On Diversity

Going to the Next Level

Opportunities and challenges facing African-American women leaders in the academy.

Over the course of my 35 years in academia, I have come to a point where I have the ability to help change the landscape of higher education through championing the causes of equity, diversity, and inclusion. In reflecting back on my professional journey, I want to present four lessons that might benefit others.

1. Harness the Power of Sponsorship

Prior to participating in the 2015 CCCU’s Multi-Ethnic Leadership Development Institute, I had not given much thought to the topic of mentoring. And as a counselor educator, I had thought about sponsorship only in regard to support given to recovering addicts participating in the 12-step program.

(Photo: Courtesy of Roberta Wilburn)

However, after reading Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book, (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, I realized that I have been blessed to have several mentors and at least one sponsor. Hewlett differentiates between the two: “Mentors give, whereas sponsors invest.” In fact, the kinds of investments made by a sponsor stretch beyond those of a mentor and include advocating for your next promotion, encouraging you to take risks, and always watching out for your best interests.

When I considered this distinction, it became clear that my former supervisor was more than a mentor – he was actually a sponsor. First, he believed in me when he hired me, even though I didn't have any prior experience working at a Christian university. Second, he made sure that I felt welcomed and would be successful. Third, he advocated for me, gave me honest feedback, and always had my back.

My sponsor was also instrumental in my professional growth and advancement. As a senior administrator, he changed the organizational structure of the entire school of education and created two new associate dean positions, one of which was designed specifically for me. This same academic leader also recommended me for a very prominent position on a state board.

2. Advocate for Yourself

Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to work at several historically black colleges and universities, and I occasionally found myself in professionally challenging situations. In one institutional setting, my supervisor would take all of the credit for projects that I had worked on, such as grant writing, locating funding, and the development of successful programs. When my supervisor also wanted to claim ownership of books I had written that were being sold to local public schools, I decided to finally advocate for myself. We reached a satisfactory resolution regarding the intellectual property of my books when I took the battle, along with all of the related documentation, to the chair of the department, who was an African-American male. He reviewed everything objectively and released the books and ownership rights to me.

It took a lot of courage to stand up for myself, but through this process I also came to recognize that there are times when it is important – especially for African-American female administrators without visible advocates – to muster up the inner gumption and advocate for themselves.

3. Recognize the Impact of Intersectionality and Multiple Identities

The same issues of racism and sexism that I experienced in several of the secular institutions where I worked have been part of my experience in Christian colleges and universities. Indeed, there have been times when the intersectionality of racism and sexism converged to the point where I couldn’t tell which was the predominant force operating. The challenges become even more complex in some situations due to being subjected to the compounding impact of the intersectionality of divergent identities. These complexities are real and deeply felt, because African-Americans who seek careers in higher education are often trailblazers and trendsetters in the field. When we look at the intersectionality of race and gender that many African-American administrative leaders face, the circumstances are compounded. This has been my experience on more than one occasion.

Isolation and lack of support during critical times like these are common among African-American women administrators in higher education. The importance of building support networks is therefore evident, and those networks should be built long before the time that they are needed. Identifying allies and supportive individuals would ideally come from within our institutions, but they may also need to come from the community, churches, and other social networks. Having others who can understand what it is like to be marginalized, oppressed, and face microaggressions in the workplace can be a source of encouragement.

4. Draw on Your Spiritual Strengths

Research has identified faith and spirituality to be important sources of strength for African-Americans. Wilma J. Henry and Nicole M. Glenn advised that “spirituality may be employed as a connective strategy to assist black women in overcoming the issues of isolation and marginalization they experience in higher education.” Similarly, Deborah Owens identified the centrality of faith as she interviewed African-American women about their professional journeys in higher education, noting: “[E]ach woman described her strong faith or spirituality as an important component of her life. Their faith/spirituality provided support, helped them to stay centered, and enabled them to persevere in the face of obstacles, both personally and professionally.”

Recommendations for Predominantly White Christian Institutions

Christian universities have the potential to empower administrators and faculty of color by modeling respect, embracing diversity, and encouraging inclusion based on a Christ-centered mission. Where the dominant campus culture is white and often male-normed, the following strategies can help people of color thrive:

  • Provide opportunities to connect women of color with others who have paved the way and been effective on your campus or at nearby institutions.
  • Identify white allies and people of color within your university who have a passion for helping newcomers to acclimate and succeed.
  • Facilitate training using Hewlett’s book to enhance awareness and support for the sponsorship model and its importance in being proactive about professional advancement.
  • Ensure that faculty development training equips employees and students with understanding and pedagogical approaches related to topics such as diverse learning styles, non-Western perspectives, and understanding privilege and power.
  • Tangibly demonstrate a commitment to building communities that model “a sense of belonging,” including respecting a variety of worship styles and faith traditions.

Roberta Wilburn, Ed.D., Th.D., serves as the associate dean for graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. This essay is adapted from a chapter of the forthcoming book Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, and the Future of Christian Higher Education (2017, Abilene Christian University Press) and is used by permission of the publisher.

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