For more about the series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder
Vice President of Academic Affairs/Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of New Testament Studies, Chicago Theological Seminary
WomanistMomma. Scholar. Storyteller.
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Tell me about your current role?
I’m vice president of academic affairs and academic dean at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). Come July 2019, it will be a year in this role, but I will have been at CTS for five years. Prior, I was director of theological field education where I assisted persons with field placement; students are required to have an internship for a year and complete a unit of clinical pastoral education.
As academic dean, I am in service to and enable service towards multiple facets of CTS. I stand in the middle as administration, navigating work between faculty and students, faculty and staff, between students and staff, between faculty and administration. I work very closely with the president, as the dean is appointed by the president in conversation with faculty and approved by the board. President Ray handles a lot of administrative pieces, expanding our competitive edges, and collaboration, while I focus on the academic portfolio, faculty, and curriculum. (Rev. Dr. Crowder pictured at right.)
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?
It’s funny because I have been having this conversation with my son about racism. There was a recent Blackface incident at his school. Racism doesn’t stop – at a previous institution, there were three racial incidents. It’s challenging trying to teach and expose students to new ideas, but the classroom is filled with a great deal of animus and animosity. Once a student called me a racist for making them read particular books. I maintained my decorum, but wanted to lash out and verbally slap back. That level of disrespect and lack of awareness…there’s a tension because people have to realize that before I was a professor, I had all types of things going on and was not always as polished and poised as I am now in the classroom.
Dealing with micro aggressions whether related to sexism or racism or peoples’ own social positioning can be offsetting and distracting. It’s in those moments of tension that I realize that I’ve been called to do this work. For almost twenty years in different places, this calling pushes me to do and be more.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
I think about Anita Baker because it was a turning point for me as a college freshman at Howard University. I had her very first cassette, Rapture, and remember listening in my dorm room and being 800 or so miles away from home, from grandparents, and my family cocoon. There was something about just listening to her: her style, her complexity. Some people said you couldn’t really understand what she was saying, but that’s artistry. Some years back, she came out with a new single and folks wanted to know when the album was coming out. She said she was so difficult to work with and picky. I appreciated this self-revelation of her work ethic...knowing who she can and can’t work with.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
We have to begin to think about the role that Black women play outside of work, but yet there’s a duality or trilateral approach. The role of family is important and honoring the fact that some women are mothers, have spouses, are aunties. Most women are maternal,and we don’t leave who we are at the door when we come to the office or even in the corporate world. All of that influences our own sense of identity. It’s womanist maternal thought. We shouldn’t hide it or be ashamed of it; we must be able to negotiate that when we sign a contract. The family piece is important to us, to me especially as a self defined WomanistMomma.
There’s policing of Black women’s bodies and the micro aggressions women experience just because of their presence. Our existential reality is problematic for so many people. I wish people knew we aren’t trying to take anything from them, but just live up to what we’ve been called to do. Particularly with white women - we are not out to get you, not trying to battle with you. We don’t have to be sisters, but we don’t need to fight each other. The bullet of sexism doesn’t discriminate, but it does land differently when targeting Black women.
Sexism and #MeToo experiences are universal, meaning they are happening to people in all walks of life although with differing effects. How do we change the narrative of white women versus Black women or versus Latina women? The bottom line is that we (women) are rarely getting the full dollar; the white man is still getting the full dollar and that fiscal gap impacts us and our families. As Black women there’s a class piece that we have to wrestle with and be honest about. So many of us are fortunate enough to go to work at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. and drop our kids at daycare where there is a mother taking care of our children. We must honor mothers who are taking care of our children so we can go and be what we are called to be.
Also, we need to learn to take care of ourselves. Self-care is important. “No” is a complete sentence. Learning to say “no, no thank you” can reduce much stress. Taking care of ourselves physically, watching what we eat, and taking care of our emotions are non-negotiables. It would be helpful to tell our story and not our business. There is power in telling our story – the good, the bad, the mountains, the valleys. There is no use in being ashamed when we have fallen. How can we own our stories and tell them without experiencing any kind of chagrin related to our journeys?
So, you’ve touched on self-care. What’s your approach? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Quiet time in the morning before anyone else is up in the house. Reading the Bible. Praying. Meditating. Dwelling in the silence. Exercise. Taking bio breaks on the fourth floor and taking the stairs throughout the day. When I leave work for the day, I don’t check email in the evening unless I’m traveling, and travel precluded me from checking earlier in the day. Weekends are my time, my Sabbath. It’s important for me to have those boundaries. I attend my children’s sporting events. I don’t get that time back. All of that becomes care for me, and if all I want to do is watch reruns of Good Times or Game of Thrones then I let myself do that. Taking the time for me and not feeling guilty about it goes a long way. When I take care of myself better, I’m able to take care of family and be more productive in the office. It provides time to think, reflect, and dream about what’s next or what I would like to see next.
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?
I’ve discussed a little bit of that. Sometimes in meetings part of reclaiming time is asserting yourself like Congresswoman Waters. You are not going to silence me. You are not going to snatch my vocal box. It’s important to discern the tenor in the room and surmise what’s going on, but there are times when we need to clear our throats and speak. Being in a meeting where you don’t speak up will be a waste of time. We can change the trajectory of the conversation by not allowing people to over talk us. You’re not going to disregard my voice. I recently read an HBR article about when to speak up in meetings. Part of that is listening and discerning, but also realizing that the person who doesn’t talk so much can be most powerful person in room. My grandmother used to say an empty wagon makes a lot of noise. My silence is not ignorance but I’m trying to surmise what’s going on and know when its appropriate for me to speak so I make a valuable contribution to the conversation.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I have been reading Barbara Ransby’s book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision Wow! I have been fascinated with Ella Baker for a long time – she was the brain behind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but that nasty little thing called sexism got in the way. People don’t realize that before Ella got to SCLC, she was already doing the work with Bayard Rustin in New York long before going to Atlanta. The challenge men folk had with Ella Baker was that she was her own woman. She decided not to become a schoolteacher because she saw that as the path that Black women were supposed to take. She was educated at Shaw University and a skilled orator. All of her life was about peoples’ work, mass movements and voter registration. The whole sexism piece got in the way. She returned to North Carolina and was an integral part of founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was resilient and called to do the work.
Earlier I mentioned the class piece, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer both worked together for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These were two women from different class sectors who came together for the people. I also think of my grandmother, Maggie Rowland, who had a sixth-grade education. These women and women like them have helped nurture me by their examples. I also think of men. As an ordained Baptist minister, there were men who saw the calling on my life that I didn’t want to hear. My pastor in Memphis, my college pastor at Howard University, my seminary pastor – all men – they questioned my reticence about being called to preach. This is a part of my story, my journey as well.