Welcome back, Beronda

I’ve resumed traveling in fits and starts…but am consistently masked and following what I hope are strict safety protocols as the pandemic continues on.

In March, I returned to the last site outside of the U.S. that I had visited before the pandemic grounded me two years earlier.

I visited Puerto Rico to do some mentoring interventions, the same work that took me there in March 2020. Two years earlier I sat in the liminal space of trying to figure out how to live on the planet without the physical presence of my Dad who had passed away in October of 2019.

In March of 2020, I sat in San Juan staring at palm trees and the ocean trying to redefine what it meant to a “dad’s girl” without him.

Balcony overlooking area with palm trees and clouds at dusk overhead. Location: San Juan, PR. (March 2022, Photo credit: Beronda L. Montgomery)

The pandemic ultimately forced me to traverse this space of redefinition sitting in physical isolation with myself while staying safe at home throughout many months of the early pandemic. Fortunately, I had virtual connections with friends and family, as well as an expanded set of personal interactions due to the final editing and launch of Lessons from Plants (Harvard University Press, 2021).

Out of an abundance of caution, I was slow to resume travels and in-person engagements, but ultimately vaxxed and boosted I slowly began to emerge and reengage.

I wrote throughout the period of isolation. I first used this blogging space to reflect on “meaning” of work in a pandemic, the role of leadership and trust in uncertain times, to process changes in my writing in isolation, and more. I also publicly grappled with national issues such as racism and elections through writing here.

As I braved coming out of isolation, I continued to write frequently although not in blog posts. As the pandemic raged on and my first book came out, I spent less time here writing based on my personal reflections and to engage shared community. I instead wrote many short pieces for magazines and public venues inspired by Lessons from Plants. I wrote on lessons from trees on seasonal adaptations and healing. I explored lessons from plants on community and mentoring.

I returned to the blog from time to time to share insights on big events, including a pending career transition.

Being back in Puerto Rico in March of 2022, I was again in a liminal space of emerging from the pandemic—or so I thought. I sat again contemplating how to be on the planet differently. Because though there was a rush to get “back to normal” among many, I knew I had to emerge from the pandemic understanding how to be together again differently.

As I began to reengage more fully in the “in-person” world, I would experience individuals citing work of mine and reflecting back to me words that they had engaged in this blog space—working “from affirmation“, stopping in moments to “process and proceed“, and “the limits of institutional imagination.”

During the Q&A after a recent talk, an assistant professor in their first few years on the tenure-track came to the microphone. While anticipating a question, I was instead given a most gracious thank you for the writing that I have shared through blog posts. They shared that specific posts had been critical to their persistence and advancement. That the writing I share here had been—and is—needed for them. I was nearly speechless—a rare occurrence indeed!

I thanked them for sharing and acknowledged the and is needed. I indicated that I received this as invitation to return to this space. I know the invitation is first for me, because most all of the writing I’ve done here starts as an answer to my own need for self-reflection and growth. I then lean into the concept of public sharing as rec0gnizing “knowledge as communal” which stems from my own upbringing and familial beliefs.

So, here I am to say—Welcome back, Beronda.

While, I’m not sure what fully lies ahead for my writing in this space, I’ve accepted the invitation back (thanks again to the brave soul who shared the importance of the space to them and their work). I am now eagerly looking to the horizon for new insights, new reflections, new inspirations…for me, and hopefully for those still here with me.

Oceanside looking towards the horizon with waves crashing on large rocks in the forefront. Location: San Juan, PR.
(March 2022, Photo credit: Beronda L. Montgomery)

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, you can find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.

End note: I wrote and edited this post for sharing prior to the deeply tragic shooting of elementary students in Uvalde, TX. Before what was indeed a tragic week of shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY and a church in Laguna Woods, CA before Uvalde. I have few words of consequence to share in this heavy moment. I debated whether I should even still share this post. The content of the post does not reflect my current conflicted state but is here for you now, if helpful, or in the future when you are ready to engage.

From “Ethos” to “Place”

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place”.

I am making a career move.

https://www.grinnell.edu/news/grinnell-college-appoints-vice-president-academic-affairs-and-dean-college

Since my undergraduate training in a liberal arts environment at Washington University in St. Louis, I’ve engaged knowledge and insights from many disciplinary perspectives while centering myself in the sciences.

I recall classes in literature, women’s studies, and African and African-American Studies (A&AAS)—the latter quite frankly to both learn about the experiences of Black Americans and Africans in the diaspora as much as to have the experience of a class taught by a Black professor. While studying biology, psychology, and math, these classes in literature, A&AAS, and women’s studies, among others impacted my intellectual pursuit of and engagement in my core disciplines.

I recall many conversations with my science professors about the cultural origins and global implications of scientific knowledge—such inquiries were often met with confusion, encouragement to “stay focused” on science, or on the rare occasion curiosity or encouragement.

Yet, I persisted.

Knowledge for me was never an individual pursuit alone, but a cultivation of my own curiosity which increased my individual knowledge and—because knowledge is communal in my family and culture of origin—a contribution to the collective knowledge of communities of which I was a part.

While my doctoral, postdoctoral, and (to-date) faculty positions have been in research-intensive institutions, I’ve always had a liberal arts “ethos” guiding my professional existence.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethos

As a graduate student at UC Davis, I was actively involved in interdisciplinary communities, including the Ford Fellows Community, that allowed me to stay actively engaged in disciplines far beyond my own foci of biology and biochemistry. I read (and continue to do so) broadly—books and other scholarly works authored by my Ford Fellow colleagues and others in sociology, Black feminist theory, history, and more.

This interest outside my own scientific focus continued into my postdoctoral tenure at Indiana University and was formalized in my active involvement in communities focused on service learning and other community-engaged practices of taking knowledge outside academic spaces to impact local and community priorities. Such approaches that encourage pragmatic consideration of the impact of knowledge furthered my liberal arts and social engagement ethos.

The further cultivation and commitment to hold dear to such an ethos continued into my faculty career, despite expressed concerns that my commitment to “causes”—including work centered in equity and justice in the sciences, higher education, and far beyond—could be a distraction from my pursuit of scholarly “fame” and traditional forms of recognition.

Functioning based on a liberal arts ethos led me to consider (privately and publicly) not just what I was learning about plants and microbes in the experimental studies conducted by my research group to understand how these organisms perceive and respond to external environmental cues such as light and nutrient availability, but also to ask what can we learn from plants (#LessonsFromPlants) and microbes (#LessonsFromMicrobes) about how to be better humans—individually and in community.

Looking to plants and microbes as teachers is not an uncommon practice globally, although it can certainly be thought of as “outside of the box” in the sciences. Yet, these limitations do not guide one such as me who possesses a liberal arts ethos even when functioning in a research environment.

So, when invited to consider an opportunity to move from “ethos” to “place”—especially a place with expressed commitment to social responsibility and justice—I felt compelled to consider it.

Having engaged with a community dedicated to living out their expressed values and commitments, I knew this invitation was one I was eager to pursue.

Now I’m excitedly embarking on a new phase of my professional journey.

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place” as I prepare to join the Grinnell College community.

I look forward to sharing the journey ahead, including continuing to ask (as well as write about) how we collaboratively implement new means of leading and mentoring equitably, and what plants and other biological organisms and ecosystems have to teach us about that.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM

The power of reflection…and “what” returns

My throat went on vacation…and brought me along for the ride…well that’s my description for the laryngitis I’ve been experiencing.

This state of existence has led me to expand my periods of silence—to give regular periods of rest to my vocal chords over the past days. While these rest periods could have just been stretches of mindless silence, I’ve taken these as periods for intentional reflection.

I’m big on self-reflection. It’s been critical for my personal and professional growth. Prior to the current coronavirus-associated pandemic & a disruption to my travel, I had regular retreats that included reflection time as a core tenet—or in some cases the entire agenda.

These times of intense self-reflection allow me to pause and ask myself—How are you? How did you arrive at this place and time (literally and figuratively)? What will you leave behind when you move forward and what will you purposefully take with you? All critically important interrogations for myself, the last question in particular is about what returns from the period of reflection when I emerge to move forward.

The impact of stopping to reflect—a critically important practice that we too often fail to engage as we exist in cycles of endless busyness—is amplified by the ACTION of intentionally shedding some things that are not serving me well to increase time, as well as mental and physical capacity, to move forward with other things.

While my current ability to sit in silence and spend some intense time in reflection has arisen due to a physical challenge rather than a planned pause, I fully embrace the opportunity. It reminds of the need to plan for such periods with intention and anticipation rather than waiting on a “forced” period of pause. The importance of anticipating change and preparing for it is a lesson that I usually draw from plants in the season of autumn that is rapidly coming to a close. A period when deciduous trees degrade their green chlorophyll and drop their leaves in an active period of preparation for rest during winter.

Many of us resist planning for and fully embracing intentional quiet, pause, engaged reflection. As I have stated before, it “goes against all the incessant action that too many of us value – i.e., the illusion of busyness as evidence of commitment and productivity.”

Yet, I recognize that to embrace the ability to reflect and ask “where am I now and how and with what (and sometimes the pertinent question is with whom?) do I move forward?” is needed for sustained commitment, impact and productivity.

So while I didn’t (this time) plan for the current periods of reflection and invitation to deeper self-awareness, I welcome them…and I will certainly move forward with purposeful commitment to plan for the next period to understand, engage and support myself—so that I can also understand, engage and support others.

If you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM