As a graduate student working on my doctorate degree, I was required to read a book titled Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. Authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden interviewed 400 African American women regarding their experiences as black women in corporate America. The book discusses the survival complex of black women as they navigate mostly white and male spaces from board rooms to the golf course and even within their own spaces among family and friends. It’s been several years since I read this book, but I instantly remembered its value when I began applying for the community college presidency. I was not overly concerned with navigating a majority campus, but my primary thought was how I would adjust to the college’s governing board?
The vast majority of community college boards are comprised of white men over the age of sixty. It is a well-known fact that the diversification of college governing boards is moving at a snail’s pace in comparison to the changes happening within the student population. How then would I navigate a room full of older white men, that could not possibly relate to me?
In Washington, trustees are appointed and not elected. The Governor’s office accepts applications from interested community members, and the governor appoints the successful candidate. Thankfully, the current governor is focused on increasing diversity on community college boards which is certainly helpful.
As for my college, I am fortunate to work with a fantastic group of individuals that are incredibly diverse. There are two African American women and two white men. Each trustee has a strength that has proven beneficial to my success in the first year. My former trustee is a white woman who is a proud attorney, with an incredible personality that graced her presence on our campus and was a great resource to me. One is a master at local, state, and national politics, and provides great background information on our elected officials. Another trustee has strong family ties and roots at the college with his father serving the institution for over 50 years. He himself is a leader in the community and boasts influence among local leaders that provide support to the college in various ways. The Vice Chair (an African American woman) is a rockstar in her own right, and exudes all things related to inclusion and diversity, with connections in the Greater Seattle area that I have found extremely useful. And my Board Chair is nothing short of amazing!
With five trustees, their job is to set policy and they hire the president. As their one and only employee, it is my job to communicate with them to make sure they feel like (and are) valued members of the team. I provide weekly updates, phone calls when necessary, house visits depending on the circumstance, and quarterly breakfast, lunch, or dinner meetings. We have traveled to at least one conference together, and they were able to meet two of my mentors to gain a better idea on who I surround myself with. This is important as they should know your network and understand that it takes a village to educate a nation, as our college should not operate in a vacuum.
We have shared cocktails with each other, laughed, talked business, taken selfies and photos, and uploaded those pictures to social media. The funniest memory I have with my trustees is at a recent conference in San Francisco in October 2019. On one of the conference days, attendees were encouraged to wear their college spirit gear and we took a picture in the lobby of the hotel kicking our legs as if we were the Radio City Rockettes! Having a good time is definitely part of the equation.
So what’s my point? Before you jump into the presidency head first, take the time to research the college trustees and ask yourself the following questions.
1. Is the board appointed or elected?
2. Are your board members retired or active in the workforce?
3. How many board members are there and can you handle constant, individualistic attention to each person?
4. Is the board diverse?
5. Are they a high functioning board or a dysfunctional board? Check the board minutes and local newspaper for the answer to this question.
Finally, I would do this blog an injustice if I did not address the relationship between the board chair and president. In this arena I am certainly blessed and highly favored, so go ahead and let the church say “amen.” My Board Chair is Dr. Betty Cobbs, an amazing African American woman that has served as an educator for over forty-five years. She is currently an elementary school principal, and she has a fire that burns bright for her students, teachers, and families that comes in and out of her school each day. She is a beloved member of the community, and is loved fiercely by her amazing husband and her two adult children.
As a millennial African American woman, with a family, it is reassuring to know that I am not required to lead a double-life with any of my trustees, especially Dr. Cobbs and Mrs. Toraya Miller. We relate on a level that is described in the book Shifting. We can share our experiences and talk each other through situations that are beneficial to both parties. Lately, both women are constantly reminding me to take time for myself, which is at times difficult to do. When I was on vacation over Christmas I was contemplating how attached I would stay to my email while on the cruise ship. Understand that the college is closed the week of Christmas, so there really was not much to be concerned about. Toraya dropped her nugget of wisdom in so many words, and it ended with, “leave your phone in the safe and enjoy your family.”
I realize that I may have an atypical situation and there are no doubt others very similar to my own and probably better. I value the strengths of each of my trustees as they value the work I do for the college in concert with our students, faculty, and staff. When it is your time to make the leap into the applicant pool, be absolutely certain that the make-up of your trustees is something that you can live with. Make sure they can support the whole you, the way you were wonderfully and beautifully made by God. Understand that you can find strength in any person no matter their age or color as long as they can truly see you and respect your leadership and guidance.
“The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”