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‘Herstory’ panel highlights experiences, hardships of black women at Beloit College

Students, faculty and staff packed Richardson Auditorium to hear a panel of black women professors and staff members share vulnerable stories about their experiences working at Beloit College. The panel on Monday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. included anthropology professor Dr. Lisa Anderson-Levy, Executive Administrative Assistant to the President’s Office Erica Daniels, Director of the Student Excellence & Leadership (SEL) Program Marijuana Sawyer and visiting assistant professor in religious studies Dr. Sonya Johnson. Each discussed the challenges they face in being silenced, having their expertise and experiences questioned, and the importance of a peer community and self-care.

Dr. Nicole Truesdell, Senior Director of the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness (OADI) and adjunct assistant professor of anthropology, introduced the panel, noting that the event emerged out of the creation of the black women support group called Dreamgirls, one of a handful of support groups formed last semester in the OADI. Truesdell emphasized this effort was “student-led and student developed” as Autumn Gant’19 and Charlotte Mayeda’18 helped develop the project.

Campus Health and Wellness Coordinator Namoonga Mantina, who moderated the event, prefaced that the panel aimed to “explore the ways black women combat isolation and depression in a space that is not built for them” in the hopes that “this will help you all understand the effects of intersectionality on black women and how this can push forward Beloit College’s mission as an anti-racist institution.”

Each panelist introduced themselves with a two-minute monologue about about what it means to be a black woman at Beloit College. A strong factor affecting each woman’s experience was the presence or absence of other women of color.

“The most influential part of me getting hired here and persisting through tenure is being hired with another woman of color,” Anderson-Levy said, referring to anthropology professor Dr. Jennifer Esperanza who was hired at the same time as her. “I imagine that my experience here would be very different if I did not have a woman of color right across the hall from me that I could do sanity checks with. … Being at a PWI [primarily-white institution] can really be a test for your reality. I can check in and say, did you hear that? Did you notice what just happened?”

Daniels, who has worked at Beloit for four-and-a-half years, “didn’t enter with any other women of color.” When she left her interview, she didn’t think the college was a good fit for her, and discussed the choice with her husband. “Against my thinking, I chose to come here. It has been a struggle to a certain extent but I think it’s been good to experience the struggle and the good thing about it is that I ended up meeting people like Lisa [Anderson-Levy] and the rest of the panel and they have been good support systems.”

Sawyer, who has been at Beloit a year and a half, considers herself “extremely blessed” to find she has another black woman as a supervisor, calling Truesdell a “scholar,” “leader,” “author,” “unapologetic” and someone she has learned a lot from, even though Truesdell is younger.

Johnson, who has been here for five months, was “struck by the connectedness between women of color” when she visited to give a McNair Scholars lecture. She “automatically felt connected and a very warm reception” after talking to Truesdell and religious studies professor Dr. Debra Majeed.

“I am fortunate to come into a collectivity of women of color to have my experiences normalized,” she said, saying the community is an “opportunity to reflect and heal on encounters at other institutions and this one.”

At Beloit, she found “active engagement on anti-racism and anti-exclusion,” adding that “those conversations are not necessarily on the table [at other institutions] so the suffering and silence is real.”

Mantina then asked panelists to reflect on the challenges they face as black women at the college.

When Anderson-Levy was hired with Esperanza in 2008, Majeed was the only other black woman at the college. “The numbers were not enough to feel like there was a community that was welcoming. Which was not to say that my white colleagues were not welcoming, but the level of conversation that I can have with them is different,” she said. With other black women, she does not have to explain her experience or have people question it, she said. She added later than she was part of a “large cohort of people hired at the same time” and with only two people of color hired, there were comments made among her colleagues about “who the affirmative action hires were,” which she called “annoying” and “hurtful.”

She also noted how students often interpret her “embodiment and physicality” as “stern and unapproachable and angry,” something she cited as another example of the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and assumptions.

Daniels struggled with “not seeing anybody who looked like me throughout the majority of the day” as the only person of color in her building for a long time. This made her feel invisible, as some students would walk right past her and go to another person. She felt this reinforced the idea that students thought she couldn’t help them with what they need.

Johnson had a similar experience of feeling ignored. When she was a research associate, she was “having [her] expertise and ability questioned at every single turn, [which] became frustrating and demoralizing,” she said. These assumptions and judgements have impacted her psychologically and physically, as they are “draining to the point of developing physical ailments that are indicative of intense stress.”

Panelists then discussed how often they feel silenced in higher education institutions and how they address this.

Anderson-Levy is not always aware of being silenced in the moment, but might realize what happened after she reflects on it. A common form of silencing is questioning someone’s experience and denying its legitimacy. “It’s happened in meetings, at [Academic] Senate, in places where people will say something and I’m sure they’re not trying to be unkind,” she said.

Whether or not to engage in addressing this silencing is a choice Anderson-Levy makes. “I may not have the energy to deal with it,” she said. “A lot goes into deciding to engage with people. I’ve just decided to deal with the ones I have the energy to deal with.”

Her choice to engage also depends on the context. “I’ve started to pay attention to what the stakes are,” she said. “I almost always point it out in a classroom. When engaged with person in power, I always try to point it out. I run some calculation about what the stakes are.”

Sawyer also tries to choose when to engage, as she often feels like someone is trying to silence her, but “sometimes something makes you so angry that if you start talking you won’t stop,” she said.

“We will not be silenced, but we appreciate your attempt,” she added, earning an “amen” from Majeed.

Rather than thinking in terms of specific instances, Johnson noted “the practice of unsilencing is an ongoing component” as silence has been “accepted as the normative structure.”

“When I’m not challenging that [normative structure], I’m very conscious of why not, and the cost-benefit of why not? Sometimes holding your peace is pushing against that silence,” she said.

After working in higher education “for a long time,” Daniels has learned to adjust. “My voice has gotten louder and better through this journey,” she said.

Mantina then asked the panelists how they got comfortable enough to “sit in front of the audience telling experiences that includes people in power?” The audience included President Scott Bierman, among other administrators.

Anderson-Levy immediately asked “Who says it’s true?” eliciting laughter from the audience before calling attention to the dynamic that is created at these events. “There’s a kind of spectacle that this kind of event can generate; a spectacle of suffering and pain where you come to hear my pain and go, ‘Oh my god that’s so awful.’ So I just want to point that dynamic out, which is not to say that the stuff we’re saying is not worthwhile or important, but it’s a fine line between sharing and becoming object of pity that does nobody any good.”

Daniels similarly wanted to underscore the reality of these experiences and significance of this event. “I think it’s important that people hear the perspective of what black women feel, what they live every day. This is not the movies, this is real life. I think each of us has a story and it’s important this story is told — not for pity, but just so you can know, this is real life,” she said.

Sawyer encouraged other black women to speak up. “We are all here as role models and we want students to know you do have a voice and you do not have to be afraid to speak up. There’s a way to do everything. … This is one of those productive ways. You have a voice, you can use that voice. You do not have to beg, you do not have to … fear retaliation,” she said.

Johnson saw the support group as a valuable opportunity. “I do believe there’s empowerment when you’re given permission, when there are spaces that open up for you. I really feel it’s my duty and my responsibility to do the same. I hope by my participation that folks will be brave. I’m risking. I want to mirror that risk so that you too can find it inside yourself to take that extra step … in acting out against small acts and large acts,” she said, calling the effort “cumulative movement and positive movement forward in the good struggle.”

The panelists then discussed what helps them persevere. Family, whether chosen or not, and students were big inspirations.

“[There are] days when I wanna give up, when I don’t wanna do anything, but have to remember I’m raising three young women and a son,” Daniels said.

Anderson-Levy again questioned the question. “What’s the alternative? Perseverance is what life is. Everybody perseveres,” she said. “So how do I figure out a way to deal with how my embodiment causes other people to feel, then that’s about … supportive family. But it’s kind of a weird question because what else would I be doing? There are days when it feels like [I should hide in my closet or under my bed],” she said.

It has been important to “find community here, find my people, my tribe, people that I can be in my skin with and not be fake and they don’t even question it,” she continued.

Students often ask her “how do you do this? It’s depressing. Does [the pain] go away?” to which she responds, “It doesn’t.” But, she said, “The more that we can shine light in the dirty corners of the room, the better we can clean them.”

Both family and “framily,” or family by choice and family of heart, are important for Johnson. She has also learned about perseverance from family stories. Her great grandfather was born into enslavement, making her family three generations out of enslavement. When she puts her “life in relationship with the amount of family continuance that has gone on and what that’s meant over space and time,” this helps her persevere. This “sets a model that I’m always thinking back to. … intending to leave this world a little better than when I found it.”

“I have this unshakeable belief in humanity as good. We see a lot of the not good, but it’s that good that I want to continue to put something toward,” she added.

Gant posed the first audience question, asking the panelists about their relationship to other students of color. Johnson appreciated the love note sent out from OADI to marginalized students after the recent hate crimes, calling it an “example of how to do love boldly.” Sometimes Anderson-Levy will introduce herself at student clubs, and students of color will find her.

Mantina then asked about advice to activists of color in spaces dominated by whiteness.

Johnson encouraged activists to practice self-care. “When you are engaged in activism it’s a lifetime engagement. Make sure it’s sustainable. You do no one a favor when you burn out. Pace yourself. Rejuvenate your heart. You have to touch something. Some kind of goodness to know why you’re doing it in the first place. The work of social justice is a long and hard road. You have to clean yourself off in order to go back into it. Make this is a long term struggle, not just one you experience [for a number of years]. Carry it with you,” she said.

Anderson-Levy has seen a similar burn-out trend among student activists. “Oftentimes, students engage with activism like it’s gonna run out and they have to do everything by next Tuesday. It’s important to realize this is a lifelong commitment,” she said.

A big part of the work is self-reflection, she added. “I encourage people in my classes and people here now to work across boundaries. When you look at your friend groups, do they all look like you? Who are the people in your friend groups? If they all look like you, that’s not okay. Because that’s the people who you’re doing activism with. If you think of yourself as someone who is broadly accepting, and all the people at your dinner parties look like you, then not so much,” she said. “It’s one thing to sit in class and read interesting stuff and say stuff in your seminar, but if you’re going back … to the same old people, you’re not being an activist. I don’t care how many petitions you sign on Facebook. That’s another thing that’s not really activism. For real.”

Majeed stood up in tears, offering a heartfelt monologue. “I want to echo the importance of this moment. When I came in 1999, we would not be able to do this,” she said. She told how the only other faculty of color at the time was art professor George Williams, and they would “get together and agree to be here another semester.”

“Every semester I would try to find somewhere else to be, but it would be clear to me that I was supposed to be here. I am excited that we can have a black women’s panel and I didn’t have to be up there,” she said, eliciting applause.

“It may seem normal – four black women at a table 8 p.m., they’re not getting paid, what’s new — oh they get t-shirts,” she said, eliciting laughter. “This is a historical moment at Beloit College that needs to become ordinary so that all these social identities will be ordinary,” she said. “The work is not done. This just shows you that it took 17 years – 17 years for this to happen.”

Anderson-Levy grabbed the microphone, saying, “This up here is her legacy.”

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