Truths to be told

[This blog has been picked up by Inside Higher Ed and posts can be found there]

The news that my friend and colleague Mark Sawyer was gone made me feel like all of the air had left the room. I was suddenly pulled back into memories from over 20 years ago when we were grad students attending conferences, competing to see who would land the top jobs, and supporting each other in our choice to study comparative, rather than “just” American politics. As fate would have it, Mark would start his job at UCLA as I was leaving to start my first job at University of Washington. Over the years our paths would cross, and I could understand the challenges Mark faced in his new department, given that I had so recently worked with many of his colleagues and was truly impressed with his commitment to starting the subfield of Race, Ethnicity and Politics in the department and ultimately UCLA’s African-American studies department. He brought in and mentored students creating a supportive environment that I hadn’t know many years before.

When I started graduate school in UCLA’s poli-sci department in 1993 there were very few black students, including my good friends Vince Hutchings and Maria Niles. Maria moved on to Chicago, where she became friends with Mark, and it’s likely that she was responsible for connecting us when we were still graduate students (my memory of that time is a bit hazy). We created a community of friends who supported each other through the program as we struggled, married, moved to new locations and a few of us finished and got jobs. Vince went to Michigan in 1997 and at that time there was a dearth of black scholars in top poli-sci programs. I always knew I would be an anomaly as a black Europeanist, in any case. We didn’t really remark on it at the time, it’s just the way things were.

We have all faced many stresses and challenges in our careers, whether as academics or other professions. As I have reflected on my experiences, I have wondered how much of my outward success reflects the unseen struggles I have faced as a black woman in a world that wasn’t made for me. In light of Mark’s struggles and his ultimate passing, is it helpful for those who have “made it” to talk about how we have dealt with anxiety, disappointment, department politics, etc.? Not everyone is in a position to share these types of issues and now that I am a provost, I don’t have to worry about department politics. Also, as my friend Josh Busby recently wrote in a blog post “Ideas and understanding the way the world works and how it could be are a noble service. I’m no longer as sanguine that the arc of the moral universe moves in the ways that I want it to, but I’m not going to stop trying from making a contribution. That is the only way to live.” (http://duckofminerva.com/2017/04/lets-talk-about-mental-health.html) – let this be a small contribution…although this is only a very small part of the story.

A quick look at my CV would indicate a very successful career. Books with Cambridge and Oxford university presses, articles in the top comparative politics journals, edited volumes and students who have gotten tenure track jobs. In 2003 I helped start a Center for European Studies at UT Austin and became director in 2004. I worked with my department chair and the Center for African and African-American Studies to recruit new faculty and for a short period of time we had 6 black faculty. I was able to help recruit one black student, Ernest McGowen, who is now a tenured professor at University of Richmond.

In 2006, my first year in rank as an associate professor, I was named Vice Provost for Undergraduate Curriculum and International Affairs. I stepped down from that position in 2009 with the blessing of my dean, department chair and the provost so that I could focus on getting promoted to full professor – and they all pledged their support in that endeavor.  I was given a year of sabbatical which allowed me to focus on my research, but it was also the last year of my mother’s life and the year that my brother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV kidney cancer. In 2010 my mother passed away, my dean told me that I was losing my research support and couldn’t get it back without an outside offer, and the university began facing a series of budget cuts that would lead to no raises for those of us already in the higher salary ranges, meaning 6 years of no raises for me.

It was at that point that I knew the research I was completing would be my last. As I was working to finish my book and other research with my students I explored the possibility of staying in Austin but working in the community. I joined nonprofit boards, started my own organization and explored the business world, but I hit many “cement” ceilings in Austin (my friend Ellen Sweets captures much of what I won’t miss about Austin here). The possibility for other faculty jobs was limited with a weak job market and a CV that made me a prime candidate for a quick move into an admin position. I worked hard to complete my book so that I could be promoted to full professor (and I should note that I’m pretty sure I was the first black person to get tenure and full professor in the Government dept. at UT) – despite the skepticism of my departmental colleagues who wanted me to wait (for what?). In the end my only goal was to get promoted so I could get out.

Part of my desire to move on was the fact that I was tired of the “hamster wheel” of having to constantly work on that next book or article and never feeling like you had the time to develop long-term projects. I decided I might as well go back into admin where there were leadership opportunities and the possibility of a raise for the first time in many years. My husband didn’t really want to move, so I consulted with my former provost, dean and other mentors and all agreed that my best opportunities were going to be anywhere but Austin. It was telling to me that when I was promoted to Vice Provost in 2006 there were at least 9 black women in leadership positions at UT Austin. When I left there was 1.

I felt like I was pushed out of poli-sci, and had few options outside of administration for furthering my career, despite my accomplishments in the study of European politics, immigration and populism. However, I’m living where I want to live, in a job that I love, and I’m present with my family. I don’t miss the rat-race of research, or the departmental politics, where the work that I did wasn’t valued.

More to come…

 

 

New year, new resolve

A year later, the heartache remains, but as with all loss, life must go on, and I know that is what my loved ones would want in any case. Every day I feel the presence of my parents, my brother Rick, my niece Melissa who we lost a year ago today, Uncle Clarence, and little Madeline. Hearts break and hearts eventually mend, and I have tried to focus on the love that was shared and that is still an integral part of who I am.  There are so many people who have touched my life and helped me move forward, I can’t begin to mention them all — from my high school friends, many of whom I have been able to reconnect with in the last few years, to my friends in Austin who have made our 11 years here so amazing.

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions because they tend to be short-sighted and hard to keep. What I prefer is to look at what I found to be most helpful over the past few years, and how I can focus on those things going forward. I have always been very disciplined about running, it is an integral part of my life that will continue, with some help from my chiropractor (Dan Powers) and massage therapist (Marshall Williams). For me it is about self-care, taking the time to be sure that I am healthy, but I also just love the feeling of running and working out, feeling my strength (kicking some butt along the way!) and reaching my goals. I feel truly blessed to be 50 years old and still out there competing as an athlete.

I have many writing projects (besides my blogs) that I hope to build on, and my students who I hope to get to the next level, whether it is an academic job or some other endeavor. I will be taking the next step in my career, whatever that may be, and I plan to focus on what is best not only for me, but for my family.

Music has always been a part of my life, and my son Brandon inspires me as he progresses in learning classical guitar (you can see him playing here). I bought myself a mandolin for my birthday and I plan to carve out time to play and enjoy making music, again it’s about self-care.

I’m looking forward to sharing new experiences with my boys, I’ll be heading to Italy with Andrew on his class trip for Spring break, and both boys will be changing schools as Brandon moves to middle school and Andrew move  to high school (!). Finally, I plan to carve out time with my wonderful husband, Mike, who celebrated his birthday yesterday. We focus so much on our kids but we always manage to squeeze in time alone together, going to see the symphony or a jazz show.

I have an amazing life, and I thank all of you who are a part of it, you are loved.

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The Givens Family -- All 9 of us!
The Givens Family — All 9 of us!
Hanging out at the tailgater with friends from my freshman dorm
Hanging out at the tailgater with friends from my freshman dorm
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Black Girls Run!
Melissa Marsh
Melissa Marsh

Holiday traditions – new and old

Thanks to Patience Brewster, an artist of ornaments and holiday designs, who helped inspire me to share my holiday traditions. As the holiday season springs into full gear, I’m reminded of those wintery mornings growing up in Spokane, Washington with my family. Christmas often started off with midnight mass at Sacred Heart parish, one of the few times I was allowed to stay up so late. We didn’t always have a white Christmas, but I remember very clearly one Christmas morning when it had snowed nearly 2 feet the night before. Being the youngest (of 7 kids), I was always the one who woke up first, full of excitement to see what Santa had brought during the night. That particular morning, I was struck by the moonlight on the snow, so clean and crisp, like a blanket had been laid on our yard and trees. We would always wait until everyone was up before opening presents, but Santa always left a few unwrapped presents under the tree. As I got older, I knew it was my father who would always go out and buy a few more presents on Christmas eve. Christmas was his holiday – he loved putting the lights up on the house, and he always decorated the Christmas tree, we weren’t allowed to help. He had his special technique for putting tinsel on the tree, it brings a smile to my face even now, remembering watching him being so careful to make sure everything was just to his specifications. His engineer’s mind demanded perfection. We always had a beautiful tree.

Once my teenage sisters had been rousted out of bed, we would gather around the tree, opening our presents together. They may have been modest, but they were like treasure to me. Whether it was an EZ-Bake oven, or a new Barbie Doll, I would spend the next few days in new toy heaven. After all the presents were opened, my mother, sisters and I would gather in the kitchen to prepare the holiday meal. I always loved being part of a big family, although I may romanticize it now, I treasure the moments we had together, gathered around the table to enjoy a Christmas turkey, or maybe even crab gumbo in honor of my mother’s creole background.

My husband and I have created our own Christmas traditions, drawing on our families’ experiences. Since he only had one sister, Mike’s family would take turns opening presents, so we do that today with our boys. There was no way we could have done that with my family, it would have taken all day to open presents! We also let the boys help us decorate the tree, but they haven’t shown much interest in helping to put the lights on the house. Every year I get a new ornament from wherever we may have traveled, particularly from some of the national parks. We often spend the holidays with our respective families, and now that we all have our own families, it has been fun watching the traditions evolve and grow over time. Christmas traditions keep us in touch with our past, but it has been very rewarding creating new traditions with our boys.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

Christmas 2007
Christmas 2007

Can I possibly be turning 50? Yes – time to face the music (and dance!)

I will be 50 years old on October 30 (go Scorpio!) and I recently started acknowledging the fact that I’m getting old when I noticed that my feet had grown a half size, I need glasses for reading and distance, and my hormones were acting up so badly I had to buy a new facial wash. Apparently I’m not the only woman dealing with this issue, Neutrogena has a face wash that deals with pimples and wrinkles. So I decided that I would celebrate my birthday for the entire month of October, I have been posting old pictures of myself on Facebook, and we are taking a trip to Seattle this weekend to celebrate with my family (dancing will most definitely be involved) and see a Seahawks game. I haven’t been to the new stadium and I’m excited to see my team in person, even though we had to pay an arm and a leg for nosebleed seats. It’s all about the atmosphere.

The Givens Family -- All 9 of us!
The Givens Family — All 9 of us! I’m the cute baby in Mom’s arms.

So posting all those old photos got me reminiscing about the past. I actually contacted my old high school principal, to let him know how successful I’ve been and the impact he had on my life (as noted in this column for Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/running/givens3). It’s a good time to reflect on how far I have come in life. I know I have many years ahead of me, but I never could have imagined how life would play out for me. I have been a successful academic, which is a huge accomplishment in this day and age of higher ed under fire. Given where I come from (see this blog post http://blog.terrigivens.com/2013/04/06/how-much-is-enough/), it’s amazing that I beat the odds in so many different ways.

My son Andrew (just turned 14) recently asked me a very interesting question “do you ever have any free time” — he was asking because he is already thinking about what he wants to do as a job. My response was that I’m usually working or spending time with him and his brother, but I love my work, so that’s why I don’t mind it. I told him I appreciate the fact that my job is flexible so I can take time during the day to pick him up from school, or go to his sporting events, and then work in the evenings. I’ve certainly been busy with all the writing I have been doing lately (one example is in Politico Magazine) as well as interviews on TV and radio. It still hurts that I can’t call my parents on the phone to tell them about my latest exploits, but as I age, I also am gaining more perspective on the rhythms of life. Nobody gets out of here alive, and this is the prime of my life, when I’m supposed to be out there sharing my gifts. As my mother always told me, “don’t keep your light under a bushel!”

So turning 50 is not so bad, I’m still in great physical shape (except for my sore achilles tendons), I have a beautiful family, a great job, and there’s so much more to look forward to…including the Seahawks making it to the Superbowl again! I’ll have more thoughts on turning 50 in the coming weeks, consider this just another step in the journey…

 

 

The hole in my heart…that provides comfort in the storm

I’m sitting on my parent’s couch that they purchased 13 years ago – it barely shows any sign of wear.  My father passed away in June of 2001, just a few months after they had redecorated their home in a retirement community in Mesa, Arizona.  My mother had a stroke 4 years later and had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility until she passed away in May of 2010. I’ve written before about losing my mother, but there are days when it hits harder than others.

After my mother passed away, I was able to take most of her living room furniture and use it in our lake house near Austin.  It’s a bit formal for a lake house, but it’s a link to the life that my parents had made for themselves in retirement, and I’m sure they are glad that I’m able to use it. It’s hard to believe that it has been 13 years since my father passed away and 4 years since my mother passed away. There are still times when I want to pick up the phone and tell them how their grandsons are growing, or about the latest book I published.

As I sit on my mother’s couch, I think about the dreams they must have had for us.  As I look at turning 50 in October, I reflect on a life that has been blessed with a close-knit family, good friends and a world that is looking crazy at the moment, but that can’t even come close to the uncertainty that my parents had to live with, growing up during the depression, World War II, the Jim Crow South, and an America that considered them less than human. It’s during times like these that I have to kick myself in the rear and remember that my parents sacrificed so that their children would have amazing opportunities like I have been able to take advantage of in my life (and for a nice profile, see my friend Anne Boyd’s blog).

The passing of my parents and others close to me, including my niece Melissa, has left a hole in my heart, but as I sit here on my mother’s couch, I know that they are here with me, enjoying the evening with a laugh and a smile. Although they have passed from this world, their love lives on, in those they left behind and it helps to fill in some of the emptiness that is that hole in my heart — it won’t ever go away, but as my boys grow it will be filled with their achievements and most of all, their love. ♥

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Belize: CAVES! Barton Creek Cave, Cave Tubing & ATM

We are back in Austin and I wanted to take a little time to process our trip before writing this post on Belize.  Belize’s geology includes lots of limestone which leads to the development of caves.  They have many cave systems that were also used by the Maya as long as 1300 years ago. I hadn’t read much on the caves, and our guidebook didn’t give much detail on them.  I was very glad that we had a guide with us who could explain some of the reasons the Maya were thought to have used the caves.  We started this lesson during our trip to Xunantunich, where our guide Edgar explained that in Mayan mythology the caves were the underworld and where water came from.  When drought hit, the Mayans headed to the caves to try appeal to their gods for relief, and toward the end of the Mayans habitation of the sites like Xunantunich, they appeared to become more desperate and offered human sacrifices along with food and prayers.

We began our cave exploration with Barton Creek Cave, near San Ignacio.

IMG_2050 IMG_2083They have found evidence that the Maya used this cave for ceremonial purposes, and there are still some shards of pottery on ledges where they may have performed ceremonial rites.  There were lots of interesting formations in the cave:

IMG_2091 IMG_2068 IMG_2058 IMG_2051After the canoe trip through the cave, we went to the nearby butterfly “ranch” where the owner gave us a tour and talked about the various species that they breed and a “walking stick” that likes to hang out around the butterflies:IMG_2103 IMG_2107 IMG_2108 IMG_2112 IMG_2125

There was also a great variety of hummingbirds who would come to the feeders and even sit on branches for their portraits!IMG_2142 IMG_2137 IMG_2136The next day was dedicated to cave tubing, but the boys couldn’t resist trying out the zipline first:IMG_2150 IMG_2147After the thrill of zip-lining we had a long hike through the jungle with our inner tubes to get to the mouth of the cave:

IMG_2167 IMG_2177 IMG_2174The water was fairly low, so we often had to follow the rule of “butts up” to avoid hitting rocks, but we had a great float through the caves. Our guide told us stories about Mayan culture and history, and how they revered the caves as the underworld.  Lots of great formations, like in Barton Creek Cave. At the end, we had a nice float in the open, through a few small rapids – it was great fun:

IMG_2179 IMG_2185 IMG_2184That day ended with a visit to the Mayan site Cahal Pech. This site is currently being excavated so there were a few archeologists there who could answer some of our questions – they are working to fix some of the damage done in the 1990s by previous archeologists who tried to reconstruct parts of the site using bad methods.

IMG_2192The next day, however, was truly the most magnificient cave – we definitely saved the best for last.  Aktun Tinichil Muknal (aka, ATM Cave) was discovered in the late 1980s and has remained untouched (for the most part) and unexcavated so that visitors could enjoy the site as it was originally found, with artifacts left by the Maya exactly as they were 1000 years ago.  It is also known as the cave of the “Crystal Maiden” for the skeleton that lies at the end of the tour, at the to of a grotto.  They actually aren’t sure if it is male or female, but the presumption is that this body and several others whose bones you can see were ritual sacrifices.  We weren’t able to take any pictures, but check out this video to get an idea of what the interior of the cave is like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MW9bdBVPeDQ

It was a pretty strenuous hike to get to the cave, then we started by swimming into the entrance and hiking through several narrow passages, in an out of the water.  To get to the main site of the artifacts, we had to climb a ladder, and then scramble on our knees through a narrow slippery area.  I still have a bruise or two and skinned knees to show for the effort, but it was totally worth it.  I would do it again for sure! This was definitely the highlight of our stay in the Cayo district.

Belize: Snakes, Tarantulas, Iguanas and Mayans

If you have a problem with bugs or lizards, the Belizean jungle may not be the best place to go – but we had a great time seeing these cool creatures (thanks Animal Planet). Last Friday was spent mostly at Black Rock Lodge, doing activities on their property, including a hike to the top of the hill, tubing on the river and a night hike to look at all the stuff that comes out at night.  One of those animals was one of the most venomous snakes in Belize, the “fer de lance” — luckily none of us is particularly scared of snakes, since Andrew was obsessed with snakes when he was younger and we all had to get used to them. However, Brandon is scared of spiders, and our hiking guide decided he was going to help Brandon get over his fear.  So he found a tarantula, and actually convinced Brandon to first touch it, then hold it – he was very brave! We saw a few more night creatures, including a very well camouflaged bird, scorpions, and various insects.

Brandon holds a tarantula
Brandon holds a tarantula

The next day we started out with a trip to the weekly market in San Ignacio. It was very colorful in a variety of ways.  Lots of produce, clothing and crafts.  Also, lots of people from different backgrounds, showing the diversity of Belize.  We stopped at one shop and bought a couple of items:

A stall at the market with nice crafts
A stall at the market with nice crafts

After the market, we went to the Belize Iguana Project at the San Ignacio Resort hotel – they do tours every hour, and it was a very hands on experience.  They started by showing us the larger iguanas, once they reach full size, they release them into the wild. We started with feeding them, and we could hold and touch them — one of them decided that Andrew was tasty!

Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Ouch!
Ouch!

When we went in to see the baby iguanas, they had one that had been born the day before, very tiny.  We got to hold the older ones (anywhere 3 to 10 months old) and Brandon held a bunch of them all at once!

Brandon covered in baby iguanas
Brandon covered in baby iguanas

After the iguanas, we headed to the Mayan archeological site that is just down the road from San Ignacio. My favorite guide on this part of the trip is Edgar Avila 501 624-2415 (a Belize number so you have to dial 011 from the US) – we met him at Xunantunich, where he offered to be our guide. This site has the second tallest pyramid in the Mayan world, known as El Castillo, or the castle. Edgar was very knowledgeable and helped us understand what we were seeing, including the numerology used by the Maya, the legends and why they built on high ground. We also hired him to guide us at the cave tubing which we would be doing on Monday – more on that later.

Masks on the side of the castillo
Masks on the side of the castillo
Looking at a stella
Looking at a stella
A view of the castillo
A view of the castillo