Change Making

How early experiences influence our work in higher ed. 

December 3, 2021

Yesterday morning my first meeting of the day was an interview/facilitated conversation with Ashoka and AACTE. Wow! If every day started like this, my inspiration levels would be through the roof!

I was fortunate to be joined by my dean in the conversation, and I think we both left on an inspiration high.

We opened with an icebreaker: What has made you smile this week and what has made you proud?

For me, our family’s Christmas tree was one of many things that has made me smile. Each ornament has a story that tells the rich history of our many Christmases. Last year was challenging for all of us given the ongoing global pandemic and the lack of vaccines. This year is still challenging, but it does feel like it’s getting better. Decorating the tree seems even more intentional and reflective than in the past, and it brings lots of smiles.

I am also fortunate to have had many moments of pride in the past week. I shared one related to my work at BU Wheelock, where I build and maintain strategic community partnerships. We have an amazing partnership with 826 Boston, a nonprofit supporting young people with writing and publishing, and we were able to visit their Boston headquarters earlier this week. Everyone was masked, but we were in a community together, and it felt great to be sharing space, conversation, ideas and time together.

After the icebreaker, the opening question asked us to reflect on a change-making experience that we had had early in our lives—before the age of 16. This question reminded me of the concept of watershed moments that Valerie Brown from Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Learning shared with us in my leadership coaching program. Watershed moments are moments that define and transform you—for good or bad—and the experiences can also be positive or negative. They are life-changing.

This question was a bit different; basically it asked what made you the change maker that you are today. For me, it was the extreme poverty that my family experienced early in my life. I am the eldest of four, and by the time the youngest was born eight years after I was, housing and food insecurity were a distant past in our lives. But those first eight years of my life were pretty up and down. Sometimes we had dinner. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes my father would go outside and hunt for our meals. On good days, it was rabbit for dinner. On bad days, it was squirrel. Housing was also challenging. Given the extremes of Michigan winters, heat was more often a bigger challenge. There were times when the only heat we had was from the fireplace, and we would sleep on the floor in the living room in front of it. And at our lowest, we were a family of five living in a one-bedroom house in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Flint in the early 1970s. It was rough. But it got better.

When asked about a single incident in my life before I was 16 that made me a change maker, so many images flashed before my eyes that I couldn’t choose just one. And they were images of extreme poverty, and many were set on a cold winter’s day or night. Growing up in the middle of hardship made me the change maker that I am today. It gave me a social justice and equity orientation that formal training with a Ph.D. in sociology gave me the words to describe and the tools to analyze and explain. It also gave me the ability to do that work on a larger playing field and, ultimately, to have a bigger impact.

When I was working in the Janey administration in Boston’s city hall this past year, many of the images of my early childhood were alive as I witnessed extreme poverty in Boston and across the globe. During COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges that has been made more visible is the level of food insecurity and housing instability facing so many of our residents. In our schools, for many of our young people, the only meals they could reliably count on were those provided at their schools. The city of Boston quickly pivoted to prioritizing meals for students and families when we went remote in March 2020. We made similar moves in relation to housing—working to keep people housed during this global pandemic.

We know that the students, faculty and staff at our colleges and universities are not immune to housing instability and food insecurity. We know that people in our community are living in their cars and sleeping in our libraries and other public spaces. As we become more aware of the needs, we are doing more to meet the basic food and housing needs of our students. In the past, we would often joke about the regular staff, graduate students and faculty members who would come to events for the free food, but we must realize that this free food might be some of their only food. I have found that more and more events include takeaway boxes for folks to take food home. We need to do more of this, and we need to create a culture where folks feel comfortable sharing stories and seeking resources.

If we can’t see what we need, we can’t invent the solutions. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Poverty and hardship in my early years made me the change maker that I am today. Injustice resonates at a deep level and motivates me to do more.

What is your early change-making story?

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.


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