Extraordinary Kindness and the Power of a Single Voice

A podcast and conversation with Howard Teibel on diversity, inclusion, and the opportunity to think about the power of extraordinary kindness and the potential of one voice to advance humanity and create common ground for conversations and community building across difference. Click link below for the podcast:


Full Episode Transcript

Introduction: In April of 2018 our guest today was standing at the podium of a medium-sized classroom at Vanderbilt University having just completed the narrative portion of a luncheon keynote on equity, marking the 50th year since the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A student stepped to the microphone and asked a question that seemed to sum up the general sense of the space in a culture divided in which relationships between friends, family, and peers hangs on one ideological division or another. How do you live in America today? Here’s a little bit of her response.

Dr. Menah: So I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” I go back to that reminder often that it is as much fear and apprehension as we may have, the importance of speaking up remains paramount. There’s always points of connection with someone who on particular identity spectrums are different but there’s always a point of commonality but you can’t find that point of commonality without a conversation. There’s always a story that’s led up to that positionality, that identity, that belief. It doesn’t mean that you’re gonna stop believing X but you might gain more compassion and empathy for why they reached Z position. I do think you have to be fearless: fearless, calm, authentic conversation. But if we bring into the space our fears and then we don’t talk or we silence or we feel silenced and the conversation ends.

Introduction, Continued: That was Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke and she has brought that same fearlessness, that same desire to understand the stories of our division to her career as an educator, writer, and student of race and diversity. Today she serves as Vice President for strategic affairs and Vice Provost for inclusion and diversity at Virginia Tech. And she joins Howard Teibel to talk about how we approach the dialog on race at our institutions. Both Howard and Dr. Pratt-Clarke will be taking the stage at AuditCon 2019, the annual conference of the Association of College and University Auditors, September 15th through 19th 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. And now Howard Teibel with our special guest, Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke.

Howard: Welcome Dr. Pratt-Clarke and thank you for being on the show. We’re really excited to have you here.

Dr. Menah: Oh, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.

Howard: So you and I are going to be speaking together at the Association of College and University Auditors, Higher Education Summit, known as AuditCon in Baltimore, Maryland, September 15th through 19th, talking on a diverse ray of issues. So I want to first give you a chance to share a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are today.

Dr. Menah: Oh, thank you. So probably a fairly eclectic background. I started out in literary studies in English, so I got a master’s degree, fell in love with Faulkner actually. And then went to Vanderbilt University and did a JD/PhD in sociology. Practiced law for a few years and then started a higher Ed career. And my higher Ed career started at Vanderbilt as the first university compliance officer and assistant secretary. So designed the compliance program, and this was back in 1998 when issues of human subject research, animal care were bubbling up at a higher level of ethical expectations. So I was there for eight years. And then at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, did equal opportunity, affirmative action, diversity, strategic planning work. And then now I’ve been at Virginia Tech for three and a half years as the vice president for strategic affairs and diversity and a full professor in the School of Education.

Howard: So you’re going to be talking about the challenges and opportunities around actualizing the value proposition associated with diversity, inclusion, and equity. It’s a lot of words in there, isn’t it, you and I we know this is jargon. So we keep it really simple. What are you gonna get into at the talk you’ll be giving?

Dr. Menah: Well, one of the more interesting ways of thinking about diversity is understanding the basis for which the Supreme Court recently has, you know, over the last I would say 10 years, has talked about the importance of diversity in higher Ed in terms of the unique contributions that different values, perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, can create a learning environment that’s unique, within the context of thinking about affirmative action and the use of race to create these unique learning environments. And I think as a country, in particular, we’re still struggling with how do we actually create the environment where different voices and perspectives and experiences are actually valued? So it’s both the representational piece of bringing together this diversity of people but also the work of inclusion in terms of now we have all these different perspectives and individuals on campus. How do we create this inclusive environment?

Howard: You know, it’s interesting you talk about creating the environment. You know, I see us as infants in this conversation. And I have to admit, you know, I got up in front of a group recently and I had done this event previous years, and I said to them, “You know what? I’m not only gonna make mistakes. I’ve been schooled every time on a break through somebody in these retreats. About what I’m saying that is not recognizing gender or race in a certain way or having a certain bias, this implicit bias.” And I started this last session and I said, “Listen, I know I’m gonna make a mistake. And I probably will have blindness, don’t know when I’m making it.” And I wasn’t sure beyond that what I could do. I actually showed an image of Kamau Bell and I said, “You know, I heard him talk at a higher Education conference and he got up there and he was told by the leaders of the conference planning group to not offend anybody.”

He’s like, “I don’t know how to do that.” He talked to a predominantly white male audience like me about what it is to take responsibility for the way we show up in this conversation. And it was exciting and uncomfortable at the same time. So talk a little bit about how this conversation on diversity, inclusion, race is evolving from your perspective. Are we as higher Education practitioners, internal and external, are we moving the needle? If we are, in what way? Because it seems really damn slow.

Dr. Menah: Well, I would say the needle is moving all over the place. I don’t know if it’s necessarily moving in a linear direction that we would hope for. One of the interesting thing that I reflect upon often is the role of technology and social media that I think takes away from the ability of students, young people, young adults to actually have conversations. And I remember when social media first started sort of bubbling up for young people, even with my own children and they would say, “I talked to so-and-so.” And I realized that their talking was texting and messaging, it wasn’t actually having a conversation. And I think this issue of diversity and inclusion is all about the conversation. Even if as you mentioned, we might get it wrong or say the wrong thing or inadvertently offend, at least we’re talking. And it’s in that exchange of ideas that we find places of commonality and common ground but also can acknowledge differences. But I think we’re missing the ability to just talk and have conversation.

Howard: It seems like it’s moving in the wrong direction, even more today. It feels like there is even less capability of hearing another point of view without having to have it be wrong or right. It even feels more like we feel isolated, like we’re really gonna open this around people who are like-minded. And I think the culture, I think the way our politics has moved has contributed to this. So you talked about the needle moving in all directions. I think there’s a general awareness that we have less capability today than we did five years ago in being able to even open a conversation.

Dr. Menah: Yeah. And I think some of this is a larger challenge around education writ large. And the skills that we think students need starting in grade school, elementary school, middle school, high school before they even get to college. If the curriculum is not evolving at that level in a way that teaches young people, young students how to have conversations, how to hear different points of view, how to listen, you know, these soft skills that we almost minimize and trivialize because we need students to know if one plus one is really two or not. And focusing on these standardized tests, we’re not building a competency that students need to have before they reach college. And so in 4 years, it’s almost unrealistic to expect that Higher Ed institutions can transform 18 years of a certain way of learning and thinking in 4 years to produce the type of leaders that we would like.

Howard: You know, when I went to college there was no conversation about this. And sort of we just assumed it was about acquisition of knowledge. But your point is really interesting that there’s a different kind of competency we need to teach students or we need to engage them in. But I find it interesting too, and I’m sure this is the case, that when you talk about diversity, we’re also talking about the people who are delivering education and also the support functions on administration. And how are we practicing and leading by example the things that we’re espousing that students should be. I actually find that when I have conversations with adults who are in the space of student affairs, or academic advising, or enrollment management, there is a recognition that we do not practice the things that we’re trying to teach these younger generations about how we show up in conversations, how we have authentic conversation.

So it’s almost like we’ve never learned those skills as adults but we want to see them have it first. And I think one of the things we have to do is do a better job. I think you and I will be talking about this at the conference.

Dr. Menah: What I realized when I… So I’ve been here at Virginia Tech for three and a half years. And what I often have said, and I don’t think it’s unique to Virginia Tech, is that there’s a lot of goodwill here towards the work and the importance of diversity but that goodwill is not a skillset. It’s necessary but it’s not a skillset, and the ability to even know the words. What words do you use when you’re talking about diversity or you want to create an inclusive environment in your classroom? So the work of inclusive pedagogy I think is something that we’ve started much work around here. And it is, it’s working with faculty members on what do you need to be saying in your classrooms? It’s thinking about, you know, the academic professionals and the staff who are working directly with students and their colleagues. And in terms of understanding what skills can we quickly teach?

We don’t have 12 years, we need to ramp up pretty quickly, get some basic competency. I think of it as trying to identify those who can be champions and almost a train the trainer philosophy where you’re a champion, you understand it and you can help your fellow peers and colleagues come along.

Howard: Because not everybody is going to go along, so try to get everybody to go with it is not realistic. And if we have a few that can demonstrate for others then others will follow. I love that idea and I think that’s really a relevant principle in terms of change too, right?

Dr. Menah: Yes.

Howard: What new behaviors would you like to see in folks who deliver the education experience around this diversity inclusion? And when I say deliver, I’m not just talking about the faculty in the classroom or even the research folks. I’m talking about the collection of people who are doing the food service, who are doing the grounds, who are working behind the scenes on spreadsheets. This is the whole collection and they make up the body that are either supporting or driving and leading the chain. So if we were to step forward and say, “Here’s what success looks like to me.” How would you describe what these new behaviors look like?

Dr. Menah: So it’s interesting that you call them behaviors.

Howard: Why is it interesting?

Dr. Menah: Behavior almost sounds like a behavior modification but maybe it needs to start with a mindset first. And then the mindset might shift the behavior.

Howard: You said goodwill is not a skillset.

Dr. Menah: Yes.

Howard: When I say behavior, I think about it in terms of, it’s recognizable to others. You’re right, it has to start inside, but it shows up in social spaces.

Dr. Menah: Agreed. Agreed.

Howard: What does success look like or what kinds of ways do you want to see people showing up? Because it’s almost like painting a picture for folks of that is helpful to see where we’re going or trying to go.

Dr. Menah: This is gonna sound so basic and so simple but it’s where I’m getting to after so many years of thinking about this. I think it starts with this concept of extraordinary kindness, of how do you display extraordinary kindness. And what I realize is oftentimes someone would say, you know, “I needed help in an office,” from a student standpoint. “I went to the office and the person at the desk didn’t seem friendly. They seemed mean.” They might not be mean but they showed up that way. There’s extraordinary kindness of saying, “Hello, how are you doing?” Looking someone in the eye. That personal level of contact, we don’t often do because we’re used to looking down. We’re used to looking away. We actually rarely look people in their eyes and see either their emotion or their feelings or what they’re showing up with that day.

Howard: They’re seeing the person.

Dr. Menah: They’re seeing them, right? So this concept for me of this extraordinary kindness of being able to look, listen critically and respond with sort of a genuine care, okay, that crosses all kinds of diversity, you know, identities. You showed up as an individual, as a human being, and someone connected with your humanity based on their exercise and demonstration of kindness. People sense kindness, people recognize kindness. You know, the smile that says, “I hear you. It’s going to be okay.” That reassurance, I just think that’s so important. And I don’t see that enough because we think we need to have some very complicated skill and some words that we really don’t know.

Howard: What I love about that is that rather than hitting the diversity and inclusion over the head and keep talking about it. If it’s focused on kindness and you’re in the presence of someone from a different race or a different culture, you’re going right to the matter of what does it mean for me to show up around them if they say, “You know what? It was nice to spend some time with you.” Maybe your premises tell me if this is true, the other stuff will follow, you know, as opposed to having it just be focused so exclusively on, are we making progress on race? Focused on kindness. And I don’t want to dismiss that we walk into these conversations with prejudices and biases. I’ve never heard it like that. Extraordinary kindness, I love that as the principle. Hopefully, you’re going to talk about that.

Dr. Menah: Yes, I will. I mean, what I’ve moved away from is saying, I believe if you walk into a room and you say, “Let’s have a conversation about diversity.” Those who are underrepresented or are marginalized identities are gonna be like, “Ugh.” Minority populations are gonna also be like, “Ugh.” But if you walk into a room and say, “Let’s have a conversation about building community.” Like, “Okay, yeah, let’s talk about community. You know, let’s talk about friendships,” and maybe we’ll talk about friendships across difference. And at some point, I do think we need to have those hard conversations about racial differences, about gender differences, about gender identity, about sexual orientation, about religion and disability. We need to have those hard conversations but you can’t start with that.

Howard: Do some people react to this by saying this is avoiding the core issues, people that really feel marginalized?

Dr. Menah: For me, I’m very clear that we will get to those more challenging conversations but we have to be able to start from a place that furthers dialog. Because if you come in immediately with this hardcore, “I’m angry, I’m upset, let’s talk about this difficult issue,” in a context where most people do not have the words to talk about it, you can’t even get there and you’re gonna shut people down. The wall is gonna come up, the defensiveness, and people are very comfortable shutting down. And so if you want to even get a dialog going, I think you have to start at a point of, “Hey, let’s talk about community. What is community to you? What’s friendship?” You know, and then you stretch it. “Okay. Do you have friends from different backgrounds? Do you have friends across race?” Maybe it’s, yes, maybe it’s no. “What have those friendships been like?” You know, those are conversations people can genuinely engage in authentically without the barrier. But if you start with the, “Let’s talk about, you know, the Muslim community in America.” It’s like, “Whoa, that’s a little too deep for me.”

I mean, the barrier just comes up. We know what the trigger words are in our society. Race is a trigger word. You know, Muslim American, Muslims, it’s such a trigger word, Immigrants. I mean now every word is a trigger word and you can’t talk about anything. But if you just start with some common ground, you can move to those more. And I do think the power of change is in those more difficult dialogs. And we might not agree and I always say that it’s okay for us to disagree.

Howard: You know, and my sense is after many, many years of being engaged in these questions and engaging with others, it sounds like you got to a place you said, “All right, I got to find a way to reach people where they are.” Because I would imagine for you there was a time where it wasn’t about extraordinary kindness. It was about, “Let’s talk about these issues.” Are you bringing this to students, faculty, staff? Where does this show up at Virginia Tech?

Dr. Menah: Well, the wonderful thing about Virginia Tech that I think is particularly unique is that our motto at Virginia Tech is, Ut Prosim, which means, That I May Serve. So this institution has this foundational motto of service that we all know and understand and are committed to. What we’ve been able to do here is to translate and to extend the concept of service to embrace the idea of difference and diversity and to be able to say as a land-grant institution serving the Commonwealth and sort of the everyday citizen that as an institution we can’t effectively implement our motto or live up to our motto of service if we don’t prepare students to be of service to anyone, at any time, and anywhere.

And in order to do that, you have to begin to understand the different people that you might come in contact with, to need to be of service to. And how do you now approach the world with a different lens of recognizing that, okay, I’ve come to be of service to serve humanity but now I need to understand humanity. I need to understand myself, how I show up, what my background privilege is, etc., are. I need to understand the community that I’ve walked into that, you know, I may be a majority in that community, I may be a minority in that community. I might have different political views or different religious views but how do I think about how I show up and who the people are that I’ve come into their space?

Howard: You know, as I listen to you speak, I think about that these skills or awarenesses don’t just apply to our work. And I’m seeing that more and more is that there’s a need to integrate this. I’m going to talk about mood and how moods in the background really affect us. There’s a social mood in our communities and can we pay attention to that? We’re gonna talk about language and how to use language to move actions forward. And what I’m discovering is, is that these skill sets are important for us to navigate social spaces outside of education because the mood, I’m discovering more and more people are in a mood of overwhelm. They’re in a mood of skepticism. They’re in a mood of frustration. That’s not everywhere but when I ask large groups, part of it is, it’s not just too much information. It’s like we talked about the world getting smaller but not in a way that’s positive. The world getting smaller used to be a principle that we could look at and go, “All right, then we’re going to be more connected.”

We’re gonna get smaller. I think people are feeling smaller, less engaged, less capable of being effective. When you think about this work, are you seeing this also showing up as important in your personal life, in how you show up not just at work but how you show up at home?

Dr. Menah: So the shift in my own personal growth, I would say, from studying as a young college student, African-American history, which was my minor, and learning about just the complicated experiences of African-Americans and starting to understand my own parents’ life experiences. I just finished a book on my mother’s life and her journey from picking cotton and during The Great Depression to becoming a college professor. And thinking about the history of race, class, and gender in America over a 100 year period. And understanding that for me as an African-American woman, I couldn’t allow the pain and anger of my ancestors’ experiences, my father was born in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, which ironically, the Free Town and the descendants of formerly enslaved people in America going to Free Town in Sierra Leone. And he had a very complicated journey in America as an African immigrant.

And so for me, my parents’ ancestry and their experiences, particularly around race and racism and the civil rights movement shaped me as a young woman, college student, and then studying more formally African-American history. I had to get to the point where I wasn’t angry all the time and feeling disempowered as an African-American woman in the United States. And so I had to work on my own self, and try to… And I think studying law and sociology at Vanderbilt helped me to do that, to think about the world differently. So law school helps you to say that nothing is black and white, everything’s gray. There are multiple sides of every argument. And then sociology helped me to get a better understanding of how to think about and talk about social problems and identity, race, class, gender, you know, who we are and to think about solutions.

And so for me, the educational training helped shape the words that I needed to be able to talk about issues, social problems, and issues of the human condition. And so I’ve been able to grow not just professionally but personally as I try to navigate these spaces in America. Not only, you know, as an African-American woman but as a mother, a daughter, and a son, as a woman who’s married a Bahamian man. So you have the whole Caribbean influence and an understanding that dynamic as well. So the African diaspora has played an important role in my own understanding of my identity.

Howard: Well, this is such a relevant topic. Now I’m excited to see you at Con. We’re gonna be there together. I can’t wait to see how this engages the audience. Primarily people that live in the world that, you know, where you…not started but this whole compliance area and how you inspire maybe a couple of people to take this back to their school. We’re gonna make available the book so that they can see what it is. So we’ll give people a chance to find that book easily from our website. Where else would people go to learn more about the work that you’re doing in this space and how you’ve evolved? I love the extraordinary kindness principle that you’re bringing here. But just give us a sense of where else people can learn more about what you’re doing.

Dr. Menah: Few years ago I started a blog on my website. So my website is menahprattclarke.com. And it’s discussed a range of issues. So there’s a decent amount of discussion about issues of diversity and difference but also about leadership. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about leadership and how to lead effectively. What are lessons learned in different places and spaces about effective leadership? I think a lot also about sustainability of change. So when I started here at Virginia Tech in 2016, the fall of 2015 across the country, African-American students were demonstrating. You know, some of it was related to the St. Louis issue and police violence, but then it just translated to college campuses and disenfranchised black students with their experiences. And I realized that what they were asking for were the same things my parents were talking about, you know, 20, 30, 40 years ago. Issues of, you know, the cultural competency on college campuses, curriculum addressing African-American issues, cultural centers, diversity of faculty. And it made me think that as a country, over 50 years, let’s say, had nothing changed. That college students today were talking about the same issues as the generation ago.

And what had occurred to me is, I don’t think that nothing changed. I think there were changes, many of which were positive. But the changes on college campuses happen through the extraordinary dedication of singular individuals. And so when that person, Bob or Sally or Mary Jo or John left or passed away, the program that they led and championed also fizzled. And so the work of diversity or affirmative action or change on college campuses was never institutionalized, it wasn’t sustainable. And so the work that I focused on at Virginia Tech in particular now has been grounded in this concept of what can be sustainable institutional transformation. What’s the structures we need to put in place?

Howard: And how do we get it to be bigger than just the person?

Dr. Menah: Oh, absolutely.

Howard: [inaudible 00:28:31] your point earlier was champions. Champions move things forward but if left to the champions, they are eventually going to leave and then the thing dies. So that’s the inherent dilemma of focusing on people stepping up. They at some point step out, and then these things leave. It’s a really interesting observation. It makes for a very compelling understanding about why change efforts don’t continue because when the person who was really pushing forward…and I can think of someone in my life right now at an institution, if this person were to leave, much of the progress she has made will also likely end.

Dr. Menah: Yes. No, it’s actually…you know, we can think about in this context of diversity because that’s my current lens. But if you look across the history of higher Ed institutions, the institutions that move forward and grow and innovate are those that have created a structure that continues to perpetuate even in the absence of a champion. So you have more champions. It’s part of the culture. It becomes a way of being at an institution that then sustains that change.

Howard: You know, a good example for me that I recently talked about is schools that at some point a set of leaders came together and declared we’re going to go from being all-male to coed. And when that happens and that gets institutionalized and that gets agreed to, it becomes part of the culture, when the president leaves or the Chancellor leaves that continues. And then there’s a lot of less tangible kinds of changes that are the harder ones to sustain because they live more in norms than they do live in the rules that get put in place.

Dr. Menah: Yes, yes. One of the things I like to do when I’m just meeting with people when I travel, I spent last year going to about 20 different institutions on the book tour. And I would say, “How do you define your culture, you know, at your institution? What words do you use?” And it’s really hard for people to define a culture. And my point is, if we’re not able…again, this issue of words and vocabulary, if we’re not able to define our culture and understand our culture, how can we change it? Or how can we appreciate what’s good about it and maybe where we need to have subtle shifts, or if we need to have larger shifts, or who feels included, or who feels welcome? So the words that we need to try to use to define our culture and to have a conversation. I had a fascinating conversation at a university where I said…and it was a program for teachers. So I was speaking through the College of Education to sort of teacher program education program.

And the teachers use these words: bullying, fighting, unhappy, to describe the culture of the school. And you know, some of them were actually afraid to use those words because they felt the superintendent might be in the room in that space. And the others in the room said, “You know, we were scared to call out those words but we also feel the same way.” And you know, it wasn’t just one school it was, you know, a group of schools in the community. But if those are the words that are being used to describe the culture in the school from the teacher standpoint, you can only imagine the students’ standpoint.

Howard: They’re probably talking about it at a whole other level. What I got from that, what you just said, was we have to really get people more capacity to give themselves permission, speak up, realize they’re not alone. Recognize there’s a community that shares in those concerns and then help them learn how to be in conversation about it. That’s what it sounds like much of your work is.

Dr. Menah: Yeah, it’s the importance for me of this, you know, people call it courageous conversations, sometimes I call it the power of a singular voice, of one person being willing to speak up, you know, whether it’s as an ally or whether it’s as an individual and saying, “This is what I think.” And just, you know, conquering silence. So for me, the change in society happens when people are courageous enough to speak up, even if their point of view is different from everybody else’s. But we have so much silence now that we’re not having enough people just courageously say, “This is what I think.”

Howard: Well, this is fantastic. I am so excited now to be, one, in a conversation with you but also to be with you at the conference in Baltimore, September 15th through 19th. Thank you very much for being on the show. This has been a fantastic conversation for me. I learned a ton.

Dr. Menah: Oh, so did I. Thanks for inviting me.

Howard: You’re welcome. So we’ll see you again on Navigating Change and please check out Menah’s work. It will be on the website. And we look forward to seeing you in the next show.

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