Making Strides: Caring for Mental and Emotional Well-Being in Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

The day Trump was elected, I called out of work. At the time, I was working in Washington, D.C., and I couldn’t bear to go outside and run into someone who was excited by the election results. My supervisor understood when I told her I needed a mental health day and would not be able to work in my current mental state. The next day, I mustered up the energy to get out of bed and be in the presence of other people. As I walked to work, I bumped into my boss. She looked at me and hugged me. My eyes welled up and she said, “I thought about you yesterday. I know that this day is hard for me and for a lot of people, but I can’t imagine what this result means to you and your family.” I will never forget this interaction because she was in total pain but—despite that—thought about my pain and felt for me. How often does this happen in the workplace? In an institution of higher education? How often has your professor pulled you aside and asked how you are doing in light of a recent incident?

When talking about diversity and inclusion (and equity!!), creating an inclusive community means being aware of and sensitive to the different issues that impact people of different races, gender identities, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc. Beyond this, it means acknowledging these situations and creating a space for people to heal. In my anecdote above, I was still held to a standard of excellence and expected to complete tasks within deadlines, but my boss understood that I would need to alter my work style. This meant I would need to work in a private room and that I might need to walk away from my desk more often than usual. They opened up space for me to manage my emotions.

I have found it much harder to care for my emotions at the Nicholas School. I will step back and say that this is not a critique only aimed at the Nicholas School, but to institutions of higher education broadly. Moreover, this critique may apply to other workplaces, as I recognize that I was quite lucky in my former workplace; I worked with a group of people who cared for the employee as a person and not only as a taskmaster.

We need to take better care of the members of our community by recognizing the different ways our identities impact our mental and emotional well-being and, thus, our academic and professional work. Something we must recognize is that it is much more difficult to be in tune with students and people of different backgrounds when your personhood is not under constant attack. What do I mean, you might be wondering? As a person, you hold different identities. These identities inform how you are treated in certain cultural contexts. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I face challenges and privileges based on my gender. As a woman of color (intersectionality is very important), I face different challenges and privileges at a predominantly white institution in the South. My personhood is constantly under attack because of systems such as racism, sexism and xenophobia that dictate the rights people believe I should have, the lifestyle I should be able to lead, etc.

The Nicholas School, being steeped in the dominant white, male culture of U.S. society (despite there being more women studying at the school than men), is not unlike many of the spaces I have occupied. This pervasive culture acts as a blinder to what it is like to be a person with a different identity because everything is built and upheld in response to this culture. Moreover, there are incentives (say it: privileges) to not see these differences.  However, this is not an excuse to avoid empathy and disregard other people’s challenges and needs. Empathy is certainly not a foreign concept at the Nicholas School.

At September’s Global Connections initiative kickoff event, we discussed Hurricane Florence preparedness over African food.

Here’s a recent example. When Hurricane Florence was about to make landfall in North Carolina, many students at the Nicholas School were nervous and uneasy. A student club meeting led by staff was cut short to address the anxieties around the Hurricane. Staff was aware that students were nervous, and wanted to provide a sense of comfort by talking openly about the risks of the hurricane and provide information on tips and necessary safety precautions. At this time, I was able to get an extension for a paper because I needed to prepare for the hurricane at the last minute. Honestly, having not experienced a hurricane in the past, I was freaking out and couldn’t stop researching Hurricane Florence’s path and predicted impacts. In this moment, the Nicholas School acknowledged the emotions of its students and created space to manage concerns and emotions.

At around the same time, when the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings were taking place, students were also feeling quite uneasy and focused a lot of their time and energy on following the news. Yet, at this time, the Nicholas School was silent. I know many peers who struggled that week. They were triggered, frustrated and scared. I couldn’t concentrate on my school work for the week because I was very impacted. Yet, I was scared to even ask for an extension on at least one of the many assignments I had due. How was I going to explain to a professor that I had been triggered and mentally could not focus on my work without addressing my mental and emotional health for just one day? I couldn’t fathom doing so because there was no indication from the faculty or staff that they were aware of the issue or that they would be responsive to students’ needs to take time to care for their themselves.

You might be reading this and thinking to yourself, this is not a fair comparison. And to some extent, yes, you are correct. However, there are similarities in the events that make me question what situations and whose emotions are worthy of acknowledgment. During the hurricane, it seemed as if everyone was affected, and everyone could easily connect to each other’s feelings. However, in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination case, making that personal connection was difficult because only certain people were impacted and people have different opinions on the topic of sexual violence. However, this is where we should push back.

Diversity and inclusion recognizes that some voices are privileged, so we must intentionally give voice to those that are historically marginalized and demonized. As a community, we have to support the historically marginalized. As a community, we have to make efforts to remove the blinders and critically engage in activities and practices that move us towards equity and justice—even when the conversations are difficult and privileged voices will push back to keep their power.

What does look like? I think that the simplest thing the Nicholas School could have done was send out a statement that acknowledged the difficulty of the news coverage and highlighted resources available to students (such as counseling or sexual assault reporting). Such an email would have shown students that faculty and staff were aware of the issue and acknowledged that it may have been affecting their students. There’s the possibility that it might have made the Nicholas School seem more inviting—the prospect of supporting students’ emotional well-being. In the greater conversation about diversity and inclusion efforts at the Nicholas School, it would have signaled to students that marginalized and minority voices were heard and that they matter. Moreover, the Nicholas School would have shown that it is taking steps to care for the emotional and mental well-being of people whose personhood is attacked.

I want to highlight the amazing work that the Nicholas School has been doing to increase its diversity and inclusion efforts. In the fall semester alone, it has offered multiple student workshops and training on diversity and inclusion that connected students to environmental leaders of diverse backgrounds, and hosted social events to foster stronger connections between students of all backgrounds. There are also many allies among administration, faculty, staff and students who are dedicated to making the Nicholas School a more welcoming place for everyone. The passion and commitment of these individuals at the Nicholas School is part of what makes the school special. In working towards creating a better community for everyone, there is opportunity for growth. As the Nicholas School continues to pursue its diversity and inclusion goals, it should also address these systematic and underlying issues.