Monthly Archives: March 2013

Joi and pain: lessons in life and leadership

Dr. Joi Lewis is a leader in higher education and an example of a change agent for social justice. She graciously agreed to share some of her passion and energy on leadership, diversity and inclusion. I hope you find her words as powerful as I have found my conversations with her!

I am honored to write about what I believe leaders in higher education should know about diversity, inclusion, and social justice. These issues are foundational to my life’s work and my core values.  As a Student Affairs practitioner-scholar and a social justice activist one thing I know for sure is that as human beings we were created to be in community and be connected with each other, the earth and the universe. I also know for sure that systems of oppression hurt all of us, regardless of our privileged or marginalized identities.

Storytelling is a great way to share the complicated nature of these issues and help us to embrace their contradictions. Our stories connect us and remind us of our humanity; they prompt us to build the muscle in our heart that allows us to forgive, heal and experience the hurtful feelings that oppression produces.  Here are some of my life lessons in: Life, Love and Leadership.

Lesson 1:  I will share an often hidden secret: we all have both privileged and marginalized identities but we are most practiced at organizing around the places where we are marginalized. We are keenly aware of the places where we get targeted. For example as a Black Woman, I am very aware of how my intersected identities of race and gender often set me up to get targeted.

Lesson 2: Even though I possess some identities that have historically been marginalized, I still have much more work to do around interrupting the places that I have privilege and run my oppressor patterns. The term “oppressor patterns” sounds so harsh; it is not an identity that we are eager to take on.  The lesson is that we all have oppressor patterns.

Lesson 3: The good news is that even though we all possess oppressor patterns we can use our “special powers” for good and employ our cultural capital to influence institutional decision making that brings greater equity to everyone. That is better than “super powers” and we all have the ability to do it. Decisions we make about budget, who gets promoted, what programs get supported, or what policies are adapted can be used to positively support more people.

Many years ago I attended a diversity workshop at Metro State. The topic was spirituality and the facilitator was Dr. Jamie Washington. There were about thirty folks at the workshop. I was one of only three persons of color in the room. Jamie asked us to raise our hands if we were Christian. I raised my hand. He then said for the rest of the workshop, which was scheduled for three hours, he only wanted those of us who raised our hands to speak from our identities as Christians. I quickly raised my hand again and said “No that will not work for me. I am black.” Jamie, who is also African-American, said to me, “I see that you are black, but for the next three hours I am not interested in that identity.”

I was furious! What did he mean, how could he expect that of me?  He was asking me to sit in my privilege for those three hours as a Christian and to think about all the privileges associated with the being a Christian (days off for the holidays that I celebrate, Christmas music playing in the malls as early as November, generally no work day on my regularly scheduled worship day of the week, The Bible in hotel rooms, etc.).  This gave me pause for the many things I had not considered. We discussed much deeper issues and folks shared examples of how they and their loved ones had been persecuted for not being Christian and their religious beliefs. I heard about the small things that I just don’t notice, like the way auto-type automatically capitalizes Christian, but does not capitalize Muslim.  This experience changed the way I looked at my multiple and intersecting identities. Although I do not think playing a game of oppression Olympics is useful, it is important to note that all of our identities matter.  It is important for me to do my work around places where I have privilege, not only personally, but also in my role as a leader. This work allows me to have compassion for others who may have a privileged identity that I do not possess and who are sometimes unaware of how their privilege may be running negatively in my direction.

Further, it is helpful to have this lens as leaders when we are making critical decisions that affect our staff and students. We must be aware of how our privilege may make it difficult for us to see how we may run our oppressor patterns towards others.

What can you do to use yourself as instrument:

  1. Build authentic relationships across differences.
  2. Pursue opportunities to place yourself in situations where you are not in the privileged group or the majority.
  3. Read books and articles that will stretch you.
  4. Embrace discomfort, this will spread the discomfort and lighten the load for those who may feel marginalized.
  5. Do take this work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.
  6. Never stop learning.
  7. Make it a point to connect with someone who has a different social identity than you (race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, national origin, etc.)
  8. Take risks.
  9. Be curious.
  10. Have Fun!

Finally, know that this work is a process not a destination. You will make mistakes, get disappointed, have hurt feelings, laugh, cry, get angry, laugh, get upset, laugh and smile, mess-up, laugh again. Just keep at it. Repairing our humanity is worth it. Our institutions, our students and our communities are depending on it.

I am enjoying this journey of Joi and Pain; please join me as we move forward.

Onward, Joi

Dr. Joi Lewis


Rapping and leadership

Recently I spent time with a colleague who works in diversity and inclusion. I asked her what practical advice she would offer to leaders in higher education who want to enhance their cultural competencies. It was powerful for me that her starting point is community building through trust and commitment between people, similar to our leadership competency of relationship building and trust. She shared the work of Jamie Washington, PhD., Washington Consulting Group who lists two foundations for building a diverse community.

  1. Communities are built through building relationships of trust and commitment
  2. We are all doing the best we can (most of the time)

Then we moved on to talk about a specific tool for developing effective dialogue skills that leaders can use with their teams to create an inclusive work space. RAPS (Relating, Asking, Panning and Sharing) was developed by Dr. Kathy Obear, Alliance for Change Consulting, as a way to help leaders open up dialogue and to facilitate inclusion. Examples and ideas include:

RELATE to the person or their comment/behavior

  • I relate to what you’re saying, I…
  • I have felt the same way…did something similar….
  • I remember a time when I…
  • How do others relate to that comment?
  • Who can relate?
  • What you’re saying seems to relate to what so-and-so just said

ASK about the specifics behind the person’s comment or behavior

  • Could you say more about that…Tell me more…
  • Can you give us an example of what you’re saying…
  • Help me understand what you meant by that?
  • What do you mean when you say…
  • What were you hoping to communicate with that comment?
  • Can you help me understand what your intent was when you said/did…
  • Can you give me some background on this situation…
  • How were you impacted when….
  • What were you feeling when…
  • What’s your perspective about…

PAN the environment and yourself; look for the whole picture and describe what you notice

  • I’m noticing I’m feeling…anyone else?
  • I notice a dynamic in our group…
  • I noticed how quiet everyone just got…I’m wondering what is going on for folks?
  • You seem to feel passionately about that…
  • It seems some people were impacted by that statement, am I right?
  • I’ve been noticing that people get interrupted and talked over as they try to share…
  • This response is unusual for you….I’m wondering what else is going on for you?
  • It seems my comment/behavior had an impact on you…
  • You seemed to have shut down…
  • The energy in the discussion seemed to shift after…

SHARE about yourself ~ self-disclose a story, example; your feelings or reactions

  • When I hear you say that I think/feel….
  • Just last week I…
  • I remember when I…
  • I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable…
  • I assume you meant that as a joke, but here’s the impact it had on me…
  • The dilemma I’m in is….

Where can you add a little Rapping to your leadership style?

Todd Thorsgaard

Seeking diverse perspectives

diversity quoteLeaders in higher education today are facing many challenges. Some of them include: changing demographics, reduced state and federal funding, increased competition for students, and disruptive innovation in technology and learning delivery.  These challenges cannot be solved by the same approaches we have used in the past. They can only be solved with new breakthrough solutions that are generated through diversity of thought and action.

With this in mind, encouraging diversity of thought and seeking diverse perspectives becomes an imperative in our workplaces. But how do we begin cultivating this skill in ourselves and others? How do we stay curious and ask the right questions?

As I was looking for a resource to help leaders seek diverse perspectives, I found a useful link at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing:

Additionally, here are some helpful questions designed by Wendy Morris, Founder of the Creative Leadership Studio. I encourage you to use these questions with a group of your peers or with those whom you lead. I certainly plan on it!

1)      Think of a group you are (or have been) part of that has some diversity. Consider who speaks in the group. Who has the most “air-time?” Is everyone heard? If not, what might you do to change it? How could you start to do this right away?

2)       How do you respond when someone comes to you with a diverse perspective that differs from your own? How would you like to respond?

3)      Have you ever been surprised by a perspective you hadn’t thought of that helped you see things in a new way?

What methods have you employed to seek diverse perspectives?

Anita Rios

Fight or flight?

Which do I choose? How do I react when I encounter my own biases or the biases of others? What do I do when I am aware of prejudicial behaviors in the work setting? Like other members of the human race, I fight or I flee. Because of my strong feelings on racial humor I may fight and be confrontational when I encounter it. In situations related to cultural or religious differences, my own uncertainty and discomfort can lead me to avoid the issue and hope it goes away. In the long run I am not acting as a role model for inclusion by being confrontational and I am not making a true difference by avoiding! As leaders in higher education, I believe we need to expand our tool box of responses and add a third option, being a proactive “change agent.”

When I am a change agent I am proactively taking steps to promote inclusive behaviors, rather than reacting to situations. I am not on the lookout for unacceptable behaviors to confront or shying away from uncomfortable situations. I am purposely choosing to learn more, share more and take action in a supportive way. I have learned that when I confront a colleague or team member it usually leads to anger or retreat and a short term response. If I am able to give feedback in a more respectful manner we may be able to open up a dialogue and discover options for growth and change, in both of us!

I still find myself wanting to react and confront ideas or actions I disagree with or avoid those “certain sticky” issues related to diversity. It takes work but when I focus on being a role model as a change agent I know I am making difference. I try to:

  • Listen more than talk
  • Reach out and learn more about diverse cultures, backgrounds, perspectives
  • Ask questions to challenge assumptions
  • Include the input and ideas of everyone
  • Remain open-minded
  • Take action to address inappropriate behavior, in a supportive and respectful way
  • Negotiate alternatives to address conflicts
  • Demonstrate inclusive behaviors in my day-to-day actions and language

What causes you to be a fighter or an avoider? Where do you have an opportunity to become a change agent for diversity and inclusion?

Todd Thorsgaard

Listening and blind spots

Listening is a crucial skill for all types of leadership, but it’s especially important for leading diverse groups.  A recent blog from Harvard Business Review included some good tips for listening past your blind spots.

Authors Mark Goulston and John Ullmen have identified four levels of listening.

  1. Level One: Avoidance Listening = Listening Over.  At this level, listeners are not seeking to connect. They may not even stop texting!
  2. Level Two: Defensive Listening = Listening At.  Level two listeners are busy preparing their counter-points rather than seeking to understand the speaker’s message.
  3. Level Three: Problem-Solving Listening = Listening To.  Problem-solving and seeking solutions can be an effective way of listening – just be sure that’s what the speaker really wants.
  4. Level Four: Connective Listening = Listening Into.  At this level, the listener is focusing on the speaker and seeking to discover what is important from

It’s almost impossible to connect with diverse audiences without giving your full attention.  Seeking to listen at level four is a good way to ensure that you are fully present.

What techniques do you use to reach level four?

Dee Anne Bonebright

The danger of a single story

We’ve been talking this month about ways that valuing diversity is critical for leaders in higher education.  But what does that look like?  How can I address the big challenges we face?

AdichieAccording to the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, one important step is to recognize the importance of stories.  In this TED talk, she makes a compelling case that when we only know one thing about a person or a place, we can’t engage in real interactions.  People’s lives and cultures are built on many overlapping stories.  If all we know about someone is that she was a high school dropout, or that his family was homeless, or that her parents are immigrants, we won’t be able to create the kind of environment that will help them succeed.

Early in my career, I supervised a team that included an older woman from a culture differnt than mine. The relationship did not start out well. I realize now that I was telling myself a very small story about her – she was older, we didn’t share a culture, she had difficulty performing some of the work tasks – and I didn’t make the effort to learn more. I thought I was behaving professionally, but I think she found me to be uncaring.

Our story had a happy ending.  A few months later we both became pregnant, I with my first child and she with her third. Suddenly we had a common bond, things to talk about in the lunch room. This opened communication and created a smoother working relationship. This experience taught me a lot about leading diverse teams.

In the talk, Adichie shares her experiences with learning to tell her own stories and hear others.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
  • Power is the ability, not just to tell a single story about another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
  • I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or that person

I’d encourage you to view the talk, and consider discussing it together in a team meeting. Ask yourself and your team – how can we seek a balance of stories?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Closing the achievement gap

Our MnSCU Board of Trustees held a study session in January, 2013 focused on Minnesota’s achievement gap in educational performance.  As a leader within higher education, I was shocked by some of the statistics that were presented:

  • While 94% of white children are deemed ready for kindergarten, that number drops drastically for children of color, averaging around 60%.
  • In high school, the percentage of white students meeting the ACT college readiness standard for math is nearly twice as high as the average for students of color
  • Minnesota’s high school graduation rates are abysmal, ranking last in the nation for several ethnic groups

This disparity in achievement is a reality across the United States. As a system, MnSCU is poised to help solve this problem.  We’ve set some aggressive goals and are making strides toward closing this gap in terms of college readiness and completion. We are one of Minnesota’s best resources for turning this trend around.  But there is a lot more work to be done.  In order to achieve our goals, the Board presentation stated that we need to have more diverse and culturally competent faculty and staff and create a more supportive climate.

This is a challenge for all of us in higher education.  The topics we’ve been discussing this month will make a difference for all of our students and for the whole state.   If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to view the presentation at

What is your institution doing to create a more diverse and welcoming environment for our students? Post your ideas and suggestions in the comments section so we can work together to address this problem.

Dee Anne Bonebright

The institutional dimension of diversity

  • Red tape
  • Bureaucracy
  • Policies
  • Rules

How do you react when you read that list? I know that I am often frustrated by the institutional “red tape” that gets in the way of new ideas or the policies and rules that seem to limit my options. And who likes being a part of a bureaucracy?

Diversity graphic

Yet, because I work in an institution, I am able to multiply my individual contribution to higher education and to students. In the same way, building the principles and values of diversity and inclusion into our policies, rules, red tape, and even our bureaucracy will multiple our personal and academic efforts to achieve equity and excellence in higher education. The culture and infrastructure of our institutions influence the work and the lives of every faculty member, staff member and student. As leaders, our role is to hold our institutions accountable and continually assess the progress we are making in achieving success for all students and all employees.

It comes back to asking, “what can I do?” Each of us can have an impact on the institutional dimension of diversity by taking the following actions:

  1. Share the processes, policies and procedures that promote diversity with your team
  2. Create expectations for your team related to training and education on diversity
  3. As part of your leadership meetings, review and ask if the policies and procedures that promote diversity are adequate and effective
  4. Hold yourself and your team accountable to the policies and procedures promoting diversity
  5. Understand how your institutions commitment to diversity is communicated and use the process

In the end, a little bureaucracy can make a positive difference in our institutions and on all of our students.

Todd Thorsgaard


The academic dimension of diversity

Last night as I was helping my daughter pack her suitcase for a high school band trip, I noticed one of my favorite books lying on her bed: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. I remember reading it as a college student and having part of the early 20th century African-American experience opened to me.

It made me think what a gift we give our students when the curriculum exposes them to different ways of knowing, being, and experiencing the world.

In our colleges and universities, we have a great opportunity to integrate diversity into the academic domain through research, teaching, and student life. Here are a few approaches that can help:

  1. Supporting research that includes diverse voices and frameworks
  2. Ensuring that the curriculum in every discipline reflects a broad range of viewpoints, such as:
    1. including cross-cultural focuses in a social work course
    2. reflecting on minority interpretations of events in a history course 
    3. assessing the cultural implications of laws in political science 
  3. Encouraging cultural student programming and diverse student groups on campus

Diversity graphic

When you think about your role as a leader, how can you use your influence to ensure that equity and diversity are addressed in the academic domain to benefit student learning and student life?

Anita Rios

The personal dimension of diversity

As a leader, I know that it’s important to promote an educational environment where equity and diversity are recognized as core values and integrated into our daily work.  In order to be successful, this work has to begin with me.

The graphic Anita introduced on Monday Diversity graphicillustrates three dimensions of diversity: personal, academic, and institutional.  I think that the personal dimension is the foundation on which the other dimensions can be built.  We as leaders need to model positive behaviors of self-reflection, learning, and engagement with individuals and communities that are different from ourselves.

My ongoing challenge is to understand what it means to come from a place of privilege and how that impacts my leadership behaviors. Over the past few years, I have stretched outside of my comfort zone to challenge my assumptions and learn about other ways of being in the world.  These suggestions from our MnSCU division of diversity and equity have helped me meet the challenge:

  • Commit to ongoing study and learning around issues of diversity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.
  • Learn the history of the nation(s) that inhabited the land on which my institution and community sits
  • Engage with communities that are not my own by participating in programs, events, volunteer activities, and intentional conversations
  • Have coffee with diversity leaders on my campus – and spend most of the time listening
  • Make a commitment to talk substantively about equity and diversity in my public addresses and private conversations, even though I will make mistakes and feel uncomfortable at times

I also found some useful tips in this blog from Harvard Business Review.  The author provided helpful guidelines about recognizing and managing our blind spots which work well when engaging in conversations about diversity.

Recognizing Your Blind Spots

•assuming that others see what you see, feel what you feel, and think what you think, since that’s rarely the case
•failing to recognize that emotions, such as fear and distrust, change how you and others interpret and talk about reality
•thinking you understand and remember what others say, when you really only remember what you think about what they’ve said.
•underestimating your own propensity to have conversational blind spots!

•paying attention to and minimizing the time you “own” the conversational space
•sharing that space by asking open-ended discovery questions, to which you don’t know the answers, so you stay curious (i.e. What influenced your thinking?)
•listening non-judgmentally to the answers
•asking follow-up questions

Source:  Judith E. Glaser,  Why You’re Talking Past Each Other, and How to Stop.  HBR Blog Network, 20 December 2012.

I encourage you to challenge yourself to try one of these techniques over the next few weeks.

Dee Anne Bonebright