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…

 

 

Love, Loss and Resilience

3M half marathon 2014 Melissa MarshThe day after my last post, my family experienced a horrible tragedy.  My niece, Melissa Marsh passed away unexpectedly from complications of diabetes.  Melissa was only 31 years old, and leaves behind a 7 year old son and his father. Of course, Melissa was loved by all of us in the family.  I felt a special kinship with her because we both were the youngest girls in our family and also had two older brothers who always gave us a hard time. We are still in shock at the loss of someone so young.  The tragedy is compounded by the fact that her father, Rick Marsh, passed away from kidney cancer two years ago.  Her funeral was the two year anniversary of his passing.

I had planned to run the Austin 3M half marathon, and as in dealing with past losses, I turned to running for stress relief.  However, this time around, it was more difficult to get motivated for today’s race. Some days, since Melissa’s passing, I have felt like all the energy was drained from me.  As someone who promotes health and fitness, it was a cruel irony that diabetes would be the cause of my own niece’s death. It’s only been in the last few days that I have been able to even contemplate the thought of how Melissa might want us to go forward without her. Over the last few days, I had been uncertain how I would feel come race morning.  And yet, as I crossed the starting line a single word came to mind: Love.  I realized that this is what gives us resilience during these very difficult times — love of family, and knowing that the love of those we have lost is always with us. I wore the grey ribbon that was made for Melissa’s funeral as I ran the 13.1 miles today.  This one was for her, and all those who ran with me in spirit today. I will miss her terribly, particularly her wonderful hugs but I will go on today and watch her beloved Seahawks hopefully beat the 49ers in the NFC football championship.  I know she is with the whole family today as we cheer on our team.

Seahawk

Fitness is forever…

In the last week I participated in a 5k run (Thursday night’s Maudie’s Margarita Run) and Austin Fit magazine’s “AFM FITtest.” Both events were challenging in their own way, but they both got me thinking about how we (in particular women) look at fitness. The first event was a typical “fun” run, with about 1500 people signed up, and a few of us who were serious enough to want to know our times, and be competitive. There were likely equal numbers of women and men, Austin is a great place to be a runner, and I often see more women out on the trail than men.  Saturday’s fitness event was a different story.  This event consisted of twelve tests of strength, agility and endurance, including sprints, throws, jumps and the always hated burpees and pull-ups.  Since I have been doing cross-fit workouts for the last few months, I figured I would give it a try.  I was surprised that there were only fifteen women competitors in my age group (40-49) while there were at least 40 men in the same age group.  As my group discussed the low numbers of women, we all thought that some of the tests would be intimidating to women, particularly the pull-ups, where many women can’t even do one (I worked on this one, so I was able to do five).  I freely admit that I am a bit of a masochist when it comes to working out (how else could I handle crossfit?) but it surprises me that more men than women were attracted to this event, compared to a 5k.

This all got me thinking about how I approach fitness.  In fact, this blog post was prompted by my friend Leslie who was asking me about Saturday’s event on our “Black Girls Run!” page.  I wasn’t really sure what to say — I managed to get through all 12 events and score reasonably on all of them.  But for me the experience of the 5k wasn’t that much different from doing the 12 different tests.  They are all testing me in different ways, but in some ways it’s mostly mental for me.  Having been an athlete all of my life, I love taking on new challenges (a la my new obsession with body hooping), and I approach each challenge with a similar mental and physical toughness that has gotten me through everything from a 400m dash to a marathon.  They take very different forms of preparation, but for me it’s pretty much all the same in terms of how I approach it.  I’m sure I developed this mentality during my years of running track and other sports from grade school through college.  Having been blessed to have the advantages of Title IX and having grown up with my two brothers, I was always sure I could do anything that the guys could do.  I started lifting weights in junior high, and continued with it through my 20s.  I recognized early on the benefits of cross training, and even though running will always be my first love, I also enjoy the adrenalin (and endorphin) rush I get from being able to lift a particular weight, or complete a WOD (work out of the day). I’m much more careful these days because of issues with my back, but I have always focused on form vs. showing off how much I can lift.

So I struggle with how I can pass on the passion that I feel about fitness to others.  How do we get more women to come out and compete in the FITtest the same way they do in the 5k?  I have been blessed to see the blossoming of our Black Girls Run! group — getting more black women out and running has been a wonderful thing, and we were even highlighted in an article in our local newspaper: tln-black-girls-run-03

So if we can work on changing black women’s ideas about running – how do we go about changing women’s attitudes about other types of fitness?  Does it matter?  I know that I’m an outlier when it comes to fitness, particularly for my age. Do men and women like me get a fitness advantage from the types of weight bearing activities we do? I don’t feel like I have an answer at this point, but it does make me wonder…it may be a natural shift as younger women start to do more activities and see themselves as competitive athletes, just as I lived in a very different world of athletic opportunities as compared to my older sisters. In any case, I hope I can be a role model to women of all ages, because for me, fitness is forever…

Terri - AFM Fittest

Why fitness matters…

There are so many critical issues facing our country today from gun violence, to the environment. Given that it’s black history month, I wonder what leaders like Martin Luther King or Barbara Jordan would be fighting for today.  I know one issue in particular that has touched me in so many ways is cardiovascular disease in the black community.  I first delved into this issue when my father passed away from a sudden heart attack nearly 12 years ago. What I learned was that my father had all of the warning signs for a potential heart attack, yet he had never been given a stress test and didn’t seem concerned when he had circulation issues just a few weeks before he died.  He was also under a great deal of stress, as I would later learn, but I felt helpless knowing that he wasn’t pro-active in dealing with his health.

The following quote highlights the problem:

Americans suffer more than 2 million heart attacks and strokes each year. Cardiovascular disease—including heart disease and stroke—is the leading cause of death in the United States. Every day, 2,200 people die from cardiovascular disease—that’s 815,000 Americans each year, or 1 in every 3 deaths. (http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/abouthds/cost-consequences.html)

Blacks are much more likely to have cardiovascular disease, and not all of it can be explained by lifestyle or genetic traits.

In 2005 my mother suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered.  She passed away nearly 3 years ago.  What I learned about strokes was just as bad as heart attacks, “In 2009, black men were 38 percent more likely to die of stroke than white men, and black women were 36 percent more likely to die of stroke than white women” (http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/01/29/to-your-health/black-men-women-hit-hardest-by-disease.html)

Study after study I learned about showed that blacks had a much higher rate of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and death from heart disease.  Health disparities are a critical issue for all communities.

I feel lucky that fitness has always been a part of my life, and the passing of my parents spurred me into action – I started Take Back the Trail to honor my parents, and in the hope that my efforts might make some small dent in the huge need that exists for fitness programs in under-served communities.  There are many programs targeting children, but I found few programs that targeted adult women in particular.  I feel that healthcare, from a variety of perspectives, is a top issue for our times, and many leaders, including First Lady Michelle Obama have stepped up to the task — but it will take much, much more and grassroots efforts must be a part of the move-ment.

There is hope – as recent studies have shown:

“Regular, moderate physical activity such as brisk walking can increase life expectancy by several years, even for people who are overweight, a new large study shows.

While higher levels of activity were linked to even longer life expectancies, moderate activity was beneficial, according to the study of people ages 40 and older. The benefit of exercise was seen regardless of people’s weight, age, sex and health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.” (http://vitals.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/06/14976984-why-working-out-makes-you-live-longer)

If not for yourself – do it for those you love!  Given the size of this issue, I consider this project one of the most important things I have ever done – if you feel the same, you can support my efforts here: http://takebackthetrail.com/donate.html

Life, death and the journey forward…

2012 got off to a very bad start.  My oldest sister lost her husband after his 3 ½ year battle with kidney cancer.  His brother died from kidney cancer a month later.  It was the end of a string of family losses and crises that continually challenged my equanimity. I’ve written about much of this before, but now I’m looking at it after a fairly calm semester, and I’m just beginning to realize the impact that the last couple of years had on my career and productivity.  It’s a good time to reflect on the past year, lessons I have learned, and issues I think will be important in the coming months.

It has become clear to me that I was running on adrenaline for the past year.  I had way too  many projects, I ran a half marathon in January, the marathon in February and a 10 miler in March.  I had a lot of anger, grief and pain to run off.  I’m still working out this year, but I don’t have any races planned, I’m skipping the 3M half marathon for the first time in years, and I’m trying to focus on spending more time with my husband and kids.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot going on — besides my regular job as a university professor, I’m on four nonprofit boards, many committees, and my big project Take Back the Trail is taking off after much hard work.  I love working in the community, but sometimes I feel like I’m learning to breathe again.  Sometimes I cry for those who have gone ahead.  I hope to eventually work on a book about my mother and our relationship, but that will take time and more healing after her passing 2 1/2 years ago.  I’m learning to have patience with myself and to try to not be so hard on myself when I can’t do it all.

In the next year I have a variety of goals, I’m becoming more politically active, particularly on women’s issues (check out our FB page Austin Women for Political Action ) I hope to finish a book manuscript or two, but I’m going to make sure I take time for those quiet moments that help to re-energize me.  I almost never take time to watch TV, except for the occasional football game, so  I’m going to pick one of the new series to watch on a regular basis — I just started watching Downton Abby with Mike.  I’m going to try to see movies in the theatre more regularly, and not just kid movies. We are good at getting out to concerts, so we already have that outlet, and the regular date night.

So the main lessons I have learned over the past few years, is that you can live with heartache, it’s not good to drive yourself too hard, exercise is a good thing in moderation, and the most important thing of all is spending quality time with the people you love.  Unfortunately none of us will be around forever, and watching my kids grow up and being a part of their lives is one of the most rewarding parts of my life.

Taking time to breathe before going skiing with the family with a view of Lake Tahoe
Taking time to breathe before going skiing with the family with a view of Lake Tahoe

Getting my groove back in my fitness routine

One year ago I was about about 8 pounds lighter and doing hard core workouts 5-6 days per week.  I ended up running a half marathon and the Austin marathon in the spring with a few 5ks and 10ks sprinkled in for good measure.  Running has always been a way of dealing with stress for me, and the last 2 years have been some of the most stressful in my life, mainly due to the passing of several friends and family members.  Now I’m finding that my legs feel heavy when I run, I’m often tired, and end up walking towards the end, regardless of the distance.  I’m sure it’s partly due to a bad allergy season, but I also know that it’s probably time to take a break from running.  I’m not particularly worried about gaining a few pounds (although I wouldn’t mind losing a few before my reunion in a couple of weeks), I’m still well below my high point of a few years ago, but I also know that the body needs a break from doing the same work outs all the time.

The basic gist of it all is, I need a change-up in my routine.  I’d still like to run the half marathon in January, but I’m definitely not doing the marathon and I’m not going to put any pressure on myself to run specific times or distances during my work-outs.  Exercise was a big help as I dealt with my initial grief, but now it’s time to ease up on my body and focus more on my mind.

Today I was able to get out to the lake and do 50 minutes of stand-up paddle board.  It was definitely a nice break in the routine, and I hope to be able to get out there once or twice a week, as weather permits.  I’m also going to fix up my bike and do some road cycling during the week.  I’ll probably continue to run 3 days a week, since it’s still my favorite sport, but I think it’s time to join a running group to keep me motivated and distracted during my runs.  I’m also planning to get down to the track and do some sprints and short runs, which I actually enjoy 🙂

Just like my writing (see my recent  Inside Higher Ed column) I know that my workouts occasionally need a reboot, and a change of pace/scenery does me a lot of good. Tomorrow is a new day, and I’m ready for a new approach to staying healthy.