NCORE 2019: A Debrief

National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education Logo, 2019.

National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education Logo, 2019.

From May 28 - June 1, 2019 I was in community, in learning, in growing, in mourning, and in re-calibration as an attendee of this year’s National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE). What is NCORE? Taken from the NCORE website:

In 1988, The Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies launched the first Annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) to address the resurgence of racist incidents in higher education. Since its inception, NCORE has evolved into a vital national resource for higher education institutions, providing an annual multicultural forum that attracts Black/African Americans, American Indians, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Latino/as, and European Americans representing higher education institutions across the United States.

The NCORE conference series constitutes the leading and most comprehensive national forum on issues of race and ethnicity in American higher education. The conference focuses on the complex task of creating and sustaining comprehensive institutional change designed to improve racial and ethnic relations on campus and to expand opportunities for educational access and success by culturally diverse, traditionally underrepresented populations.

NCORE is designed to provide a significant forum for discussion, critical dialogue, and exchange of information as institutions search for effective strategies to enhance access, social development, education, positive communication, and cross-cultural understanding in culturally diverse settings.

This year’s conference was hosted in Portland, Oregon, with around 5,000 attendees from every corner of the United States and Canada. Five days packed with hundreds of talks, live podcasts, presentations, training seminars and keynotes from thought leaders, writers, directors, and folx also navigating the world of higher ed? Yes please!

Attending NCORE this year was a validating, stimulating, and invigorating experience. Working in the city of Portland, working in higher ed, working on shaping and progressing equity, diversity, and inclusion in workplaces and hiring practices, and doing all of the aforementioned as a Black person in a city and state with a supremely racist history directed at Black citizens? It takes a toll on you, both personally and professionally. It can often feel daunting to find community, build community, find a way to have your voice be heard and your concerns and pain be validated in Oregon. NCORE helped remind me that although it can be hard to make your voice heard, and that you can feel isolated and alone in your feelings and views, that you are in fact not alone and this work is indeed necessary. This conference was the largest contingent of BIPOC I have ever seen in this city, and it made this event feel like a community like no other major conference or training I have ever attended in Portland. The melanin was on full display and it was incredible to be in community with citizens from across North America who are all facing similar kinds of hurdles and frustrations in being a voice and a force in the face of white supremacy and patriarchy in higher education.

Walidah Imarisha delivering the opening keynote  “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History” , NCORE Conference, 2019.

Walidah Imarisha delivering the opening keynote “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History”, NCORE Conference, 2019.

Every session I attended over the span of five days offered me a litany of insights and reinvigorated my soul in positive and affirming ways (with the exception of one session that, if you follow me on social media, you will have read about). Some of my personal highlights from NCORE’s robust catalog of programming and presentations were:

Each of the aforementioned trainings and presentations offered me a new component to my facilitator toolkit, a deeper understanding of a concept of the history of oppression we exist in, and a more nuanced lens of self-evaluation when facilitating trainings and having difficult conversations about race and intersectionality with white citizens inside and outside of higher education. I will be honest: there was a part of me that did not expect the latter to occur during my time at NCORE but I am so glad that it did. I went into NCORE completely open and ready to absorb what I could not just to help others but to help myself. Our goal as activists, allies, accomplices, and as those working to promote change inside the belly of the beast is to never stop learning, growing, correcting out current and past transgressions, and being open to consistent states of improvement. The day that you decide your learning is complete and that there is nothing else for you to glean from the people, the community, and the world you live in is the same day you will likely begin doing more harm than good. Because of that openness and willingness to realistically and objectively evaluate my own faults as well as those around me in my work, my community, and my world I gained so much from not only the facilitators and presenters but other attendees as well. I left NCORE with a revamped perspective on working to bridge the gap between racism and whiteness.

The largest component of this refreshed perspective is a nugget of insight that I have been grappling with for some time. It’s the kind of perspective that, at first glance, seems in direct opposition to the work that I have decided to dedicate my personal and professional work to. It’s simple but complex: the vast majority of white citizens in the United States are never going to get it when it comes to the topic of racism and how generational and overarching its effects are. And real talk?

Many white citizens don’t really want to.

Something that Robin DiAngelo talks about in her book White Fragility and that she addressed at the end of her seminar is the understanding that even when white citizens read her books and articles, read other books, studies, and articles, attend her talks and presentations, and even have the concept of white supremacy and their complicity addressed by their fellow whites in their personal and professional lives that many white people will not see the need or urgency for change.

They will not be swayed away from their behaviors or beliefs in any real tangible way.

They will not acknowledge, consciously or subconsciously, the centuries of trauma, of anguish, of gas lighting and oppression.

Many will brag and boast about how “woke” they are because they attended a lecture or presentation or read a book that “made them an expert” on the subject of white supremacy. Those folx will lord their “expertise” over others, all the while continuing to perpetrate micro-aggressions against BIPOC citizens.

There will always be a contingent of white citizens who view the work of unlearning and acknowledging their privilege and fragility as too overwhelming for them to endure, making 300 years of systemic oppression about themselves and not those citizens who have been afflicted for generations.

Never gonna get it. And may not even want to get it.

That’s a very hard pill to swallow.

As a BIPOC who cares about educating people, about leading discussions on race and oppression, it is not necessarily a notion you want to find yourself buddying up to. No one wants to admit that they may talk to a room of 100 white people and that maybe only two to three of those attendees will hear and feel what you’re saying. No one wants to ever admit that out of those two to three attendees that hear and feel what you’re saying that maybe only one of them may actually take steps to begin a new journey of understanding for themselves.

And no one wants to think that the two to three might actually end up being zero.

Like I said, I’ve been grappling with this for some time. NCORE helped me digest it and put my grappling to rest, mainly because it’s real. It’s tangible. I can see it take place in every training, every seminar, every discussion, whether I am a participant or a facilitator. I saw it take place at NCORE. The truth is being openly vocal about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and discrimination, and doing work attached to any or all of the aforementioned can often appear on the surface to be a zero sum game. But that is not the case; far from it. This is an “affect one person - maybe” game. If I speak to a room of 50 white attendees about racism and its impact on those in their personal and professional lives, and one person from that room hears me and feels what I’m saying on a mental and emotional level, then I begrudgingly need to understand that I cannot feasibly expect anything more than that. Racism, systemic oppression, patriarchal norms, they are all too engrained in the culture and fabric of the United States as a nation and society. As a BIPOC to think that one conversation, 10 conversations, even 100 conversations about race and oppression with white citizens are going to break through 300+ years of systems and barriers created to benefit them is to continue to do real damage to yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally. Going forward my personal and professional goal in every training I conduct, every conversation I participate in, every panel I take part in pertaining to racism and white supremacy to mostly white audiences will be for my words and experiences to resonate with one person in the room. Just one. Why? Because my hope is that the one person my words impact will continue their work and begin to at some point help the white folx in their lives do some of their own work. Now some of y’all are going to read this and think that I’m giving up, that the weight of the work is too much for me so I’m not going to try to “aim high”. But I want you to understand two things:

  1. That is your social justice arrogance coming out. Seriously. You’re forgetting that everyone’s work in this battle is not the same. We all should do our part how we can, when we can, while being true to ourselves and our needs. We need to be free of judging the journey’s of others and how they do the work. There is no template for how to move these discussions forward and impact people.

  2. This isn’t me waving a white flag in surrender. This is me acknowledging that the work doesn’t end but that me and my well-being matter just as much as the work.

For me personally if I’m going to continue to make this deep emotionally laborious work a primary part of my personal and professional lives my overall health and well-being have to be just as important to me as this work. Part of my self-care has to be aligned with not taking in perceived failures with changing white perspectives as bruises to my ego or diminishing returns. I need to adjust the energy invested into pushing for equity, diversity, and inclusion, especially in a city like Portland and a region like the Pacific Northwest. I need to accept that the returns are not diminishing but that they are in fact at the same level they have been at for decades. I need to do my best to accept and understand that if a lifetime of work only leads a small amount of impact in my community and in the lives of others that even minimal progress is real, tangible, impactful progress. And I need to keep in mind at all times that my work must always be meant as a new rung on the ladder, and that in order to do my work with courage and conviction I mustn’t forget how much work those who were here before me have put forth. They built the ladder and left for me the opportunity to climb up and grasp my role in this work; it is my duty and privilege to work my hardest to make the same opportunities for those after me to do this work their way. The connection to the work and pressure shouldered by those before me was something I had found myself losing my connection with periodically going into the week of the NCORE Conference. It is very easy to do this work in Portland and feel alone. But I am not alone. Way too many people have dedicated their lives and their health to this work - before me and alongside me - for me to not honor them by keeping this work moving forward while taking care of my own soul and body to make sure their work wasn’t/isn’t for naught. I am so very glad that NCORE refreshed my acceptance, recognition and understanding of this.

White Fragility  seminar led by Robin DiAngelo, PhD., NCORE Conference, 2019.

White Fragility seminar led by Robin DiAngelo, PhD., NCORE Conference, 2019.

I walked away from the 2019 NCORE Conference realizing my work was truly just beginning in many respects. With a refreshed perspectives comes new challenges and new goals. I am so ready to embrace both.

Oh - and I will definitely be submitting a presentation or two for the 2020 NCORE Conference in New York City! The work don’t stop y’all!