An Interview with Shaya Gregory Poku, Director, Center for Social Justice, Wheaton College


For more about the series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.

Shaya Gregory Poku, Director, Center for Social Justice, Wheaton College

Peacebuilder. Educator. Advocate.


With the wisdom of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Sojourner Truth as a guide, Shaya Gregory Poku reconciles her social justice values with her actions.  Her experiences in peacebuilding internationally and higher education offer a rich platform for impact in the communities she serves. In this interview, she reflects on critical moments that helped sharpen her focus, instances when she had to hustle hard, what type of ancestor she hopes to be, and why it’s critical not to be complicit in one’s own oppression.

Tell me about your current role.

I oversee the Center for Social Justice and Community Impact. I’m tasked with supporting college students in developing their social consciousness about inequality and fostering opportunities for students to practice what it means to be civically engaged. I also help devise strategies to integrate social justice into the work that Wheaton does as an institution, operationally and educationally, especially in how it serves first-gen, low-income and LGBTQ+ students. The tiered nature of my work is the reason I wanted to come to Wheaton: to transition from designing social justice programs to inculcating social justice. That’s powerful to me. I get to tip the organizational scales towards equity. It is an exciting time to do this work at Wheaton because there is a robust Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, the institutional leadership is very devoted to these efforts, and we have received several notable grants to support our burgeoning inclusion work, including awards from the Mellon Foundation, Gardner Institute, American Association of Colleges and Universities, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?

First, “Hustle Hard” by Ace Hood, which while it does have problematic misogynistic and profane lyrics, also gives voice to the urgency of providing for yourself and your loved ones. He says: “Mama need a house; baby need some shoes. Times are getting hard, guess what I’ma do. Hustle, hustle, hustle, hard. Closed mouths don’t get fed on this boulevard.”

Some days, and even seasons, in your career are just a grind and you have to be able to push past boundaries and make things work. There’s a lot on the line. The grind was especially real for me when I graduated from grad school at the height of the economic recession. I wrote a little over 200 individual cover letters and resumes before I landed a full-time job. I was doing informational interviews, holding down side jobs, and reading every professional self-help book available in the interim, as I tried to enter my field.

Second, “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock because [like the song says] we who believe in freedom cannot rest. It is one thing to grind, and it is another thing entirely to labor for a cause, and believe that your work will have an impact that benefits others. Ella’s Song gives me hope and speaks to the relationship between my own productivity, and others’ freedom. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” This philosophy undergirds so much about how I try to live my life.

Third, “Glory” by John Legend and Common because its sublime, and one of the lines resonates with me: “No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy.” As someone who works in higher education, I am continuously inspired by the insights the next generation is bringing to today’s social challenges and the opportunity as an educator to contextualize decades and centuries of constructive advocacy they can learn from and harness to enact meaningful change. Last quote for now, but it is endlessly relevant that Coretta Scott King said: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it in every generation.”

Finally, my playlist would include “Gotta Be” by Des’ree since I listen to it almost every morning. The only way to do better is to be wiser. Period.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

My career path has been in local, national, and international “nonprofit-nonprofits,” which were completely dependent on grants and donations, and now in higher education, which is still a 501(c)3, but has a different funding model. The tensions I have faced doing human-centered work have stemmed from periodically encountering organizational philosophies that extoled human progress, but had organizational  processes, expectations, and structures that I perceived as insidious and re-entrenching the very social inequality I thought I was hired to help eradicate. These problematic approaches caused a lot internal angst about the value of work I’ve invested so much time, energy, and love into, and was dependent upon for my own livelihood.

Could I do my work, but not capitulate to the unintentional harm I witnessed? Could I be on the right side of the moral arc of the universe Dr. King spoke to, but not be misread as insubordinate? Could I grow and be promoted, but also be authentic? Those questions were often at the crux of the values tension. For example, within the nonprofit sector, one of the biggest moral conundrums for me was/is the oppressive power dynamics of the “donor industrial complex,” or what Peter Buffet called “Philanthropic Colonialism.” Some (not all) philanthropic donors are ill-informed and removed from the nuances of the challenges they seek to support, especially when they work transnationally. Yet they eschew creating space for the beneficiaries themselves to shape or have voice in what is covered by the funding intended to help them. Donors may also structure their grants in ways that your time as a nonprofit employee is more focused on addressing their questions than serving constituents.

Fortunately, philanthropy as a field is evolving and more funders are reconsidering how their methods can be disempowering or even dehumanizing, and how their attempts to ensure accountability can erode effectiveness. I’m paying attention to these trends closely. (Shaya Gregory Poku pictured at right.)

A second slippery slope for me has been when I was tacitly encouraged to quell student discontent several years ago. As someone well-versed in the history of COINTELPRO (covert surveillance of activist organizations in the late 1950s and 1960s), that was challenging to say the least. I’ve dealt with all of these situations by extricating myself from the most problematic scenarios and approaches, and when that was not possible by honoring and adhering to my organizational role, but also not capitulating my own ethical code. Sometimes you have to stand by the line, but not walk on it. If that sounds like splitting hairs…it isn’t. Even if our agency is finite, it is there and we have to exercise it so we maintain our integrity and our credibility with ourselves and contending audiences.

Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome? There is not a specific example, but I am always trying to schedule my priorities so how I spend the hours in my day aligns with what I say I value. For example, a general way that I reclaim my time is to support my staff. As you rise in the ranks, it becomes harder and harder to supervise people adequately because there is so much on your plate. This often leaves junior staff in the lurch because they don’t have the answers or guidance to be successful. I make time to invest in them because they deserve it and because it matters.

Reclaiming my time is making sure I’m not on campus too many late nights so I can bond with my sister, my husband, and my child. If I am on campus late, then I use What’s App or Face Time with my son to say good night so he can see my face. Family time is precious to me.

I eat lunch and don’t skip meals…even if I do chow it down at my desk. I cannot let the work day prevent me from nourishing my body. No matter what else is going on, I try to make time for students in the same way that I serve my staff since I am here to serve students. If I am not engaging with students and hearing what is on their minds, then I’m not fulfilling my role and centering the wrong values.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I eat and I sleep. I listen to encouraging music; I’m very conscious about that. I find podcasts that are inspiring, informative, and affirmative. I read. I travel. I say no to great opportunities if they are not right for me in the season I am in. I pray and go to church. I volunteer. I make time to spend time with family, friends, and my spouse. I nurture my marriage. I don’t make work the central thing; it’s important to me and I’m consciously professional, but I don’t make work the center of my universe or my self-definition.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

I want to be remembered as someone who was relentless in the pursuit of justice.

There is a wall in my office where I put up big pictures of bell hooks, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisolm, and Audre Lorde together in a giant collage of sorts. It is endlessly inspiring for me.

I want to be remembered as an ancestor along the lines of these educator-advocates who told the truth and built the capacity of others to empower themselves and solve problems through these truths. In the workplace, truth-telling can be very tricky. There is tension between norms of professionalism and decorum that penalizes women, and especially Black women, for being perceived as too “emotional” about “certain” issues. Yet, clearly people’s lives are being impacted and moral crises are perpetuated and re-perpetuated if we don’t talk.

I’m thinking about bell hooks and how people have minimized her scholarship that has allowed many Black women to understand themselves; Sojourner Truth who recognized intersectionality as a concept before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term; Shirley Chisolm who said we must bring our own folding chair to tables never meant for us; Audre who said we must dare use our voices, even when we are afraid; and Ida B. Wells wrote about lynching in the South when people were ascribing lynching to sexual predation, which wasn’t the case at all.

The truth creates conflict because it makes people uncomfortable. It ferments cognitive dissonance and disagreement. Fortunately, my first frame of professional reference is peacebuilding, which helps me to broach the divisive. As an ancestor, I want to build bridges that span gulfs of experience and understanding. Because it is imperative that we each better understand how we’re enmeshed in the normative status quo of dehumanizing systems and take the personal and communal risk of disavowing and working to overcome them.

As an ancestor, I want to be a restorer who elucidates truth so vividly (and compassionately) that it shifts people’s conceptions of violence, social change, and power. Through this, I want to both undermine and subvert misinformation, false equivalences, unintended consequences, oversimplifications, and conflations that are the subtle factors driving institutional and systemic oppression.

I want to make the complex plain.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

I’ve got three answers.

1) There is a choreopoem in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enough called “Somebody Almost Walked Off with All My Stuff.” It has always stuck with me. The glaring racial wealth gap in this country can force hard choices for us as Black women between putting food on the table, having work that’s rewarding to us, and doing things that are valuable to our communities. Yet, we cannot sacrifice ourselves. As professionals, we need to really know our worth and be fiercely protective about it. Be humble, but be clear when your time and talent are being taken for granted, or when the operating environment you’re in will not yield fruit. It is tempting to want to dig your heels in and advocate no matter the personal cost to yourself. No paycheck or title is worth that. We can’t participate in our own self-exploitation: financially, emotionally, psychologically, or physiologically.

2) Secondly, we have to have vision and not just ambition. At Wheaton, my office space is in a basement. It is refurbished and beautiful, but a basement…which would be a turn-off for some. Many may look for the C-Suite, but the C-Suite is not always where you have impact. My basement does not come with all the conventional trappings of success, but the generative work and opportunities are there in that basement in spades. To amplify your voice, you have to be able to see where potential may be latent and you can help bring the possible to fruition, and grow professionally in the process.

3) The third answer is to have a council of elders. You need people who you really trust — older, more experienced people who you can call and ask questions. No matter how certain you are about your voice, it’s hard to know the best way to use it. As you grow in the ranks, decisions become more high stakes, so having people to call and think things through with is invaluable. Sometimes there is a temptation to talk just to people who can commiserate with you. That is great, but that often does not yield solutions that can help you get unstuck.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

I would say acknowledge our pain and respect our magic. The social sector has to interrogate itself to better understand its collusion in the multidimensionality of misogynoir in the workplace. It has to codify policy and re-think pervasive cultural practices in the office that routinely assault our personhood.

On a policy level, The CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) out of my home state of California shows progress. Although the irony of having to decriminalize our hair speaks volumes about the normalized levels of bias against Black women, and the precarious space we occupy in workplaces. Folks see our contributions, but few concede to our pain.

Let’s take the academy, higher education, as an example. On the one hand we learn so much from Black women, but then it is not honored in ways that afford esteem, hence the campaign Cite Black Women. We know that  women professors tend to be judged unfairly and face bias in their student evaluations; and we know that there is a ton of invisible labor that Black women do that hold organizations together.

Yet, despite all this knowledge and data to prove the distinct ways Black women are being penalized and second-guessed, because of how we identify and look, there are no countermeasures to support our brilliance. That should not be the case, especially in the social sector that is supposed to affirm and uplift humanity.

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