Last night, I got a text from my friend Kate that simply said, “Love Michelle!!” I knew she was talking about the First Lady’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I hadn’t been watching as I was getting my daughter ready for bed and for the next day’s session of vacation bible school. After I texted Kate back, she said she had been doing the same with her two girls but encouraged me to watch. Chills, is what she wrote back, predicting the feeling I’d get when I watched. Indeed. Chills and tears, as I wrote back to Kate this morning, after watching the speech in my office.
A number of the lines from The First Lady’s speech align with how we’ve discussed the concept of feminist leadership on this blog. We certainly are better together. Yes, things are so much bigger than any one person and yet everyone has to know and feel they matter. And the ceiling is ready to be broken. Then, of course, there’s Ms. Obama’s line that has been getting much of the public’s attention. She and her spouse have taught their children that when others “go low, we go high.” Yes, yes, yes.
In our work in higher education and in these summer months of sunshine, performance appraisals, and a few less meetings, can we commit to a life of “going high?” As we work with our orientation leaders and welcome new students, are we talking with new students with the kind of “decency and grace” the First Lady referenced about her spouse’s work when these new students missed a deadline or seem not to have read the information we sent them? How do the sentiments of the social justice movements not just influence the big waves of activism on our campuses but also the everyday interactions of crafting a thoughtful email or responding to a co-worker? Michelle Obama’s speech weaved the inspirational with the everyday within a framework of reflection and a call not to give up on the future. The mention of her daughters getting into the car to go to school and waking up every morning in a house built by slaves shows how the history of individuals’ actions chart the course for others in unimaginable ways. Who we are today is who our students see as the models of their futures. When we, as student affairs professionals, show students love and compassion and hold them accountable we are getting them ready for the future. But holding students accountable without love and compassion is not worthy of our efforts. Are we teaching students how the academy, a space in which elitism is often fueled by tenure-tracks and terminal degrees, need not feel cold because in an educational space where the student who was not born in one of these united states, and the student who has spent time in camouflage in a desert, and the student who has only attended private schools are all welcomed? And, we welcome all of them because at their core they are all students. We have opened the doors of higher education so that these three and many others could learn together.
What is often difficult during an election season is that we surround ourselves with those who think like us. It’s hard to hang out with those we characterize as going low. Sometimes we tiptoe around politics at family gatherings as we don’t want to go “there.” Are we doing this at work, too? Everyone’s perception, as we all know, is certainly not the same. And, feminist leadership is not about getting a group of people with black, brown, and white skin around the table who politically all align and have a similar understanding of education. Feminist leadership in student affairs and in higher education is the other parts of the First Lady’s speech. The parts of not taking the easy way out, of not giving up, of being steady and measured. All of us have to work with people who are not like us and do things differently. How do we lead with those different from us? Do we avoid it or do we embrace it? I find myself wanting to jump in and fix things immediately. Yet, my job has taught me that the steady and measured approach is the most successful. It’s the continuity of trying every day to begin centered, to not get (too) angry, and to remember to be kind, loving, and caring. Be graceful and decent as a means of showing steadiness and decency. Hard, hard work. Hard work we must do to be models for students. And, for me, there but for the grace of God I go.