Contrary to the view from outside the Ivory Tower, academic life is stressful (as if you needed me to tell you). One study even found faculty burnout and stress levels are similar to those of K-12 teachers and medical professionals. Why? Because our work is NEVER done. There is always another manuscript to write, paper to grade, meeting to attend.
On top of this general stress, women faculty of color must contend with a variety of structural and interpersonal stressors that negatively impact our health and create a sense of isolation and otherness, such as:
A rational response to these stressors is to seek safety by turning inward and disconnecting from those around you – why risk opening up to people if that brings more hurt and pain? Compelling as this response is, there are considerable physical and mental health drawbacks, making it a definite don’t.
Turning toward empathic others, alternatively, has been shown to have tremendous stress-reducing benefits. There is nothing more validating and cathartic than telling your story and being seen, heard, valued, and believed. Moreover, knowing others have similar challenges helps with healthy perspective development.
Recap. Don’t go it alone; do develop supportive networks—a.k.a. Sister Circles.
Okay, let’s be clear – implementing the advice to develop Sister Circles is not easy, especially for those of us who find making new connections challenging (like me), are in spaces where there are few other women faculty of color, or have little in common with the women faculty of color who are available. If this is you, even just a little, don’t despair. There are strategies that can make circle building easier, and I outline six below. I invite you to implement one or more of these strategies to bring you one step closer to getting the support you need.
Caveat. The strategies require a level of interpersonal risk, so intentionality and commitment are necessary to ensure success.
1. Attend local, regional, and national events where women faculty of color gather.
The National Women’s Studies Association Women of Color Leadership Project is an example of one such event. These gatherings can be an oasis for those struggling to find connection, but they can also be rather intimidating if you don’t know many people. To make connecting easier, identify beforehand a few individuals you would like to meet. If you have colleagues in common, request an e-introduction prior to the event. If not, show up to their talk and be sure to ask a question. Then go up and request their card so you can follow-up. If that is difficult, find a role that will facilitate interaction, such as helping to register conference participants or offering to chair a session where someone you want to meet is presenting.
2. Invite women faculty of color to present at your institution.
Depending on your position and institutional resources, this might require advocacy and fund-raising. Good places to start are the diversity office or teaching and learning center. If you pull this off, consider seeking help from other women faculty of color to organize the visit and be sure to volunteer to drive the speaker to and from the airport to get extra face-time.
3. Ask those faculty you already know to connect you with other women faculty of color.
This snowball strategy is most helpful if the referring person is willing to facilitate a casual meeting or e-introduction.
4. Don’t let distance limit who’s in your circle.
Face-to-face connections with other women faculty of color are wonderful but not always possible, so use technology as a connection-building tool. I have several wonderful Sister Circles with women who live great distances from me and each other. These circles work because we commit to regularly scheduled conference calls throughout the year.
5. Seek advice from those women faculty of color you want to get to know.
Asking someone to be your friend is a sure-fire way to creep them out. Seeking advice, however, is a great way to show your respect and desire to know more about what she thinks.
6. Implement structures that facilitate connections among women faculty of color.
This might require more energy and commitment than the other strategies but could yield sustainable results. Possibilities include organizing a women faculty of color support network, university learning community, or mutual-mentoring group.
Is it worth the risk? Yes, yes…and…wait for it…yes.
There is much about the stress of the Ivory Tower we can’t control. But we can choose to buffer the impact of this stress by seeking support from and sharing support with our sisters. As a wonderful bonus, these efforts model good sisterhood for the next generation of women faculty of color. So take the risk and start building your Sister Circle today.
In peace and solidarity,