Standing in Integrity by Dr. Sylvia Spears

Sylvia Spears, Ph.D. Vice President for Diversity & Inclusion

Sylvia Spears, Ph.D.
Vice President for Diversity & Inclusion

Oh, what a blustery and snowy day it was. The storm delivered a bit of a gift: a rare opportunity to be still. Of course, I really caught up on work email, washed clothes, cooked, and prepared two presentations for workshops that would take place later in the week. I also managed to squeeze in an early morning phone call with my dear friend, Erin. She has been a steady presence in my life since my son, Asa, was in second grade. In fact, she was my son’s second grade teacher. He’s 19 now, so Erin and I have been friends for quite some time.

During our hour-long call, we caught up with each other, seamlessly jumping topics from work to family and finally to our inner lives. “How are you?” she said, “How are you?” I gave her a fairly standard but half-hearted response: “I’m okay.” Her patient silence encouraged me to say more. I replied, “I’m trying to make sense…of what it means to live and do the kind of what work that I do…when so much of what is happening in the country is contrary to everything I believe. How do I do this work now?” We continued to talk about what it means to have our work be centered on matters of the heart in a time when ego, power, and oppression seem to rule the day.

I wondered out loud, “Can I really do this work within the cool machine of an institutional setting? Is it possible to be in it but not of it? I have always regarded being in but not of a place as a necessary condition of actually being able to do the work in real ways.” Again, there was silence.

“So what are you doing to take care of yourself?” she asked.

“Yoga and meditation,” I quickly replied. I silently wondered if there was a way to meditate my way through the many meetings I have to be in on any given day.

Just then, Erin’s children made their way downstairs. I could hear them chatting with one another. Catherine gently nudged Erin, “Mama, I’m hungry…when are we gonna eat breakfast?” Erin responded with a giggle in her voice, “Honey, can’t you see that I’m on the phone right now?” She shooed them away and softly directed them to the kitchen to snack on some granola until she got off the phone.

We continued talking until the quiet current of discord between two of the children caused her to turn away from the phone. I could hear her speaking softly to her ten-year-old son.

“Grady,” she said, “Are you standing in your integrity?”

There was silence, and then he replied, “No, Mama. I’m not.”

“So, what do you need to do about that?” Her words echoed deep inside of me. Are you standing in your integrity? A stream of thoughts ricocheted back and forth in my head.

I think that I’m standing in my integrity…but what if I’m not? I know there are times when I think about what to say before I say it, or I might ponder on how I’m going to say what I have to say so people can hear it. There might even be times when I think about whether I am even going to say anything at all. Damn, maybe I’m not standing my integrity.

Next thing I know, I’ve gone meta. That’s one of the blessings and curses of doctoral study. When in doubt—or discomfort—go meta. Maybe my well-honed intellect can save me.

The wiser and more rational part of me knows exactly what is happening in those moments. This sometimes subtle and other times not-so-subtle process of self-editing is a by-product of socialization, a process through which I have learned what is acceptable and not acceptable in various contexts. I may not receive any positive reinforcement when I have done something that is perceived to be “right” but I certainly know when I have done something perceived to be outside of standard norms, especially when that something brushes up against the status quo.

Trust me, there have been times when I have very swiftly been reminded of the unspoken terms of my membership in a particular setting. Generally, I’m not the least bit phased by these moments. I don’t really care much about membership or fitting into most settings. But, regardless of whether I care about it or not, there is still a cost and that cost is measured in unspoken words, bitten tongues, softened truths, and silenced outrage. You see, membership in any setting depends upon me bringing less of myself to any given moment. It is a twisted barter system of give and take, in which I give myself away in bits and pieces and still get taken. It happens to you, too. And once you see it, you can’t stop seeing it.

So, now I’m wondering what would happen if I stopped biting my tongue; stopped editing, softening, and silencing my own voice? What if I actually brought all of who I am to what I do? What if I dared to stand in my integrity in every moment of every day? What if? Maybe you just might be able to stand in your integrity, too.

Erin and I talked for a bit longer while her children chatted and giggled in the background. The snow continued to swirl outside my window.

Dr. Sylvia Spears is the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at Emerson College.