Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Authentic Social Justice, Part Three

Author: Sam Bass

The first two entries of my honest social justice series have focused on coming to terms with the “ugliness” of social justice, such as recognizing our biases, the ways we fail both personally and as an entire profession, and the painful emotions that come with social justice work. These are crucial topics I wanted to cover first, and I have rooted these conversations in my own experiences, but I never want to forget the joy I’ve been able to experience by being unashamedly myself in my professional social justice world.

The most rewarding aspect of “being myself” is, of course, with students. A particularly powerful moment came from a student who was taking a temporary leave of absence so that she could recover from a rather rough depressive episode. She said she felt so unprepared to be depressed while in college; she had to go out of her way to find resources and it was difficult to find people to relate to. Specifically she said she has never heard or seen a “success story” of someone like her. I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to self-disclosure, but in this case it seemed not only appropriate, but necessary. I told her how for most of my undergrad and grad experience I was depressed and I had a long history of self-harm. I then said, “But look at me now; we’re in my very own office, and my Masters degree is hanging on the wall there.” While I think that’s a narrow vision of success, she was seeking an example of someone who had a mental illness and still achieved that “traditional success.” That student has since visited campus and made it a point to visit me. Seeing her out of crisis was one of the most heartwarming moments of my career. I would not have had this connection with her if I thought, “Self-disclosure is inherently bad.” Instead, I was honest and vulnerable, and as a result a student felt like she could achieve her goals.

While I hope this anecdote is not too self-congratulatory, I think it is important to revel in these moments. All sorts of people in our field have moments where they have served as an example for people who were seeking a role model. This can be tough, though, as it often leads to a disproportionate amount of emotional labor. Staff and faculty of color across the nation have shared countless examples of when they have been expected to do this extra work because the number of people available at the institution to do it is so small. At its worst this emotional labor is overwhelming and exhausting. At its best it reminds us why we do what we do.

Authenticity has also allowed me to build connections with students across difference. A few years ago I worked with a group black students who had experienced a number of racial harassments in the hall. I had no idea what I was doing or what I could say that could possibly be helpful. So I finally said, “Look, I know I’m a white guy, and I have no idea what experiencing racism is like, I do know what experiencing anger is like. I have to let it out before I explode. What do you all do to process anger?” Once I addressed the white elephant in the room, the students were much more open with me. While I wasn’t able to end all racism in the world that night, I was able to sit with these students as they processed the injustice they were experiencing. I hate that they had to go through it, but if I had to be there I’m glad I could provide even a little bit of support.

Again, I hope this anecdote does not convey a false sense of righteousness, but rather a lesson I learned about acknowledging my privilege that I wanted to share with others. I have failed many more times than I have succeeded in my social justice work, but the relationships I have built with students has been my life-source in this job. I once had a student who said he felt like he could be himself around me because I did the same, and that is a compliment that will never be outdone for me.

I want to briefly discuss that I have also experienced the joys of closer friendships with colleagues because of my authenticity. By bringing my whole self to my work I have received incredible support from my peers and my supervisors. Now, I also have the privilege because of my other identities to be more open about my sexuality and mental illness. I also have the blessings of a gracious and understanding team, providing me a workplace I hope you have, as well. Not everyone is in an environment where they can have that, and it’s heartbreaking. I hope if you’ve stuck with me through this series you will find ways to make your departments safe for this authenticity.

I still have a wild storm of thoughts in my head that I was not able to find words for, but I am content with the honesty I hope I brought to you all. I have loved my short time in the NWACUHO region, and I’ve been impressed with the work I’ve seen you all do. It is my humble hope that in sharing my thoughts with you all I was able to contribute at least a little something to the work we pour our hearts into. To be fully ourselves is the best way to live, but it’s not always pretty. I hope by embracing the ugliness, extending love to ourselves and others, and continuing our own education we will be able to give all students the experience and joy they deserve. Until next time, stay safe, content, and honest.

Sam is a Residence Director at Gonzaga University. He received his BA in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Northern Iowa and his Masters of Science in Education from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. The best way to contact him is by email at bass@gonzaga.edu.

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