Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Drops of Change on Burning Fires

By Simone C. Staley

I was deeply impacted by the thick smoke that filled the air of our Northwest Region this summer. The British Columbia, Oregon and Eastern Washington fires turned our skies dark, clouded our sight, obscured our view of the mountains and turned the sun a haunting red. As the Northwest we collectively felt the eerie environment. For me, it took my breath away–figuratively and literally. I physically impacted–the smoke had caused a few asthma attacks. The feeling of tightness in my lungs, the fear of not being able to breathe, was something I hadn’t experienced in years.

As I write this the weather has cooled off but some of the fires are still burning in B.C. and Oregon, even our neighbors to the south in California. Here in Seattle atmosphere has slowly dissipated-it was a collective relief to see the blue sky again.

There was another collective impact that clouded our sight and made us catch our breath–the events in Charlottesville, VA, and on the University of Virginia campus. They also caused a tightness in my chest, a deep throbbing in my heart and my eyes to well with tears. I watched these events in horror and yet did not feel surprised to serve as witness. We have seen events across the country, many on college campuses, occur since then. Outside of academia we also viewed natural disasters and violent tragedies and the stress of these events compound the stress and uneasiness our work. It has become something that the world, our campuses, our students and colleagues are talking about. Higher Education does not exist in a protected vacuum- as professionals we are called to respond to each of these events.

These fires, the actual burning ones and the political/social tensions, present challenges that feel insurmountable–something that has made the air thick and difficult to breathe. Academia is facing difficulties in the constant response to global connections and the events around the world impact us and our students that we serve. Plus, events can happen on our campuses. I was working here at the University of Washington when a protest on January 20, 2017 on our campus felt all too similar to what has occurred since then at University of Virginia and UC Berkeley.

These fires have impacted us and left us with profound issues that cannot be addressed with a simple fix. Our students look to us for safety and security of their bodies and their minds–their lungs and their hearts. As professionals in housing—not only those of us in residential life, but also those of you in facilities, dining, human resources and all our units—we all are responsible to offer a response.

It calls to us all. It calls for cohesion. For me, it brings to mind a story, one of hope. So, let me share with you a multiethnic tale of a brave hummingbird. My kat’sa (grandmother) called him tama’mno (hummingbird) but the Salish native to this region call her Dukdukdiya.

When a burning fire consumed the forest and all the animal peoples ran and flew for safety, Dukdukdiya was the only one who fought back. She gathered small droplets of water in her bill and repeatedly dropped them onto the fire. She was criticized and questioned because she was just one small bird. The animal peoples, from the bear people to the wolf peoples, to the even the mouse people, did not understand why she would try to put out the fire. But she told the animals of the forest, “I am doing what I can.”

This parable, while local to the Haida, also exists around the world. Iterations of the folktale are traced to histories in Japan and Ecuador. This folktale has been professed and retold by our global leaders like Wangari Maathai and the Dalai Lama.

Our students are seeing the smoke in the air. We are feeling—breathing—the smoke in the air. Are we doing what we can? As a department? As a campus? As our NWACUHO community?

As a Resident Director, I have been thinking, “Am I doing what I can?”

These fires have changed us. They ask us all to do what we can to our full capacity, in our capacities. They ask us to give attention in each of our units to contribute to our Department’s meeting our mission to listen and to help our students. To give every drop of water, every contribution we can.

Let me be explicit- this parable does not simply tell us the importance of every small drop. Every drop does matter, but it also means giving everything you possibly can to a cause- every drop of change that can possibly be given. There is a difference between convenient advocacy and courageous advocacy.

Like a hummingbird, my heart feels like it is beating a thousand times a minute. I am here working for the University of Washington and for Housing and Food Services so I can have an impact on the citizenship development of students. I am here to help. When I come to work every day, I am doing what I can.

Will you join me?

Simone-Calais Staley is a Resident Director at the University of Washington, Housing and Food Services. She is a professional passionate about community development, student advocacy and civic engagement of residents. Simone encourages continued dialogue and outreach between colleagues, please feel welcome to connect with her to continue this conversation. Email: staleys@live.com or LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/simonecalaisstaley/

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