CSUSB hosts first ever statewide Women of Color in Academia Symposium

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By Loydie Burmah

California State University’s (CSUSB) Women of Color in Academia (WOC in Academia) hosted the first CSU-wide symposium on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 to discuss the extensive, revelatory experiences of Black, Indigenous, Women of Color (BIWOC) faculty. 

Created by co-chairs Dr. Nancy Acevedo-Gil, Dr. Angie Otiniano Verissimo, and Dr. Liliana Conlisk-Gallegos, the virtual academic discussion featured diverse BIWOC panelists who shared their invaluable experiences and research regarding intersectionality, representation, institutionalized heteropatriarchy, racism, and sexism. 

Dr. Acevedo-Gil stated that in creation of the panel, WOC in Academia thought about “how institutions reproduce marginalization and subjugation for different intersecting identities.” 

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Panelists included Dr. Kimberly Griffin, Dr. Leslie D. Gonzales, Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton, and Dr. Yvette J. Saavedra, who shared their research and personal experiences.

Dr. Otiniano Verissimo began the symposium by sharing a welcome message and thanking all panelists for their illuminative contributions, and participants for attending in solidarity. 

Dr. Acevedo-Gil thanked Provost Dr. Shari McMahan’s (Provost and Vice President the Provost for Academic Affairs) consistent support. She also acknowledged her late colleague Dr. Lynne T. Diaz-Rico, Professor of Teacher Education & Foundation (TEF) as well as Coordinator of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program for her invaluable service.

Dr. Diaz-Rico was founder of the TESOL program, former president for the California chapter of TESOL, and has contributed over 50 publications to the education field. 

“Beyond that, she’s contributed to the retention of women of color and other junior colleagues in San Bernardino,” stated Acevedo-Gil.  She closed by further clarifying that she wanted to acknowledge Dr. Diaz-Rico’s time, dedication, and advocacy as well as her family. 

Dr. Conlisk-Gallegos provided a reading of the official CSUSB Land Acknowledgement from the Office of Tribal Relations which can be accessed through their webpage. She finished with a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always, and is, and will be again.” 

Dr. Gonzales (Associate Professor and Coordinator in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Learning Unit at Michigan State University) began the “Women of Color Faculty: Accounting for Intersectionality in Systems of Higher Education” session preluding themes of representation of WOC in the academy, a literature review and reoccurring themes, and retention of WOC.

“When we talk about the representation of women of color—just generally in the United States—Black, Latinx, Native American women—they make up roughly 12.5 percent of the population,” Dr. Griffin noted. She is a Professor in Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at University of Maryland.

According to the data collected by Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) Institute (2016), underrepresented minorities as a percent of various U.S. faculty appointment types ranked at 8.6 percent in 1993. By 2013, this percentage increased to 12.7 percent.

“However, we also can see based on this data, that the gains that have been made, have been largely because there’s been an increase in representation of underrepresented minority faculty in the positions in the academy that are the most precarious and are at the lowest ranks,” Griffin clarified.

When reviewing disaggregated information regarding the experiences of women of color, Griffin stated that WOC are less likely to be on tenure track, tenured, or at senior levels of the institutions (full professors or senior administrators) than both white women and men of color. 

“Some of these disparities and differences come into stark relief when we start thinking about pay equity and how some of this positioning really translates to financial implications for individuals and their families,” she stated. 

The notion that women of color are “located in the most precarious of ranks” despite being considered “the largest subgroup attending higher education” was a point brought up by Dr. Gonzales.  She discussed the idea of the institutional pipeline and the hiring process:

“We often make this reference to the pipeline. This means, building a deeper, a more diverse—racially, gender, and otherwise— pool. And then, sourcing from that pipeline for our faculty hires,” Gonzales remarked. 

According to research by Aaron Clauset, Samuel Arbesman and Daniel B. Larremore in 2015, “19,000 tenured faculty or those hired into tenure-track positions across computer science, business, and history, 86% were drawn from the same 461 departments across the U.S. and Canada.”

“We could say this another way, and realize that, the bulk of faculty hires in these disciplines but also in most other disciplines come from about a quarter of all doctoral granting programs,” Gonzales continued. 

“Now, why does this matter? This matters because those institutions from which we’re doing a lot of the hiring—or the bulk of the hiring—are historically elite, selective, and white dominant institutions,” Gonzales concluded.

The retention failure in WOC

In order to understand how institutions are failing to retain women of color in the academy, Dr. Griffin listed five course themes: presumption of incompetence, isolation and exclusion, cultural taxation and emotional labor, less mentorship and sponsorship, and lastly, epistemic exclusion and injustice. 

Women of color are often assumed to operate at “lower levels of ability” based on implicit and explicit biases: due to small numbers, women of color find difficulty in developing a sense of community; women of color are expected to engage in “care work” or “academic motherhood work”; [there is a lack of] professional networks for advancement; the work of women of color is considered as “invalid” or “less rigorous,” according to Griffin.

Both Dr. Gonzales and Dr. Griffin concluded that in relation to barriers and challenges for women of color, if institutions continue to adhere to status quo, they will continue to remain stagnant. 

Unique contributions will be lost in mentorship (role models and possibile models), teaching (active and engaged pedagogies, instructional innovation, diversity and learning), and research (innovation and novel perspectives, theoretical development), Griffin stated.

Dr. Ramirez-Stapleton (Associate Professor in the Department of Deaf Studies at CSU Northridge), continued the conversation initiated by Dr. Griffin and Dr. Gonzales by sharing A Love Letter to Women Faculty of Color acknowledging and honoring the experiences of women of color in the academy. 

“I’m talking to all 5,448 of us—give or take a few women of color faculty in the CSU system. The full-time, the part-time, the part-time folks who actually work full-time, the tenure track, the assistants, the associates, the fulls, and everybody in between,” Ramirez-Stapleton began. 

Her letter recognized women of faculty from diverse sexualities, gender, ethnicities, communication styles, languages, dialects, as well as both physical and learning abilities. 

“There are 23 campuses, and again, over 5,448 of us. I can’t capture all of our stories and experiences. The ups and the downs, the ‘a-ha’ moments, the silent tears, the extra hours, the disappointments, the extreme joy, and everything in between,” Ramirez-Stapleton stated. 

She then shared a series of experiences provided by women of color faculty responding to the question of: “what is it like to be a woman of a color faculty at your CSU?” 

Experiences shared included: personal hardships, navigating perceived incompetence, ableism, scrutiny, joy, camaraderie, and perseverance. 

“So, to all of us—all 5,448 of us. Thank you. Thank you for your work, thank you for your time, thank you for the endless hours of giving, thank you for your laughter,” Ramirez-Stapleton said as she concluded her letter. 

“For the joy you bring the classroom, to the committee meetings… Thank you for those ‘side-eyes’ that help me realize that I am not alone.  Thank you. And I love you.”

Solidarity, not silence for WOC

Dr. Saavedra (Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Oregon) then led a session for “Fostering Counterspaces for Women of Color Faculty” in which she reflected upon her experiences within the academy and how developing spaces like WOC in Academia can create solidarity. 

She thanked her “colegas” (colleagues) Dr. Conlisk-Gallegos, Dr. Acevedo-Gil, and Dr. Otiniano Verissimo as integral individuals who shaped the contemporary existence of the CSUSB WOC in Academia group. She also detailed how privileged she felt in maturing the organization’s community.

“My presentation today speaks about the importance of creating and fostering spaces that are critical for the survival, growth, and the support of Black, Indigenous, Women of Color faculty in academia,” Dr Saavedra remarked. 

She described that survival in academia for many women of color is directed by the need to contend with institutionalized racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, classism, “and countless other -isms.”

Unbalanced power structures that exist within the academy perpetuate as well as relegate minoritized groups into dangerous positions that create extremely emotional, psychological, and physical distress.

“As a Chicana lesbian, first-generation college graduate, and first-generation professor—untenured and on the tenure track—I have encountered and endured countless moments, interactions, situations where keeping quiet was the only way to survive,” Dr. Saavedra acknowledged. 

She placed into perspective how departmental or campus policies—especially with committees related to diversity and equity—often force unprotected faculty members into silence. 

“I share this brief example to engage a question that underscores what most minority women faculty experience. ‘How do I survive and thrive in an institution and process, in which the discourse does not speak to our lived realities?’” Dr. Saavedra asserted.  

As Dr. Griffin and Dr. Gonzales presented in their session, Dr. Saavedra reiterated what women of color have to reckon with for advancement in the academy. Some examples are minimal recognition for their research, disregard for community-based service, retaliation for communicating about injustices, and ignoring of emotional labor for students, among other obstacles. 

By creating spaces of support and collective liberation, Dr. Saavedra believes that women of color can foster discourse, laughter, love, resist, and survive.  

She concluded that although the institution is riddled with domineering oppositional forces, we must also continue to focus on new creations of discourse, impactful research, and the mentoring of students. 

“The academy still has a lot of work to do to address the inequality and injustices that live and thrive within its walls. Until that reality is dealt with, women of color will continue to develop their own sitio y lengua [spaces and discourse, according to Dr. Emma Pérez],” Dr. Saavedra concluded.

Self actualization and realizations

Led by Dr. Acevedo-Gil, the “Aspiring Faculty” workgroup featured a space in which students asked questions, discussed concerns, received advice and more about advancing within the academy.

She poignantly addressed the need for first-generation, low income students to reflect on their pursuits for self-actualization as opposed to defaulting to the idea of sacrifices for financial security. 

“We’re used to seeing our parents, our family, our community sacrifice. …Being accustomed or socialized to sacrifice for one another, we don’t fully know how to pursue—what it is that we want,” Acevedo-Gil stated. 

She encouraged students to become empowered, focused, and determined in pursuing what would ideally create self-satisfaction. 

Ultimately, the Women of Color in Academia Symposium closed with reflections and a conclusion about the future of academy. 

“I hope that you’re taking very valuable information with you, that will help you navigate further and feel more empowered and validated,” Dr. Conlisk-Gallegos admonished.

Dr. Acevedo-Gil acknowledged Dr. Otiniano Verissimo’s initial inception of the symposium years prior, citing her innumerable hours of unpaid labor. 

“Thank you everyone—our panelists, our participants—and we look forward to continue in this dialogue in the future,” Dr. Otiniano Verissimo concluded. 

CSUSB’s WOC in Academia first CSU wide symposium constructed a dialogical space in which women of color faculty were able to discuss their battles against institutionalized oppression and injustice. By listening to their experiences, attendants were presented with an opportunity to establish solidarity and to ultimately become allies in radically reforming academia.

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