A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a lecture at Purdue University by Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP). In the lecture that she entitled, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” one of the key sentiments that she discussed was the notion of women doing the walking while men do the talking. In this, she mentioned that throughout history, women are the major catalysts for social change and progress. MHP’s sentiment is also echoed by Beyoncé Knowles in her song, “Upgrade U,” “I can do for you what Martin did for the people / Ran by the men, but the women keep the tempo.” In reflecting on the power of women advocating for progress, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the role that strong women have played in my life. While this is my story, one of the things that I’ve found is that oftentimes, men learn most about their identities women’s mentorship of them. In my own development, there are three key lessons that I utilize on a daily basis because of these women.
Lesson 1: Determination
My parents had me while they were fresh out of high school, and divorced shortly after I was two years old. My story, in this regard, is like many other folks. As a single mom, my mother worked her tail off to provide for me. Oftentimes, she’d work two jobs at minimum wage to keep us afloat. Because I lived with my mother throughout childhood, I saw her dedication and persistence. She put herself through college taking night classes while I was in grade school, and one of the proudest moments was when she graduated and became a nurse.
She’s been working onwards and upwards, and her persistence and drive was one of the core lessons she espoused in me. While she is a nurse by trade, she also was a Marion County Sheriff Deputy. Again, she was willing to put herself through the training and veritable boot camp that came with law enforcement training, I saw her determination again. She’s a strong woman, and she taught me the value of determination, the value of persistence, and never giving up. Because of her, I am able to practice resiliency and have adopted a “Fail Forward” attitude.
Lesson 2: People Matter
Part of my professional journey in student affairs has been working with unique student populations. For the first four years of my journey, I worked at two early-entrance-to-college programs. They were very similar, but very different at the same time. At the Indiana Academy, I worked for Vickie Barton, who taught me the importance of relationships with leadership. Through her actions and mentorship, she lived and emphasized kindness as a way to develop relationships with students.
Vickie reinforced the idea that every student has a story, and, if working with students, one must create a safe, kind environment for students to share their story. Vickie often espoused the following statement, “Be kind in all things to all people all of the time. Be kind!” Vickie reinforced in me (1) that kindness can change the world, and (2) that working/building relationships with students is an amazing opportunity and experience. We can learn so much from the brilliant students we work with on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I worked for Vickie Barton, that I saw this sentiment truly in action on a daily basis. People matter!
Lesson 3: Share Your Story
As I navigated a new professional role at Purdue University, I was also in the process of navigating a new supervisor, Kelley Stier. Now, I’ve been lucky to work with/for some pretty remarkable women. With Kelley, I started to understand the power of people’s stories. Now, if there’s one strength that I love and identify with on a daily basis, it’s context. What is context? It’s history, a collection of stories. People are a collection of stories, and these stories matter. In my work, I learn and connect with people through our individual and collective stories/experience.
As I’ve worked to learn about other stories, one area that I’ve struggled has been sharing my story. I’ve not been comfortable being vulnerable, and sharing my story (the weight loss, my missteps in my first few years as a professional, maturing, etc). It wasn’t until I worked with Kelley, until I started getting challenged to share it more–to share it with my students, my colleagues, and others. Kelley was a great mentor in that she challenged me to find my voice in student affairs, and challenged me to share my ideas with others and to put myself out there. Kelley constantly reminded me that my story is important, and can provide some powerful insights for others.
I’ll never forget the day in a one-on-one that she asked me I had ever thought about public speaking. My reaction was (and still is) a resounding, “NO. It’s my least favorite thing ever!” But it’s the constant reminder that I’ve got things to share that is most important to me. In reflecting on the importance of sharing my story, I’m often reminded about Kelley’s emphasis on being authentic. If I’m building authentic relationships with the people I interact with on a daily basis, I’ve got be comfortable sharing my story. ”It begins with the story of oneself…and that is the core of authenticity” (Meyers, 2011, 52).
It’s because of the strong women in my life, that I’ve been able to progress and evolve as both a feminist and a man. Women have played/continue to play a pivotal role in my development, and it’s because women have “done the walking” and “[kept] the tempo” that I’ve been able to be an advocate for gender equity. Author Michael Kaufman asserts that through women’s leadership, men can be fierce advocates for gender equity. He notes, “Men today support gender equality not only because we know it is fair and right and just, but because it will enable the women in our lives to be safer, to exercise their personal and social power, and because many of its initiatives will inspire us to be better fathers, better friends and better partners.” As I mentioned, women have played a pivotal role in my life, and it’s because of these strong women and the work that they’ve done with me that I am an advocate and ally for equity. To not do so would be ignoring the important lessons that they’ve taught me. These are lessons that not only transcend gender, but have been central to many of my successes both personally and professionally. Additionally, these three lessons are core to my work with college men. If I can help them to reflect on the powerful lessons that they’ve been taught at the hands of strong women, then that’s just the start of a much larger conversation.
Sean Eddington is a Residence Education Coordinator at Purdue University.
Kaufman, M. (2013). “Feminism: Helping Men Be Free.” Retrieved from http://www.michaelkaufman.com/2013/feminism-helping-men-be-free/
Meyers, B. (2012). Take the lead. New York: Atria Paperback