Putting Ego Aside: Strategies for Building Inclusive Black Academic Spaces

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

Plenary talk on Abolitionism and Black Intellectual History at AAIHS 2017. Photo: Brandon Byrd/Twitter.

When I think of academics, I don’t think of “joy,” but “ego.” My experience at conferences has taught me that academic spaces, instead of functioning as gatherings to transform our scholarship and our communities, too easily dissolve into spaces that celebrate the cult of celebrity, status, and institutional hierarchies. These forms of ego-boosting get in the way of making real human connections. We consequently lose the opportunity to create the kinds of intellectual, spiritual, and social bonds that can enhance our work and transform our communities.

Thus, when I stepped into the “Teaching, Researching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora” symposium space, I was both emotionally guarded and apprehensive. Then, something disarming occurred. Yes, we exchanged the necessary information, such as where we taught, and if we were tenured or not. But we also discussed our families, children, partners, break-ups, and the various challenges we face navigating our beautiful but, at times, awkward professions. We exchanged stories about faith and service, navigating small-town life, significant relocations, and future job prospects. In short, we immediately engaged in real talk.

Consequently, were I to name the most significant advantage of this space, I’d call it the inspirational heart-work that became possible in the company of other Blackademics. Our gathering was one of “emergence.” Organizer-writer-cultural activist adrienne maree brown writes that “[e]mergence emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the sense of the body and the mind.”1 Ego was less critical than building connections — finding ways of supporting each other across disciplines, institutions, and our experiences.

Following the symposium, I find myself craving that sweet space with multi-generational scholars. This article humbly provides recommendations for creating academic and emergent spaces for Black scholars. I combine my background as a facilitator trained in conflict resolution with my profound experience as a participant in the “Embodying the Black Diaspora” symposium.2 What follows are suggestions for building inclusive Black academic spaces for healing, listening, and supporting each other within and beyond the academy.

Strategies for Building Inclusive Black Academic Spaces:

  1. Curate Your Group. Strategically selecting people to participate in the gathering may seem counterintuitive to creating an inclusive space. However, this step is the first opportunity organizers/participants have to decide what kind of community they intend to create. For the organizers, the “call for participants,” announces priorities (e.g., centering Black scholars) and expected gains (networking, skill- and knowledge-sharing, safer space for advising and strategy, etc.). Conversely, for the future participant, this call helps us/them decide if this is a space we want to help shape. Ultimately, curating your group is the first step in creating a community of people equally invested in the scholarly and emotional work of building a generous and sustaining environment.
  1. Feed and Financially Support Your Group. When people know they are covered financially, there’s an immediate relaxation of their body and their spirits. While fully funding and hosting your guests may not be possible, there are ways that you can try to ensure that they feel taken care of:
  • Work with area vendors to secure donations. I’ve reached out to area bakers and secured hundreds (literally) of bagels for community gatherings.
  • See if financial sponsorship or co-sponsorship is available from area institutions, departments, or other organizations on campus. This is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with seemingly unlikely partners.
  • If you plan on charging a participation fee, use that to purchase meals and items your group is sure to use.
  • If you can’t support your group in ways you’d like, be transparent about it. Honesty breeds understanding and knowledge.
  1. Create “Shared Norms.” Shared norms, often referred to as “ground rules,” creates the standard for discussion, debate, disagreement, and reconciliation for your group. It is a living document that shapes the dynamics of your group. Depending on constraints, it may be best to set the ground rules ahead of time, but, ideally, you build them with your participants. What you lose in time you gain in group cohesion. Sample items for your community contract are listed below. For more, see Racial Equity Tool’s Facilitation Guide:
  • Listen actively — don’t listen only to reply.
  • Use “I statements” and speak from your own experience instead of generalizing.
  • What is said in the room stays in the room. What is learned in the room leaves the room.
  • Share the “mic” — be mindful of how much you speak or stay quiet.
  • You can disagree with each other and still respect one another.
  1. Use ice breakers … often. Ice breakers may feel childish, but these conversation starters help people share more about themselves in a room filled with near-strangers. There are a variety of ice breakers that can be adapted for small and large group discussions. A reliable ice breaker is sitting in a circle and asking everyone to respond to the following questions:
  • What are your name and pronouns?
  • Name one thing that excites you about this gathering.
  • Name one thing about this gathering that makes you nervous.
  1. “Check-In” and Acknowledge What Worked and What Didn’t. Check-ins are about assessing the collective temperature of the group. Check-ins are where we gauge what has been joyful and what has saddened us. Moreover, check-ins help you find your allies and supporters. The most beautiful moment of the “Embodying Blackness” workshop, for me, was the collective check-in that occurred following a failed panel that exemplified white privilege in the academy. In our check-in, Black scholars physically created a circle to hug each other, uplift each other, and widened the circle whenever another one of us needed care and respite.

I hope these suggestions can be useful in building more inclusive, thoughtful, and caring spaces that are less about ego and more about building the kinship that we need to survive and thrive as Black people in and beyond the academy.

  1. adrienne marie brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017): 3.
  2. My initial training occurred in 2006 as a member of the Yeworkwah Belachew Center for Dialogue at Oberlin College.
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Kantara Souffrant

Kantara Souffrant is an Assitant Professor of Global/Non-Western Art History and Visual Culture at Illinois State University. She is an artist-scholar, museum educator, and independent curator who brings her passion for community engagement, dialogue, and facilitation to her work as a performer, educator, and community organizer. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, with certificates in Critical Theory, African and Diaspora Studies, and Teaching. Her scholarship examines visual and performance art in the Haitian Diaspora following the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Follow her on Twitter @KinterTara.