Written by Sherry K. Watt

“The teacher also has to be a person who is going a little further. I don’t for a minute think that we can be teachers who invite students into radical openness if we’re not willing to be radically open ourselves, if we’re not willing to be a witness to our students of how ideas change and shape us, how something affects us so that we think differently than we did before.”  bell hooks

I recently gave a keynote for ACPA Midwest Conference. I enjoyed my time at the conference. I appreciate all of hard work and dedication it takes to organize a regional professional opportunity. The conference organizers asked me to speak about how to start a revolution. The word revolution makes people uncomfortable. It refers to a shift in power and conjures images of violence. I believe that revolutionary change comes when I transform my mind and then it translates into action.  In the 1970’s Gil Scott Heron wrote a song that captured the sentiments of the times, particularly for the Black community, he said: “The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.” The revolution Heron speaks is not a revolution for public consumption, but the one that takes place in your mind.  The revolution is about a shift in thinking.

I do not deny the history of the word and I am not calling for violence.  At the same time, I hoped the word revolution conveys that there is an urgency for changes to our social and political structure.

This country has historically excluded many underrepresented groups and the disregard has led to violent consequences directly to many (e.g. African American males, trans* community members, women, etc.) and indirectly to all. This social and political unrest is playing out on college campuses daily and tensions between community members are at a steady high.

The ACPA Senior Scholars began a Senior Scholar Summer Blog Series themed around How to Start a Revolution that raised a series of questions: What can the higher education and student affairs professionals do to support students and advocate for inclusion on an institutional-level? How do we answer the calls for transformations of structural oppression? How can we advocate more effectively for students? 

As I prepared for the keynote address, I noticed that these questions all focus on what student affairs professionals can ‘do’ and not on how to ‘be’ around these controversial issues. We are attempting to ‘do’ many things to address the racial climate on our campuses.  For instance, the University of Missouri is conducting diversity audits, hiring a chief diversity officer, and creating committees of faculty and students to recommend changes.  Despite ‘doing’ many things to address the issues, there are still rising racial tensions. I contend that our efforts at ‘doing’ will not be as successful unless we find better ways to ‘be’ in the controversy authentically.  Our attempts at ‘doing’ efforts may not be as successful at diffusing the racial tension because the conversations about what to do lack intentional efforts to acknowledge each of the participants’ experiences with race and racism. To have authentic dialogues intended to solve real problems, the faculty, administrators and students participating need to be able to face consciously the complexity of the role race and racism plays in their individual lives and share that when relevant in dialogues with the group. Participants have to touch the source of the problem and locate it within themselves.  Dialogues across difference have the potential to be more successful when each person in the conversation can bring their whole self to the table, consciously face how the problem relates to their lives and then communicate productively across those different experiences.

I hoped to inspire student affairs professionals and higher education administrators to find ways to ‘be’ authentically with their students, colleagues, and campus partners during these turbulent times.

My dream is that college campuses will live up to their possibility of being spaces where students are inspired to change the world.  I want student affairs professionals and higher education administrators to create environments where we will multiply the spaces where people can show up as their authentic selves and be valued. I want conversations where people have genuinely spoken truth from various points of view and for that to be the basis for action.

As I reflected back on my keynote address, I realize that the audience may not have had any context for my comments. Many may not have known that the conference organizers asked me to speak about revolution nor that my research and theoretical work focuses on bringing oneself to the subject matter.  I imagine without that context that my discussion of revolution might have seemed particularly raw. In the field of higher education, I realize that in the current social and political climate that it is difficult to talk about race and racism. It conjures up feelings of fear and helplessness. It harkens up images of violence from the past and present seen in the media. It reminds us that it is difficult to make a difference as one person.  I realize that these are not quite the emotions you want to feel as you leave an opening to a conference. My comments likely inspired conference attendees to be pensive rather than encouraged and affirmed. Even though I know student affairs professionals and higher education administrators are doing great work in the field, I believe we have to speak truth from many different perspectives about the state of our country. From my point of view, today’s truth is not uplifting.

I am not a militant, but I channel one when I teach.  Naming my truth as a Black person living in this country can seem combative or aggressive.  It is hard for me to hear it as militant because I am generally an optimist.  I view the challenges I face with racism as opportunities to learn and develop.  Living with the consequences of racism is just the reality of what I live every day.

As a teacher, I am a fierce protector of creating spaces to name the truth even if it is uncomfortable. Similar to bell hooks; I invite my students (my children, colleagues, conference attendees, friends, family, etc.) into radical openness. I boldly reveal to them how the current state of race relations in our country affects me and how I work to survive the dehumanizing aspects. To avoid the overwhelming feelings of fear and helplessness, I actively work to shift my own thinking. It is my hope that by shifting my own thinking that I can actively contribute to the change that I want to see in the world.

I began my keynote address by sharing my state of mind. As an African American cis-female scholar, I have a complex and overwhelming story.  Racism laces my day-to-day professional and personal life.  As a scholar, I am one of the few African American full professors at my institution and in our field. I often feel isolated. As a parent, I am raising two African American male children. I fear for their lives daily. As a cancer survivor, I ponder the ways my journey with the diseases of cancer and racism parallel.  I wonder what would happen if we treated racism as a disease that we fight as aggressively as we do cancer. Considering my identity and experiences, it is impossible for me to show up as my whole self without feeling my rage and revealing how disturbed I am by the state of our nation.

The current political partisan rhetoric in the US and internationally that has pit ‘taking back’ the country (e.g. excluding immigrants, racial and sexual minorities from the social and economic mainstream) against cultural inclusion and messages that say ‘together we are stronger’. All the while, the daily news reports on Black men who are losing their lives during encounters with law enforcement and racial slurs hurled at Black students on college campuses.  The events of late that include major acts of violence (e.g., Orlando) and massive changes in the economic system (e.g., Brexit) serve to increase the tension between these polarizing views. These events reveal the fault lines in our country and our world.  These lines show an increase in tension between polarizing views, particularly along racial lines in the United States.  Further, these divides unmask that many of our citizens lack the skills to be in controversy in productive ways to solve social problems that lead to the persistent violence.

It is my hope that we will learn how to communicate in meaningful ways about racism and other social ills that are products of the fear, hatred and misunderstanding of cultural difference.

In light of the protests and political unrest, I needed to find a way to shift my state of mind. I want to find ways to talk about the truths that are close to our heart and yet may be vastly different from our neighbors. I decided to begin with a shift in my own thinking to help me to survive the dehumanization, communicate across difference, and to ‘be’ present in controversy.

My three ‘being in’ revolution strategies are: (1) Truth-Telling; (2) Embracing Paradox; (3) Offering Grace, Forgiveness, and Opportunities for Redemption. I briefly describe and offer questions below for reflection.

Truth-Telling. I talk about my frustration, my deep sadness, and overwhelming anger. I name it. I often name it to the people who caused the pain. I do not tell them to blame them or to punish them, but to speak the truth. I want to lead the way so that others can speak their truth in my presence. Creating this space involves bell hooks’ idea of radical openness.  I must not only show up as my whole self to model this to others, but I also need to be even more vulnerable by sharing with others how my ideas evolve and change.  Questions I reflect upon as I seek to create spaces for truth-telling:

•       How can I bring my whole self with me to my campus?

•       How do I embrace my humanity?

•       How do I create spaces where truth can be spoken?

Embracing Paradox.  Parker Palmer states that “truth is found not by splitting the world into either-ors but embracing it as both-and. In certain circumstances, truth is a paradoxical joining of apparent opposites, and if we want to know that truth, we must learn to embrace those opposites as one” (Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, Pg. 62-63). While “being in” revolution in my life, I have learned that people are flawed, that I am flawed and that I have to embrace my own humanity and theirs too in order to survive the dehumanization.

I try to remember our society socialization includes racist, sexist, and homophobic ideals. This means that I resist defining people and myself SOLELY by their/my racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior. I embrace both/and.  I try to remember that my relationship with my students and colleagues extends beyond our socialization and reaches towards the possibility that we can change. Questions I ponder when I am urging myself to embrace paradox:

  • How can I stay present with views that are vastly different from my own?
  • How can I listen deeply to my own and another’s pain or joy?

Offering Grace, Forgiveness, and Opportunities for Redemption. To embrace my own humanity and that of others. I try to live in a way where I offer grace to others—which means I try to avoid being judgmental and holding their mistake/misstep in their face forever more. When people apologize, I accept it and try to be DONE. I hope that when I apologize that I am received in that same vein. Apologizing sincerely is important.

After I have healed, spoken my truth, I offer people a chance for redemption. I assume (maybe need to believe) that once you know what you are doing is killing me that you will change that behavior.

For me, grace, forgiveness, and redemption are essential states of ‘being in” revolution. If I do not make these offerings to others, then my anger distorts my mind and chips away at my own health and sanity. As important, my withholding of grace and forgiveness–destroys the community I so value. As I ponder grace, forgiveness and redemption, I wrestle with these questions:

•       How can I work on myself?

•       How do I increase my capacity for holding love?

•       How can I work with others without fixing, saving, advising or correcting them?

Productive dialogue across controversy begins with internal transformation and skills such as truth-telling, embracing paradox, and offering forgiveness, grace, and opportunities for redemption. Why do I think strategies for ‘being in’ revolution are so important? I believe that if we can find ways to ‘be in’ revolution, value difference, and dialogue across controversy that our actions to dismantle the dehumanizing system we live in will be more thoughtful, inclusive, informed, and effective.

I invite the entire ACPA membership to be revolutionary. I implore you to ponder how to be radically open, how to shift your own thinking, and how to practice the skills of being in controversy. I believe if we communicate authentically across controversial differences, then our conversations will lead to actions that yields communities that are more inclusive and less violent.


Sherry K. Watt, ACPA Senior Scholar, is a Professor of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa. She is also a facilitator prepared by Center for Courage and Renewal (CCR). The CCR, developed with author, educator, and activist Parker J. Palmer, helps to foster personal and professional renewal through retreats. Sherry applies her expertise as a trained facilitator to designing and leading educational experiences to support the skill development of individuals as they engage in efforts to eradicate social oppression. Sherry recently published an edited book entitled Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications and Facilitator Considerations. This book includes a rearticulation of the 2007 Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) Model. This area of research explores various reactions people have to difficult dialogues related to social issues.