An Ally in Troubling Times

Many activist professors are stretched thin from attending protests, leading campus conversations, helping students while also processing their own emotions and dealing with the general weight of the current political moment. Kerry Ann Rockquemore gives advice on how to support such colleagues on your campus.

September 28, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

I’m worried about my faculty mentee. She’s the only African-American professor in our large department, and even though we’re only a month into the new academic year, I can see that she’s exhausted from student protests, community protests and the weight of this current political moment. I saw her yesterday, and it looked like she hadn’t slept in days. She couldn’t stop to talk because she was coming from a teach-in and heading to a die-in. When I briefly asked how her writing was going, she told me, “Great! I just finished an op-ed.”

I’m her department mentor, but I’m unsure how to support her. I share her politics, so I’m actively working for policy change and trying to be an effective ally, but I feel like I should be doing something to support her directly. I see the additional labor she is doing (meeting with students seeking support, writing for a popular audience and being a leader in difficult campus conversations), but I’m worried about her physical health and the impact that these activities are going to have on her third-year review next year.

While I value her activity, the hard reality is that none of this work will count when she gets reviewed next year, and I have serious concerns about her research productivity. I’m not sure what to do or what to say.


A Concerned Mentor and Ally

Dear Concerned,

Thanks for asking this question, for noticing your colleague’s stress and for wanting to support her. The situation you’re describing is not exclusive to your mentee. Many politically engaged faculty members are feeling stretched thin at the moment. They’re revising syllabi on the fly, making time to speak to the news media, attending protests, writing for a nonacademic audience, leading campus conversations and helping students while also processing their own emotions.

While every member of your department is aware of the protests and political activity against police brutality, your mentee is not just watching the events unfold on television -- she is living them on a daily basis. Every time another black person is killed and the video is virally shared and repeatedly viewed, she can see herself and her family members. Given the horrifyingly rapid and repetitive cycle of death-video-outrage-repeat, I’m not surprised to hear she is overextended physically and emotionally.

As a concerned mentor and ally, I encourage you to do the following things sooner rather than later.

Start by listening. Invite your mentee for coffee or lunch so you can have time for direct and honest communication. Let her know that you are concerned about her health and well-being, describe what you’ve observed (i.e., verbalize the additional labor she is engaged in) and ask her directly how she is doing. Then stop talking and give her your undivided attention.

She may say some things that are hard for you to hear. It’s OK if you feel uncomfortable at times, get anxious or want to jump in and fix things for her. Just acknowledge those feelings, take a deep breath and then keep listening. Whatever you do, don’t redirect the conversation and make it about you. In other words, don’t start talking about the ways you, too, have experienced marginalization. Don’t try to explain things away, and don’t try to fix her perspective. Just practice empathic listening. Be present with her in the spirit of learning what the current moment is like for her.

It may be that she just needs to be seen, heard and understood. If so, then being present for her is a tremendous support. When she’s finished responding to her question, ask her directly, “What support do you need right now?” She may have a concrete request for you, such as guest lecturing in her class, breaking your social media silence on police brutality, sharing her public writing with others, being a stronger ally with your colleagues when microaggressions occur or being a listening ear when she needs it. If she is so overwhelmed in the moment that she can’t specify what kind of concrete support she needs, let her know that you are there for her and will follow up with her next week.

Offer to be her strategic service mentor. Because you are seeking to understand and support her (as an ally) as well as to discuss the impact her activities will have on her upcoming review (as her mentor), I also recommend that you offer to serve as her strategic service mentor this semester. Taking on that role is a crucially important way for you to directly support your colleague, and it’s one she is unlikely to request. It’s common for underrepresented faculty members to spend a disproportionately large amount of time on service because they receive a disproportionately high number of diversity-related service requests. And in moments of unrest, the common pattern of overfunctioning can turn into overdrive, which is unsustainable both for your mentee’s health and her productivity.

Because you already have an established a mentoring relationship, focusing it on service for this semester is a minor pivot. The best framing for this pivot is to affirm that you support her desire to be an engaged scholar and to acknowledge that path requires laser-focused and strategic decision making about how she spends her time. Specifically, it means aligning her time with her evaluation criteria, being selective in her activism and engaging in radical self-care. Acting as a strategic service mentor means that you do the following:

  • Set up an initial meeting to map all her existing commitments on a piece of paper to make them visible in one place.
  • Analyze the size of the list relative to the size of service in her evaluation criteria (i.e., too much, too little or just right). If service is 10 percent of her evaluation criteria and she’s spending 90 percent of her time on it, there’s a problem.
  • Help her to strategically reduce her commitments if she’s taken on too much.
  • Meet with her to discuss any news commitments this semester before she takes them on. And by “discuss,” I mean that you will coach her through making conscious and intentional decisions, not that you will tell her what she should do.

The keys to making this role work are to avoid the kind of black-and-white thinking that creates an artificial divide between activist and academic; it doesn’t have to be one of the other. Instead, as her strategic service mentor, you can affirm her choice to be successful as a scholar activist and help navigate the challenges that path entails (given existing evaluation criteria). And stay open to the possibility that she may see the political work she is doing as far more important than winning tenure and decline your offer to be a service mentor. Choosing to be an activist who is currently employed as a professor is also a choice that some faculty members make.

Assess what it means to be an ally. Given that you’re pausing to consider how you can be an effective ally for your colleague -- and that she’s likely to give you some feedback on that role during your conversation -- this is also a great time to step back and reflect on the full range of possibilities. In other words, if you consider yourself an ally, it’s worth asking yourself:

  • Why is there only one African-American faculty member in your large department, and what are you doing about that lack of diversity?
  • Are you consistently and confidently challenging microaggressions that occur in your department?
  • How do you feel about the “hard truth” that current evaluation criteria negate the value of your colleague’s engaged scholarship?
  • Are you willing to work for expanded definitions of what counts in the evaluation criteria on your campus? If so, how?
  • Are you willing to take a stand on social media by making your positions visible and/or amplifying the voices of African-American scholars?
  • Are you actively working toward positive social change on your campus and in the world?

By asking this question, you’ve opened up an amazing opportunity to truly support your colleague and grow as an ally. As you deepen your relationship with yourself and your colleague, I wish you the humility to listen with an open mind and open heart, the strength to offer strategic support when your colleague needs it, and the courage to evolve in your own work as an ally.


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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