The following was written by Xeturah Woodley, PhD for the YWCA New Mexico website
(Based on a keynote lecture given in March 2015)
As a first-generation, Woman of Color entering a predominately White institution (PWI), I endured a great deal of racism and sexism as I began my studies at the University of Iowa (U of I). After my second year at the U of I, I decided that college wasn’t for me and I moved back home to Colorado to work. A couple of years of food service and the prospect of doing it for the rest of my life led me back to college at Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD), a Colorado institution where many non-traditional college students access higher education. It was there that I found African American Studies and Women’s Studies courses, as well as Afrocentric and Feminist mentors, which transformed my college experience.
When I began taking African American Studies courses in college, I remember truly loving myself as a Black person for the first time. The Afrocentric perspective in the classroom helped me to understand my experiences as a Black person growing up in predominantly White communities in Colorado. The failing of those studies, however, was the androcentric focus that mistakenly presented Black men’s experiences as the normative experience of all Black people (Blackmon, 2008).
Women’s Studies and Feminist Theory also fell short in being inclusive of the experiences of Black women. Although it sought to provide a space for understanding female perspectives and experiences, Women’s Studies made the mistake of presenting White women’s experiences as the normative experience of all women (Breines, 2006; Crenshaw, 1989; Davis, 1983; Garth, 1994; Giddings, 1984; hooks, 1981, 1990; Lorde, 1984; Wetzel, 1993; Williams, 1999). To believe that White women’s experiences are representative of all women’s experiences “implies that women share a common lot” (hooks, 1984, p. 5) and leads to marginalization of the experience of women across lines of race and class. In response to this oppression, I and other Black women scholars began to develop Black Feminist and Black Womanist Theory (BWT) as a counter-narrative to the marginalization of the Black female experience in both Afrocentricity and Feminist Theory (Davis, 1983; hooks, 1984; Lorde, 1984; Walker, 1983; Williams, 1999).
The term, womanist, was created by Alice Walker and popularized by Black feminist scholars like Katie Cannon and Clenora Hudson-Weems. According to Walker (1983), a womanist is a “Black feminist or feminist of color committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health” (p. xi). For many academic scholars, researchers and theologians, womanism is “a theoretical framework developed by Black women for Black women and is specific in articulating personal insights from the Black female perspective” (Heath, 2006, p. 160).
Many Black womanist educators see the following as foundational elements of their scholarship and praxis:
- Womanism is a spiritual movement as well as a social movement (Maparyan, 2012; Woodley, 2014).
- Womanists are committed to survival and wholeness of Black people, both female and male (Walker, 1983; Garth, 1994).
- BWT places Black women’s lived experiences at the center of analysis in research and scholarship of, for and about Black womanhood (Phillips & McCaskill, 1995; Lindsay-Dennis, 2011; Woodley, 2014).
- BWT values Black women’s experiences as “possessors of knowledge and recognizes their experiences as valid sources of information” (Shambley-Ebron & Boyle, 2004, p. 16).
I have been a college educator for over 20 years working at colleges/universities and community colleges. I have held numerous positions from work-study student to vice president for academic affairs. As someone who identifies herself as a Black womanist leader, I see womanism as more than a theoretical construct. I see it as a foundation at the heart of my role as an educational leader. So when I speak in this article about what I’ve learned as a womanist leader in higher education, I’m not just speaking about my experiences as a woman holding the title of vice president. I’m speaking as someone who is a leader in her personal as well as professional life.
As women we assume many roles as leaders throughout our lives. Some personally, as mothers, big sisters, aunties, cousins, lovers, and friends. Some professionally in our roles as supervisors, managers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, vice presidents and presidents. In each role, we learn to navigate systems of oppression that would hold us back or stop our forward progress because of our gender, our race, our relationships with others, where we were born, who we love, and even how we choose to live our lives.
Part of that navigation is learning how to be activists, politically and intellectually, in order to maintain our sanity as we deal with the insanity of others. The oppressive insanity rooted in the assumption that we are less qualified or competent because we are Women of Color in a leadership role. There is a great book called, Presumed Incompetent, that gives some insight into how that sexist and racist notion plays itself out in higher education. I’d encourage you to read it to see examples of how systemic sexism and racism manifests itself against Women of Color in education. Womanist leadership provides me with the theoretical foundation I need to create a counter-narrative to the sexist and racist narrative that has been the norm about women leaders for centuries.
Characteristics of womanist leaders
Building on the tenets of womanism, allow me quickly share 3 characteristics I found as central to my own womanist leadership:
- Womanist leadership is about embracing and leading from a spiritual space not just a positional one. For some it is indigenous spiritualties, for some orthodox religions, and for others it is more personally defined. Those of us who identify ourselves as womanist leaders boldly and unashamedly embrace our own expressions of religion, spirituality and God.
- Womanist leadership is about valuing women’s lived experiences and recognizing those experiences as valid.
- Womanist leadership is about leading with a commitment to social justice because there can be no real peace and equity without justice.
Leadership Lessons Learned
Based on what I’ve shared with you so far in this article, I want to provide you with a few lessons I’ve learned as a womanist leader over the years. I share these lessons as takeaways you may be able to use as you define your own sense of womanist or feminist leadership.
Lesson 1: Have a theme poem and live by it. Everyone needs something that reminds them of their own magnificence. This is especially important for those women in leadership that deal daily with the stressors of life and work. Superheroes have a theme song so why can’t you have a theme poem? The poem I see as my theme poem is “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. I’m going to share it with you now. Please feel free to use it for yourself. J
Phenomenal Woman – Maya Angelou
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Lesson 2: “Your gifts will make room for you”. That statement is a paraphrase from Proverbs 18: 16. Each of us has different talents we bring to the table. Build your leadership style on your talents and they will act as a catalyst for your advancement. And while we are on the subject of advancement…
Lesson 3: Keep your stilettos out of necks of other women. If you feel that the only way you can get ahead is at the expense of another sister then you do not need to advance. Do not stab other women in the back or throw them under the bus so you can get the promotion, the raise, and/or the title. This is also important if you do get a promotion. Do not hold other women back. Mentor and coach other women so they can fill the positions you leave. Be positive and supportive of other women as they rise beyond you. If you are concerned about yourself moving forward please refer back to lesson 2.
Lesson 4: “My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you” (Lorde, 1984, p.41). Audre Lorde wrote these words in her book, Sister Outsider. She spoke of her silences not protecting her and warned that other women being silent wouldn’t protect them either. Sometimes we choose to be silent as a survival method. We know that if we say something we will be retaliated against in some form. So we are selective about the battles we take on. However, we run the risk of that becoming a standard way of operating if we don’t remind ourselves that, in some cases, we may be the only one with enough power to cause change in a situation. Remember, “I am not free while any woman is unfree even if her shackles are different from my own” (Lorde, 1984, p. 132).
And finally, Lesson 5: Dance like no one is watching. While I was a vice president at the Community College of Aurora in Aurora, Colorado, my academic deans gave me that statement as a wall sign after we danced with the faculty to start the new academic year. I personally believe that dancing was made as a way for us to move without fear. Unfortunately, so many people are afraid of what others think of them that they refuse to dance for fear that others will shun or make fun of them. As a leader, there are times when you need to laugh it off, shake it off, or just dance it off.
Finally, I want to end with a brief statement for those of you that have loss some joy during your leadership journey. This is about knowing when it is time to again find your joy as a leader. As a leader, it is critically important for you to know when it is time to move on to whatever is next for you. Each of us holds a space for a season and then it is time to move on. We each have an intuitive sense of when that is but sometimes we become so comfortable with the way things are we ignore our own inner voice. I want to encourage each of you to reintroduce yourself to that voice. And if it is time for you to move begin putting the structures in place so you can move into whatever is next for you. Don’t stay in your leadership role suffering. Each of us deserves to live with JOY so go out and find yours.
In 2014, I chose to leave my position as a vice president and take a university faculty position. I left that position to return to a position that was centered in my passion, teaching. It has been over one year since I left that position and the joy I experience in my virtual and traditional classrooms confirm that I made the right choice to move at the right time. I’m not sure what God has in store for me in the future but I’m willing to go on the journey. In the end, regardless of what comes my way, I know I have the capacity to dance right through it.
Yours in sisterhood,
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