Nearly 20 years ago at the 1995 NASPA national conference, Stanford University CA vice-provost and dean for student affairs Dr. Mary McKinney Edmonds noted an exodus of black women from student affairs due to racism.
“We need to establish supportive bonds among ourselves, because as you will hear, it is lonely at top, especially in predominantly white institutions,” she said.
By 2004 this seed grew into the African American Women’s Summit (AAWS), a workshop held each year just before the NASPA annual meeting. Leaders share their experiences to help others rise above under-representation, isolation and marginalization. As one put it, “We want these young women to know this—we did it and you can do it too, and we’re going to show you how!”
At the 2013 NASPA conference in Orlando FL, Dr. Nicole M. West discussed AAWS as a case study in professional development by and for African American women. West is the learning and development facilitator at the University of South Florida; the study was her dissertation research. Co-presenters were her USF advisor associate professor Dr. Wilma J. Henry and USF graduate assistant Dionne J. Ferguson, an attorney and doctoral candidate.
By surveys and interviews with Summit faculty and those who had attended it at least three times, she explored:
1. How does the Summit help women to resist the effects of under-representation, isolation and marginalization?
2. How does it contribute to their personal wellbeing?
3. How does it contribute to their professional success?
She identified themes that can help colleges develop effective programs on campus to support the personal and professional success of African American women. Such support helps not only individuals but higher education overall by retaining talented women on campus.
Under-representation, isolation and marginalization are broad terms, which she invited participants to define for themselves. Most said they were the only, or one of the few, African American women in their department or building. That limited their access to decision-making and representation of their concerns in the larger group.
By isolation they meant physical seclusion and overall lack of support. One staffer had an office separate from the rest of her department: “You put me on the second floor. Nobody even knows I’m here.”
Marginalization related to their struggle to participate in office life and gain full access to the surrounding culture. Some described exclusive behavior by those around them, pushing them to the fringes.
The Summits offered them a safe place to talk about their experiences without worry about how they would be perceived.
Although the women had different specific experiences, the AAWS helped them in similar ways:
- Identifying and validating oppressive experiences. Yes, African American women do have different experiences from white women and men. No, you are not being over-sensitive. You are not crazy; it is not all in your mind. One said, “For me it reaffirmed that even though their situation may not have been the same as mine, there were other women who felt marginalized or who felt like they were an island by themselves.”
- Sharing strategies to resist oppression. They learned to access available sources of information and support. They strengthened their skills in communication to challenge situations in which they were under-represented, isolated or marginalized. Applying the strategy of reframing negative situations, the woman hidden away on the second floor realized the lack of interruptions gave her more time for her graduate studies.
- Reconsidering their identity as African American women. At the Summits they observed African American women in leadership and redefined their own identities. They replaced negative stereotypes of African American women with constructive ones in a supportive setting.
“You know sometimes when you feel isolated and marginalized, you just forget who you are, and you forget the value you bring to any situation. And I think coming to the Summit is like a shot in the arm,” one participant said.
Participants defined personal wellbeing as physical, spiritual and interpersonal health. Most stressed the importance of faith and spending time with people they care about.
The Summits promoted their personal wellbeing by:
- Emphasizing physical health. One participant said she restarted her physical exercise program even before the Summit because she knew it was going to come up. Heart attacks are the number one killer of African American women nationwide. For a successful career in highstress jobs, they were inspired to recommit to eating right, daily exercise and clear boundaries for the demands on their time.
- Validating the role of spirituality. One told her, “One of the biggest things I do is to pray. Because I feel like when I tap into my source, I feel more at peace with myself.” This doesn’t always feel safe or acceptable to admit on a campus with a secular culture.
AAWS participants valued the open flow with which faculty addressed faith and career as parts of a larger whole. Key messages included knowing your inner self, standing up for your beliefs and participating in spiritual activities.
- Getting real about personal relationships. Family and friends are important, perhaps especially so when your personal culture is different from the one that surrounds you at work. They talked about the importance of interactions with other African American women; one mentioned a lasting friendship that grew out of the Summit. They discussed issues of dating and marriage.
Three-quarters are single and child-free; the AAWS provided a safe place to accept their family status.
As with the other themes, participants offered their own definitions of professional success. Most described it in terms of contentment, purpose and calling rather than the position title on the door. One said, “I think the success piece comes when what you’re doing is making an impact and it shows that people are changing, lives are changing, policies are changing because of the work that you do.”
They noted the challenge of staying true to their core values in work environments that sometimes challenged those values. Some mentioned mentoring African American colleagues and students as an indicator of career success. Other indicators included earning a terminal degree and becoming known in their profession.
AAWS contributed to career success by creating opportunities for mentoring and networking as well as encouraging other forms of professional development:
- Mentoring. AAWS faulty are experienced senior-level administrators in student affairs. Thus the participants met women in roles they aspired to fill. They enjoyed informal, impromptu counseling (one called it “on-the-spot mentoring”) and genuine interest in their career success.
- Networking. Participants exchanged contact information, learned about job opportunities and got to know leaders in the field, who introduced them to wider networks. One said, “Another thing that comes from the Summit is knowing how to work a network. How to reach out to people. How to make those connections, to maintain those connections and how small the field really is.”
- Encouraging professional development. The Summits inspired several to pursue a doctorate and publish scholarly work. “They don’t necessarily say things that I don’t think about, but they put it in a way that mobilizes me,” one said. AAWS also encourages them to take advantage of seminars, institutes, internships, fellowships and grants.
Panel of participants
At the “By Us, For Us” session at the 2013 NASPA, four women in West’s study noted their gains from AAWS.
• Tonya Baker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, found meeting with other African American women to be a powerful experience. She realized that she was now able to articulate her needs to her employer. She is still in touch with women she met through the Summit.
• Angela Duncan, a graduate fellow and part-time instructor at the University of Louisville KY, wasn’t thinking of graduate study when she attended her first AAWS. “Just walking into a room full of African American women was a change,” she said. She got tips for keeping a healthy balance and role models to show it can be done. By the 2013 NASPA in March, her PhD was nearly complete.
• Jarquetta Egeston, director of the Center for Student Involvement at Roosevelt University IL, first attended as an undergraduate to learn more about the field of student affairs. In getting to know black women in the field, she found both a mentor and her calling.
• Dr. Marie Humphrey, director of residence life at Regis University CO, found the Summit both critical and profound for her professional development. It gave her learning opportunities and the constant encouragement of a sisterhood. “It’s like an addiction. I need it every year,” she said.
By us, for us
“Support systems include opportunities for African American women to form sister circles and share counterstories that refute some of the negative information they may have received during their daily campus routines,” Dr. Mary Howard-Hamilton, a founder of the African American Women’s Summit at NASPA, wrote in 2003. “The role models and facilitators of these support groups should be African American women.”
She and other AAWS founders created such a venue for black American women to gather and affirm each other as individuals. Black feminist thought emphasizes African American women’s need for spaces created by and for themselves.
West and her co-presenters offered a model of professional development by and for African American women based on her findings about ways the AAWS helped participants personally and professionally. The model falls in the overlap between personal and professional.
Program planning needs to consider:
• Curriculum: What will be covered?
• Facilitation: Who will lead or teach it?
• Delivery: How, when and where will it happen?
Based on the experiences of AAWS participants, targeted professional development programs by and for African American women can increase their satisfaction, success and retention on campus, far beyond the student affairs field.
Formal and informal groups on campus can serve many of the purposes achieved by AAWS. They can be organized from above, initiated by a few women in prominent positions or grown from the grassroots. African American women can also connect through spiritual communities, civic organizations, sports teams and social media.
Administrators need to recognize the importance of black women’s support groups as safe havens. Such groups do not threaten but benefit the school as a whole. Administrators can best support African American women by asking what kinds of support they want. Professional development should be created not just for black women but by them and in response to their identified needs.
For some AAWS participants, the pre-NASPA Summit was the one day all year that they were genuinely listened to and heard. Until African American women reach a critical mass in prominent positions on campus and in our wider society, the need will continue for professional development programs “by us, for us.”