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.
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.