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Breathing Room

At the end of April, when I first learned of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder some months prior, I was so devastated I stopped breathing. What I read was so heinous, so shocking, I started to say to myself, “I can’t believe . . . ,” but then reality reasserted itself and I exhaled loudly.

Of course, I believed what happened. As a Black American woman who’s spent four decades on this earth, I knew—I felt—the truth of the horror. Even though I needed time to process that the America of my parents, grandparents, and forebears was different and yet the same as my America, my training and skills prompted me to set my anguish aside and reach out to my students. I felt that I needed to do the work I was paid to do.

What can I say? What can I offer? In my email to a handful of student leaders of color, I simply offered my ears, my heart, and virtual hugs. The semester was done, finished hastily via remote learning and programming, and my people were spread across the globe. I offered myself and waited.

None of the students responded, staff and all-campus meetings continued, and I had several pressing tasks and projects. Students were finishing up final projects and preparing for internships and summer jobs. I descended into the very American, very higher-education coping mechanism of “more work.” The pain and anger remained on the shelf. I immersed myself in regulations and reports.

But reports and videos of violence against Black Americans continued. Colleagues, friends, and family in Georgia began campaigns to demand months-late justice for Ahmaud. I supported the campaigns, engaged in some actions, and continued with work, attending webinars about Title IX, COVID-19 responses, and aiding first-generation students. I fretted about my Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students, but did not want to force them to process Ahmaud’s death remotely: it is difficult to virtually hold space for mourning and processing. I started planning a fall community-building event for us to process together.

And then I learned about Breonna Taylor on May 14. 

“I can’t breathe.”

The next day, I attended a virtual meeting where I was the only Black face on the screen. I was distracted by my grief and angry that we were conducting business as usual. Standing at the intersections of ethnicity and sex, I felt invisible and hypervisible simultaneously. And I felt incredibly alone. I rebottled my emotions and continued the work of the institution. Work is our worth, no?

A couple of colleagues reached out to me privately, and I was grateful for their acknowledgment that two horrific events that resonated within my community had occurred. I, in turn, reached out to several staff of color to process where we were and what we needed personally and from the college.

The world felt like it exploded on May 26. Millions of people watched, heard, or read about the last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of George Floyd’s life the day before. I sat in front of my laptop paralyzed. I did not know what would serve undergraduates best in this new era— now was completely unknown to me.

I’d lived through Black people being beaten or killed on camera, and I’d lived through the resulting unrest. In this COVID-19 pandemic, however, everything has felt more immediate and intense. My Black colleagues and counterparts across the country made virtual safe spaces for each other, and also queried how we should professionally respond.

“We need time to breathe.” One of my close friends and colleagues pointed this out to me recently, after I told her how worried I was for my BIPOC students; how overwhelmed I was by the email requests for my expertise from inside and outside academia; how exhausted I was that I had to be the strong source for angry and grieving relatives and friends.

An artist I went to seminary with, Tricia Hersey, states that “rest is resistance.” In her work as the Nap Bishop, Hersey argues that rest “really is so important because rest disrupts and pushes back and allows space for healing, for invention, for us to be more human. It’ll allow us to imagine this new world that we want, this new world that’s liberated, that’s full of justice, that’s a foundation for us to really, truly live our lives.” When we have time to breathe, we can feel, we can rest. We can take care of ourselves as we work toward systemic change.

How can I help the students, staff, and faculty I am in community with? I can model my vulnerability even as I have to stumble forward with red eyes and no appetite. I tell my students how much anxiety I have before I send any email responding to injustices. I reassure them they can take breaks from social media; they don’t have to educate their peers unless they want to, and that—though it’s hard and angering and frightening and exhausting—it’s okay to just sit with our emotions. Because, when we continue to compartmentalize our emotions and prioritize doing something to “be a part of the solution,” we are avoiding the real work we need to do—honoring and remaining in touch with our emotions, processing healthily, and then deciding on intentional and progressive actions to effect change. Book clubs will be there, TED Talks will be there, ad-hoc committees will always be there. We need to breathe, especially those of us for whom breathing is not taken for granted.

Rev. Stephanie Milton is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion and Title IX coordinator at Olin College of Engineering.

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