Four Michigan State University (MSU) leaders headlined the Michigan American Council on Education’s (MI-ACE) Annual Women of Color Collaborative Virtual “Luncheon” on November 4, 2022, drawing record attendance. Keynote speaker MSU Board of Trustee Member Dr. Rema Vassar, PhD, of Wayne State University, reminded attendees that “I think we kind of shifted back to wanting to hustle back to normal. But normal hasn’t been our friend. Normal is comfortable, but it’s not who women have been in the past, and who we need to be right now. People who are really progressive in thinking about how to make positive change recognize that this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to shift the narrative around who we are and who we want to be.”
Personal and professional leadership is key to changing the narrative for women. Vassar points to transactional leadership as part of the infrastructure that reinforces and maintains “normal.” “You give me something, I get you something. It isn’t really leadership…it’s managerial.” Vassar champions shedding transactional leadership for transformational leadership. “Transformative leadership begins with questions of justice and democracy. Transformational leadership cultivates equitable practices which serve the public good,” said Vassar. “What we have to do as women is always move forward, but always go back to get women who look like us. For transformational leaders, power is something you get so that you can give it to the people who need it,” Vassar proclaimed.
A better normal
The theme, reimagining the narrative, encouraged women to use the post-Covid period to create what MSU’s Dr. Melissa Woo, Executive Vice President for Administration and Chief Information Officer and Foundation president called “a better normal.” Woo joined MSU’s Dr. Danielle Flores Lopez, Interim Assistant Dean of Diversity Equity and Inclusion and Director of Academic Advising and Student Success Initiatives, College of Natural Science. Another panelist, Dr. Marita Gilbert, Associate Dean of Diversity & Campus Inclusion, College of Osteopathic Medicine described her journey in higher education and how she is reimagining herself and her roles.
“Before I tell you about the way that I see myself, the way I craft myself specifically fueled by narratives that we, as black women, were not fully human, less than human, something other than human and sometimes superhuman. These pernicious and inaccurate myths about us being impervious to pain have only recently been disrupted,” said Gilbert. Practitioners in education and medicine continue to unlearn pedagogical and clinical practices based on these false prejudices. “I want to pause to acknowledge that education has often been a violent space for us.” Gilbert works to actively break false narratives about women of color and women in STEM.
“I imagine myself as powerful capable, complete, worthy, and working every day to get women of color free. So sometimes you’ll see me with my hair braided. Other times you all see me with my hair big and wild. When I am alone, seated at the table, often surrounded by men in black and gray suits, I intentionally dress in African prints and vibrant colors, being authentically who I am, and demonstrating that who I am is in direct resistance to narratives that don’t fit.”
Dr. Woo shares that “when I thought about my current narrative, I really think it can be summed up by saying, helping society move towards a better normal. Notice, I say, better normal rather than next normal or new normal, because I feel that we will have to have learned something from this pandemic.”
Reach back but work forward
Our history and where we come from are important. Dr. Vassar’s keynote presentation described leaders who inspired her career and the family members that provided a loving foundation for her success. Dr. Flores Lopez shared that “my family was essential in my development, and in getting to where I am today. It wasn’t always a direct line. I was shaped by my observation of my grandmother’s and my mother’s work ethic. It is amazing.” The journey in higher education can be difficult. “I had to make sacrifices along the way. I decided to return to school after I already had a family. I was married with four young children, very young boys. I was so grateful for my husband’s partnership,” said Flores Lopez. The support of colleagues makes a difference. “Also, during that journey I had two wonderful, amazing women in my graduate school cohort, and I had an amazing advisor and I know that I wouldn’t have made it without them,” said Flores Lopez.
Dr. Gilbert reflected on family and their impact on her life. “I don’t honestly know if my grandmothers, my aunties, my elders, or my former teachers imagined that I would be a PhD. Or become a dean, or even imagine me in leadership in a medical school. I know that they did pray that I’d be successful, that I would have all that I need, and more than I need. That I would be seen and heard and valued, and so those prayers, and their sacrifices and struggles called me into existence. Dr. Vassar is the one who imagined me and called me into existence before I could, and so I count you, Dr. Vassar among those who created opportunities for me to imagine myself as whole and healthy and thriving, loving who I am, and grateful for what I get to do for those who will come after me. That’s my idea or concept of reach back and work forward,” said Gilbert.
Build a network. Be fearless.
In the welcome to the virtual luncheon, MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff set the tone and expectations for our collective future. “At MSU, we are working every day to advance a best-in-class workplace, culture, and environment that provides the undergirding for excellence and opportunity for all, where all are included.” Dr. Woo echoed a commitment to flexibility which is critical to supporting women in the workplace. “We’re really working on caregiving support for those people that are helping to support children or supporting their aged parents,” said Woo.
Dr. Flores Lopez points to the importance of supportive supervisors to her success. “I have been blessed with some amazing women supervisors that have let me know that that was okay to take time to be a mom because it was really hard for me due to my work ethic,” recalls Flores Lopez. “There are women that are professionals that I can count on. I have added them to my community. They are people that I can trust. I think we all need that community that we can go to, and we can talk through things with and that we can lean on,” said Flores Lopez.
Dr. Woo described how she reimaged her narrative. “I know my narrative has changed over time. I realize that I just don’t care what people say about me, or what they think about me. Something that I say to many people that I’ve coached and mentored is to be fearless. I have and wear bangle bracelets with mantras on them. Today’s bangle says, ‘Fearless’ because I always tell people I coach and mentor to be fearless.”
MI-ACE’s Women’s Network is open to all women in higher education within MSU. “MSU is proud to be a member. We have a rich history with Michigan ACE, and throughout the years we’ve seen many women who have taken leadership roles within the organization,” said Cindi Leverich, Director, Academic Leadership Development for the MSU Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Development. “Everyone can benefit by participating in ACE.”
Some comments from this year’s event:
- “Empowering and inspirational.”
- “Very inspirational, loved this and I’m looking forward to future events!”
- “The members of the panel were awesome. I especially like the slide presentation by Dr.Rema.”
- “It was well done, cultural and authentic.”
- “Wonderful presentation, and my soul was empowered.”
- “I thoroughly enjoyed the event and I look forward to attending more.”
If you are interested in learning more or have ideas for how MSU can build on this membership, please contact our current co-institutional representatives Ann Crain (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Cindi Leverich (email@example.com).