Today, I received the third rejection out of four potential campus visits that I thought I would certainly get extended, based on inside information, my stronger than average CV, extremely high teaching evaluations, and practice experience. I realize that most of us have over inflated views of ourselves when we hit the academic job market. I went through this last year and quickly saw that I was merely an average candidate in a sea of many overachievers. The thing is that I worked hard over summer and this past year to publish articles, build my CV up, contribute to the schools that I was teaching part-time at, and engage in organizing and advocacy. I now have six publications in strong journals, more publications under review, accepted presentations to the two most prestigious social work conferences, six successful classes taught between two universities, and strong service at both universities that I currently work at. So, now as I am being denied visits after strong interviews, I am beginning to wonder what is wrong with me?
After I missed out on a position last year that I thought I was a shoo in for after an awesome campus visit, I was told by one of the faculty that my CV, interviewing skills, experience, and promise were not why I did not have an offer extended to me; it was because my values were too radical for the conservative nature of the school. I was a bit floored when I heard this, because despite being a bit of a critical theorist and conflict oriented, I honestly thought that if you had the qualifications and worked hard enough to be better than the next person, the best person would get the position.
This past year I was involved in very outward advocacy against major policies and practices of CSWE and SSWR; two of the major players in academic social work. The board members and leaders of these organizations are the deans and directors of many schools around the country. My advocacy called into question the elitism, transparency, ethics, and social responsibility of both organizations. I was taught as a student of social work that advocacy inside and outside the profession was a responsibility of social workers; however, they did not prepare me for the politics and consequences of advocacy.
During an interview with a prominent school this year, I was told that one of my articles on the negative consequences of neoliberalism on community organizing was not really scholarship. I was told by another search committee that community organizing was not an area of research, but a method of practice. Another dean asked me why on earth I would do a qualitative dissertation in today’s day and age, when quantitative research was the dominant paradigm. I was told in so many words by two schools that they were looking for a person of color to fill their positions; one off the record, and another indirectly, when the search committee member exclaimed how happy they were to have such a strong person of color with community experience interviewing for the position. When I told her that I was not a person of color, the entire rest of the interview became very uncomfortable. Finally, this week I was told that the position required five years of post MSW practice, and I did not meet the requirement. When I pulled out my CV and showed them nearly six years, they said that I was fluffing it and stretching it by trying to count grass roots organizing, unpaid community organizing, and anything related to macro practice within higher education. I was essentially told that only clinical practice and a small narrow lens of macro practice counts in academia. Despite that in the six years since I received my MSW, I created domestic violence curriculum and training that was disseminated across an entire state, completed over six community based program evaluations, successfully started a community block club and citizen led child care program, helped advocate for two different communities of people experiencing homelessness, helped lead up efforts to relocate the SSWR conference in the name of worker’s rights, successfully developed a mentorship program from scratch, and am currently working in a task group to address community violence. This is simply a snapshot of my practice experience, which also included paid clinical and macro practice within the context of community mental health, outreach, clinical supervision, and supportive housing. My point is not to brag on myself, but to raise some serious questions about what is valued and not valued in the current academic landscape.
What I learned this year is multifaceted and bleak for my professional future in academia. First, my research and scholarship is not being looked at as seriously as that of others, because my scholarship is primarily qualitative research and critical scholarship. The fact that search committee members are down playing the publications, despite the fact that they are in highly regarded or acceptable academic journals. Social work academia highly favors clinical social work, evident by my many rejection letters from clinical focused schools and by lack of understanding by search committees about macro practice. Search committees are narrowly defining macro practice as only consisting of work done in government, top down community development, and executive management. Grass roots organizing, evaluation, and policy advocacy is not considered as highly important to schools nor is anything unpaid considered practice. What they do not understand is most of grass roots empowerment based community organizing and policy advocacy work is done for free or nearly free. What is happening is that the historical legacy of citizen led organizing and grass roots advocacy is being de-legitimatized professionally by schools because it won’t bring in the big funding that schools desire from new faculty members. Another problem is schools with clinical faculty interviewing macro practitioners is that they do not understand how empowerment based CO works. They only want to know what my research area is, and when I say it’s community organizing, and the issues are defined by each community in a specific context, they either do not understand me or do not approve of my process.
Lastly, schools that on paper I should be a perfect fit for what they are seeking are not even giving me interviews. When I look at the schools and committees, I have learned that many of them include power players from CSWE or SSWR, which leads me to believe that their is more to the rejections than my CV. When I didn’t get a position last year that I should have gotten, I was left wondering what on earth they thought was radical about me from the visit? I was told that my CV screams radical as does my teaching and research statements. The fact that I allow students to propose alternative assignments, create classroom rules, and encourage them to advocate against the schools and universities that they reside in is considered radical. My views that universities should not be run as corporations was also not heavily popular and the fact that I believe social action should be taught as an appropriate intervention in community organizing was also seen as going against the status quo.
What I have realized most is that politics are everywhere, but people in academia continue to believe that at “their school” the processes and decisions are objective. I and others are made to feel like the problem, we are inferior, don’t have enough pubs, have too high of expectations, are just not a good fit, etc. Additionally, I learned more about difference in social work academia. Quantitative is always valued more than qualitative regardless of what people say on the record. Clinical practice dominates schools of social work in a time when people want to try and minimize the dichotomy between macro/micro practice. By saying you want to lessen the dichotomy, you are essentially closing the door on macro practice in favor of clinical and expert driven macro practice. Finally, radicals are not to be hired onto faculty at most schools. While we are admired from afar, we are far too dangerous to the status quo of schools that are seeking to further perpetuate the business model, let fund development trump teaching excellence, and allow students, adjuncts, and junior faculty voices to be marginalized as standard practice.
The race factor is harder for me to digest as someone who supports diversity and equality, I find it hard to be against it. The problem is that faculties have been comprised of whites for so long that now many are shuffling to fill what feels like are quotas, guided more by appearances and politics than by the needs of the school and qualifications of the candidates. What else is happening is many schools are hiring the most conservative of faculty of color, which helps them meet the look test, but does little to change or advance issues of race, gender, class, etc. within the school of university, and ignores other criteria for diversity that may not always be easily seen. I will continue to support diversity and fairness in academia and any profession, but I do question some of the processes for attaining it.
While I am still applying to positions and hoping to land somewhere, I have realized that the politics and difference in academia and social work are not in my favor. There is a strong possibility that I will not land an academic position for next year and could be froze out of the market, essentially exiled to the ranks of being a lecturer because I am seen as damaged goods. Some people will see this as my own fault and a result of my values, stubbornness, and high expectations. Some will say that I will be irrelevant without an academic home. Maybe they are all right, but for now, I will beg to disagree with them all, because if I always listened to everyone who claimed to be giving me advice for my own good or even if I listened to them most of the time, I would never have gotten or achieved this much in my life. The problem is, I didn’t do any of this for a job, I did it for power and access. I did it because I was tired of others trying to show me to the door or keep me at the kids table. I was the one that was never supposed to be here, and now I scare as much as I excite people. I will be relevant for as long as I choose to be, in however I choose to be, and I alone have the power over my own relevancy. What I did not expect is that the very profession and societal institute of higher education that helped be to find my way here, has done everything to push me out the door before it has even opened. If I decide to walk away, it will be because I feel like I can make a bigger difference elsewhere, and I just may not have the stomach for the politics of difference in academia.
As many of you know, I am a first generation college student, who one year ago, graduated with my PhD in social work. Most people know that I grew up in poverty, had a hard road through college, and small bits and pieces about the rest of my life, varying greatly based upon how you know me. One of the things that I hope to do one day is publish an autobiography of my life. In preparation for writing it, I have started to write about influential events in my life; some positive and others not so much so, but all of them helped shape and define me. I warn you that what you will read from me is untamed and uncensored, some of you may be appalled by the language and content. This is called real talk from a time in my life before I knew anything about privilege or diversity; from a time in my life when my decision making process was very different. I am not ashamed of any of it, because it is a part of who I am, even today.
When I was 21 years old, I lived in a single wide trailer with my best friend. We had bought it together for 3000 dollars by making payments over a three year time period. It was the typical bachelor pad, complete with 70’s pimp shit furniture and a 30 pack of High Life in the fridge at all times. We had no heat or hot water, just a kerosene heater and ice cold water. We hadn’t cleaned in over a year, so we just piled up trash into the corners and slept on dirty mattresses that were given to us. The entire year is a blur to me because of the alcohol and week long drug binges. Ecstasy is one hell of a good way to forget about life for awhile, and the only drug that ever made me feel happiness; the only drug that I will never do again. We lived in one of those stereotypical trailer parks that make up the tagline for every white trash joke that has ever been written. It was a small community where like it or not, everyone was either friend or foe, and sometimes it depended on the day or the week. One night we were up all night partying, getting loud, and pissing off the neighbors. One of the older residents came down a bit pissed off and told us to cut it out. Me, being in a drunken and drugged out state, essentially told him to go fuck himself, not knowing who the hell he was, not that I cared much in those days. The next day his son came to the trailer quite pissed off, because evidently the pissed off grandpa from the night before was his dad. Being sober at this time, I was quick to apologize to my friend, partially because I was embarrassed, and partially because the guy was a few screws short and quick to use violence as a problem solving approach. The more I apologized the more pissed the guy got until finally I told him to leave and shut the door in his face; his parting words were, you better watch your back.
I will admit that the interaction with the neighbor had left me a bit scared and pissed all at the same time. The more I sat there, the more I stewed about it, and thought to myself, what nerve this bitch has coming to my house to lecture me about pissing people off, when more people than I could count wanted to fuck him up. As I got madder, I went and loaded my 9mm semi automatic that back then I had gotten into the habit of illegally carrying around. I had gotten it from a Coke dealer as part of an exchange for vehicles among other things. Now, I was never really a hard ass or violent person, but I had grown tired of being scared and getting fucked with from my childhood, so I acted the role of crazy white boy, and I had the fire power to back it up, and everyone knew it. I also had a blazing hot temper back then when I felt threatened, which in hindsight didn’t mix well with having an accessible firearm. Over the next day, I would hear my neighbor talking shit in his yard, purposely to intimidate me or get a rise from me. Finally, my boy was over at the house, and I heard the same neighbor yell over, “your boy better not burn out of here either or else.” So, me never being someone who liked threats or ultimatums, you can guess how this shook out. My friend burned the biggest tire print of all all the way down in front of my neighbor’s trailer. Shortly after that, I see my neighbor coming down to my trailer with a tire iron in hand. I looked at my roomie, who was my boy for life, but not much of a fighter, and I told him to stand back. Before I could say anything the neighbor was kicking down my door or trying to. I felt trapped and grabbed my 9mm, popped a full clip in and opened the door as he tried to cop back with the tire iron He froze and dropped it. He tried to play hard despite the fear in his eyes and walk towards me. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place, if I back down, he would likely beat me and fuck with me indefinitely, or shoot him. I pointed the gun at his forehead and took the safety off. As I was about to make a decision that undoubtedly would have led to an entirely different narrative for my life, his girlfriend and dad pulled him away from my trailer. I will never entirely know what I would have done if they hadn’t came, but I know me back then and how scared I was at the time; I think I would have blown him away.
After they left I jumped in my car and just drove to clear my mind and process what had happened. I was scared and anxious. When I pulled back up to my trailer, my mom (who lived a few trailers down), neighbor, and roomie were outside saying the police were out looking for me and my mom was pleading with me to turn myself in. I took my friend aside and told him to give the police a bb gun replica of a 9 mm that we always took with us camping. I took the actual 9 and tore out of the trailer park. I will never say what I did with it, but not even 2 minutes after I was on my way back from disposing of it, I was surrounded by four cop cars, guns drawn, telling me to slowly step out of my car and lay on my stomach. I was arrested, processed, and left in a jail cell. In hindsight I should have not even spoken with the police without a lawyer, but I told them everything that had happened, and how I was fearful that my neighbor was going to break in with a tire iron, and so I grabbed a bb gun to scare him away. I was so emotional and scared that they bought my story, after they sent a detective to my trailer and were given a very real looking bb gun. When they asked my neighbor, who by that point had also calmed down and was more scared of being arrested for warrants, about it, he said, “yea, that looks like the gun.” Now, the held me over night to scare me and all I could do was think about my life, about what it would be like to kill someone, or to spend the remainder of my life in prison. I called my uncle during the evening, who was my ex-step father’s brother and also working for the FBI at that time. He always told me that I had one freebie from him, no more and no less. He told me to not say anything more. The next morning he came to the police station and I was released for lack of evidence and at the prosecutor’s discretion.
I replay that day in my mind over and over again. I still have a temper and most people never really see it. I avoid conflict because of my anger and rage. I watch police shows and see cops see right through people’s lies, yet they believed me, and while I hadn’t actually shot or killed anyone, possession of an unlicensed firearm, along with the use of a firearm in an assault case would not have bode well for my future plans. I never carried a gun after that day and not long after got rid of all of my firearms. I am not a true pacifist as I believe that if the life of me and mine are in jeopardy, I would kill someone. I do not believe in turning the other cheek in the strictest sense. Anyone who has grown up in the hood or in a dangerous place knows that turning the other cheek will get you hurt, killed, and bullied over and over again. Pacifism where I come from is seen as weakness, like blood in the water, and people will swarm on you. I did however move away from the trailer park soon after this event as I was fearful that the environment brought out the worst traits in me. When I have worked with young people, many who don’t process or think about the potential consequences for their actions, I have often thought back to this event. I feel like while it is nothing to brag about, it helps me to relate and understand the anger, fear, and rage that some young people feel. I also understand how to cope with it, how to diffuse it, and how to transform it into something more positive. It only took me ten seconds to calm down after the neighbor’s dad and girlfriend took him away, ten seconds to realize how much I could screw up his life and mine. Ten seconds was all it took to think more clearly and rationally. I have shared this story to very few people, but I have shared it with a few hard to reach youth in my time, and I always tell them after relaying my story, “Just think, what a difference 10 seconds can make in your life.”