UMBC Women Who Rock: The Women Behind the Staff of Color Network

UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’ve been writing since last year and it has become one of my favorite things to think and write about for the Women’s Center blog. In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

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UMBC Women Who Rock!
The Staff of Color Network Co-Chairs

“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful, white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”
That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
– Viola Davis, Emmy Award Speech on September 20, 2015

The Staff of Color Network co-chairs. Women who ROCK! L-R: Lisa Gray, Donna-Lee Mahabeer. Mickey Irizarry, & Alexis Melville
The Staff of Color Network co-chairs =Women who ROCK!
L-R: Lisa Gray, Donna-Lee Mahabeer. Mickey Irizarry, & Alexis Melville

What a powerful counternarrative. How unapologetic and courageous. As I’ve watched Viola Davis’ acceptance speech several times this week and seen the gif-ed articles on all the ways Black women were each other’s biggest fans at the Emmy’s, the women behind of the Staff of Color Network (SCN) at UMBC keep coming to my mind. Donna-Lee, Lisa, Mickey, and Alexis are women of color on campus who are challenging that line and finding ways to create opportunities for themselves and others on campus as people of color. While Davis calls for more roles to be written for Women of Color in Hollywood, these UMBC women are creating safe and validating spaces for themselves and other people of color on campus. They’re asking important questions about lack of visibility, calling out (and in) racial microaggressions, and being each other’s allies and advocates. This has taken raw courage and bravery as they challenge the institutional and systemic white narrative and experience. Indeed, they are UMBC Women Who Rock.

In this UMBC Women Who Rock post, I veer from the reflective narrative I tend to write in and opted for a Q&A format instead. I hope to feature all of these badass women in their own UMBC Women Who Rock post one day, so stay tuned!

What is the Staff of Color Network (SCN)?

Donna-Lee: “The Staff of Color Network is a group for staff and graduate assistants that self-identify as persons of color within the Division of Student Affairs. It is our goal to uplift, support and cultivate the staff of color community through the efforts of our network.”

Why was SCN created? What is the networks goals? Can you share a little bit more of the creation story?

Donna-Lee, The Commons Program & Services Coordinator, tells her story.
Donna-Lee, The Commons Program & Services Coordinator, tells her story during the Women’s Center’s Telling Our Stories Project.

Donna-Lee: “SCN was created because there was a need not being met on campus. UMBC not only has less representation when it comes to staff of color, but it the perception of many that we seem to do a poor job recruiting and retaining staff of color. The culture among the persons of color I interacted with came across as discontented, stifled and invisible. In creating the Staff of Color Network, our goal is to alleviate those feelings of inadequacy. We are to be more than visible. We are to be seen wholly in our racial identities and acknowledged as such. My goal for SCN is to create a feeling of community among professionals of color at UMBC so that no one feels alone and ostracized when they show up as their authentic selves on campus. In building this community, people hopefully will feel a greater sense of safety and belonging, which in turn hopefully leads to retention and recruitment for both faculty and staff of color.”

How did each of you decide to be in (or get called into) a leadership role for SCN?

Mickey: “… A couple of years ago I was a part of the Division’s Brave Spaces group – we were a mixed group of Student Affairs staff that met once a month and talked about race, privilege, and inequalities. And, even though I enjoyed my time in the group and learned a lot, I still felt like there was something missing – a safe space where persons of color could talk freely among each other and not feel judged, or a space where we would be able to share stories find commonalities between one another in many areas of life – personal and professional. I spoke with Donna-Lee about the Brave Spaces group and she told me about how at some other universities they have coalitions and university-wide and university-recognized groups for staff and/or faculty of color and that it would be really great to have one at UMBC too. From there the formation of the SCN began and I’m so happy to see the energy, support and acceptance behind it so far.”

Alexis: “I feel that it is important to have spaces where staff of color can be free to self-express when triggered at work. I was fortunate to find Donna-Lee, Mickey, and Lisa as well as people in my own department who I would go to so that I could process certain feelings and perceptions that I may have. As my tenure at UMBC continued, I noticed that not a lot of staff of color had that opportunity or safe space to process. Given the importance self-expression and self-care and how tied it is to mental health and work performance, I felt that partnering with other individuals to help provide a space where people can feel supported is paramount to a healthy work environment.”

The UMBC Women Who Rock series aims to tell the stories of women on campus living their authentic lives apologetically. What ways do you feel you live an authentic life at UMBC? What do you need from the UMBC community to more readily live an authentic life as a Woman of Color at UMBC?

Lisa: “I live an authentic life at UMBC in several ways that include showing up with the intention of supporting others and letting other people see the different sides of myself. I’m a mom, single but partnered. I love salsa dancing. It’s important for me to share my off-campus life with others while I’m on campus. With that being said, what I need to live an even more authentic life as a woman of color at UMBC is more visible signs that we matter. I want to see more work of women of color highlighted so we don’t feel as invisible to ourselves and others. I would also like to see an expanded narrative of who women of color are – we are not just Black women. We need to open up and move beyond a black and white dichotomy.”

Mickey, UHS's Health Education Coordinator, shares her I'm Not as part of the Telling Our Stories Project
Mickey, UHS’s  Assistant Director of Health Education, shares her I’m Not as part of the Telling Our Stories Project

Mickey: “…Life is stressful enough as it is to constantly be thinking about how I should act today or what image I should project for a specific group/location. I live my authentic self by valuing keeping an open mind in all situations and standing up/speaking out for what I believe in. But I also make sure to be aware of checking my privileges as a multi-ethnic, passing woman with the educational and professional background that I have, and to understand that not everyone has the ability to be able to live authentically all of the time, which is extremely disheartening to me and something that I hope will shift in the future.”

The UMBC Women Who Rock series also addresses stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. What role do you see SCN playing at UMBC in debunking stereotypes about Women of Color or encouraging white community members to check their assumptions?

Mickey: “I hope that as a result of SCN, the campus will more readily recognize women of color as leaders on our campus and that they keep that in mind when they are thinking about hiring, promoting or re-classing staff and faculty. I would like UMBC to be much more intentional about getting our staff to reflect the diversity in our student body so that we can truly say UMBC is a diverse school without being misleading.”

Donna-Lee: “SCN has already charged ahead in taking the initiative to meet with those in positional power at UMBC in order to provide them with an understanding of what our cause is about and how they can help. SCN is working to eliminate the preconceived notion of the “angry” person of color. We are simply looking for equity and equality and we plan on doing it in a direct way as opposed to taking a more passive direction.”

How do you practice self-care?

Alexis: “I practice self-care through watching movies, mediation, and spending time with friends. I find spaces where I can be my authentic self which includes spaces where I can be a mix of peaceful, goofy, and intellectual all at the same time. I think self-care is integral in how I keep myself grounded.”

Lisa, Assistant Director of Student Life, Cultural and Spiritual Diversity, let's campus know who she isn't in the Telling Our Stories project.
Lisa, Assistant Director of Student Life, Cultural and Spiritual Diversity, let’s campus know who she isn’t in the Telling Our Stories project.

Lisa: “Four things I do to practice self-care. Deep breathing. Doing something I love that has nothing to do with work (dancing!). Prayer and silent reflection. Venting with people I love and who love me.”

Any words of wisdom you’d like to share to other Women of Color on campus?

Alexis: “Find spaces where you can express yourself fully. The media, society, friend, family, etc. have a way of trying to dictate who women of color ought to be, how we should look, and how we should act. There are times in which we might get caught up in their views of us and we forget to define ourselves for ourselves. Be sure to take time out of your many roles, demands, and pressures to find your authentic voice. To echo the great Audre Lourde:

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Mickey: “Don’t be afraid to meet new people and find allies/advocates. Building a support system of people you can talk to openly and trust on campus is so important.”

Lisa: “No title or accomplishment is worth losing yourself for or being asked to be someone you’re not.”

Donna-Lee: “Please don’t ever feel like you have to apologize for who you are and how you show up. Be willing to educate, but also be more than willing to advocate if not for yourself, then for those who will surely come after you.”

Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.

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  • For more information on the Staff of Color Network, contact anyone of these fabulous co-chairs via their UMBC email address.
  • To celebrate and support the achievements and ambitions of women of color in the UMBC community, join the Women’s of Color Coalition’s 3rd Annual Women of Color Reception on Tuesday, September 29th from 5-7pm.
  • To learn more about the Women’s Center and Women of Color Coalition’s Telling Our Stories project, visit our website.

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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:

Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)
Susan Dumont (featured October 2014)
Jahia Knobloch (featured January 2015)
A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability (February 2015)
Amelia Meman (March 2015)
Ashley Sweet (May 2015)
Rehana Shafi (August 2015)

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