaning of all of these varied experiences, in the face of discrimination and isolation, even from her family. Even as she speaks to her family’s difficulty to accept her queer identity and the transition of her partner, she proudly exclaims “Hell yeah, I’m still queer!” testifying to the fact that not only does she know who she is, she loves who she is. How do you navigate spaces that challenge your identity, whether that is a student, professional, family, or community space?
  • What tools and support do/would you seek out in order to process your experiences and to continue learning and speaking your truth (through any medium) so that you may also testify to knowing and loving who you are? How can you help create a safe space for students to learn about themselves and proudly speak about their whole, authentic selves?

Implications for Higher Education

These narratives seek to break the homogeneity of the ascribed predominant culture to extend the limits of what counts as valid, as right, as beneficial to the academy and to our learning and home communities. “Good teaching, good helping, and good leadership are, in one sense, all about the storytelling and story-evoking… Our stories are symbols for what constitutes personal and professional meaning for all of us” (Nash, 2004, p.2). We challenge readers to use such non-traditional approaches to scholarship to model how this can be done, how women can serve simultaneously as leaders and caregivers, educators and learners, and to engage increasingly diverse constituents. We hope these stories evoke our readers’ own practices of reflection and truth sharing, so that you may also interrupt silent assumptions of who you are or who you “ought” to be. In this way, we extend the limits of what counts—as scholarship, caregiving, leadership, access, and equity. We define for ourselves what counts, and most importantly, who counts.

Co-Authors’ Notes

The call for submissions from ACPA-College Student Educators International’s Standing Committee for Women (SCW) that welcomed approaches beyond the traditional paper format and supportive of a feminist approach immediately resonated with each of this manuscript’s collaborators. The co-authors are all united as friends, colleagues and women of color in higher education who are all equally committed to the success of the students with whom we work, to the inclusion of women’s voices and pertinent theories in Higher Education, and to the promotion of the experiences and ideas of Womyn of the Global Majority. However, there are diversities between us, and this text represents our varied voices and experiences in student affairs:

Conway, Elsie Gonzalez and Laila Alchaar bravely and proudly share their reflections on their diverse identities from within the field told in a number of creative ways, and their narratives span a wide array of intersections. The voice of Risë Nelson Burrow is woven throughout the text in its development and editing. Sharon Chia Claros originally submitted the accepted ACPA convention presentation proposal that the SCW invited us to turn into a publication for its upcoming “Women As” series in ACPA’s Developments. Sharon’s original presentation proposal provided the theoretical foundations and frameworks for our co-created manuscript here.

Readers may find varying names used in describing cultural identities, such as LGBTQIA, caregivers and women. This is not meant to confuse the readers, but rather to reflect the specific contributor’s self-identification and to respect the diversity of (self-)naming within different communities, particularly those that have been marginalized.

The discussion notes at the end of each narrative are meant to provide our readers with a pause to consider their own experiences in student affairs and to prompt them to share their own stories. We hope some, if not all, of these questions will be used in personal reflection, graduate coursework, and in professional development in and out of the workplace.


Baxter-Magolda, M. (2010). The interweaving of epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development in the evolution of self-authorship. In M.B. Magolda, E.F. Creamer and P.S. Meszaros (Eds.), Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship (pp. 25-43).Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Bell, D.A. (1987). And we are not saved: The elusive quest for racial justice. New York: Basic Books.

Delgado, R. (1988). Critical legal studies and the realities of race – Does the fundamental contradiction have a corollary? Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 23, 401 – 413.

Delgado, R. (1990). When a story is just a story: Does voice really matter? Virginia Law Review, 76, 95 – 111.

Dunbar, A. W. (2006). Introducing critical race theory to archival discourse: Getting the conversation started. Archival Science, 6 (1), 109-129.

Hennessey, R. (1994). Queer theory, left politics. Rethinking Marxism 7 (3), 85 – 111.

Nash, R. (2004). Liberating scholarly writing: The power of personal narrative. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Press.

Nobbe, J. and Manning, S. (1997). Issues for women in student affairs with children. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 34 (2), 124-134.

About the Authors

Rise Nelson Burrow currently serves as the Assistant Director for the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives and Director of Student Success Programs at Cornell University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Rise Nelson Burrow.

Elsie Gonzalez is currently a Residence Hall Complex Coordinator in the Department of Residential Life at the University of Connecticut.

Please e-mail inquiries to Elsie Gonzalez.

Laila Al-Chaar is currently an Assistant Resident Director at the University of California Los Angeles.

Please e-mail inquiries to Laila Al-Chaar.

Sharon Chia Claros is a Resident Director in the Office of Residential Life at the University of California Los Angeles, and an Educational Doctoral Student at the University of Southern California.

Please e-mail inquires to Sharon Chia Claros.

Conway is the Coordinator for LGBTQ Culture and Community at Columbia College.

Please e-mail inquires to Conway.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

8 thoughts on “Women As Leaders & Caregivers: Queering Color. Racializing Gender. Disrupting Heteropatriarchy.”

  1. Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

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