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The Power of Narrative to Advance (or Impede) Social Justice

Student Success Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
January 21, 2021 Luoluo Hong California State University, Office of the Chancellor

Benjamin Schmidt’s December 17, 2020, opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Are College Students Killing Townies?, reminds us of the power and impact of narrative to advance or impede social justice and other values we espouse in higher education. After providing compelling data to support his assertion that students are being wrongly blamed, Schmidt (who is director of digital humanities and a clinical associate professor of history at New York University) concludes: “The nature of an uncontrolled national pandemic is that everyone has been spreading the virus to everyone. Singling out colleges ignores the remarkable measures they have taken compared with other industries. Blaming students reinforces an idea that college is a decadent luxury, one we might be better off without.”

Consider these commonly recurring narratives I have overheard in higher education:

  • “We could improve our lagging performance in student retention and graduation if only our students came to college with better academic preparation.” Do we also readily turn a critical lens on ourselves to courageously embark on what Dr. Tia Brown McNair (2016) and colleagues have delineated as the journey to “becoming a student-ready college?”
  • “We are strongly committed to closing equity gaps, and these are the numerous efforts we have launched to increase access, diversity and representation.” Are we also implementing the kinds of sustained initiatives that genuinely promote parity and inclusion, and – more importantly – constitute systemic solutions that shift institutionalized practices and culture?
  • “We are proud to share our annual report, which highlights all the activities and programs we have conducted, as well as student satisfaction ratings.” Do we then also document what may be more difficult to measure yet more meaningful to assess: student impacts and outcomes (in a disaggregated manner), both quantitative and qualitative in nature?
  • “We want to highlight all the investments we have made to increase investigative and intervention capacity in response to Title IX incidents.” Have we then also improperly equated those compliance activities with prevention work, which focuses on stopping sexual violence before it happens by addressing root causes?
  • “In the wake of the pandemic, we are focused on closing the digital divide that emerged in the pivot to remote/virtual learning.” Yet, do we acknowledge that the same learning loss and educational disparities – in particular for students of color – were prevalent pre-pandemic, as well?

As student affairs administrators and leaders, we are uniquely positioned to initiate, amplify, silence or transform narratives in service to our goals – whether they are explicitly stated or unconsciously harbored. As such, we need to exercise mindfulness in how we develop and disseminate narratives. In striving for mindfulness, here are some principles I endeavor to embrace.

The Most Important Narrative is the One We Tell Ourselves

Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee (2013) believe that self-awareness is one of the cornerstones of effective, emotionally intelligent leadership. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – about our hopes and fears, about our strengths and our areas for growth, about our core values and ”competing commitments” (Kegan & Lahey, 2001) – are building blocks of viable leadership. The more that our self-stories are aligned with our actual, true selves, the better we are able to serve and lead.

Many of us have had the challenging experience of serving under administrators who claim to be one thing but in their daily actions and communications demonstrate they are actually another. Unless we ensure that the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, where we have been, and where we plan to go are accurate and forthright, it will be difficult to garner credibility, trust and followers.

An intercultural educator, Paul Gorski (2008) believes:

I cannot effectively enact authentic intercultural education so long as I – in mind and soul – am colonized; so long as I do the bidding of the powerful through well-intentioned, colonizing practice. I begin by liberating myself, determined to deepen my consciousness about the sociopolitical contexts and implications of my practice. And only then – when I can say that my work decolonizes instead of colonizes; that my work challenges hegemony rather than reifying it; that my work transcends prevailing intercultural discourses of cultural awareness, conflict resolution, and celebrating diversity – can I call myself an intercultural educator.

This means that we cannot simply be pointing at institutional racism, patriarchy and other forms of systemic exclusion without also being honest about our own role in both holding up and resisting those systems. We each must continually ask of ourselves: am I truly leading (i.e., advancing transformational change in collaboration with others) or am I primarily managing or “administrating” (i.e., getting things done effectively and efficiently within the status quo)?

Advance Holistic, Complete Narratives

In one of my favorite TEDTalks of all time, The danger of a single story, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently reminds us that our realities are comprised of a multitude of intersecting stories, and that no one story can or should define a person, a culture or a nation. She acknowledges that a “single story” may not necessarily be untrue; rather, they are incomplete: they essentialize a person, a place or thing to that one story. Further, when we begin the telling of a story also significantly shapes our perception of reality (consider: did the story of the Americas begin in 1492 or prior?).

It is essential that higher education leaders work to ensure that complete narratives are advanced – or acknowledge when the narratives we have are incomplete – especially when these narratives are used to inform program planning, policy development and priority setting. For example, we cannot ameliorate inequity in educational outcomes without also shedding light on racism, anti-black racism specifically, xenophobia, and other forms of bias, discrimination and race-based hierarchy that prevail in all U.S. institutions. Similarly, with the privilege of being invited “to the table” and “having a seat,” we must embrace the responsibility to assertively counter and resist narratives that are untrue or incomplete, as silence may signal complicity and strengthen the status quo (whether intentional or not).

Remember that Controlling the Narrative Is a Form of Power

Radical feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin (1989) wrote, “Men have the power of naming, a great and sublime power. This power of naming enables men to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate to each thing it’s realm and qualities, to determine what can and cannot be expressed to control perception itself.” Similarly, at the close of her TEDTalk, Adichie observes, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

Even with the rise of new media that allows just about anybody with access to the requisite digital technology to advance a narrative, it still matters who is advancing the narrative. As higher education administrators, the capacity to shape or dispute narratives is one of the most significant aspects of authority that we can wield. Yet few of us receive training in how to responsibly exercise this power and often learn by experience that off-hand or sidebar comments can be (mis)perceived as directives simply because the speaker is a vice president. Conversely, it is important to remember that silence or failing to speak up is also a type of narrative.

This power of narrative can range from the simple act of deciding what discussion or decision items are included (or excluded) on the meeting agenda, to what student success outcome data we choose to share and with whom. We can elect to support first-generation, low-income students and students of color by redressing “deficits,” as institutional hegemony defines them, or we can develop curricular and co-curricular programs that leverage students’ assets and purposefully dismantle historical marginalization and exclusion.

Symbolic Narrative Must Be Augmented By Substantive Narrative

Following George Floyd’s murder, the Education Advisory Board (Belay, 2020) reviewed initial and any follow-up statements regarding racial justice and anti-racism issued by 130 institutions of higher education in the US and Canada. EAB found that 83% released a statement in response to George Floyd’s death. Of these, 60% offered short-term solutions (e.g., establishing task force, conducting listening tour, celebrating Juneteenth). Another 39% referenced long-term actions (e.g., conducting ongoing training, improving recruitment of faculty of color, adding resources for students who are Black/Indigenous/People of Color) – but with no mention of any timelines or metrics for assessing success.

EAB also found that:

  1. Legacies of racism are not acknowledged – only 18% of campuses acknowledged their complicity in institutional oppression;
  2. Systemic anti-racism solutions are lacking – 60% of statements failed to specifically delineate anti-racism efforts; and
  3. Insufficient resources are allocated to address anti-racism – only half of campuses referenced making investments, with greater investments coming from better resourced institutions (Belay, 2020).

These EAB findings reiterate that while symbolic narrative is an important foundation to advancing social justice change, it is insufficient. In order to advance foundational, lasting change, symbolic narrative must be accompanied by substantive narrative that embraces both action and accountability.

Conclusion

I write this while awaiting the results of the run-off election in the State of Georgia to determine the two final seats in the Senate for the 117th US Congress. This election has been preceded by an overwhelming barrage of narratives – examples of how appointed and elected officials have the capacity to create and proliferate, use and abuse, narratives in an effort to influence our future. There are also narratives of those with moral courage, who championed democracy over less noble aims. In our roles as student affairs administrators, we also can make mindful choices about how we initiate, amplify, silence or transform narratives – either to advance social justice and other social goods or to impede them.

References

Adichie, C. (2009, July). The danger of a single story. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

Belay, K. (2020, November 16). What has higher education promised on anti-racism? Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://eab.com/research/expert-insight/strategy/higher-education-promise-anti-racism/

Dworkin, A. (1989). Pornography: Men possessing women. New York, NY: Plume.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Gorski, P. C. (2008). Good intentions are not enough: A decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19(6), 515-525. doi:10.1080/14675980802568319. Retrieved January 05, 2021, from http://www.edchange.org/publications/decolonizing-final.pdf

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McNair, T. B; Albertine, S.; Cooper, M. A.; McDonald, N.; Major, Jr., T. (2016). Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success. Somerset: Wiley.

Schmidt, B. (2020, December 29). Opinion: Are College Students Killing Townies? Retrieved January 05, 2021, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/are-college-students-killing-townies