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  • Writer's pictureDr. Joyce Brown

Creating Unity




Photo by Robert Koorenny on Unsplash




I learned about the imperfect process of creating unity while matriculating on a predominantly white college campus in the late 19060s. Daily campus unrest was the unrelenting topic of the national network evening news programs: whether the continuing escalation of sending young, college-age men to fight in Southeast Asia or the integration of black students onto predominantly white campuses across America. The televised segments often featured violent clashes between students, university officials, and the police attired in riot gear, along with dogs and bystanders jeering at black students.


The mediators attempted to create unity out of discord. Administrators were trying to move from state and federal mandates to a welcoming culture. The carrots all involved federal education funding and changing laws. The changing laws were not enough to implement long-denied civil rights and broaden educational opportunities for black and brown students.


The dream of an America full of opportunities for all was the target. But unfortunately, unity is not group thinking or one-size-fits-all educationally or socially. Those of us who arrived on predominately white campuses in the mid to late '60s realized the recruitment messages, offers of financial assistance, and learning from leading experts were more of a sales pitch than an accurate depiction of campus life.


For my fellow black students and me, the fall of 1967 was a culture shock. We were now part of a small group of black students and one black professor. The assorted housekeepers, groundskeepers, and maintenance men were the black faces we met in a sea of over 5,000 Caucasian students, faculty, and assorted staff. We were expected to blend in, be grateful for this educational opportunity, and know our place.


Most of us grappled with being away from home and familiar surroundings as 17 and 18-year-olds. As a group of approximately 50 students on a campus of 5,000 with one black sociology professor and no other black staff, we first sought unity among ourselves. How could we adapt, make sense of our isolation, thrive, and graduate? It wasn't easy.


Most of us studied and socialized together, creating opportunities for internal solidarity, but it was not enough. We demanded more from the university, and the hierarchy said no. As students studying liberation theology, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the scores of others who'd fought for liberation, we became unified in our quest for significant change—beyond one concert per year featuring a black group or the occasional soul food meal.


The meaningful change meant a seat at the student-led decision-making tables, increased faculty and staff, and a curriculum that included positive contributions of people of color.


This same fight was happening on college campuses across the nation. We were tired of waiting for someday or someone else to create unity or for hearts to soften. Our student advocacy and conflict elicited unlikely allies and the termination of some university leaders unwilling to compromise or consider a changing world.


As a student leader sitting at tables with students from other racial groups, other racial groups were not conditioned to give up their privilege or share resources. Advanced preparation and persuasion became added skills in my toolbox —the message and its delivery were paramount in making changes. When you are in the minority, the work articulates your group's issues and the benefits to the entire university community. It is not easy work, but it benefits everyone to thrive in a communal setting.

Those lessons learned from debate, community building, and changing political and personal views were necessary to build a more cohesive and unified community.


Fifty-seven years later, I'm still learning that unity, while a desirable achievement, is the result of intentional work, confronting all the isms we loathe to name, as well as numerous skirmishes and small wins. It's not an end but rather a new opportunity for growth within a dedicated circle of people who value the processes of communal living and thriving. Those early learnings about the impact of unity on achieving organizational outcomes were the touchstones as I built my career.


Today, the leadership, board, faculty, staff, and students align more with my vision of a unified organization focused on building the next generation of leaders.


 

Joyce A. Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women, but her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria and Battle Creek, Michigan. She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens. Visit her Author’s Page


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