Carol A. Hand
I never set out to create waves, and yet, it seems to be the story of my life. Growing up on the margins does that, I think. I learned to follow the culture that made the most sense to me – my mother’s Ojibwe culture – the one that was filled with welcome, warmth, and laughter. That was my choice because I wasn’t drawn to the dour austerity and joylessness of my father’s Anglo culture. I was forced to think for myself about a lot of other things at an early age.
It seems the only logical choice when different religions tell you that their way is the only truth – but you grow up with too many differing perspectives about “the one right way. “ And what about gender, ancestry, and socio-economic class? What if you grow up without realizing that there are acceptable things only boys and men can do? That you’re not supposed to love music and reading or appear to be too smart if you’re Ojibwe and grew up on the wrong side of town?
Photo: An online image of a print hanging on my wall (by Sandra Ure Griffin)
Somehow, I managed to make it through school, even though it was often joyless and dourly austere. Eventually I learned to simply listen quietly, unless there were serious inaccuracies or harmful messages conveyed that needed to be challenged. And then I made waves by presenting alternative possibilities. By college, I learned to support my arguments on the basis of what the research literature had to say on the focal topics, but again, only if the information was clearly incorrect or discriminatory. A few course grades were threatened as a warning. Yet there were shining moments of creativity and initiatives that had important transformative possibilities in the real world.
And then I entered the world of organizational employment, based on the very same culture of dour austerity and joylessness that I remembered from childhood and school – with the addition of an even more rigid hierarchy and competitive edge. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have the freedom to create because the jobs I was doing were too boring or obscure for anyone to notice. It was then that I had the chance to breathe life and joy into documents, meetings, and presentations. But things change, and new directors or governors can close even the tiniest of loopholes for creativity.
I hoped to escape that by moving to the ivory tower of academia. Through my rosy lenses, despite my own experiences in school, I believed the hype – that universities were charged with discovering new knowledge and deeper truths to create a better world. A better world couldn’t possibly be joyless and austere, based on outdated notions of socially-constructed inequalities, could it?
I tried my best to fit in. I quickly learned that fitting in was not going to be easy. The first course I was assigned was community organizing. Although I tried to follow the syllabus I was given, I couldn’t in good conscience teach community organizing by assigning college students with the task of collecting canned goods or old coats to distribute to “the poor.” (Using an adjective that suggests deviancy to describe a group of people who are not able to make it economically in the context of strategically orchestrated structural inequality was deficit-focused, demeaning, and prejudicial, as was the required intervention.) That’s something Sunday schools do, not college students training to work as competent professionals who are supposed to recognize the dignity and worth of the clients they serve.
I diplomatically approached the curriculum committee with an alternative. They were unwilling to budge. Ethically, I could not teach the course as the committee dictated, so I redesigned the readings and assignments. “You know,” they told me, “the committee decided that this was how the course would be taught and you need to follow our decisions. We are exploring the limits to your academic freedom so you will be forced to use the texts and syllabus the committee approved.” Fortunately, the chair of that department told me not to worry. “I have your back,” he said. “I hired you to do exactly what you’re doing.” And he did have my back, unlike the chairs of other departments that would follow.
At each new university, I encountered the rules the variety of committees had put into place before I arrived – dour, punitive, austere, and joyless rules like the cultures of the departments I joined. For all the talk about “strength-based practice” and “social justice foundations,” there was little to be seen. The committees had decided that long before.
Nonetheless, there were moments that made it all worth it. I lost count of the number of students I helped stay in school and graduate who might otherwise have dropped out or failed, many from Black, Native American, or first generation college backgrounds. There were classes, lectures, and assignments that were transformative for me and my students.
Photo: Framed Plague from Graduate Students (where I was known as a Students Advocate)
It’s not just my imagination. I have files filled with hand-written notes, group photos, treasured gifts, and plagues on my wall from my former students. The memories of the light in students’ eyes when they understood something or the joy when they accomplished something that was important to them are far more meaningful to me than any other awards could be.
But I wonder. What could we have done with a team of people who grew up in a culture that was welcoming, warm, and filled with laughter? What if we looked for strengths and possibilities, those things we shared as common ground, and focused on accomplishing the best we could imagine together, as a team, instead of imposing committee rules and hierarchies? These are the questions I contemplate as I consider the possibility of looking for a part-time job. I wonder if anyone would be willing to take the risk of a hiring someone with a history of making waves and inspiring creativity without imposing previously-developed committee rules. I wonder if such a job exists…
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