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A Sisterhood of Solace and Compassion: Community Building In and Out of the Classroom


sisterThe authors are collectively known as Meta-Four: A Women’s Academic Comadre Collective. Articles published by this group share equal authorship, randomly rotating who appears first as a stance against the model wherein the first cited author is primary. The authors are current and recent faculty members of the University of Cal Poly Pomona.

We left a meeting with a University administrator discouraged. Now standing in the elevator, the doors opened a few floors down and two women on the janitorial crew walked in. Two Latinas, tousled hair pulled up and away from their faces, stood at the front of the elevator, wearing aprons, with mops and trash bags in hand. We stood there behind them with briefcases, laptops and blazers. In the short ride to the ground floor, we contemplated the social space that existed between us. In that moment, the illusion was that our degrees and professorships put us leagues apart from these working-class immigrant women; in reality, we were the same, still struggling against a system that wasn't designed with us in mind.

In the years toward tenure, we had battled issues from salary inequity to work overload and unclear expectations.  When the four of us arrived on campus, we were provided “mentors” that randomly matched us with disciplines and perspectives that had no relationship to our own—a folklorist (Posey), for example, was paired with a kinesiologist.  There was a disciplinary disconnect in these pairings, but in some cases there were also political, generational and cultural disconnects in the way of developing a sense of shared community on campus.  In the end, we looked across the hall to each other, to the fellow women of color from working class backgrounds who seemed, like ourselves, to be wondering how it was we ended up here anyway.  For some of us there had been no expectation in our family that we would attend college let alone teach it.

What we created, almost by accident, was a collective that was simultaneously social, professional and political. This approach allowed us to vent about our trials and tribulations, develop a social network to access the official and unofficial rules and procedures of tenure and promotion, and then strategize about ways to survive. Ultimately, we agreed, knowingly or unknowingly, to combine service, teaching and research through the use of service-learning to minimize expending excessive energy, giving meaning to the tenure process and creating a sisterhood of solace and compassion at the same time. Central to this sisterhood was the development of a holistic model of academic life that integrated our emotional, personal, familial and intellectual needs.

sisterWhile we hesitate to assert that the lack of funding for the formation and sustenance of our academic collective was positive factor in its success, in some ways our intrinsic motivation for forming the collective fell outside of the institution’s attempts at helping us succeed. Hired, as we were, in a multidisciplinary, multi-departmental cohort of four, we almost immediately sought to combat the inherent isolation of being the newest member of established departments or programs and the confusion presented by amorphous tenure documents. The academic collective was first and foremost social:  beginning with shared lunches and dinners in which discussions ranged freely from discussions of pedagogy, the expectations of tenure, our own research, and our shared values as women of color in academia to discussions about family life.  Indeed, at times our families were present at barbecues and potlucks, our children playing noisily in the yard, the next room, and even underfoot. 

As our lives and our path toward tenure progressed (or sometimes faltered), we were there for one another, support when diagnosed with diseases, contending with infertility, or dealing with divorce.  While friendships formed and strengthened, so, too, did our emerging learning community as academics and teacher-scholars. Our discussions about the challenges we had faced as women of color in graduate school and the attitudes we encountered among our students regarding social class and gender evolved into a joint presentation and article. And yet this outcome may not have emerged at all without the solid foundation of our friendships and the environment of openness and trust they engendered In turn, these rich discussions about issues that really mattered to us, about our own varied struggles as students, contributed to our ability to form a similar rapport with our students or, at the very least, to share strategies for how we might do so. Our academic collective served to support the multiple domains of life and work as academics and a place to strategize when a newly invigorated call for service-learning was thrust upon us.

Service-learning was a top-down, system-wide initiative, initiated and funded by the chancellor’s office, and promoted by the new president of our campus in such a way that we, as junior faculty, were uncertain as to whether or not it was required or optional for us to attain tenure. We were not certain whether it should fit in our tenure documents under research, teaching or service. While service is part of the triad every almost every university professor is accountable for, it is usually not given equal weight in practice.  Tenure-track faculty are urged that it is an essential part of their portfolio and yet it is somehow communicated implicitly that service should not get in the way of a robust research portfolio and/or stellar teaching evaluations.


sisterService-learning created opportunities for university service that could be applied toward tenure, subsequently building community both within the university (We are alluding to our “community” as well as connections with the cultural centers, housed in student life to support minority students) and in the wider community. It did so in a way that allowed service to support rather than undermine both teaching and research. One project incorporated the instructor’s (Posey) ethnographic research interests into an oral history project for a local historical society.  Students in groups gathered data, transcribed interviews and created reflective essays for dissemination and archiving. Another service-learning project combined the scholar’s (Chavez-Reyes) research in undergraduate teacher education with a project that gave teacher candidates the opportunity to mentor teen mothers to learn about the systemic barriers to quality education.  Each of the professors also sat on the community partner’s boards in various capacities that allowed them to both serve better and give them insights into directions for deepening the projects. Service-learning tied research, service and teaching into a unified and meaningful whole, much in the same way that our own academic collective wove us together in a way that combated the isolation typically experienced by women of color in the academy.

As faculty of color committed to social justice and social change, we give central consideration to topics of advocacy, aesthetic expression, civic engagement, culture, diversity, history, identity, ideology, justice, and power and to the processes by which students can become personally and professionally engaged.  We are committed to student learning which prepares them to live in a global, multicultural, complex society where students need to manage, nurture, and shape such a society through critical understanding, leadership, and responsible action.  Service-learning was one way for us to enact our professional ideals in the pursuit of these goals. One project  that spanned many years grew into a student-led initiative. Issues of identity, diversity and social justice were woven throughout the instructor’s (Gomez) Latino history course.  Students reflected on these issues as they took on the coordination of a large Dia de los Muertos /Day of the Dead/ event sponsored by the campus cultural centers. Held annually, it draws hundreds of attendees from on and off campus, strengthening ties to the surrounding community and building a sense of shared memory. In another class on Diversity, Education and the Arts the instructor (Posey) paired instruction about State education standards with public programs for at-risk minority youth held at the university’s community center or a local Boys and Girls’ Club.

sisterDespite the challenges (and there were many), we have found our service-learning experiences contributed in tangible ways to our professional growth and to the requirements of tenure. Service-learning tied together the three traditional strands of the academic’s career—teaching, research and service—and gave us an operational direction for our pursuits toward tenure.

The road to tenure is often lonely and usually harrowing, whether it is taken by a professor at a research institution or, like ours, a teaching institution. In the case of women and faculty of color, a lack of culturally conscious support networks often results in high attrition rates. While universities across the country have made efforts to diversify their faculty and student bodies, little is known about effective policies and practices that result in retention for the changing demographic of faculty. Specific programs are often implemented to support students of color, but rarely for that same population when they negotiate their way up academe’s narrow stairwell.  Faculty of color are left to develop their own survival strategies when they dare go where they were never expected to be.

metaWhile there is abundant research on the importance of mentoring for professional men, the research on marginalized groups’ experiences, particularly women of color, is scarce. Some argue that typical mentor relationships that rely on the similarities of gender, race and social class, pose particular difficulties for marginalized groups who are often isolated on college campuses and therefore have few colleagues of similar backgrounds available to them.

It is clear that what we developed through our collective was both a mentoring and support group that at its core was committed to mutual empowerment and learning. This “feminist co-mentoring” lies in the ability to recognize and value the interconnected spheres of our social and academic lives.  We use the term “Comadre Collective.”  In Latin America “Comadre” are lifelong friendships between women wherein together they share the joys, trials and tribulations of life.  Emphasizing collaboration at every level, we have found ways to build social and intellectual communities with one another, our students and the larger community that provide our lives and careers with deep meaning, impact and power

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