Freedom is that instant between when someone tells you to do something and when you decide how to respond. ~Jeffrey Borenstein
Dr. Robert D. Hill, when the director of research for the National Urban League, wrote The Strengths of Black Families (1972) to counteract the negative stereotypes of black people in the schools of social work, community development, public policy, and the media. Hill lifted up the middle class, involved parents, and educational achievement. Hill’s message still has not been received. During any 24-hour news cycle, viewers are fed a deadly diet of misinformation, frightening images of depravity, disillusionment, and failed communities. A positive story is labeled unexpected, overlooking positive actions taking place daily in communities of color.
Meeting Dr. Hill strengthened my decision to study program evaluation and research. Groups/individuals evaluating community-based programs determine the continuation of necessary services that give people a lift up out of poverty, family dysfunction, and drug/alcohol abuse. The negative views of black communities won’t change until persons of color sit at the same tables with white evaluators: identify successful models in housing, education, health care, and recreation programs—and listen respectfully to the people who design and provide public services.
There were major hoops during admission and class work. My early family statements about black people having to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, and my innate stubbornness kept me focused on the prize. Once my PhD application, GRE scores, previous transcripts, and letters of recommendation were submitted to Western Michigan University, I was invited for an interview with the Education Leadership Department faculty. Twenty-one persons applied for the seven open slots.
Age discrimination is real. One professor focused on my age—40+. Could I compete academically while working a full-time executive level job? Through his thick German accent, the professor said, “If you receive a degree, you’ll be too old to make a contribution to the field.” The other committee members, including one black man, dropped their eyes to the papers in front of them. Silence descended on the conference room.
In the professor’s second salvo, he shared three reasons black students did not graduate. 1) Most did not complete the coursework. 2) If they completed the coursework, they failed the comprehensive examinations. 3) For the minuscule number passing the exams, they didn’t complete the dissertation.
Other committee members asked the questions I’d prepared for and expected from a university seeking the best talent to successfully complete the rigorous program. I was one of the seven students selected. My mission was to disprove the professor’s preconceived notions of my inferiority.
This professor taught five of the program’s required classes. My father died one week after my statistical methods class began. I missed the second class attending his funeral. Deciding my emotional health was important, I asked for an incomplete. “No”, the professor told me. “Your father is dead. Come to class and do the work or receive an F.” A failing grade at the beginning of the program would have eliminated me. I persevered.
My final class was dissertation research seminar where students refine their research topic, conduct their literature review, and determine whether surveys, interviews or a combination of methods will generate answers to the questions. Weekly, students report progress orally and in written form. The three chapters are then submitted to the dissertation committee.
Armed with a knowledge of his preconceptions, I diligently completed the literature review, spending extra hours in the research library, synthesizing copious amounts of information, and putting forward cogent arguments on methodology. When the professor returned my draft, I had earned an A in the class. He said, “I never expected you to stick it out. You proved me wrong.”
Why? Because I got into the zone where I was creative in the midst of discrimination. Pushing past fear and frustration. I was responding to the family in my head saying “you’re smart; you’re an overcomer… you represent the faith that brought us this far”. I rejoiced in negating his misperceptions as I competed in the classroom, demonstrated what I’d learned on the exams, and wrote the dissertation.
Once I’d achieved the PhD, my obligation was to share my journey with others. We have to accept our freedom scares other people. Each time we move up a rung on the ladder, they attempt to distract or discredit us again. There is freedom in hearing the derogatory and limiting statements and deciding not to accept them as reality.
Dr. Joyce Brown
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.