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This article was published on the Feminists in Student Affairs Blog by Kathleen Kerr April 28, 2014

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by Kathleen Kerr

Beginning at the 2008 ACPA Convention, and at each one since, I have had the privilege of being a presenter for a program called “Secrets of Success: Women Leaders on Their Own Terms.” The program was initiated by two-time past ACPA President Jeanne Hart-Steffes, who is currently serving as the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Western New England University. She believed that we could create a powerful learning experience for our colleagues, simply by telling our stories. So each year, she has gathered together five or six women who have diverse professional experiences and are from diverse backgrounds, to talk about their work in higher education, and how this connects to our values, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and our personal and professional aspirations. Past participants have included Susan Komives, Patty Perillo, Bridget Kelly, Stacey Pearson-Wharton, Lynnette Willett, and Dafina Lazarus Stewart.

While the women on the panel have changed over the years, the response to the session has remained constant. Each year, whether we are presenting for an hour or for three; whether we are at 11 am or at 8 am on the final day of the convention, women arrive to fill the room. Their eagerness to hear our stories and understand our experiences initially was overwhelming. Now, after several year of presenting the same session, I am no longer shocked by the emotions expressed and by the hunger women have to talk about the challenges they are facing. I am grateful for the space and opportunity that exists, brief though it is, for us to create a community of caring, understanding, and empathy. Women have approached me each year after the session, expressing a powerful sense of validation that they experienced.

But each year, I leave the session with questions and doubts. The session is clearly filling a need. Given the amazing leaders in our field, why does such a void of mentorship and support exist? Is this void endemic at an institutional level? In student affairs? Is the need for understanding and validation indicative of a larger societal issue?

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown talks about the gender differences related to shame and says that for women, “…the real struggle for women – what amplifies shame regardless of the category – is that we’re expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we’re not allowed to look as if we’re working for it…the expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders, and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families” (2012, p. 87).

I think this is at the heart of it. The power of the session, one where there is no ppt., no handout, no research summarized and shared; is simply that we tell our stories. In that room once a year, we give voice to truth. And the truth is that it is not possible to “naturally” be all of those things. Life is a series of choices and challenges, and it is all hard work. Together, the women in that room, we breathe a sigh of relief and release one another from that expectation that is impossible to achieve. It’s an emotional release. And, I think one we all wish could last longer than just an hour, or three.

Our challenge is to find more opportunities to give voice to truth both on our campuses and in the professional development opportunities we offer to women leaders.

As Brené says, to develop shame resilience we must take four steps:

1 – Recognize shame and understand its triggers
2 – Practice critical awareness
3 – Reach out by owning and sharing our stories
4 – Speak shame by talking about how we feel and asking for what we need when we feel shame

(Brown, 2012, p. 75).

I hope I can play a role in creating those opportunities for myself and my colleagues. I challenge you to consider ways that you can as well.

Citation: Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.