Finding the message in the crisis: A reflection on existing in a tumultous social climate

by Edmund Graham III / Nov 22, 2016

Be careful. This is what my mother said to me as I was leaving for the office, while she was in town visiting this summer. These words came on the heels of the world hearing about Philando Castille, the second black man to be executed through state-sanctioned violence in two days. Those words were heavy, weighted by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu and concern. There was clear concern for my physical being, but that “be careful” seemed loaded—there was more to it. I’ve carried this message of being careful with me since that July morning, trying to reconcile this seemingly coded language.

As I reflect back on my experiences in higher education, my first endeavor with research in education was driven by wanting to understand why disparities in high school existed for black men, but more importantly how those disparities could be assuaged. Growing up the in my hometown of Flint, MI the narrative for black men and boys, from my perspective, was often similar to that of which we hear of the south side of Chicago today—one of hopelessness and despair; however, that did not reflect my experiences. For the problems that did exist, my concern was and has always been how folks can be better supported, particularly through education, so that they may reach their full potential. I was learning to be careful.

I carried this thought process with me into the workforce as I have, in the past, made the conscious decision to work in a community college and a Historically Black University. In these institutions I saw that I can move beyond the question of how can disparities be improved to what can I do as an institutional agent to better serve the students that I have the privilege to serve. I worked to be a soundboard in order to ensure that I can be a true advocate on their behalf. I created spaces where students could exist absent a sometime overbearing world. I was being careful.

In my current space, I have a great opportunity and space to advocate for traditionally marginalized populations by working with institutional agents who can institute change on their campuses. This work allows me to build upon my initial inquiries and actions and assist others in approaching student experiences and their outcomes from an equity-minded approach. The work allows for me to share with others the importance of being careful.

Reflecting on these experiences against the current social backdrop, the enigmatic message from my mother to be careful started to make sense. Of course, it was rooted in a black mother’s fear operating in a world that can be and has been unkind, broadly speaking, to men of color. But it wasn’t until this past week, with the election of Donald Trump, that I began to see the underlying meaning. It was one of reassurance—a charge of sorts, to continue my work as an emerging scholar focusing on equity and social justice for marginalized, underserved, underrepresented, and disenfranchised student populations. It was a statement of encouragement—to not be discouraged by opposition to this work, even if that meant risk of harm to myself, in the literal or figurative sense. In a society where our physical bodies can very well be in harm’s way, I implore all taking on this difficult work to be steadfast and unrelenting, especially in light of an impending change in our nation’s leadership, to be careful. Be careful of yourself, those whom you advocate for, those whose voices you amplify, and those who face oppression and can benefit from the privilege that you have acquired through your journey. Be careful.