Telling Our Stories to One Another

Narrative is a powerful tool for linking faculty, especially faculty of color.
By Keith Osajima

For the past fourteen years, I have been a campus leader in efforts to diversify the faculty. I have raised diversity issues in search committees, met with candidates of color when they visited campus, served as a mentor to incoming faculty, helped to develop a faculty diversity initiative, and led discussions on retaining faculty of color. The work has produced some gratifying successes. It has also been wearing—an uphill trek that has left me discouraged and drained at times, searching for new ways to sustain my work. I thus was pleasantly surprised when a faculty diversity program I implemented had a rejuvenating effect that countered the demoralization and fatigue that can plague long-term efforts to diversify the faculty and eliminate racism.

On my campus, good intentions and institutional support aside, faculty of color still struggle to feel at home. At the heart of their struggles is a tendency for them to be isolated and disconnected from one another and from white colleagues. Several interrelated forces contribute to this isolation. Faculty of color are spread across campus; often an academic unit will have only one faculty member of color, or a small group of faculty of color will exist among a predominantly white population of students, staff, and colleagues. This situation leaves many of us isolated and vulnerable to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism.

Compounding matters, heavy job demands create a general sense of busyness that leaves virtually all faculty members feeling pressed for time. The additional responsibilities commonly placed on faculty of color—serving as diversity representatives on various committees, advising students of color—further cut into their time. As a result, faculty of color, like faculty in general, usually have difficulty finding time to make connections. When we do get a chance to meet, our conversations are often limited to a circumscribed set of topics related to the university and faculty work. While such topics are important, focusing on them makes it hard to get to know people on a personal level.

I wanted to counter these centrifugal tendencies and find a way to build stronger relations among faculty of color. This is not a new or radical notion. Most approaches to faculty retention are explicitly or implicitly grounded in the idea that support and connection are helpful. Still, knowing the importance of connection does not mean that a sense of connection is easy to foster when faculty are busy and isolated from one another. Could a formally structured program break through the isolation to build supportive relationships?

In fall 2004, I sought to answer this question with the help of six colleagues who responded to an e-mail invitation to participate in a pilot program I called “Supporting Faculty of Color.” Their willingness gave me a chance to see whether supportive relations could be built among colleagues from a range of racial and ethnic groups and with varying academic backgrounds and experience.

Pilot Program

The program was designed to work against factors that constrain the development of relationships among faculty of color. I knew, for example, that circumventing time pressures would be important to the success of the program. So I promised early on that the time commitment would be minimal (no more than one hour every two weeks) and that participation would require no preparation or extra work.

I planned the format and focus of the meetings to make our hour together efficient and engaging. Instead of having a freewheeling conversation, which could meander and revert to the usual university-related matters, I presented topics that focused our attention on specific dimensions of our lives. And instead of having open-ended discussions, in which people compete to be heard or which one person might dominate, I structured the “conversation” so that people would take turns talking for a set amount of time while the others listened without interrupting.

I entered the first meeting with some trepidation. I was not sure how my colleagues would respond to the format. After explaining my ideas, I asked the group members to introduce themselves by giving their full name and telling others in the group something about themselves that was completely unrelated to their work at the university. This request was greeted with a bit of nervous laughter, which I expected given that I had immediately asked the group members to break from their normal mode of interacting. But the round of introductions worked well. It was a simple way for people to share information about themselves, which helped to create a sense of safety in the group.

Then I asked each person to take five minutes of uninterrupted time to tell a version of his or her life story. I even pulled out a timer to make sure that we stayed on track. Again, there was a ripple of nervous laughter. Side comments revealed the concerns. One person wondered whether he could sit still and listen without interrupting. One worried that she would not be able to fill up five minutes. Another said that his life was not very interesting. I assured the group that this was not a performance that was subject to critique but simply a chance to think aloud about one’s life. I told my story first to break the ice.

The other participants’ concerns (and my own) quickly dissipated. The stories were captivating. I learned more about each colleague’s life than I had thought would be possible in five minutes. Because all six participants were immigrants, their stories transported me around the world. It was fascinating, for example, to hear one colleague’s story about growing up in a small Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution and another colleague’s tale of living in a country dominated by European colonizers. In five minutes, I got a sense of the intricate roads that brought us together. My colleagues’ smiles and laughter told me they enjoyed telling their stories. All enthusiastically wanted to meet again. We set another time, and I closed by asking the participants to say something they enjoyed about the group. The whole meeting took just over an hour.

The group met three more times in the fall semester, and continued for another four meetings in the spring. Each time, participants were given five or six minutes to think and talk. Topics were generally single words that prompted reflections on facets of our lives beyond the university. In our second meeting, I asked group members to talk about what came to mind when they thought of the word “home”; in subsequent meetings, we talked about “family” and “religion” and “fathers.” Two meetings on “language” were especially powerful because they gave my multilingual colleagues a chance to talk about negotiating life in the predominantly English-speaking United States. It was always rewarding to think about the topics and always fascinating to listen to the stories of others. I developed a sense of the collective experiences of faculty of color from the common threads of the stories.

Successful Connections

The program energized my relationships with my colleagues. For example, my amiable but not particularly close ten-year relationship with one colleague became much stronger over the course of the year. The meetings gave us more to talk and laugh about when we saw each other on campus. When I had trouble with some software, I could ask him for help. We explored a possible joint grant project and talked about how to help other faculty of color. The program also accelerated my friendship with a new colleague. Her five-minute turns revealed thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and humor that I would not have seen otherwise, given her quiet demeanor. By the end of the academic year, we were having long conversations about her work and family, and I felt comfortable offering her advice about her writing.

Of the six faculty members who participated in that first pilot group four years ago, all but one remain on campus (the one who left took a job closer to his home). The friendships deepened by participation in the group continue to this day. The new colleague, who was in her first year in 2004, now has tenure and is thriving on campus.

In spring 2008, I organized another “Supporting Faculty of Color” group, with six faculty members and me. This group had four one-hour meetings held in consecutive weeks. Though the new group met fewer times than the group in the pilot program, the results were similar. As several group members commented, never had they been in a university-related “meeting” that was so fulfilling and helpful.

In the world of institutional efforts to retain faculty of color, the program I have pioneered might not strike one as earthshaking. It did not provide explicit mentoring or stipends or course releases to support research. It did not focus on any participant’s specific campus concerns. It did not even direct attention toward racism on campus. Yet, through the elegant power of stories, the “Supporting Faculty of Color” group accomplished what many other retention programs have difficulty doing—it built closer connections between and among faculty of color, which laid the groundwork for meaningful relationships and support. For that reason, I would recommend its inclusion among efforts to achieve faculty diversity.

Keith Osajima is a professor in and the director of the Race and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Redlands. His e-mail address is [email protected].