Originally written by Brandon Smith on roadtocacuss.ca May 18, 2015 as part of #RoadToCACUSS, a professional journey from Toronto to Vancouver, in an RV.
Over Mother’s Day weekend, I made my way to my hometown of Welland, Ontario for a weekend of family time before hitting the road with my colleagues. I should have expected that a visit to one of my homes would force introspection. A visit home also means I need to go through all of the “stuff” my mom has found as she de-clutters. Unexpectedly, one of those pieces of my past inspired my reflection on diversity—a topic that, for many of us, comes to mind every day in the work we do not just in higher education, but as human beings.
In grade six, we had to write an “I am…” poem; a series of sentence starters where you jot down the first thing that comes to mind. Strangely introspective and deep for a twelve year-old, here is an excerpt of what I wrote:
I am a happy guy who wears glasses.
I wonder where I will be in the future and what I will do.
I see the sunshine gleaming past the clouds.
I hear laughter from the playground and wind shaking the trees.
I want there to be happiness and peace in the world.
I am a happy guy who wears glasses.
At first glance, I thought about where I was in that moment—so different, yet still very much the same. Twelve-year-old Brandon has so much of life to build and eventually deconstruct and de-clutter.
I was seemingly like the other guys in my grade six class, however, deep down I knew there was something “going on” and that I was different. Fast-forward to the end of grade nine where I came out to my best friend and identified as gay. That summer—and for a few years after—I was living the cookie-cutter experience of Vivienne Cass’ Identity Model, wondering “why me?”, questioning if being gay was something I could fix, and soon after hearing nothing but support from friends and family, I accepted who I was and the fact that being gay was (hopefully) not the only interesting thing about me, but is still something that I can be proud of.
Then came university. Acknowledging the privilege I have about having a great high school experience, I quickly realized I had to “come out” all over again. The blank page some may wish for from a new experience was the opposite of what I wanted. I wished for familiarity, to not have to identify or come out again. Once I parked that worry, however, and continued to be me, everything seemed to connect. This was my experience—but the same situation may be the complete opposite for students that we support or people we work with based on personal belief and external influence. I question how we can create learning environments where this process can be supported, and ensure others who may not have a positive experience can flourish through challenge and support.
The term diversity has come up countless times in my own personal journey of self-authorship, leadership development, and awareness of our world; I remember learning about diversity first in high school, as a keen leader overly involved, always wanting to be “the helper”, an opportunity I continued to seek out in my first year of PSE at Trent on my Residence College Cabinet, and onward as a Don/Residence Advisor and eventually an orientation leader. I received hours of training on diversity: what it means to be different and, my own personal mantra, bridging tolerance to acceptance. These hours make me an expert in diversity, right? Do I have the best perspective of diversity because I identify as gay? Not at all; the meaning of diversity is what is important.
Baxter-Magolda’s Theory of Self-Authorship
I didn’t always know that. As a Don, I remember meeting my first student named Sako. I was beyond eager to welcome my students as they arrived and remind them of our first community meeting fresh out of my 10-day Don Training program that made me feel like I was an expert on inclusivity, diversity, and helping skills. Sako was quiet while his parents feverishly unpacked his room. I was outside when Sako said farewell to them as they made their trek back to Toronto. Expecting my first opportunity to “help”, I went over to see if Sako was okay with this “sudden transition” and prepared myself to have open body language, ask open-ended questions, and to listen to his needs. Sako had a different agenda: as the car drove away, he turned to me with his hands in the air and screamed ‘FINALLY!’ and described how incredibly excited he was to have the freedom he had been waiting for his entire life.
My deer-in-headlights reaction and need to “fix” instead of just listen, as well as my assumptions, lost a moment…and to make matters worse, there was no resource or reminder in my Don manual to make this situation better! Hours later, I reconnected with Sako—not as a Don, but as Brandon—to let him know that I was here for him and other students to build a community. I valued our authentic conversations all year, learning that while we may share similar perspectives and identities, it didn’t make our experiences the same. I love that this is a story Sako and I both continue to share with the students and staff we work with whom welcome new students to our campuses each year.
The lenses we bring to life matter. I identify as a gay man, first-generation graduate who is still counting (and paying) my blessings from the Ontario Student Assistance Program that helped me get to where I am today. Bringing yourself to the work that you do makes a difference.
In my opinion, it’s important to be in a place—intrapersonally and systematically—where you can integrate your own identities / “I am…” poem responses to accept and embrace other identities. This doesn’t mean you need to “know”—I still don’t—and while I identify with a myriad of identities and view my work and life with multiple lenses while doing my best to consider my blind-spots, I still struggle with not knowing. But I think, deep in my heart, that is the beauty of diversity.
We need to imagine big and think critically about diversity. Diversity is complex. Who you are on the outside, the inside, and all of the other “stuff” and “clutter” matters. Processing, accepting, and making meaning of it allows you to ask even bigger questions to support the work we are doing. This understanding encourages connection to ourselves and others while still embracing the identities we may not connect with.
What started with “I am…” in 1997 has evolved to me to identifying, wondering, seeing, hearing, wanting, and asking about in/visible diversity in our students and organizational structures, gender identity, equity vs. equality, perspective from different states and provinces, inclusion, privilege, ability, access, age and experience, cultural influence, and beyond. Asking questions leads to conversation and I love that I work at a place and with people—on this journey, in my department and Student Affairs, within RU and colleagues beyond Ryerson’s walls—that also embrace this notion.
I will continue to question myself and others to support diversity in the work we do in higher education. I will embrace this adventure and engage with colleagues from our campus visits and those I am on the road with about this topic and I hope those we don’t see in person will also engage in this dialogue.
I wonder: Who are you? Who do you want to be?
I am a happy guy who wears glasses.
Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.