Social Media

An Open Letter to the Open Letter

I admit I can be a bit sardonic at times, which is where the title of this blog post comes from. I’m not quite a happy or whole person – and never have been –  but I am always trying.

Speaking of trying, I get where Dr. Ann Marie Klotz is coming from with her blog post on Nov 29th titled “An Open Letter to the Student Affairs Professionals Page Members”. I have many critiques of the group and do acknowledge the place is toxic. But as an active participant of the group for around 2 years, I do feel compelled to respond.

First, I acknowledge I am a Moderator for the group. This blog post is from Niki the Human and SA Professional, not Niki the Mod, but I know this may influence the lens in which people read this blog post.

That’s understandable. The world is nuanced and complicated, and we all perceive the world through the lens of our identities and our experiences. I would expect you, Gentle Reader, to read my words through your own lens, which will lead you to likely both agree and disagree on what I write.

Much like when I read Dr. Klotz’s post, I read it recognizing that I was reading the words of someone who has never strongly participated in The Group™ before and, based on her blogs and public talks, I know is someone who was a first generation college student that grew up in poverty in Detroit as a White woman, and now works in upper-administration at a university in New York City and is a speaker and blogger on higher education issues. I know her identity made an impact in how and what she wrote – because our identities & experiences always influence how we write; and I know my identities make an impact in how I interpreted her words.

I appreciate Dr. Klotz and many of her past writings, but am compelled to write a strong critique. I do not judge her as a person (at all! It is important to separate the person from the writing sometimes and I truly have appreciated other works of hers) and I am sure she has good intentions, but I do judge the predominant ideas in her writing.

You may judge my ideas as well. Here they are, addressing the post point-by-point in order to address both what I liked and did not:

“Happy, whole, people. That’s who I want to be around.”
Definitely your preference! I personally enjoy ‘broken people who are trying’. That stems from my identities and personal experience; I am not open to writing publicly about them in detail but the root issue is poverty and the many issues that stem from it. Speaking of, Dr. Klotz’s #ACPA14 Pecha Kucha on her experiences as a first-gen low income student gave me LIFE that year. I just connect better with people who have ‘seen some shit’ as my people would say, than people who “live in little boxes on the hillside”.

“Happy, whole, people are positive.  They work hard on behalf of students.” 
Truly very few humans are happy and whole. Especially in a field like education (and specifically student affairs) where there’s always complaints of work/life balance, low pay, and other grievances. I mean, how is it I have a master’s degree and make around $35,000 annually?

There are many unhappy or sometimes happy and maybe not quite whole people who work hard on behalf of students as well! So, this was a bit offensive to me – even if I get where Dr. Klotz was coming from.

Also – did anyone else read this sentence and immediately think of the film Legally Blond?

legally-blonde-kill-people

“Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands”

“Which is why I simply do not understand what is happening on the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook page. While impressive in members (over 25,000!)…”
Girl, yessss. There are so many people! And that’s what makes The Group™ so dang difficult. Let’s recognize that the happiest country in the world is Denmark – unsurprisingly it is only 5.5 million people, 90% White and 80% Lutheran. There’s little diversity and almost all people have the same majority identities, so no wonder they are so dang happy! (except for the minorities – read up on racism in Denmark, y’all). When you add numbers and diversity, you get multiple experiences and viewpoints, so deciding on “one way of life” is pretty difficult!

“It has become a place for unhappy, broken, people to showcase their brokenness.”
Yeah. I was annoyed before, but this judgmental statement made me clutch my fake pearls from JC Penney. As I said, I embrace my brokenness and my broken people! But this statement is so disconnected from the reality of what goes on in The Group™ that it’s jarring.

I will acknowledge that people are broken and unhappy. And you can definitely see how the unhappiness and hurt shines through in certain posts and comments in The Group™.

But…of course people are unhappy! See, this is why I – as someone who worked in social services before entering grad school for SA – cannot take Student Affairs very seriously when it comes to social justice. YES, there is great SJ work that occurs but then there’s moments like this where I feel there is a disconnect between the SJ values we preach and linking them to action and philosophies – and as we can see from the many positive reactions to Dr. Klotz’s piece, there are many people who either are not viewing the post through a critical lens and/or are unbothered by the silencing tone of the piece.

We live in a system of oppression and everyone has different privileged and marginalized identities (PS: I need people to stop saying they are a “marginalized person” because it just erases their privileged identity(ies) – which almost everyone has one).

It can be difficult to be happy when you are trying to survive in a career (student affairs) and a society (especially the U.S.) that was not.made.for.you. It was made for so few of us. Depending on the identities one holds, it is sometimes just enough to “survive” and hope one day we get to the “thrive” part.

The next time you see someone being bitter in The Group™ please recognize that yes, maybe they are unhappy and broken. Whether it is the “social justice warrior” lambasting someone or the “privileged jerk” who vehemently thinks you are mean for yelling at them – remember that we are all unhappy and broken in different ways and the ways in which we engage on the internet might stem from this brokeneness. Sometimes just recognizing it helps us get a step forward in understanding.

– Also – Let’s acknowledge that Student Affairs regularly emphasizes “authenticity” but I guess only when that person is happy and whole and life is awesome. And…also it seems authenticity is only okay when that person has no mental illness, because let’s be real: saying someone is “broken” is a long held discriminatory way to speak about people with mental illness. Again, I’m sure not the intent, but ‘broken’ was a terrible word choice.

“One criticism I have heard from group members is that more seasoned practitioners don’t often comment or contribute.” 
I totally get this. It is a public Facebook group and the higher your profile is, the more careful you have to be in your wording so you do not risk your job. Screenshots, and all that (which, btw, I disagree with intensely). Y’all have a lot more at risk and usually report up to conservative folks since traditionally old white men tend to be university presidents and chancellors.

Personally, I think that is a nice distinction of #sachat on Twitter – the ability to engage with seasoned professionals.

“It has become a place where people like to attack and judge each other.” 
I agree and disagree.

The issue with Dr. Klotz’s post is the lack of nuance in discerning the root of the issue in The Group™. Where is it that we see argument? Is something trivial like whether one should order pizza or subs for a program? No, it is almost always rooted in identity and social justice. The “attacks” often stem from someone with a marginalized perspective or speaking for a marginalized group to critique a post or comment that perpetuates oppression. OR, it occurs when a privileged person says something oppressive, someone gently calls them on it, and they react very defensively and go on the attack.

However, I do acknowledge the toxicity of the group and how the responses can be. There’s a lot of anger and most of it is righteous. When someone is triggered emotionally by content because their oppressed identity is targeted, they basically have 3 options: 1. Educate them. 2. Hold them accountable, 3. Ignore it.

The first two options are sometimes done at the same time and can be done in many different tones: mild, irritated, sarcastic, angry, etc. It can be difficult when one feels triggered emotionally to pull a Michelle Obama “when they go low, we go high” and speak all pleasant-like. Sometimes I believe the anger is righteous and the offending party should feel that anger – that is one way of becoming educated that what they did was not okay and they should not do it again.

There are limits, in my perspective, based on the intensity of the incident (from mistake to vicious ignorance to intentional) and the person who committed it (I hold seasoned professionals to a much different standard than grad students, for example).

BUT – overall, the people I see who usually gripe about being ‘attacked’? They are almost always coming from the privileged perspective on the matter.  So by making this statement, I immediately get the sense that Dr. Klotz’s perspective stems from a very white experience as traditionally most of the social justice debates/discussions/fights center around race (not always, but predominantly).

I completely believe The Group™ needs critique, but it needs it through a critical theory lens.

“The large number of members has created a mob-like mentality where people can feel safe to literally say anything (publicly criticizing their boss, institution, etc.) and know that they will be supported by hundreds of people.”     
Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…………Yes AND No.

Anyone who spends time in the group knows that there have been many posts calling out that silly memes and stories get hundreds of posts but when people call out negative things like oppression, there usually is not a large response. I also don’t usually see people criticize their boss and institution that often (although it happens) but that’s their choice – and at the same time they don’t get hundreds of likes/comments.

However! It is possible that Dr. Klotz is here calling out the White, Straight, Cis, Able-Bodied identity groups. After all, so many folks with one or more of these identities have written truly tasteless and horrific things that I am appalled that people approve of it in a field that ‘values’ social justice. As it is completely true that in terms of “silent support” i.e. post and comment “Facebook Likes”, the privileged perspectives tend to get much more of this. Not always of course, as I see our marginalized folks holding it down and supporting each other often – shout out to how amazing many of our Queer, Black, Latinx, AAPI, Indigenous, & Trans colleagues are. And I’m seeing even more colleagues with mental illness and disabilities calling attention to these issues as well.

“I have heard of employers checking that Facebook group before they offer a candidate a position simply to ensure that they aren’t one of the people that have been contributing to this issue of attacking others”
Yep. That’s pretty scary. Again, there’s the whole idea of how are we defining “attacking others”. I think it is code for standing up for oneself and others of marginalized identities.

But again, it could also be referring to all the privileged and oppressive interactions. I mean, do I want to hire someone who openly discriminates?

It is also true that sometimes people on the ‘social justice side’ do take it a step farther than I agree with – but it’s also hard because often it’s in cases where I do not share that marginalized identity so…do I get to call something “too much” when from their perspective, it is deserved?

And also – if you are an employer and you actually don’t consider a candidate because they call out racism, sexism, transphobia, etc in a Facebook group of professionals who interact with students of different identities every day? Please reconsider. Your department could benefit from a strong supporter of marginalized students who are willing to take time to call out discrimination in a public arena.

Nuance. Is. Required.

“Happy, whole, people. That’s who I want to serve students.”
Agree to disagree. Again, this feels like coded language that is biased against oppressed identities, like we must be seen but not heard – like children at a Victorian dinner table.

“I get the most nervous for these aspiring student leaders, the excited undergrads, the NUFP kids, and anyone else who is considering entering our field and sees these posts.” 
Me too! Sure, I had 5 years of professional experience prior to graduate school, but I’ve only been in the field 2.5 years post-master’s…and I cannot believe the amount of prejudice and ignorance that exists in the field. When I applied for graduate school I thought that Student Affairs professionals were highly educated on issues of social justice. And…they are more than some professions (I will give us that). But it has been an exhausting and frustrating experience to see so many SA professionals at all levels make racist, sexist, classist, and other ‘ist’ statements. I have lost a lot of respect for the field. And I know many aspiring SA folks – especially students of color – who see these types of ignorant posts and reconsider their career.

So yes, I am nervous.

“It is our job to role model how to engage in online spaces so that students can learn about respectful dialogue and how to have tough conversations.  Instead, it has often become a place where folks are sharing their pain in destructive ways.”
Yes, I will agree with some of this. ‘Civil dialogue’ is a real concept that one can read about and learn, and it would be great if all members read up on this. There is actually a way to speak about critical topics and disagree.

But of course, this can be difficult in practice. Like last year there was a certain ‘CEO’ who posted many disgusting things before being banned from The Group™ and once posted something quite sexist and would not respond authentically to my critique – this made me so damn angry and had no issue being “a bitch” (because you know people think that when women get angry and disagree) in my next responses.

Was that civil dialogue? Nope. But sometimes you have to cut someone with words in order to carve through the bullshit and get into an authentic space.

“Happy, whole, people. That’s who I want to call on in the middle of a crisis.”
I…still don’t really know what is meant by happy, whole, people.

And in the middle of a crisis I want people who can get shit done – broken people are sometimes the best at this.

“Reclaim the page.”
…from who?

I’m sorry, I know this is meant with likely good intention but it is coming from an upper-level White female administrator who has not really posted a lot about social justice or critical theory and who does not engage in the The Group™. So naturally I have concerns.

As someone commented in the group, this really sounds like Trump’s anthem of “Make America Great Again” (with the resounding question of “great for who?”). I know from Dr. Klotz’s Twitter that she supported Hillary so I’m sure this was not her vision but it is my interpretation – and many others.

Jameelah Jones did a lot of labor in quickly analyzing the types of post in the group and the majority of it is asking for advice, job postings, and stories. It truly seems like the issue people have with the group is social justice conversations, so if you want to “reclaim the page” I can’t help but think this is a bunch of White, Straight, Middle-Class, Christian, Cis, Able-Bodied etc folks coming in to sweep others out.

I imagine this critique may sound harsh because this field does not truly value a critical lens and has a lot of fragility (white or otherwise) around privilege, so just me calling it out as I see it will sound harsh, I am sure.

And yet…I can interpret this statement no other way than to whitewash the group and turn us into robotic versions of ourselves.

“Make it a space for empowerment and grace.” 
I love this statement on its own, but connected to the other statements I am not sure who you want to empower…

However, I do think we could do a better job of giving each other (especially young professionals) some grace on mistakes made.

“Use it as less of a therapy session and more of a place where we can brainstorm how to help our students—and each other—when engaging with the tough work on our college campuses.” 
I am actively disappointed in this statement and frown every time I read it.

First, I’m not sure what “therapy session” means. Is it alluding to the comments where people speak openly about their marginalized identities and advocate for their right to live without oppression? Or does it mean when people complain about having to serve Midnight Breakfast? I have no idea but I assume the former due to the tone of this blog post.

What some people consider “therapy”, others consider “building community”.

“Let’s use this page as a space where victories are shared, staff successes are celebrated and resources are given.” 
I think all this is great! It sounds like a nice message board on a 1995 Geocities page – very basic and dry.

While these are all great to include, this idea excludes having engaging conversations around social justice and other issues. It also excludes the idea that we cannot as workers gather to discuss issues in higher education like low pay, ineffective graduate school programs, bias in the workplace, and others. In this day and age, it is important that we share our struggles so it is no longer ‘me’ but ‘we’. This will help us better advocate for ourselves and one another.

Again, I like the positive aspects but we need to be critical minded professionals as well. I am worried by only emphasizing the positive the end goal of this blog post is to cancel out authentic and challenging conversations among diverse folks.

“In the quest for this group to be inclusive, it has backfired to become divisive (young, edgy, pros vs. old curmudgeons) and let’s live up to the title of the group—Student Affairs Professionals.”
Does what makes the young professionals edgy are their commitment to social justice?

“All professional interaction and engagement with one another.” 
The term “professional” was defined by White, Straight, Cis-Men. It’s an exclusive concept that strips us often of our humanity – especially if you don’t have all those privileged identities. “You Call it Professionalism; I Call it Oppression in a Three-Piece Suit” is a great piece by Carmen Rios on Everyday Feminism that people need to read.

“That being said, “I volunteer as tribute!” to help whoever is interested to give this page a face-lift, a re-do, an upgrade.”
As both a Member and a Moderator, I just want folks to engage in the group critically with an open-mind, and participate as often as they can.

As someone who low-key likes research on these topics, it is very difficult to change the structure of a large and diverse organization (especially in a desensitized virtual space). I am not quite sure how to go about fixing things, but I know no matter what, people will leave. So, it comes down to values and what voices we value when we are upgrading a space.

“There is enough hate, anger, and pain in our country right now.  Let’s compassionately lead our campuses and be kind to each other.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I just think this is a “both/and” situation. We can be compassionate by also recognizing the unhappy and broken pieces within each of us and fighting for all of us.

Conclusion
What does this all boil down to – in my opinion?

Privilege and oppression.

And mostly – White fragility and systemic racism. While not all social justice posts in the group are about race (trans and queer issues are also frequent) it usually does come down to race. Which does lead me to believe that all this hand wringing about the tone of the group and a desire to return to the old model of mostly job postings stems from racism.

Which is honestly just sad. I hope we can be more open-minded, utilize a critical lens, and do better as we move forward.

Finally, let it be known that while Dr. Klotz wrote a rather viral blog post calling attention to issues in the group, she has the privilege of being rather high profile in the SA blogging/social media world. Remember: People of color – especially Black Student Affairs Professionals via #blksapblackout – have been calling out issues for a very long time. Many queer and trans voices as well, and many other marginalized voices. Please recognize this as the discussions about The Group™ continue online and offline.

***

Feedback can be left in the comments or tweet me at @NikiMessmore.

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[marginalized folks are] Always Educators in Student Affairs

The “Student Affairs Professionals” (SAP) Facebook group is a strange little beast. At 21,000+ members, it contains both the best and worst of the profession.

That’s harsh. And…not quite true.

The SAP Facebook group demonstrates the best and worst of the profession. There are incidents where folks share resources and best practices, support one another’s highs and lows…sometimes it is excellent.

Other times? Not so much.This blog post will address one of the “SAP Problematic Concepts” (a term I’ve coined for now to describe the incidents/statements we see regularly) titled “But we’re all educators!!”

But We're All Educators

Discussion of social justice concepts and navigating privileged experiences with the realities of marginalized (in regards to race, the term used often is ‘minoritized’ but I chose /marginalized/ since it is a more commonly understood term) experiences in our society is necessary to advance ourselves professionally and personally. Of course, it can be tricky to have a fruitful discussion online and often with people you’ve never interacted with before – and even likelier it was never face-to-face.

Some argue that it is pointless to have SJ discussions in the SAP group or any other online venue. I disagree, but I do agree that there’s a series of regular incidents that tend to occur with these talks. The primary one? When a person with one or more privileged identities gets frustrated and pushes on someone with one or more marginalized identities to explain that marginalized experience.

Their belief? That the person with the marginalized belief owes it to the person with the privileged identity to “educate them”. Of course the person in question should do it/should want to do it “because we’re all educators” and “we’re all learning”.

eye roll - B Apt 13

That’s not cute. It’s bullying. It’s entitlement. It’s exerting your privileged status on someone. The term “check your privilege” has become trite but for real, you should do just that. It’s a better use of your time then carrying out acts of oppression.

Just because someone works as a student affairs professional, as an educator, does not mean they owe it to all the folks in the world to do unpaid labor to teach 24/7. Not to mention, the more marginalized identities a person holds, the more likely it is that systemic oppression affects them and they are paid less than your average person with a greater number of privileged identities.

When a person spends their work day getting paid to educate, they are also likely doing it outside of work in different sectors. That’s tiring. Folks with marginalized identities – especially people of color – are forced to educate far more often than privileged – especially white – folks.

And let’s name it: I see this SAP Problematic Concept most often when fellow white professionals bully people of color to “educate them” on different social justice perspectives related to race and racism.

Franky, that is bullshit.

If you’ve graduated from a masters’ or doctoral program, go back to your assigned readings.If you didn’t, then the internet and your local library are wonderful resources. Check out some recommended books. Ask other privileged folks to educate you – for you to educate one another. And above all, please use Google (and GoogleScholar). Here, I started you off with a search for “systemic racism in higher education“.

Systemic Racism in Higher Ed-let me google that for you

And don’t forget – when you have a privilege identity it is your responsibility to call in your peers when they are saying something problematic. Race, mental health, gender identity, sexuality, first language…there are a lot of identities and experiences to learn about. We’re always going make mistakes and learn new things. Help one another out with that. Do it online and offline (as I’m sure this attitude is common in the ‘real world’ as well).

Bystander intervention is a cool thing. It’s unfair to let folks with marginalized identities fend off pushy entitled privileged folks.Let’s support each other in doing better. Which sometimes means tough love, and that’s okay.

***

Those are my thoughts. It’s been a while since I’ve written a critical blog post but I just can’t take seeing these patterns over and over. I took a long break (with only minimal check-ins) from student affairs’ social media spaces for the specific reason of how draining and demoralizing they can be. There’s some good stuff, for sure! But there’s also a lot of folks with advanced degrees who need to engage better with their peers and learn how to Google.