The limits of institutional imagination

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else’s norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work.”
—Audre Lorde

Academia seemed to have a vision for me to be a Black woman version of all the white men and perhaps a few white women “superstars” who had come before me. The “mentoring” and advice I was offered always attempted to guide me down the “tried and true” path of success for scientists—focus on metrics (h-index, “high impact” venues for one’s work, large grants, and more).

This advice usually came before I’d even been asked why I chose to pursue a career in academic STEM, or what my goals were. I don’t recall a single academic “mentor” asking what my definition of success was.

I recall being asked from time to time, “what do you want to be known for?” And whereas my answer would have been about building community and cultivating cultures of support over competition, as well as about honoring my own humanity and that of those whom I’d have privilege to advise or mentor, I knew the answer expected was about which scientific topic I hoped to be recognized for making groundbreaking contributions to.

Certainly, I’m in science to ask meaningful questions and to make impactful and meaningful advances. Yet, the process of arriving at those is as critical to me as the destination.

Despite failing to probe my personal commitments to my work, the absence of insight into my personal vision and professional purpose didn’t stop the advice from flowing. And across multiple individuals it was generally consistent—have a dogged commitment to advancing the science and pursuing the recognized (often quantitative) metrics of academic success.

From the very start of my career, I knew without a doubt that I had a greater vision for myself.

Not greater in the sense of hubris or conceit—that is being greater than those individual colleagues. Greater in the sense that my vision departed from the norm in ways that was bigger than anything traditionally conceived of as academic excellence worth aspiring to.

To ensure that I was able to stay focused, I early on established the Beronda index, or B-index, that guided my progress along a path dictated by my own vision of career and personal success.

My vision is one uniquely crafted for me, by me. A vision uniquely honoring my ancestors and family, my uniqueness, my distinctive purpose, my individual gifts, and the resulting unique contributions that I have to offer.

I’ve always tried to extend grace and assume that the intentions of those offering advice—and a version of institutional imagination—were well intended. And yet, it so frequently felt like attempts to put me in a “box”.

Despite having followed my own vision with some degree of success (fully understanding the context of being a professor at a university), the imagination of the institution and most of those within continues to feel more limiting than freeing. Especially for a career that idealizes academic freedom.

It feels like individuals are drawn with interest to the ways in which I’ve crafted a career finely tailored just for me. They see strengths that have contributed to my advancement and rather than asking the question of how I’d like to continue to use these skills and gifts for new challenges and contributions that I may see as meaningful—as central to my cultivated purpose, something else frequently happens to me and others.

It’s common that individuals’ strengths are viewed through the limiting lens of institutional imagination. The skills and strengths that have led to a uniquely crafted path that draws interest are teased apart, cataloged, and (shrewdly) assessed for their utility to contribute to traditional positions or roles that will serve the “institution” and its vision of success. It can feel like being invited to morph and fit oneself into a “box” – albeit many of these boxes are well-resourced and well-respected.

I’ve continued to operate from the principal that boxes turned on their head can become meaningful platforms.

This prioritizing the freedom of cultivating my own professional imagination has been critical for me to feel unbounded from the limits of institutional imagination.

The elders have long recognized this.

Audre Lorde declared: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else’s norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work.”

I’m actively pushing myself to continue to unapologetically feed my imagination, rather than consume (or be consumed by) the limits of the imagination of others.

However, my vision in this area is not just about me as an individual scholar in pursuit of her purpose. My greater vision in this regard is that academia may find the flexibility, agility, desire to cultivate the greater vision of many individuals who come to the space… individuals who come from diverse backgrounds.

Some of my work in mentoring, leadership, and considerations of institutional transformation is work that never would have occurred without my envisioning more for myself—my imagining greater. Certainly my book Lessons from Plants that is officially debuting would have been at best a retirement dream. Yet, Audre Lorde’s words have been not just inspiration—but a persistent and bright beacon to preserve my energy NOW for my unique work.

Cover of Lessons from Plants by author Beronda L. Montgomery, Harvard University Press

It’s my hope that institutions—and the leaders therein—will become more consumed with the work that may be going uncultivated, work that remains unavailable to change the institutions into better. I implore leaders to find ways to cultivate individual imagination rather than touting a singular version of their own limited imagination.

I have so many more thoughts about where my imagination will take me…as well as where the cultivated imagination of many could take institutions. You’ll find me on Twitter @BerondaM sharing them or the writings that come therefrom. I also would love to hear the life you’re imagining for yourselves, even if the “institutions” you’re in can’t yet co-envision them.

Is there power in “truths laid bare”?

I started blogging here on January 6, 2019.

I planned to post on January 6, 2021 to celebrate two years of thinking aloud in this space.

I planned to speak of the posts turned into commentaries, the posts that paved the way to articles, or those that reverberate in the pages of my forthcoming Lessons from Plants book.

I planned to thank those who have interacted with me on topics raised here for contributing to my ponderings, reflections, the written offerings I’ve attempted to produce therefrom.

Then it was the January 6, 2021.

I like so many others of you watched as white supremacists attempted to (continue to) impose their will at all costs. Many here in America and abroad responded by saying this is not America. Others who know the truth of American history, said and know otherwise.

Many—here in America and around the globe—said that our truths were being laid bare and that now we would deal with these truths. They said we “have to” do so.

Many voiced a similar sentiment about the racial “reckoning” that (purportedly) emerged in the wake of the highly visible murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. Some of these same people spoke the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other before and since. Some of us watched this “reckoning” with hopes that it would really live up to the definition rather than being a simple “recognition” that we’ve seen in past instances.

Throughout 2020, we collectively spoke about the truths laid bare concerning the intersection of systemic racism in America and public health as we watched COVID-19 ravage our nation as a whole; yet, having a significantly greater impact on Indigenous, Black and Latine communities across the nation.

I’ve thought a lot about the power of truths laid bare—more so that ever in the past year or more.

Common lore would have us believe that there is SIGNIFICANT power in truths laid bare.

I’m not so certain this alone is true.

Truths laid bare must be accompanied by accountability and consequences for their transgression, and there must be real action to deal with the truths and their impacts once they are laid bare.

In the absence of a real and expeditious trajectory for addressing the truths that have been exposed through tangible and material ways, the baring of truths alone can lead to repeated trauma, eroded trust, depletion of hope.

Truths laid bare in the absence of action and reconciliation are equivalent to continuing to open and close a wound without providing adequate cleansing and treatment after opening and before re-closing.

The thing that I am grappling with—successfully some days and woefully unsuccessfully on others—is where the “cleansing and treatment” are for the multiple wounds that have been opened in the wake of COVID-19, our most recent national encounter with racial “reckoning”, and other gaping wounds that sit unattended or worse yet closed from view and allowed to continue to fester.

Public or solidarity statements are not cleansing nor treatment.

Committees that produce conversation and policies on paper in the absence of real commitment of resources and REAL action are not cleansing nor treatment.

Hiring leaders who espouse commitments to cleansing and treatment, yet have limited evidence of lived commitments to cleansing and treatment are not the answer. Without a commitment to move beyond espoused to a firm-footed existence in lived commitments, we’ll only persist in a different version of inequality and mistruths.

Truths laid bare hold little to no power in isolation.

Truths laid bare must be powerfully coupled to bold values-driven leadership, collective commitment, real accountability, and so much more to hold power.

We need truths laid bare, yet to avoid repetitive trauma to those whose harm, mis-valuing, and proverbial and literal deaths are exposed in the telling of truths, we have to get beyond congratulating ourselves on telling truths and get to work on dealing with—and ultimately cleansing and healing—what’s been exposed by the truths told.

The latter is where the power of “truths laid bare” resides.

If you have comments on this post, as always find me on Twitter—@BerondaM.

The pursuit of a ‘better’ inequality?

I can no longer commit to “better inequality” as a goal or victory. I long for the collective commitment to move from espoused to lived.

My body is on vacation though my mind decidedly is not.

Annually I seek out a new place, or revisit on “old favorite”, for my end-of-year vacation. New locations distract my mind with explorations of places, foods, and often people unknown—or at the very least not commonly familiar—to me.

I’ve been a long-time adventurer according to my mother who describes how nearly from the time I could talk I’d ask to tag-along on an adventure with friends or family who stopped by to visit en route elsewhere.

The challenges of the global pandemic of 2020 left me making a decision to have a “stay-cation” this year in hopes of doing my small part in curbing the spread of coronavirus. That said, getting the mental break that often comes with new adventures in new places, or revisited adventures in favorite places, wasn’t an option for me this year. So, I “sit” in vacation mode at home.

This has left me much time to read, as well as to think—and many of my thoughts have centered on my concerns about so much that has happened in 2020. While I have continued concerns about the spread of coronavirus and the disease COVID-19 that it causes, as well as the continued grave loss of so many lives that we’ve not fully reckoned with or grieved collectively, I’ve also continued to reflect deeply on 2020 as the purported year of “racial reckoning”.

I guess I err on the side of caution—the caution of having lived multiple decades as a Black woman in America and the generations of caution imbued in me from the experiences of my Black ancestors—and think of 2020 more in line with Wikipedia as the year of “racial unrest”.

I certainly felt even more strongly than ever that we have heightened attention to racial unrest, rather than a deep-rooted racial reckoning, given the upwards of 75M who voted for a leader who is decidedly racist. This reality indeed stopped me literally for some days post-election.

If this country is indeed ever to have a true racial reckoning we will need more truth-tellers like writer and critic Kiese Laymon who declares the following in his recent, re-released essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America:

“Anti-Blackness [is]…an addiction broken only by honest reckoning, consistent practice, and welcoming of radical spirits.”

Kiese Laymon, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, p. 12

Being in a state of “racial reckoning” in America was declared after the national attention on anti-Blackness and anti-racism in the summer of 2020 following the latest killings of Black Americans at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among so many others.

Many picked up books and shared public reflections on the change that needed to come. Many declared that the focus on this topic was happening in a way that they had not seen before. These declarants included wise public elders such as Angela Davis and my personal ones including my mother, who grew up in the segregated South. My mother, who but for being pulled from school many days to “pick cotton” might have been the first professor in our family, rather than me a generation later.

I believed them in the moment when they stated that this time was different–I still endeavor to believe them. But 75+ million….

Also, if I am completely transparent with you…and after having written and published some of the pieces I’ve written this year including declaring that “I am not Your Savioress” (in the anthology edited by Nicole Joseph titled Understanding the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Gifted Education), why stop now?!

Truth is I don’t [hopefully not yet, rather than not never] have the trust I should in my colleagues and community members that they will commit to the long-term, difficult, and uncomfortable collective work that will be required to move from an understanding of 2020 as the year of “racial unrest” to 2020 as the START of true “racial reckoning”. I genuinely don’t trust—just yet—that the current structure of academia will follow through on all of the Black solidarity or anti-Black racism statements. I don’t trust the current structure of academia to do much consistently other than pursue the scarcity of hierarchy, the continued delusion of meritocracy, and ongoing rat race of quantitative metrics, as well as to persist in fear of the “radical” and indeed to disavow, rather than welcoming, “radical spirits”.

Kiese has told us that the path requires reckoning and the radical. We have an “espoused reckoning” that must mature, indeed must aspire, to be a “lived” one.

All I have control over is me. So, as I try to vacation, rest and restore, I commit to move ahead into 2021 continuing to cultivate and guard my radical spirit, my truth-telling soul so that I can stand ready to be a part of breaking our collective addiction to inequality.

But as 2020 ends, I must admit that I fear that our incomplete commitment—indeed our inability and perhaps abject failure—to understand that our espoused “reckoning” is truly just recognition of “unrest” rather than a reckoning in the sense of acknowledging and settling.

Recognition is simply awareness. And in terms of awareness of racial unrest, I think of what Imani Perry says about awareness in her book Breathe. She states:

“Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Imani Perry, Breathe, pp. 18-19

Our [false] need to believe that we are reckoning with the “thing” rather than [re-]recognizing or simply having heightened awareness of it will only lead us to “better inequality” rather than the raw and real pursuit of equity as a “moral imperative” that we truly need.

I can no longer commit to “better inequality” as a goal or victory. I long for the collective commitment to move from espoused commitment to pursue equity to lived and essential commitment to do so.

In 2021, you’ll continue to find me in all of my radical and truth-telling fullness on Twitter—@BerondaM.