Category Archives: Projects

Reflections of an Incoming Black Graduate Student Association President

I decided to run for president of my institution’s Black Graduate Student Association.

Spoiler alert: I won.

My friends went through a range of responses, from being anxious about how much stuff I already do to referring to me immediately as “Madame President.” Some folks thought it was a snap decision, while my Dad said, “Well it’s about time.”

The truth is, I’ve been in a growth process surrounding Black student organizations since I was on Black Student Alliance’s board at UVA seven years ago. I served there for one year, and due to my declining mental health, I quit the summer before my third year.

And as much as I’d love to contribute my decision to leave that space solely to my mental health, I also had a hard time with the way men’s voices were privileged, the “in-groupness” of it all and what I felt, at the time, was a performance of activism. I felt like there wasn’t space for me, not realizing that I had the agency to make space for myself.

So I left.

Still, the imprint of my time there remained. I stayed in touch with a fourth year who had also been on BSA and went on to pursue a doctorate in English, and she became a huge resource for me throughout my graduate school journey. It showed me the beginnings of what I would come to understand as a number of interwoven Black communities, rather than one group that could not be effectively serviced as such. And, in some ways, most importantly, Claudrena Harold’s, our BSA advisor’s, teachings about the activist and advocacy roots of Black student groups at Predominantly White Institutions lingered long after I had removed myself from BSA.

For the rest of time at UVA, I became very involved in smaller scale organizations. I worked as an intern with the Outreach Office of Admission and the Ridley Scholarship Foundation. I invested in the French House and Language House Council. And I became the stage manager for the Black Monologues.

In an institution where titles were collected like souvenir coins, working with these organizations helped me to undo harmful notions of leadership without purpose. Though often unrecognized, the work of my last two years were the most fulfilling. It taught me to invest wisely and in communities you already belong to.

Bloom where you are planted, but also make sure the garden others inherit is well tended for them when they come along.

By grad school, which you will know if you’ve been following along with BGDGS, I was feeling lost again. I resented feeling forced to participate in my program’s student organization given that I felt the program often was a place of hostility for me. So I turned elsewhere for support at the institution, frequenting the Black Law Student Association gatherings and getting involved with a short lived Black undergraduate student publication, but nothing seemed to stick.

My solution was to turn to the digital. You know that story: I worked for a few years building up my network of Black graduate students and Black faculty to turn to at other institutions through Black Girl Does Grad School and Twitter. Between my thriving digital life and the various pockets I began to occupy at school, most notably with the Lemon Project, I began to feel more supported.

During this time, the Black Graduate Student Association began to emerge in a new iteration. It had once existed at the institution, but with little documentation, it was difficult to know much more about it. Madeline Williams worked to get this new formation of the organization off the ground, and in my thirst for community, I began to frequent meetings.

I would be lying if I say I hadn’t considered running for the executive board over the few years of the organization’s existence. But the timing was never right: first I was in the midst of comps, then trying to complete a first draft of the dissertation. So I settled into being a fairly active member.

But this year, two big shifts occurred: I joined the Arts & Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee (CDEI) and I began talking to my friend, Taylor, very seriously about transformative work.

Though seemingly unrelated, the two were inextricable. Through the CDEI, I gained the language to identify and articulate what I didn’t want in a university community. It then gave me ideas for possible solutions to these problems. By the end of the fall semester, I was able to articulate with ease the issues with pipelines, climate, and siloed diversity work, which was bolstered by my formal training in being able to articulate how power dynamics work from American Studies. But I quickly became frustrated that though we were very good at identifying, articulating and offering possible solutions, there seemed to be a disconnect, at least for me, between having a firm understanding of how these infrastructures work to disenfranchise and oppress, and breaking down solutions into actionable items.

In a word, I was faced with the gap between my values and my actions.

My friendship with Taylor has turned into an incubator for transformative thought. She makes me think harder and want to move with more intention. Before having these conversations with her, before we began our All About Love book club, I knew abolition made sense, I knew how love practices worked in theory, but I didn’t know how to center those ideas in my daily life. I didn’t know how to act on them.

What I began to understand was that transformation in our society begins at a community level. It begins with us practicing being loving towards each other. It begins with investing in each other. Small actions will lead to larger change.

Perhaps, I thought, I wouldn’t be able to take down the Academy, but I could cultivate a garden in community with others in which we are cared for and valued. Even though I plan to leave the academic space, I know others will come, so I began to ask: what tangible things can I do to make sure those who come to occupy this space will feel cared for and valued?

In doing this, in centering communication, connection, care and celebration, we can build a sustainable environment for us, outside of the structures of the Academy, where we matter first. And perhaps that won’t break the system down… but actively choosing care may disrupt it.

In that break, we have the potential to replace what doesn’t work with something new.

What I propose is a building on the great work already done and being done. I’m simply asking: How can we connect Black graduate students to resources outside of their BGSA and their school? How do we establish long term connections? How do we provide networks of care for our Black grad students? What can we do to ensure academic success and value the work that Black grads are doing?

I think some of the answers are to build on and with. Five years at my institution has shown a number of pockets throughout the university that are doing really amazing work. We need to be working with them. We need to, if possible, find financial support for the research Black grads do, as well as provide venues for us to share our findings in supportive environments. I can tap into my digital networks and skills to help us create a repository of resources for us so that we always have access to things like local childcare, hair services, and churches.

But one of the most important things I can do is to make it clear that this is a space that values you. You deserve to be valued and cared for. So how can we work on infrastructures to better the climate for existing, incoming and prospective students, so that they know they’re valued?

I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m so willing to try.

It’s time to make the digital, physical.

Taxing Labor, Energizing Work

My relationship with academia is fraught. The years I have spent in graduate school have been filled with intellectual epiphanies, community building in digital spaces, and a lot of time to search for answers to my long list of questions. Instead of answers, I have often found more questions. Some have been intellectually generative, and push my scholarship further; others underscore the limitations on freedom in academia for a Black girl. 

As a result of time in the academy and currently participating in more service work than I ever have, the questions I have become more urgent and constitute a fairly constant refrain in my mind: Why is my institution, and many across the board, unable to retain faculty of color? Why are we unable to fund diversity efforts and support our contingent faculty? Why are non-tenure track faculty, staff and graduate students’ voices and opinions shunted to the side, as if only tenured professors and students make up a campus? If we know that something (like hiring practices or tenure and promotion, for examples) can reinscribe hierarchies and oppressive systems, why do we continue to prioritize meeting those expectations? Why do we (as an institutional body) still think talking in circles around issues is moving us forward? 

The longer I am here and the more I do, the angrier I get and the more I want to do— and then don’t. Being in academia is a never-ending process of seeing an issue… and then going to seventeen meetings about it, and at the end of which, everything remains the same. It’s made me jaded, it makes me resentful and it will likely make me pursue a career outside of the academy. 

I think often about Toni Morrison’s statement about the function of racism is to distract you. At Portland State University in 1975, she said, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Well the fact is, racism is keeping me from doing my work, making me tired and all I want to do is rest. In short, it’s doing its job, it’s doing it well, and I am, unfortunately, failing to continue to muster the energy to do anything about it.

I’m torn between wanting to keep working and doing and hoping that maybe I can do something, anything, to change the culture of the institution, but at the end of every meeting, I am exhausted. Not just exhausted, I am often near tears. My therapist, bless her, is likely at her wits end with me signing onto our sessions already crying. Many Black folks and people of color in the academy build up a tolerance for institutional bullshit, but I am still green. Every time someone raises their voice, I bristle; when I am talked over, I feel defeated; when (white) folks express shock that I could have a useful idea, I scowl; when they compliment me on my well formulated responses, I hear “articulate” and cringe because, of course, I couldn’t be. And I am TIRED. 

And I just started.

This is taxing labor, labor that I pay for with my time and energy and tears.

It keeps me from what I find to be energizing work: teaching, workshopping, and collaborating. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Stanford’s Black Studies Collective. This hour long conversation with the students was electric: we built off of each other’s energy, traded tips, offered advice, and enjoyed this moment of congregation together, filled with smiles and laughter. This work can be joyous. It can look like discussing the myriad of ways to translate your research into publicly consumable knowledge, it can look like helping folks think through the ways they organize themselves to get the most out of their day, it can look like explaining how I learned to fly.

I find that this work is most joyous in community.

This is why having collaborative aspects of my first course is important to me. For their introductory/get to know you assignment, I had my students contribute at least one song to a collective and thematic class playlist. I wanted to get a sense how they are thinking about the intersections of Black girlhood, fantasy and digital culture, what sorts of considerations and questions they will bring to the table and offer an opportunity to begin working together towards a shareable product. Building together helps me feel like I am contributing something. I am no longer just interested in making the space, but I want to play in the space I’ve created to see how we can construct the impossible. 

That feels like energizing work, soul fulfilling work. 

And the Academy makes it as hard as possible to revel in the joy of communal building with my students, peers and other faculty and staff. 

I want better for us, and I will be completely honest, I don’t know if I’m the person to be a part of the move towards tearing down what no longer serves us and in its place, crafting a better university. Just from my special combination of mental health issues, if I can avoid stressors as a way of keeping mood episodes under control, I will. I sacrifice my health to fight as hard as I do. And I want so much better for us, but I only get one life, one body, one me. 

And while I want better for us, I also want better for me. 

I don’t have an answer. I may never.

What I do know is that I got to look at a screen with a lot of Black faces on Friday, all eager and ready to learn from me and each other. It was joyous. And it keeps me going. 

They keep me going.

Learning Limitations

June was a personal trial for me. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the resulting protests and national uprising alone were enough to resurrect my panic attacks. The feelings were at least twofold– rage at these lives cut short and relentless fear for the lives of protestors, given the unbelievable reality that we are still living through an unprecedented global pandemic.

I spent the first few weeks of June trying to unravel the knot of difficult feelings that had taken up residence in my stomach, trying to breathe through waves of panic, trying to do anything other than spend most of the day crying.

Because while the world burns, Academia and publishing continues to ask of me, asking for my time and labor and thoughts. In June alone, I edited a book chapter, wrote a book review, wrote most of a journal article, edited my graphic novel manuscript and drafted a freelance reported piece. Many of these pieces popped up near the end of May/beginning of June– I only had a reasonable window of time to complete two of them…if we weren’t living through a pandemic and an uprising.

And while I got everything done in a reasonable time frame, as the month comes to a close, I’ve had some time to reflect on my own limitations.

I have to deal with the fact that though I am someone who likes to keep unreasonably busy– a result of both anxious energy and occasionally hypomania– there still has to be a limit to even my madness. I often come across a quote that says, “You can do everything; just not all at once.” Reflecting on that quote has meant really sitting with my ideas and asking questions of them and of myself: Do you need my immediate attention? Should I let you marinate a while longer? What’s the worst that would happen if I didn’t do this thing right now? How can I slow down? What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?

 

The last question, What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?, is very important. If you don’t make a conscious decision, then your work will make it for you. In order to get these side projects done, I had to put aside my dissertation for the month, a decision both my advisor and I thought practical. Practical or not, I was still frustrated that I couldn’t do all the things. I became increasingly agitated when my body wouldn’t cooperate when I asked it to keep pushing and working and going, producing in spite of the all consuming rage I was working against.

 

Finally, I had to stop.

I had to ask myself: Why is it so important that I do everything, right now?

 

And though I frequently talk about this impulse to push and go that is driven by a need for control, I’m always still surprised when that’s the answer that comes to mind.

I need to feel like something is in my control. The thing I’ve always been able to control is my productivity. When circumstances made it so that I was unable to even control my own output, I spiraled out of control.

After some emergency sessions with my psychiatrist, a consultation with a new therapist, an appointment with a somatic practitioner, new medication, more mindfulness apps and a frequently broken social media break, I started to feel more like myself. I was sleeping again. Food didn’t taste like sawdust in my mouth. The pressure that was threatening to burst out of my body had subsided.

I broke down my work into manageable chunks, giving myself plenty of reasonable daily and weekly goals, worked only a few hours a day, and spent a lot of time tending to myself. These days I have found a lot of joy in making art and accompanying my mom outside as she waters her plants in the morning while I enjoy my coffee. I watch Jeopardy! every evening and read for pleasure for about twenty minutes every morning and night.

I’ll be turning in the last of my June projects this afternoon and the marathon writing month will be over. But I have learned a valuable lesson: Know. Your. Limits.

 

The difficult part is that you don’t always know what your own limits are until they’re tested. And I went into June believing that juggling three too many projects was my personal brand. While that may be true, it’s true under very different circumstances.

Moving forward, I think my rule of thumb will be:

  • Only work on a MAX of 3 different writing projects at a time
    • One of them must be the dissertation
  • Stagger deadlines if possible and if you cannot say no to a new project
  • Work according to what your body is telling you it can handle, not what your mind believes your body can handle.

Valuable though the lessons learnt this month may be, I sure am glad it’s over now.