I am so inspired by the many diversity and equity practitioners who continue to do this important work, even when faced with the very real health implications. I see you. I love you.
For the past 21 years, I have held administrative roles in education. I’ve worked my way up from being a graduate student in residence life and student activities; a mid-level manager in student affairs; a head advisor and program coordinator; assistant dean; associate director; and director. I’ve spent countless nights woken up by the sound of the on-call pager – now cell phone – and have gone on my fair share of emergency responses to the hospital. I’ve worked in divisions where we’ve had to respond to student tragedy, community lock downs, and fear of active shooters.
I’ve seen and experienced just about everything in this field.
During my 21 years as a practitioner, I have also gone through the ups-and-downs of my personal life: a cancer diagnosis of my oldest child when she was just a toddler; multiple surgeries to reduce my risk of genetic cancer; and the unexpected challenges that come along with raising young children – broken bones, teeth knocked out from a playground fall, and navigating issues of gender and identity.
I mention all of these because I feel the need to lay the foundation of my own mental and emotional “toughness.” And, maybe that’s part of the problem.
For most of my career, I have focused intensely on issues of justice and equity – two areas that have required me to invest fully as a professional and as a human being in this world. In both my professional and personal life, I have chosen to live in this constant tension of seeking to contribute to a better, more just world, and the powerful forces that keep fairness and equity just out of reach. I often tell folks that, “to do this work, one must work diligently every single day towards an outcome that we may never actually see fully realized.” That means, I don’t have confidence that I will live long enough to see the end of racism, but every day I show up with the confidence that I will.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Are you a practitioner or scholar or just an all-around decent human who does this, too?
Well, on July 1st of this year, I walked away from my 21-year career in education. And, this becomes all too salient when I am at conferences meeting up with folks who knew me in this role. Many have known that I started my own independent facilitation, training, strategic consulting company. And, I certainly have been public about how amazing and empowering it has been.
I’ve also begun to be more open about why.
Existing literature has explored the public health impact of racism (Williams, Neighbors & Jackson, 2003), citing that “discrimination is associated with multiple indicators of poorer physical and, especially, mental health status”. But, little published research has explored the impact of racism on those who are charged with leading this work: diversity directors, practitioners, and scholars. While some work has been done exploring racial battle fatigue (Smith, Allen & Danley, 2007) compassion fatigue (Figley, 2013) and, more recently, Social Justice Battle Fatigue (Furr, 2018), little has been spoken or written about a particular aspect of this work: the impact of white fragility (DiAngelo, 2011) and power.
When I tell folks I walked away from formal diversity work, many believe it’s because the work is so hard or that the issues are so heavy that it wears on the soul.
That’s simply not the case for me.
I love that hardship. I love that heaviness.
Those are why I chose the field. Similar to firefighters who run towards danger, I feel a deep sense of responsibility and, yes, some excitement, about getting close to those flames, looking for those who need assistance, pulling out survivors, and dousing the flames.
It’s never been the fire.
It’s always been about the people who are stepping on the water hose while the house burns down.
It’s always been about the people who step on the hose and then tell you “it’s because you’re putting out the fire too fast.”
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” - -Zora Neale Hurston
I’m no stranger to the fire.
But it’s time we start talking about the real implications of the hose-steppers.
Despite a robust and successful career in this work, there was a brief span of time in which I had been in close proximity to racial trauma. And, that racial trauma was something I had never anticipated. So, when the warning signs of that trauma began to show up, I didn’t even see them:
I was a guest speaker in a class of middle school students. When suddenly, I felt the room spin. I felt the blood leave my body. I felt like my skin was on fire even though I was freezing cold. In those split seconds – seconds which I wasn’t sure if they were my last -- all I could think of was “Please don’t let these babies see me die here in this class. That would be terrible for them.”
I had started that year with an extended episode of vertigo – something I had never known or experienced in my life. It was debilitating. Medications only put me to sleep.
In both cases, I went to the doctor, to specialists, and in the case of my near fainting, I wore a heart monitor for weeks. That heart monitor send signals and readings directly to an emergency response team who, if they indicated any signs, would send another team to rescue me. I went through extensive testing for my head, ears, and balance.
In both of these cases, there were no actual physical abnormalities to be found. No faulty structures. No blockages. No causes that the medical teams could identify. Those conversations started with “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we didn’t find anything wrong. The bad news is that we didn’t find anything wrong.”
“How’s your stress levels?” they asked. “Oh, it’s fine,” I replied. “The usual.”
Truth is, I was exhausted all the time. But, it was around the time of Nov 2016 and the work had taken on a new emotional toll. I figured it was just that I was spending most of my sleeping-dreaming time processing the onslaught of a daily news cycle. So, when my doctor asked if I was sleeping well, I told her, “No. But, I don’t think I have for months.” She sent me in for a sleep study. I wore a sleep monitor for a few nights, and it revealed that I had, a number of times, stopped breathing during my nights. “You know, you could die from that, right?” said the technician.
I brushed it off.
A few months later, I had to have two molars pulled. Like, two friggin’ teeth pulled. Even with a mouthguard that I’ve been wearing for years, I had broken my teeth down so much that the oral surgeon said removal was the only real option here. Now, a year later, I’ve been walking around with a gaping space in the back of my mouth and with the ability to only chew on one side.
I have always had excellent blood pressure numbers. Yet, in these two years, my numbers skyrocketed. I tried everything to bring them down. They just wouldn’t budge.
Fast forward to July 2018, my first time not working in a school or educational organization. I was worried, scared, and anxious about not having community or the stability of a steady paycheck. I was angry that my walking away meant that “they won” and that racism and this good fight had beaten me. I was terrified that walking away meant that I didn’t have worth or that I no longer had the prestige associated with being a part of a place. I was scared that walking away took me off of the career ladder.
Worried. Anxious. Scared.
Yet, despite these very powerful feelings, something interesting happened.
My blood pressure went down. My sleep patterns became deeper and more relaxed. The episodes of vertigo have disappeared. My heart is steady and calm. And, for the first time in a few years, I am joyous. Actually joyous.
(My two back teeth haven’t miraculously grown back, though. You can’t win them all, folks. You can’t win them all!)
Now, I’m a researcher, so I definitely dove into thinking about variables at play. I still do diversity related work – at an even deeper level than before. I still travel, uphold a rigorous speaking and training schedule, and now have the added stress of building my own business.
Like I wrote, it’s never been about the fire.
So, what is it about the folks who are stepping on the hose?
Practitioners, I write this to you as a love letter. As a caution. As a wake-up call. As encouragement to really examine what you are willing to give up for the place, the person, the boss, the team that won’t get off the hose even as they cheer you on for showing up to the fire.
What are you willing to give for the team that blames hose-stepping on “the other person on the hose” or for the institution that says “You’re putting out the fire too fast” or that, in many cases, says “You started the fire.”
And, the most essential question: “Are you willing to die for this place?”
If you ask me, “Liza, are you willing to die for this fight?” My answer is “yes.” Many who came before me have, in fact, died for the very rights I get to hold today. They fought for communities that I care about so deeply – communities in which my own family and family members belong. I love the fight. The fight loves me back.
I am no longer, however, willing to die for the folks stepping on the hose.
I am no longer willing to die for the fire hydrant that never had water. I am no longer willing to die at the hands of those who were just fine with a burning building.
Some of you may be reading this and seeing yourself in this story. I know that it’s not as easy to say, “Just leave.” There are demons and gremlins to address in that leaving. Address those demons. Name them. Own them. And, then, please, interrupt them.
Whenever I tell people about my experience, I start with, “I left because I was going to die.” And, every single time, to every person I have told, they respond with, “Yeah, I know. Because my friend so-and-so died from this, too. Heart attack. They always said this would kill them.”
I’m not willing to do that anymore.
And, I hope you are not either.
This world needs your light.
Peace and love,
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).
Figley, C. R. (2013). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. Routledge.
Furr, S. (2018) "Wellness Interventions for Social Justice Fatigue Among Student Affairs Professionals" (2018). Dissertations. 2803.
Smith, W. A., Allen, W. R., & Danley, L. L. (2007). “Assume the position... you fit the description” psychosocial experiences and racial battle fatigue among African American male college students. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(4), 551-578.
Williams, D. R., Neighbors, H. W., & Jackson, J. S. (2003). Racial/ethnic discrimination and health: findings from community studies. American journal of public health, 93(2), 200-208.