Seeking Sustenance and Solace: Making Art and Building Community by Elliott DeVore

A million ideas about things to explore and academically dissect flooded my mind when I was approached to write a blog for the CSJE.  As self proclaimed academic, I prided myself on the amount of abstract and disparate phenomena I began to weave together into metaphoric collection of wicker baskets. This desire to prove my intelligence arose from my K-12 experience in which I was told my formal education would never reach beyond high school—deeper context and narrative can be found here—I digress. Ideas ranging from re-envisioning the role of land-grant institutions in providing education to those entrapped by the prison-industrial complex as a tool to reduce recidivism rates, to educating students about ethical real-estate decisions as they move off-campus into San Francisco so that they don’t contribute to the bourgeoning amount of elis act evictions—which are rendering thousand of elderly, (dis)abled, folks of color, immigrants, and working class (and the list goes on) people homeless in order to charge higher rents—ran through my head. After settling on a topic (which is now irrelevant to this blog post), I gathered books and articles, as I learned to do in graduate school, and my heart began beating fast because it I knew that wasn’t the story it needed to tell at that moment.  The story that needed telling was my recent realization.

I am White, Queer, a femme cisgendered male, and a gender-bender drag performer, who comes from a working class single mother family in East Tennessee.   The duration of my life has been filled with seeking, nurturing others, and guarding myself from the world.  Guarding myself physically, emotionally, and politically.  I’ve survived anti-queer physical violence, event being chased by a truck in a parking lot, verbal harassment, and the political idiocy of my representative in Knoxville, TN, Stacey Campfield, author of the “don’t say gay” bill.  Student Affairs became my chosen profession, in part, because it was the first welcoming space for me, and because I knew that I could escape the south and excel in the field.  My entire life as an undergrad became consumed with what I was doing outside of the classroom, who was I working with on queer issues, and those I was helping support through their own queer journey.  Some in that community called me “mother hen”.  My life was defined by whatever“job” that I was doing—work gave me sustenance because it was how I was going to escape.  This trend continued into my graduate school experience as I distracted myself from my own emotional wounds by going above and beyond in my work.  It was easier to do more than to spend quiet time with myself and to heal the hurt I endured in the South.

Fast forward to my first professional job at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution.  I was drawn to this institution due to its Jesuit ideals around social justice; discernment of self, magis (finding god in all things), and the existing team in Student Life… the location didn’t hurt either. It’s hard to believe that I just finished my first year here—takes a deep breath.  Though I was drawn to this institution and job for the amazing work I was going to be able to do, it never occurred to me that the most meaningful part of my life would not be my job!  For the fist time in my life I was in a place where I felt I could finally be me—a big southern queen ablaze with faggortry and music.

Shortly after I moved to San Francisco and started my job I joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) which is a choral arts organization with roughly 300 singers who identify as gay/bi/queer/trans* men.  It was through this group that I made all of my friends, but also where I began to find my source inspiration and rejuvenation.  The chorus quickly consumed my hours of freedom outside of my job and was it amazing!  I made several intergenerational queer friendships with men, whose age ranges into their late 60’s—some of them actually met and knew Harvey Milk and other prominent queer community activist here in the Bay Area.  Until this year, I seldom had the opportunity meet queer persons of that age and listen to their narratives, hopes and fears.  As I typed this blog, I became teary eyed at the power of these men’s stories and experiences from the late 60’s, the AIDS crisis, and present day.

Being an SFGMC member has become an important part of my life and has given my life a sense of meaning and community.  For the first time, that which nourishes me most is something besides my “job”. I NEVER THOUGHT WOULD HAPPEN.  Perhaps it is because I’ve finally found a space where I feel safe enough to let my guard down and focus on myself.  A sense of guilt has however accompanied this shifting source of nourishment, because I feel that I should be “doing more” by volunteering with a direct service organization or attending more protests.  In some way, I felt that I had lost some social justice “street cred” by focusing on me and being “selfish”.  This summer, however, I came to the realization that focusing on oneself in order to heal wounds and enrich the soul is quite radical.  By focusing on myself and creating music with 300 other queers, I’ve been able to expand the depths of my being and my capacity for love and compassion. 

No longer will I allow myself to be confined by my past understandings of what a “social justice advocate” looks like.  Simply being in community and engaging in self-love can be and is activism.  Learning this lesson over the past year will certainly be one of the most important lessons of my life as a person who considers himself a community worker and social justice advocate.  My advice to others is to rid yourself of guilt if you take a step back from direct action within your community—it’s how you avoid burnout.  If you are artistic in anyway, I’d suggest that you engage in something artistically creative with those in your community!  There is no better way to celebrate your community than mutually creating something of beauty to share with others, be it music, visual art, poetry, or a drag cabaret. Go forth to create and love within and outside your communities this coming year!

About the Author: Elliott N. DeVore is a Residence Director and advisor to the Queer Alliance at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Catholic institution, and is entering his second year as a full time professional.  He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a BA in Psychology and then from Iowa State University with a MEd in Education, Student Affairs and a graduate certificate in “Social justice in Higher Education”.  This month, Elliott’s research with Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld on gay and lesbian youth raised in conservative Christian homes was published in a textbook from the Council on Social Work Education Press titled, Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights (2014).

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The Code of Higher Ed; Code switching to get ahead by Nathan Olmeda

Summer time is no vacation for Practitioners in Student Affairs. It is a time of preparation, transition, and most importantly reflection. I have recently been involved in multiple hiring processes that have caused me to reflect on my professional journey thus far, and what factors have contributed to its progression. This blog post is the result of that reflection.

I think we all have those days when we look at where our lives have taken us, and think, “How did I get here?” We tend to thank/blame our upbringing, education, or specific life events for creating opportunities and circumstances that somehow shaped how our lives manifested themselves. Of course my brain looked at things a little differently. I came to the conclusion that at some point in my life I developed the skills necessary to navigate through certain systemic issues (political, educational, societal, cultural, institutional, etc.) that always seem to benefit dominant groups of which I do not belong. As a person of color in higher education, this pilgrimage can often become more of a series of battles in a seemingly never-ending war. Vijay Pendakur, Ed. D. (2013) describes the all too familiar conversation that Student Affairs Practitioners of color have surrounding these battles by stating, “The whole dialogue comes to a morbid crescendo when your group concludes that there are no answers and that hegemony usually wins” (para. 3).However, I seemed to unconsciously develop a skill overtime that helped me navigate those hegemonic structures in ways that would benefit me.

*FLASHBACK ENSUES*

I was seven years old when the movie Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone came out. This romantic comedy was a look into the life of a rich, White, teenage girl from Beverly Hills. It was the first time that I remember being exposed to economic affluence beyond my imagination. Clueless is probably most known for its memorable valley girl vernacular, which popularized phrases like “As if” and “I’m Outty”, and the overuse of “like” and “totally”. Needless to say, growing up in an inner city consisting mostly of low-income Puerto Rican families like my own did not expose me to speech patterns like this before. For years I believed it to be something that Hollywood created. It was not until I went to high school on the other side of town that I realized it actually existed.

The ethnic demographic of my high school seemed to be White, Black, and Me! As soon as I walked in on the first day I heard a girl say, “Like, Oh my God!” I laughed in the way I had done so many times before when someone quoted Clueless… but this was no quote. It was her. She really spoke that way, and so did all of her friends. As I matriculated I learned that most of the cultural elements of my Puerto Rican ethnicity were not represented in that high school, and if I wanted to relate to others and fit in I was going to have to adapt. Little did I know that this would eventually become a skill that I would call upon for the rest of my life. However, it was not constant. I eventually came to the realization that certain speech patterns were considered acceptable or appropriate with certain groups. If I used the wrong speech pattern with the wrong group one of four scenarios would usually play out.

i.     I was told that I sounded uneducated.

ii.    I was complimented on my articulation.

iii.   I was told I was not really Puerto Rican

iv.   I was just not understood and asked to explain what I meant.

I did not realize it then, but that exposure to the “valley girl” speech sparked my understanding of what it meant to code switch. Code switching is the idea that one can call upon and utilize two or more linguistic varieties in order to match that of whatever in-group is present or dominant (Koch, Gross, and Kolts, 2001). Johnson (1941) postulates that the reason for code switching is to benefit from the prestige of identifying with a dominant group by utilizing what that group deems the “correct” speech. The ability to code switch allows members of minoritized groups to use what some scholars have called “Standard English” when interacting with dominant groups while maintaining that minoritized identity. In other words, it’s the skill that allows me to speak Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English) with family, slang with friends, and “standard English” in professional settings in a seamless and usually subconscious fashion.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would I possibly consider code switching to be a skill? Although, some might argue that the ability to code switch is nothing more than a learned social response, I think of it as a skill because like any skill, it takes practice. Advancing through my post-secondary, and advanced education provided me with plenty of opportunities to practice code switching. Communicating with my White peers was only the beginning. Communicating with the White Professoriate, with heterosexual men, with women, with those of religious (usually Christian) affiliation, with those of different Fraternity/Sorority affiliation, and with those with hiring/firing power all became opportunities for code switching practice. As aforementioned, this is a mostly subconscious process, but as it occurs repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime it inevitably moves passed the precipice of natural response and into the foreground of one’s thoughts. Once that happens it is easy to see how calling upon code switching can be thought of as a practiced skill.

Higher education is a system originally intended for wealthy, White, able-bodied, heterosexual men. There is no denying that the demographic has undoubtedly diversified since the dawning of the American academy. However, the original intent to favor the dominant group has shaped the way that underrepresented groups must navigate the educational system in order to gain the benefits of the educational system. Thus making code switching a necessary and ubiquitous component of higher education. Please do not mistake this statement as a promotion of code switching. Truthfully speaking, code switching is the product of systemic oppression that has forced me and countless others before me and after me to question their authenticity; to mimic; to make due with what is available. If equity is the idea that everyone has shoes that fit, then code switching is like trading my shoes in for the same shoes that the dominant group is wearing in the hopes that I will be seen… heard… respected long enough to get ahead in this world. Code switching does not change the system, but rather is the act of succumbing to the system. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Lorde, 1984, p. 2).

Questions

  1. What role has code switching played throughout your education and/or career?
  2. What do you think would happen if people no longer code switched?

References
Johnson, C. S. (1941). Growing up in the black belt. Washington, DC. American Council on Education

Koch, L. M., Gross, A. M., Kolts, R. (2001). Attitudes toward Black English and code switching. Journal of Black Psychology, 27, 29-42.

Lorde, A. (1984). “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007.

V. Pendakur. (2013, November 19). Supervising grads and new professionals of color: Teaching strategies to survive and thrive in white institutional culture. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://vijaypendakur.com/?p=111

Nathan Olmeda is the Coordinator for Greek Life at a large public institution in Southern California, and has been involved with Fraternity & Sorority Life at various institutions for over 5 years. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Development and Family Studies in 2009. He then worked as the High School Admissions Representative for Remington College in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Realizing his passion for student engagement, Nathan decided to pursue his education at Iowa State University in the Higher Education, Student Affairs Master’s program where he advised the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Order of Omega, and other Greek affiliated groups. Nathan expresses his love for music through singing, dancing, stepping, and strolling. He is excited to be writing for the CSJE Blog, and is thankful for the opportunity to share his experiences as a new Student Affairs Professional.

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