Sistah Colleague Circle Embraces Womanist Collaboration

The circle is a collaborative intellectual space infused with authenticity, culture and a safe space for black woman faculty.

Drs. K. Miller/B Holmes/K. Holmes/E DuncanDrs. K. Miller/B Holmes/K. Holmes/E Duncan

Women face many impediments to career satisfaction and professional development in academia. Aside from the heavy teaching and advising demands, women faculty are disproportionally relegated to the lower ranks of the professorate, are tenured and promoted at a slower rate and perceive a general lack of encouragement and support from colleagues and administration.

When considering the unique challenges facing black women faculty, these barriers become even more acute.

To cope with the stressors of academic life, four black women faculty at Norfolk State University VA describe how membership in a unique collaborative–the Sistah Colleague Circle–offers social support, collaboration, mentoring and most importantly, an opportunity to celebrate who we are as black women and as professionals.

It began serendipitously in fall 2010 as a consequence of our various committee and departmental assignments. We each were seeking mutual support and collaboration with faculty who expressed a passion for studying issues affecting black women. Our circle meets monthly to discuss our goals and to engage each other intellectually. We periodically meet off campus to recharge and to nurture the vitality of our collaboration.

The four circle members are: Dr. Karen Y. Holmes and Dr. Ernestine A.W. Duncan, both assistant professors in the department of psychology; Dr. Khadijah O. Miller, chair and associate professor in the department of interdisciplinary studies, and Dr. Bernadette J. Holmes, director and professor in the master of arts criminal justice program.

Dr. Karen Y. Holmes: As early as I can remember, I wanted to be a college professor. College professors were poised, scholarly and intellectually focused. A quiet, introspective student, I developed a passion for reading, writing and amazingly, statistics. I envisioned a career filled with research, data analysis and publishing. My reality was quite different.

My first professional appointment was as a non-tenure track assistant professor at my alma mater, a private Historically Black University (HBCU) in the Southeast. I was excited about the opportunity to return to the institution that had nurtured my intellectual potential. However, I failed to realize that by embracing a similar role, I would be stifling my professional development.

I was not naive; I understood what I was getting into when I returned to my alma mater: a heavy teaching load, student advising, committee work and the occasional “counseling session” with a troubled student. But through it all, I steadfastly believed that I would have time to write. I was wrong. And I slowly began to lose my confidence.

After five years of struggling to establish myself as a scholar, I jumped to take a tenure track position at a neighboring HBCU. Now I was faced with the prospect of tenure and promotion. Despite the workload, I was able to secure several small grants and publish my research. But, like other black women in the academy, I questioned whether academia was right for me—which weighed on me physically and mentally.

The Sistah Colleague Circle provided me with an outlet for my academic frustrations and colleagues with whom to commiserate, but most importantly, I was able to write! Since joining this sisterhood, I am the most productive that I have ever been. I feel a new energy and vitality, and I am even embracing the less scholarly aspects of my job.

Now this quiet, introspective scholar with a passion for statistics is certain that a career in academia is right for me. I owe it all to a group of women who understood my concerns, shared my struggles and nurtured my intellectual curiosity.

Dr. Ernestine A.W. Duncan: Teaching was not on my career radar when I trained to become a clinical psychologist. I saw myself on the practice and research ends of the continuum and actually engaged in those efforts upon completion of my degree.

However, when the opportunity came for me to relocate when my parents moved from my native New York to Virginia, I seized this chance to unite my family of origin with my husband and daughter, the only grandchild.

As I began my job search, I felt grateful for the training that also allowed me to teach and began to submit applications for clinical, research and academic positions. To my surprise, I was offered two teaching positions. So I hesitantly walked into the classroom and serendipitously found my passion.

For the past 10 years, I have had the opportunity to educate, influence and nurture students at two HBCUs. This journey has been rewarding as well as challenging and stressful. As a female faculty member in the department of psychology, I found that students often have competing demands and responsibilities that require more help than usual from a classroom instructor.

Advising and listening are a major part of my days. Within the department, women faculty offer more support outside the classroom to our department in general and to our students more specifically.

Similarly, my professional development has been challenging. Once engaged in academia, while I was occupied with service, I also became aware of the process of promotion and tenure as well as the need for scholarship. The lack of mentors and the inequities in promotion, rank and responsibilities have surely impacted my growth.

The formation of this group, the Sistah Colleague Circle, has not only revived me, but also revitalized my role as a researcher. I have been able to engage in scholarly discourse and sharpen my thinking about relevant issues.

I value my sistah colleagues’ opinions and experience. We are unique in that we represent a continuum of experiences, ranks and positions throughout the university. Similarly, we are at different places in our personal lives: married, divorced, parenting, care-giving parents and having different perspectives based on our stage and station in life.

Dr. Khadijah O. Miller: My first exposure to academic politics was in graduate school at a predominately white institution (PWI). I quickly learned that although higher education was a bastion of knowledge and philosophical ideas, it was not a free flowing world for certain thoughts, particularly those from a woman.

As I continued in higher education as an adjunct professor, I learned to be silent. I would listen, observe, even take notes, but say very little. My quietness was my protection. I would smile, but underneath that smile my mind raced to gather the experiences, alliances, personalities and political lessons I needed.

When I came to Norfolk State University more than eight years ago, I was not prepared. I was degreed and had more than five years of college teaching experience, including directing a Women’s Studies program. I had taught at large PWIs, small private colleges, technology driven universities and even created an online program at another. But I was not prepared for my experiences at an HBCU.

I didn’t think we would sing, “Kumbaya my Lord” and hold hands, but I did have a fairy tale idea, void of the politics, rhetoric and the bureaucracy of higher education.

So once again, I did a lot of silent smiling—watching my back and my front—and I learned. I am still learning. I learned that working, teaching, sharing and learning at an HBCU is a wonderful experience.

HBCUs touch the lives of so many underserved and underprepared students who otherwise would not have an opportunity to attend a four-year institution. They truly develop, engage and contribute to our global society in immense, strategic and effectively tangible ways.

I also learned that in order to survive, I needed to develop a mouthpiece: in part that is the Sistah Colleague Circle. To be able to engage in intellectual discussions that centered on a collective academic interest that empowers and uplifts my community was prime!

To structure in time to think, write, read, converse, listen and support freely created a space for me in academia that I’d never experienced. Now I am no longer silently smiling. I still smile, but I smile and speak and know that I have a sistah circle to support me. It’s like when a child knows that she is loved, protected and cared for—she becomes fearlessly fierce—as I am becoming. I thank my sistah circle.

Dr. Bernadette J. Holmes: My intellectual journey as a faculty member in higher education mirrors the experiences of most black women in the academy. I started my career in higher education as the “only” black in my department at a PWI. Experiences of racism shaped my professional career socialization.

In my second career move, I was the “only” woman in my department at an HBCU. Experiences of sexism shaped my professional identity as a scholar.

Being the “only” is always difficult. It silences you. It marginalizes you. I realized that my career trajectory was similar to my graduate school career, isolated and marginalized. The “only” is always expected to conform, not to challenge the status quo. As a sociologist, I am trained to analyze and critique the social world.

Intellectually, I understand the dynamics of power and the intersection of race, gender and class. Intellectually, I understand how structural inequality creates systemic barriers to mobility.

Notwithstanding my disciplinary understanding of these issues, my personal and professional experiences were conflicted. I consistently found it difficult to reconcile the reality of my lived experience as a black woman in the academy.

Whatever the institutional type and academic culture, gendered racism shapes the experiences of black women academicians and continues to marginalize and silence us, no matter what our academic rank. African American women remain at the bottom of the professional hierarchy and in a Catch 22 situation.

As mammies of the academy, we are to do the work, take care of others, not complain, and accept our subordinate status with a smile. If we push back and set boundaries, we are the modern day Sapphire, the Angry Black Woman. No matter how well we negotiate the politics of the academy, we are seen through the lens of the pervasive stereotypes that seeks to define us and shape our professional interactions. More often than not, there is no “safe intellectual space” for us as black women faculty. We must create it. We must reclaim it. We must demand it.

The Sistah Colleague Circle is my “safe intellectual space.” As the senior member of the circle, I have been intellectually and creatively inspired by the brilliance and promise of these powerful scholars. They are authentic sistah scholars who are committed to womanist ideals and scholarship. Across disciplines and rank, we have found a collaboration that is empowering.

For me this group is a professional respite from my administrative faculty role. We share ideas, and explore and examine our creative selves. We are blessed. Yes, we use this word in academic circles. There are no contradictions. We use a holistic approach in our intellectual work. The circle is a collaborative intellectual space infused with authenticity, culture and a safe space for black woman faculty.

Resistance strategies

In order to meet the demands of stressors faced, black women faculty can be effective in achieving goals of personal satisfaction and professional advancement within the academy when they employ resistance strategies.

Collegiality, community, spirituality and resourcefulness are key resistance strategies in supporting black women faculty in the academy. As a Sistah Colleague Circle, we have actualized these and other strategies as essential to maintain our identity and professional respect:

1. Seek out collaboration and mentoring — Collaboration and mentoring are particularly relevant in regards to scholarship. Connect with mentors who can facilitate the research and publication process. This is difficult but necessary. When mentoring by senior faculty or males is lacking, black women faculty can collaborate and peer-mentor. This type of collaboration can develop a sense of support and accountability for the group.

2. Embrace collegiality -— Successfully navigating the tenure and promotion process requires formal as well as informal interaction with colleagues. While formal interaction provides a route for understanding the written rules of the institution, informal interaction is crucial to navigating the bumpy political terrain and understanding the unwritten rules of the academy.

3. Share your expertise with the community — Give back to the community through your scholarship. Working with various community organizations allows women faculty to bridge the gap between their scholarly work and the needs of the community. This offers exposure and recognition to both the faculty member and the organization.

4. Be resourceful — Despite heavy teaching and advising responsibilities, scholarly productivity is essential for tenure and promotion. It’s imperative to exhibit creativity in dealing with challenges at the work place. Consider how to incorporate research and scholarship into as many aspects of your job as possible.

For example, require students in your classes to locate and summarize articles related to your research; develop innovative advising strategies and write them up as a manuscript for publication; or offer to present your research to the campus community. The objective is to be as efficient as possible.

5. Seek out professional development opportunities — Listen and share ideas. Make contact with faculty members inside and outside of your discipline to increase opportunities for networking and professional development. Take advantage of opportunities on your campus that will enhance your career objectives.

6. Develop a plan for success — Be strategic: Set at least one professional goal per year. Consider aligning your goal with institutional priorities in order to gain support. However, be realistic and learn to say no. Weigh what’s most important for you to achieve holistically for that academic year, i.e. a focus on teaching and research one year and then a focus on scholarship and grantsmanship another.

7. Embrace your spiritual side — Whether religious or secular in nature, a spiritual belief system can help you to be effective when dealing with personal and professional stressors. A key aspect of the circle is the responsibility that each member takes to nurture in her colleagues a spirit of contentment, patience and the belief that she is a part of a larger whole.

Black women have participated in American higher education for more than a century. An African proverb, “She who learns must also teach,” echoes the importance that has historically been attached to the black woman’s efforts to share knowledge with others regardless of the costs. In spite of formidable personal and professional barriers, we have made significant advances.

The history of black women in this country can best be described as a struggle for survival and identity along with a need and desire to support others. There is no doubt that we have done this with limited resources and great resiliency— in our Sistah Colleague Circle.


Karen Y. Holmes,
Ernestine A.W. Duncan,
Khadijah O. Miller,
Bernadette J. Holmes,

Holmes, Karen, Duncan, Ernestine A.W., Miller, Khadijah O., Holmes, Bernadette J. (2011, September). IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Sistah colleague circle embraces Womanist collaboration. Women in Higher Education, 20(9), p. 24-26. 


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