The Intersect Diversity and Leadership Conference always raises more questions than it answers, but for me, it asks the only questions worth answering. It leaves me wanting more; more information, more opportunities to gain skills, more community, and more stories to listen to.
I started the second day of this short conference in a session called “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Recognizing and Responding to Microaggression”. I first had an interest in microaggression when I read Claude Steele’s book, Whistling Vivaldi, which presented research about how stereotype threat, conveyed through microaggression, can prevent students from succeeding academically in college. This session not only expanded my vocabulary about microaggression, but also gave me a better way to respond to these verbal or behavioral indignities.
One of the comments we talked a lot about in the discussion was, “Everyone can succeed if they try hard enough.” This comment makes me angry. It makes me angry because when you say this, you are invalidating someone’s struggles to achieve success. You are limiting their definition of success to the American Dream and negating the set of circumstances that may prevent them from reaching that dream. You are assuming that if they are not succeeding in your definition, it must be because they are lazy and are not trying hard enough. Because America is the land of opportunity, right? Because we all have the same chance to get a good education, job and pursue happiness, right? I believe that’s a lie that we tell ourselves so we can sleep well at night. How can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you do not have bootstraps? The truth is that you can work hard all your life and never make it over the poverty line. Not because you’re not intelligent and capable, but because you started at a disadvantage in a system that is designed to uplift some and leave the rest behind.
I want to learn more about microagression because it’s something I encounter on a daily basis on my college campus. Every time someone asks me where I’m from, I don’t know whether I should say “Charlotte” or “My Mom is from India”, because I don’t know if they are asking me where I was raised or why I’m brown, as if being brown was something I needed to provide an excuse for. Every time someone comes up to me and speaks Spanish and they assume I’m Hispanic, because I’m biracial and don’t fit into the neat categories of race that America has constructed. Every time someone’s face turns up at me when I tell them I went to a public high school instead of a private high school. It’s frustrating and I want to understand it more so I can educate others about it as well.
Leading through Relationships
I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, but the other I will mention here was called, “Does the Shoe Fit? Understanding Equity and Equality with the Relational Leadership Model.” I am a leader. I’m not sure when I came to this realization, but I am confident in my identity as a leader now, and it’s a skill that I seek to refine through experience. I am a relationship builder. I lead best by creating positive relationships with and among those I lead, and between my organization and other organizations. This is why the Relational Leadership Model really appeals to me. It combines purpose and process with ethics, inclusiveness, and empowerment of followers. This model illustrates to me that the best leaders are also the best listeners. They are willing to listen to all ideas and suggestions, able to hear needs that are not expressed, and provide encouragement and resources to meet those needs effectively. These leaders create other leaders by helping their followers achieve their potential. That’s the kind of leader I would like to be. This session helped me realize that.
At the end, we were shown this spoken word video that I am obsessed with already. : )
The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it. – James Baldwin
Our key note speaker today was Jose Vargas, an extremely talented writer and speaker who documented his undocumented life in the US. His goal is to change the culture surrounding immigration and undocumented Americans. He believes that politics is culture, and if you can change the culture, you can change policy. I agree with this, and believe he is creating change through speaking authentically about his experience and revealing the stories of those who are advocating and fighting for their right to be here. He certainly opened my eyes to the struggles of undocumented Americans. His presentation made me care about them as if they were my own family. You may call me a sucker, but like Jose said, “You don’t have to be undocumented to care about undocumented Americans”; just like you don’t have to be Black or LGBTQIA to care about their rights and issues.
We live in an “age of intersectionality” and “positive disruption”. Fear of the other is what we are sold in this country, but we have the potential to “push past our fear” and perhaps even more importantly, our apathy, to create cultural change that leads to policy change. But you “can’t solve a problem if you don’t face it” and I think we’re doing a good job of distracting ourselves from the real issues to cover a gaping wound with a bandage.
I’m so grateful that my Mom didn’t have trouble emigrating here from India because she married my Dad, but I know that we are the exception and not the rule. I remember the night my friend told me she and her family were undocumented Americans. She told us about how she walked across the desert with her mom at the age of nine into a new country and home. She cried and begged us not to tell anyone because she was afraid her family would be deported. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of her situation, but I think I have a better idea now. She later moved to Mexico for college because she was unable to go to school in the US. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for her to leave her family.
Immigration is stories. There is no one in this country that I would not take the time to listen to, because we are all deserving of dignity. As I come down off this conference “high” (and off my soap box), there are some things I will take away into future conversations and circumstances:
First, listen. Shhh. Be quiet. Listen. What is being said? What is really being said? What is left unsaid and what does that tell you about someone’s story?
Second, learn. Read, research, repeat. Read, research, repeat. Come to the table with a humble attitude and as you listen and ask questions, you will grow into a better leader and follower.
Third, reflect. Critically reflect. About yourself, your identities, your biases, your assumptions and how they impact those around you.
Last, advocate. Turn your knowledge into action. Don’t die with your greatness buried inside you. Pursue your passion. Make your passion the well-being of your neighbor. Turn off your apathy and turn on your voice, because with knowledge comes power and with power, responsibility, social responsibility. What we said and what we did during this conference is just the beginning of an exponentially expanding web of influence and awareness that has the potential to positively disrupt the status quo of our community and country.
Courageous Follower, a book
Followership, a book
How the Irish Became White, a book
My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant, an article by Jose Vargas
Documented, a film by Jose Vargas