GatorCast Ep. 4: A Place Where I Belong - Nicole Mason (Pt. 2)
By College Relations, Media Services and the Office of the President, February 21, 2019
President Johnson: Welcome to GatorCast, Green River College's official podcast. This is Suzanne Johnson coming to you today, president at the college, and we're about to jump right back in to a conversation with Dr. C. Nicole Mason. This is part two of a two-part interview. I had the great pleasure of having her in our sound booth here at campus. If you haven't listened to part one, please jump back out, go back, listen to part one, and then join into part two. You're welcome to go ahead and listen, but we are picking up our conversation midway, and for those new listeners, and you didn't listen to part one, you don't have time to jump back to part one, let me just give you a little bit of background information about Dr. Mason before we resume our conversation.
Dr. C. Nicole Mason is the author of Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey From Nothing To Something In America, published by St. Martin's Press, and is a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, and a visiting scholar at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University. In addition, she serves as executive director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at the New York Women's Foundation. Prior to this position, Dr. Mason served as executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. There, she held the distinction of being one of the youngest scholar practitioners to lead a major US research center or think tank. Dr. Mason is an Ascend Fellow at the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, and has written hundreds of articles on women, leadership development, and economic security. Her writing and commentary have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, RealClearPolitics, The Nation, The Washington Post, Marie Claire Magazine, The New York Times, The Progressive, Essence Magazine, The Root, The Miami Herald, Democracy Now!, and numerous NPR affiliates, among others. One of my favorites, Dr. Mason delivered a well-received TED talk at TEDWomen on the courage to disrupt and the gift of being difficult. Dr. Mason's spark for social change came about while volunteering her time at a local battered women's shelter in Washington DC. Before then, she never thought it was possible to make a career out of helping others or using one's voice to help bring about change.
Some additional facts that are especially favorites of mine, it might be of interest to you to know that she is a mother of two precocious twins, Charlie and Parker, has a motorcycle license, can lay a hardwood floor, and lives by the motto, "You must dance through life."
You know, we've talked a lot about, at our campus, and in fact, you presented here on the intersectionalities of race, gender, class, and education, and you're describing experiences that many students might encounter. Students of color, women, and so on, when they broach into domains that they do not see themselves reflected in, or have not traditionally or historically been seen in, and how to navigate and work through these stereotype threats, or just by virtue of how they present, expectations or assumptions about the capacity and the ability of that person is already being drawn by other, and/or that student perceives that that is happening, right, that their assessment by the other person is assuming less by virtue of their skin, their economic background, their gender. How have you navigated that in your life? What thoughts can you share with everyone listening in terms of being--
C. Nicole Mason: I think it's really tough and dehumanizing, actually, when you're face to face with someone, and they see you as less than, and you have the perception that they're judging you based upon your race, or your class, your gender identity, your sexual orientation. It's really painful, because they don't see you as a whole person. I've had experiences of the sort, even now. It's still really painful. The sting, it doesn't dissipate because of age or experience. How I've dealt with those types of encounters is to remind myself, in those moments, about who I am and what I know to be true about myself, and understand that it's not personal. They're the ones with blinders on, not me. They're the ones who can't see me as a doctor. They're the ones who are judging me because of my race, and it's not my fight. It's not personal, even though it's made me angry sometimes, 'cause I think that to not be seen or to be stereotyped is a really very painful experience, so I have to turn to a place where I am affirmed, or what I know to be true about myself and my experiences, and again, who am I at the core? I think it can be painful. I'm thinking about the students where this happens, 'cause it happens a lot of times with students. I know to be true. I was one of those students.
What makes it difficult as a student is that you feel a little bit powerless because, if somebody doesn't see you as capable, then the chances of them opening up access and opportunities to you is pretty slim. You're really depending on someone to see you as somebody worthy of care and of help, and if they don't, then the doors are closed to you. You're really vulnerable and very dependent. The only thing I can say and offer up in my strategy has been to find someone else who can affirm me. Just a quick story, I had a professor in graduate school. This guy was just the worst. He was the worst.
President Johnson: I think, for any of our listeners who have been in graduate school, I think we can all relate. I can certainly relate.
C. Nicole Mason: Relate to this guy. He was the worst. He just made me feel like I was really not smart. He also told me that I could not write.
President Johnson: You should send a copy of the book to him.
C. Nicole Mason: Frankly, I thought about this.
President Johnson: Actually, many articles and publications that you have. Let's just send a whole box to him.
C. Nicole Mason: Say, "Here you go."
President Johnson: "By the way, thank you."
C. Nicole Mason: "Thank you," yeah.
President Johnson: He told you you couldn't write.
C. Nicole Mason: He said I couldn't write, and he was not a nice guy. In fact, he was the reason, there were two black women in the program, myself and another woman, and we took his class together, and after his class, she dropped out of the program. He was pretty harsh. I was beginning to internalize the things that he told me, and then I went to another professor, and I said, "I'm not sure about this, "but I just wondered what you thought about my writing, "and what you thought about the things that I say." He said, "I think you're a good writer." He was really affirming. I was shy in graduate school. It was a new space, and he called on me regularly, he engaged me, and he brought me into the conversation. I just looked for him. The other person just faded away. I think that's what you have to do. You have to look for other people who can lift you up and affirm you in the face of a person who doesn't see your shine or your glow.
President Johnson: This is a great point to go back to something we were talking about earlier. When we were discussing the inner strength or, I hesitate to say grit, but this inner strength or courage that you've had, but that is in contrast to this notion that grit, in and of itself, is probably not enough, that there must be external supports, and there must be an examination of systems around the individual person. It's an interplay, right, between the individual and the environments that they're in, the contexts that they're in. What I'm hearing in terms of times when you've confronted racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever it might be, or combinations of all, that there's sort of a combination that you've navigated. Yes, of course, you've expressed this ability to find that inner strength, but then you seek out the external affirmations as well. I think that's really important, especially for our student listeners here, or actually anyone who's listening to us today.
There are times when each of us are confronted with individuals that are extraordinarily invalidating, nonsupportive, in fact, quite the opposite, or more extreme. They are absolutely oppositional, and they are going to tell you things, and engage you in ways that make you question yourself. It does require inner strength, but it does require the help of others. At many times in your story in Born Bright, there are those moments and opportunities. Now, you've just shared another story, which I don't think is in the book, in terms of knowing to seek out another opinion, or just another person, in those times of self doubt. Everyone has self doubt. I think, sometimes, when people see individuals that are extraordinarily successful like you, their assumption is that you've got it all together. It's like that all the time. You never have question or self doubt in terms of what you're doing day to day. You've got clear direction. That may not be the most accurate description.
C. Nicole Mason: No, and I don't think it's accurate for most people. I think there are definite times where we all feel vulnerable, we all question our abilities, our capabilities, and will we ever make it to the other side or to the end? In those moments, we have to find our support, and people who love us, and care about us, and even if they don't love us, are willing still to give us the support that we need. When I say that, I mean, you're not my mother, but if there's a teacher, or a friend, finding those people who can provide a system of support. The other thing I want to say, and I think I talk about it a little bit in the book at the end, is, I think it's really important, we have our support systems and our networks, but it's really important for us to, when we're thinking about expanding and transforming, to go beyond our comfort zone, and find opportunities that are outside of what we know and are comfortable with. For example, today, I was meeting with the Black Student Union, the students, and I asked them how they got to Green River.
President Johnson: I'm so interested in hearing what you learned.
C. Nicole Mason: The stories were quite interesting, but the consensus was that they all love Green River.
President Johnson: I'm happy to hear that, happy to hear that.
C. Nicole Mason: They were happy to be there. One student said, "I was scared "when I got out of high school, "and I wanted to come someplace familiar, "and Green River was in my neighborhood, "in my community, so I came to Green River," which I think is amazing, that he felt like, he knew he wanted to go somewhere, but was unsure, and he felt like Green River was a place that he could come. After we finished the conversation, I circled back around, and I said, "Wherever you want to go after this, you can go. "You have to stretch a little bit. "You can stay in Seattle, "but you can also go across the country."
President Johnson: I tell the students this every time. I'm like, "You can go anywhere from here. "If it's around the corner "from where you're living right now, "terrific, but you can go anywhere from here, "from the banks of the Green River to the world." I'm trying to coin that phrase. It's not taking off as much as, you can go anywhere from here. To get them to believe that, truly believe it within themselves, I think it's important, and I'm so grateful to you to be able to share that message with our students, because we all need to hear that from outside. Everyone needs external validation. Everyone needs the cheerleaders. It would be great to have them in the shower every day. "Yay, go you." We might not be able to have that, but having those validation voices, what was the reaction that you got when you said that?
C. Nicole Mason: He smiled, and he said, "That's right, that's right." It is right. You can think small, or you can think really big, and broadly, and it's scary, and it's outside of your comfort zone, but where do you want to be? Where do you want to go? I think connecting and finding those bridge opportunities to take you out of your community and your comfort zone, I think, is what's necessary. In Born Bright, I tell the story of the study that I came across, and they asked low-income kids to draw their neighborhoods in the world, and they draw the corner store, their immediate neighborhood.
President Johnson: That really struck me.
C. Nicole Mason: It's true, and you ask upper middle class kids to draw the world, and they draw China and all these things. That was true for me. I'm sure it's true for a lot of people, but I think even the suggestion of, there's this really big world, and it belongs to you too, I think, is really powerful. I planned to stay in California when I graduated high school. Then my counselor said, "You should apply "to Howard University in Washington DC." That was big, 'cause I had never been outside of--
President Johnson: Clear across the country.
C. Nicole Mason: I did it because she said I should do it. It really opened my mind to other possibilities, because before, I really had very small thinking around these things, and where I could go, and what I could be, but there was no leash. I could go wherever.
President Johnson: It gets back to what you were saying earlier about constrained choices, and for many who live in impoverished environments, whether economic and emotional, there's different types of impoverishment, but poverty carries it all, emotional, physical, real life stressors. It limits one's vision, or one's potential possible selves. To be able to open that door for any individual, what a gift, what a gift. I think that your book does that for many, and resonates for many. I can testify to that in terms of what the impact of having so many of our classes utilize this book this year, and for staff and faculty who read this, because, as you bring up, growth doesn't happen in your comfort zone. When you're feeling awkward, when you're feeling uncomfortable, that's probably a sign that you're growing. We need to gain comfort in being uncomfortable in trying those new things out. I want to shift a little bit now and talk about what you're doing these days. You're currently the executive director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at New York Women's Foundation, and you are visiting scholar at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership. What are you up to these days?
C. Nicole Mason: I'm up to a lot. I really love and enjoy the work that I'm doing. At the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest, I continue to do a lot of writing on poverty and economic security. A lot of my writing today focuses on really making the connections between race, gender, and the working class, and by that, I mean really trying to understand the similarities between the white working class and the black and latino working class, and trying to create and connect the dots, and try to better understand the ways in which the working class is similar, because I think there's this narrative around black working class people over here, and taking jobs, and there's this economic angst around the white working class, and really trying to think about what unites us rather than what divides the working class and the middle class.
President Johnson: What are those unifying variables? What are the things that tie us together?
C. Nicole Mason: One of the things I truly believe is that we all want the same things. We all want a really good life. We all want to be able to provide for our families, and if we have children, to make sure that they are healthy, have a quality education, and going to college, and are able to live successful and thriving lives, so I believe that's true across race, across class, across gender. I think that's one of the narratives, and one of the things that, I think, unites us. We all want to live our version of a good life.
When I think about the working class, the fact that wages have stagnated, people are really struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, and people are really struggling to figure out how to make a living in this high tech economy, and making sure that they have a home, and have savings, and can really take care of themselves. That's not a black or white issue. That's a human issue. That's an American issue. Those are the issues that we all care about. What I see now is that there's a lot of conversation that seeks to divide us and say we don't want the same things, or this group of people is really working to try to take what you have, and that's just not true. Through stories, I've really been able to talk about the connections that we all share. I was in Kentucky, and a white woman was talking about how she was working two or three jobs, her husband was unemployed, and their house was going into foreclosure. That's not a white problem. It's not a her problem. That's a problem that a lot of people have around the country, and I can empathize with her, and I completely understand what she's experiencing. Sharing with her that you're not the only one who's going through this, and it's not about you, it's about a system that's broken, and that's not working for anybody.
My work these days, at least around my research, I do a lot of research these days on rural communities, and really trying to make the connection between what's happening in rural communities in terms of economic security with what's happening in urban communities and really connecting the dots around those things. It's really important first-hand research that actually, not a lot of people try to connect those dots in this kind of way, using stories as well as data.
President Johnson: Let's talk about systems that are broken. I'm gonna read an excerpt from your book. It states as follows. "The truth is that only about 4% of those born into poverty or in the bottom 20% of Americans economically will ever make it to the top fifth of income earners in the US. For most, regardless of race, escaping poverty is akin to winning the lottery. Why is this? Why, in a nation overflowing with riches and teeming with opportunity, are the odds of escaping poverty on par with the odds of being struck by lightning?"
C. Nicole Mason: Why is that?
President Johnson: Why is that?
C. Nicole Mason: Because I think we're not telling the truth to people. We're not being honest that we're not all starting at the same place, that conditions are not equal, that it takes more than grit, and hard work, and a good business idea to reach the middle class, or reach the top. What's so disconcerting to me is that, when they survey people about their belief in the American dream, everybody still believes it, even if very few people ever achieve it. It's a part of who we are. It's a part of our fabric.
President Johnson: It's a powerful narrative.
C. Nicole Mason: It's a very powerful narrative. We blame ourselves if we don't achieve the American dream as we understand it, and spend very little time thinking about how the system might be rigged so that you don't make it, or you don't make it out. Having really difficult conversations around, do you really think it's you, or do you think there's a system at work here that prevents you and other people from making it to the top? Sorry, it may get a little political. That's the appeal of Donald Trump. It's not real, but the idea that this is a self-made guy who's a billionaire, who owns a lot of businesses, and is really wealthy and well-off. The idea is that you too could be Donald Trump if you just worked really hard. The truth of the matter is that you can never be Donald Trump, but it's such a powerful narrative that, when people question it and say, "Hey, he had a leg up," or, "Hey, this is not right," or, "Hey, something's wrong with the system," or, "Something's wrong with the fact that people are poor, "47 million people are living in poverty," instead of looking at what is obviously a flaw, you point to the people who don't have, and say, "You're just jealous, you're just envious, "you just want what this person has." It's like, no, that is not what's going on. I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with the system where there's very few people at the top who are uber wealthy and well-off, and everybody else is at the bottom or really struggling to make ends meet. It's really kinda bizarre, actually. I think it's partly because this narrative is really, really very powerful. You can sub Donald Trump out with Warren Buffett. People are like, "Wow, I could be Warren Buffett "if I really worked hard enough," or Oprah Winfrey, people love Oprah too. There's only one Oprah.
President Johnson: There is only one Oprah, just like there's one Donald Trump and one Warren Buffett.
C. Nicole Mason: But there are a lot of people who are struggling right now to pay their mortgage because of the furlough, so there are more of those people than there are of Oprah, and Donald Trump, and Warren Buffett.
President Johnson: Sure. Here we are at Green River College, and as I'm listening to you talk about systems and your work, and I know we'll want to have more conversations about your upcoming writing, and publications, and presentations, I'm reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes. I'm sure people from the college will recognize this. It was a quote from Nelson Mandela. He said, "Education is the strongest weapon "which you can use to change the world." Where does a college like Green River College, which is a community college, open access, a public institution, all are welcome here, we meet the student where they are, we say, "No matter what your past is, "how your performance was, you can come "and go anywhere from here," what role do we play in helping of the broken systems?
C. Nicole Mason: That's a really good question, and community colleges, including Green River, are really critical to students who have been failed along the way, where the education system has failed them, community systems have failed them. You all keep the door open for them, and provide opportunities that they might not otherwise have. You provide an entree for low-income students who are barely making ends meet, and you say, "We're gonna meet you where you are, "and figure out how you can make this work "while also taking care of your family." I think community colleges play a very critical role, and if I may, in answering this question, put it in sharp contrast to a recent phenomena. I'm sure that you've heard about the ivies who say that, if you have $100,000 or less, will pay for you to attend, and people say, "Wow, that's really great. "Harvard, Stanford, it's amazing." I said, if you look a little bit closer, it's really not that amazing 'cause you gotta get there first. There's so many things that have to happen before you get to the financial aid package of the institution to make that even possible. We're talking about schools that are broken, k through 12, we talk about all the obstacles that we've talked about over our time together, and there's no conversation about fixing those things so that the pathway is clear for them to get to the door of Stanford. What I find really innovative and interesting about places like Green River College is, you're not making those kinds of promises. You know where students are coming from. You know what it feels like, and understand what it feels like to educate a population where systems have failed them along the way. There's no tricks or gimmicks. You know you're opening the doors. I think that's the beauty and benefit of institutions like Green River College. You have a very sobering attitude towards what it really takes to integrate a student into a community who've had multiple barriers, and really honest about the kind of resources and support it takes for them to make sure that they finish their journey and graduate.
President Johnson: I've said to so many since I've come to Green River that one of the things I strive, as the president here, and I hope to impact and help develop further, is that I can stop any student on the campus and ask them two questions. One is, "Do you feel like you belong here?" and hear yes every single time. The next question is, "Can you name at least one person "who would care if you didn't come back tomorrow?" and have them be able to identify not just one person, but any number of people. I know that we strive each day as a college to do that. One of the other things that I think is important for people to know about the college is that, and I've said this on campus, I've said it off campus, the quality of college education that a student can receive here at the college is as good as or better than any education you can achieve or have at any other institution, four-year college, private, public, or otherwise. I say that because of our programs, I say that because of our faculty, and their qualifications and credentials, but even moreso, people who work here at the college are committed to instruction, and teaching, and learning. It is the hallmark and a foundation of our institution. Oh, yes, and incidentally, it will cost you very little money to go. The lead is the quality. It is so important to remember that we are a vital part of a solution to things which are broken. We're almost out of time today. I can't believe how quickly this has gone. I'm gonna ask you two questions. If you had one piece of advice to give to all of the students at Green River or the prospective students in our communities that are listening, who are thinking about coming to Green River, what would that be?
C. Nicole Mason: If you're thinking about Green River or coming to Green River, I think you should come.
President Johnson: Okay.
C. Nicole Mason: That's the first thing, and if you're here at Green River, my piece of advice is to keep going, to keep showing up, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to work to figure things out when you're uncertain, and to ask for help and support when you need it.
President Johnson: Great, and my other question is, what advice can you leave all of the staff and the faculty, all of us who work here at Green River? What is the most important thing or things that we should keep in mind as we serve our students from our communities?
C. Nicole Mason: The last time I was here, I talked about the importance of being seen. Students want to be seen. Everybody wants to be seen, and want to know and understand that you see them and all of who they are. When I think about faculty and staff, like you said, they're exceptional, they're really bright, they care about the students, but it's easy to not see the students, and see the whole student. I think checking in, and doing a gut check, and asking, "Am I seeing the students? "Am I seeing them for who they are "and what they're coming with? "How can I support them in their wholeness?" I think, if we put that with quality, and all the good things that are happening here, I think it's a winning combination.
President Johnson: I hope you've enjoyed our two-part conversation with Dr. Mason. This has been a pure pleasure and joy to have her in our sound booth not just for one episode, but for two episodes of our GatorCast. As a reminder, if you'd like more information about Dr. Mason's work or our One Book program, please go to greenriver.edu/gatorcast. You'll find links for both of those. In addition, don't hesitate to subscribe, and you can find us on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Music. Go to greenriver.edu/gatorcast. This is Suzanne Johnson speaking to you. Stay tuned for our next podcast very soon. Have a great day.