Women as Leaders & Caregivers: Casting Ebony Pillars in the Ivory Tower—Reflections of a Sister in the Academy

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.

Aya—the Ghanian axiom for endurance and resourcefulness. These words are a fitting description of the spirit and achievements of Black women in higher education. Though Black women have played an active role in developing the postsecondary sector in the United States, exclusionary measures have negatively impacted racial minorities since the inception of higher education (Anderson, 1988; Collins, 2001; Lucas, 1994). As a result, Black women in the academy often mediate dissonance between their conceptualizations of self and the institutionalized mores of higher education (Clark & Corcoran, 1986; Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; Jarmon, 2001; King & Ferguson, 2001; Patton & Harper, 2003). Although the experiences of Black women are not monolithic, several studies suggest that they cope with similar difficulties, such as addressing racial and gender microaggressions across the postsecondary system (Solórzano, 2000; Thompson & Dey, 1998); balancing career with familial obligations (Finkel, Olswang, & She, 1994); obtaining tenure-track positions at a slower rate than their colleagues (Finkel et al., 1994); experiencing a lack of mentorship (Jarmon, 2001; Patton & Harper, 2003; Woods, 2001); and failing to obtain systematic socialization within the academy (Gregory, 2001; Singh, Robinson, & Williams-Green, 1995; Thompson & Dey, 1998).

It is within this context that this article shares my narrative as a Black woman in higher education. In a very organic manner, I bridge my experiences with Black feminist thought in an effort to demonstrate ways in which Black women may name individual instances of empowerment within their own lives. After briefly exploring my personal accounts with identity intersection, I present The Pillars of Indigo, a conceptual model that connects practical performance strategies with lessons learned. As such, this work is a dialogue between me and any woman who has ever struggled to dance to her own rhythm.

Black Feminist Thought in Higher Education

Issues stemming from the Black-White dichotomy have shaped the racial fabric of the United States for over 400 years, and institutions of higher education have not gone unaffected by these dynamics (Anderson, 1988; Collins, 2001; Lucas, 1994). Complex relationships between Black women and the academy have always existed as a result of multiple-often conflicting-expectations that limited their level of involvement in curricular and co-curricular activities (Collins, 1986; Collins, 2001; Holmes, 2003; Jarmon, 2001). Lucy Diggs Slowe and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander serve as vivid illustrations of Black women who were expected to adapt to infrastructures built for Whites (Mack, 2012; Rasheed, 2012). Slowe was a revolutionary in higher education administration and Alexander was the first Black scholar to receive a Ph.D. in economics and the first woman to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania (Mack, 2012; Rasheed, 2012). Slowe and Alexander set their own guidelines on how they would maneuver through paternalistic attitudes that catered to White men while progressing through the education system.

Both accounts act as examples of the “outsider within” paradigm often observed in varying United States systems and aptly identified in Black feminist thought (Collins, 1986; hooks, 1981; hooks, 1984). Parallels continue to exist between Slowe, Alexander, and other Black women in higher education. Black women have become perpetually situated in a space where they are able to observe behavioral, cultural, and sociopolitical patterns that often go undetected by their colleagues and students (Aquirre, 2000; Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; hooks, 1981; Jarmon, 2001; King & Ferguson, 2001; Woods, 2001). Sometimes known as “marginal intellectuals,” Black women provide a unique and valuable perspective on postsecondary infrastructures because increased visibility of Black women on college campuses has not immediately translated into acceptance and integration. Racism and sexism continues to prevent Black women from being regarded as major actors in the higher rungs of academia (Collins, 1986; Gregory, 1999; King & Ferguson, 2001; Mannheim, 1936; Patton & Harper, 2003; Thompson, & Dey, 1998). Overall, their experiences remain on the cusp of critical discourse within the annals of higher education (Anderson, 1988; Holmes, 2003; King & Ferguson, 2001; Patitu & Hinton, 2003).

She Writes in Color. She Speaks in Song.

According to Collins (1986), “Black women may produce certain commonalities of outlook [but] the diversity of class, region, age, and sexual orientation shaping individual Black women’s lives has resulted in different expressions of these common themes” (p. S16). Nonetheless, we all require nurturing relationships and networks inclusive of role models who are situated in the postsecondary sector (Aquirre, 2000; Clarke & Corcoran, 1986; Finkel et al., 1994; Jarmon, 2001; Gregory, 2001; Patitu & Hinton, 2003; Woods, 2001). As a first generation college student, I was unaware of the developmental setbacks that I had yet to overcome early in my career as an administrator. A new practitioner fresh out of my graduate program, I was not concerned with establishing a professional reputation or integrating theory into my practice. I did not care to stretch my frame of reference or challenge myself to think critically on my pedagogical philosophy. Honestly, I did not grasp how important these elements were because I viewed Black and mainstream culture as mutually exclusive. I had yet to come to the realization that it is possible to find connections between my experiences and university values. I have come a long way since then, and I attribute much of my growth to the women who have taken a special interest in me.

Literature states that it is rare for Black women to identify mentors because there are a shortage of Black faculty and staff at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) (Aquirre, 2000; Gregory, 1999; Gregory, 2001; Jarmon, 2001; Woods, 2001). One way that I was able to circumvent this issue was becoming an active member of professional associations. It was through my participation in ACPA – College Student Educators International, that I found a home in the Pan African Network (PAN). PAN generated several sisters and mentors through the years that I rely on for personal, professional, and spiritual advice. Recognizing that all budgets will not allow for travel to national conventions, I recommend that Black women become more involved with a regional affiliate. This option is more affordable and still provides faculty and staff with the opportunity to associate with a broad range of professionals that are in close proximity. These experiences are beneficial, as they provide educators with the space to engage in reflective discussions with individuals who may share similar backgrounds, viewpoints, or understandings. Networking strengthens careers and is effective in revitalizing educators’ commitment to higher education.

It is important to realize that mentorship does not recognize age. It is about ability, experience, and connection. Regardless of rank and title, it is important that Black women select several individuals who can provide them with an appropriate level of challenge and support in a variety of ways, as it is nearly impossible to identify one person who is equipped to address the holistic needs of an individual. For instance, several of my mentors have suggested that I remain current on the latest research and connect with those who are well-versed in subjects I wish to become an expert on. They have also pushed me to reach out to colleagues and request assessments and recommendations for scholars who could positively shape my professional experience. My mentors have positively influenced my ability to assert myself, to establish rapport, and to cultivate a substantial professional network.

I will be open in sharing that I have also experienced a great degree of dissonance in reconciling the intersection of my personal and professional identities. In deeper reflection, I point to this issue as one of the reasons why I found navigating the political climate of higher education so challenging. My demographic markers have traditionally placed me in several “at-risk” categories and working as a single mother in residence life has led me to make some difficult decisions, crucial mistakes, and complicated conclusions.

My transition has not been easy, nor has my learning been seamless. What has been most difficult for me has been reconciling my personal characteristics with my role in higher education. I have been described by students and colleagues as passionate, intimidating, beautiful, harsh, wise, and arrogant. I have yet to be employed by an institution where I have not been compared to the “other Black woman” in the department. And frankly, addressing me by another Black woman’s name has become cliché. I am from “the hood.” I am not “articulate for an African-American woman;” I am simply articulate. I have a sharp mind, a hearty laugh, and a determined spirit. Yes, I am a mother. No, I am not married, and no, I am not divorced.

I must unpack these exchanges on a daily basis…and it takes its toll.

The Pillars of Indigo: A Conceptual Framework of Empowerment for Black Women

In cementing themselves within the infrastructure of higher education, the very presence of Black women strengthens the postsecondary sector. They serve as pillars within its system. Any engineer recognizes that each pillar supports a different aspect of a structure. My understanding of the literature and personal experiences suggest that life’s lessons have been very instrumental in my success and have become symbolic mainstays in my career. While engaging in reflexive praxis to chart out my professional trajectory, I began to notice themes emerging from my past; themes that I have since organized into a framework. This framework has allowed me to make sense of the intersections between my life as a Black woman and my work as a higher education professional. It is my hope that Black women in the academy can also utilize this model as a tool for personal and professional reflection.

The Pillar of Influence: Connected, Inspiring, Dynamic

As marginalized intellectuals, the perspectives of Black women are powerful because they have remained steadfast amongst the rising tides of racial complexity in the United States. Black women come in many shades, sizes, and diasporic experiences, and upon recognizing the utility of their voices, it will become clear that they have the power to influence systemic change throughout the postsecondary sector. In unison, they can build intercultural communities, initiate interdisciplinary collaborations, and produce groundbreaking, empirical research. As individuals and as a collective, Black women have the capacity to become a dynamic presence in higher education.

The Pillar of Admiration: Impressive, Captivating, Valued

As I continued to engage in my professional journey, I came to regard Black women’s contributions to the field as original works. Within academia, the creation of knowledge is the most prized commodity that an educator can produce. Innovative designs are particularly valued and Black women’s position in the academy prime them for making significant contributions to postsecondary pedagogy, policy, and practice that are original and include diverse viewpoints. In understanding that Black women remain underrepresented in the academy, it is especially pertinent for Black women to present the ways they have improved the foundations of higher education. By marketing their wins, Black women require institutions to demonstrate how much their efforts are valued.

The Pillar of Strength: Fortitude, Resilience, Precision

Although history clearly points to the resilience of Black women, contemporary Black women also exhibit high levels of resolve and talent. Consequently, it is important for Black women to acknowledge the ways in which they serve as a source of support for their peers and the wider academic community. Notably, Black women also serve as beacons of support for underrepresented students and staff within higher education. Through the construction of best practices, synergistic mentorship, and interactive teaching, Black women play a substantial role in increasing the retention rates of Black students, faculty, and staff. Balancing their professional responsibilities with the obligations of civic service requires a tremendous amount of fortitude. As scholars and practitioners, Black women should realize that the higher education system continues to stand because of their involvement, emotional strength, and spiritual power.

The Pillar of Grace: Poised, Balanced, Distinguished

One of the difficulties in living as an underrepresented group is that the experiences of Black women often go misunderstood, are generalized, or are trivialized. Many Black women in the field have encountered the “Angry Black Woman” moniker, have been labeled, or have observed the stereotyping of a peer. Black women continue to contend with the task of dispelling stereotypes, but in the midst of facing these challenges, Black women execute the time-honored tradition of demonstrating poise during difficult times. There may be moments when a negative interaction with a colleague or supervisor causes Black women to question their skillsets and purpose in life. It is important to continue to treat these situations as moments that temper women to “keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs” (Kipling, 2007, p. 1).

The Pillar of Sovereignty: Freedom, Expertise, Leadership

It is within this final passage that I encourage Black women to acknowledge that their jobs do not define them. Their careers are wrapped around the essence of their identities. Living in a self-identified post-racial society, Black women combat issues that are closely tied to their social roles. For instance, Black women in the performance arts have experienced open criticism for their physical features, including skin-tone, facial structure, and size. But worst of all, Black women have been known to assault one another. In attending a pre-conference at an internationally-recognized convention, I observed a woman of color advising Black women to lose weight and wear skirts in their pursuit of collegiate presidential positions. Black women must recognize that the intersections of their professional and personal identities can cause conflict. However, they must realize the importance of each, and work diligently to reconcile the dissonance.


As an up-and-coming scholar, I willingly share my narrative with the hope that shedding light on the issues affecting Black women in higher education will have a transformative influence on the inequities impacting the broader system. I believe that once we have engaged in the constructive exploration of critical issues prevalent in the academy, faculty, staff, and executive management should be challenged to establish solution-based approaches to addressing these concerns.

I hope you are inspired to become more involved in professional development options available to you at the institutional, regional, national, and international levels. These opportunities will encourage you to build upon your professional repertoire and prepare you to engage in authentic dialogue when supporting underrepresented populations. In addition to reviewing texts and articles focused on critical theory and praxis, I became more familiar with current events and best practices in higher education through expanding my network and connecting with colleagues on the ways in which they have approached pertinent issues effecting people of color. With the failure of the Voting Rights Act, the Trayvon Martin trial results, the bankruptcy of Detroit, and increases in accessibility to information through technological advances and social media, educators must be aware of how trending national issues influence the experiences of students, faculty, and staff of color. Becoming skilled in observing how these issues contribute to the intersection of personal and professional identities will assist you in competently addressing the concerns of minorities in the academy.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who is responsible for developing–and assessing– mentor-matching initiatives and the professional socialization of new practitioners and faculty members?
  2. In what ways could graduate programs assist students in recognizing the intersectionality of identity within the profession, paying special attention to the complexity of identity development among minority populations?
  3. Acknowledging the significant contributions Black women have made within the higher education sector, how could colleges and universities better integrate the experiences of Black women into the academy, particularly in the domains of support services and research?


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About the Author

Shawna M. Patterson has sustained over eight years of student affairs administration experience within the functional areas of residence life, athletics, and multicultural services within the Big 10 and ACC sectors. She has served multiple roles on projects centered on improving the experiences of faculty, staff, and students of color on predominantly White campuses. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in Higher Education at The Florida State University, with a focus on social justice, critical theory, and student of color identity development.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Shawna M. Patterson .


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.

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