Elia Tamplin, Multicultural Concerns Advising Community Member
All advisors’ experiences are mediated through varied relational contexts (e.g. higher education, interpersonal relationships) and shaped by racism, colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and other structural relations of power. However, Black women advisors may experience the field quite differently than their male and White peers. Black women advisors, like other advisors, battle burnout and empathy fatigue. However, at the intersection of race and gender oppressions, Black women also struggle against racial battle fatigue, cultural taxation, and unique forms of discrimination—across race, gender, and other identities—within the relational work of and in advising on a daily basis.
While all advisors serve as “cultural navigators” (Strayhorn, 2015) who help students understand and navigate postsecondary education, Black women are also tasked with serving as “cultural mediators” (Kim, 2014), or bridges, between higher education and Black culture so that Black students can be successful. Added to this work, Black women often must navigate the chilly climate (Hall & Sandler, 1982; Spann, 1990) of the higher education workplace. Navigation may look like wrestling with anxieties, real and imagined, about how to avoid negative stereotypes (e.g. angry Black woman) when sharing opinions in staff meetings. Or, Black women may find themselves centering colleagues’ (and students) emotions instead of caring or advocating for themselves in the face of injustice. Where Black women may find solidarity with White women and Men of Color, advisors in some experiences, the otherwise-privileged positions of White (for women) and men (for Men of Color), can buffer the effects of subjection, discrimination, and prejudice based on race and gender (Crenshaw, 1989).
History and Importance of Sista Circles
Sista circles have played a vital role in lives of Black women, and, by extension, Black community for over 150 years (Neal-Barnett et al., 2011). Having roots in the Black church and Black women’s club movement, sista circles were a direct response to exclusion from White women’s and Black men’s social sites (Giddings, 1984). In providing a supportive and safe space for Black women, sista circles also provided Black women space to raise consciousness, seek clarity, and strategize ways to problem solve and uplift the Black race (King, Barnes-Wright, & Gibson, 2013; White, 1999). According to Neal-Barnett et al., (2011), sista circles are support groups that build upon existing relationships between Black women working and/or living in the same space (e.g. organization, community, or profession). Fundamentally, sista circles are a safe supportive space for Black women to seek help, encouragement, knowledge, and support in issues that impact them.
The importance of Black women’s gathering spaces (e.g. sista circles) is in its communal power. Community for Black women is dynamic, emergent, safe, and caring; demands accountability; and holds equal the concern for self and other. Black women’s professional and personal relationships with other Black women provide them the tools to survive and thrive in the academy (Henry & Glenn, 2009). Dorsey (2000) remarks that Black women find that “communicating with African-American women in small groups provides a unique support; one that is unwavering sources of strength for them” (p. 71). In the supportive space of the sista circle, Black women gather authentically without worrying about translating or downplaying their experiences across race (or gender), particularly in the White, masculinist academy (King, Barnes-Wright, & Gibson, 2013). Their language is not policed, neither is their behavior. Rather, participants are encouraged and allowed to communicate in culturally aligned ways (Dorsey, 2000), which can include challenging respectability politics and being oneself, self-defined and self-determined (Collins, 2000). Free of policing/surveillance, fear of negative consequences, and color-blind values, sista circles offer Black women opportunities to engage in “deep talk” about their truths, “practic[ing] and rehears[ing], in the empowering space, what must be carried out in a more restrictive space” of higher education (King, Barnes-Wright, & Gibson, 2013, p. 412).
Connecting Sista Circles to Academic Advising
The importance of community and relationships as sources of support and care align with Black women’s and academic advising’s epistemologies. Within advising literature, supportive relationships and spaces are seen as vital self-care tools. Ali and Johns (2018) suggest that practices such as seeking peer support can be easy yet beneficial forms of self-care activity. Similarly, in asking “who takes care of the advisor?” Elizabeth Harman (2018) states that formal (e.g. staff meetings) and informal (e.g. peer-to-peer) supportive spaces are one medium through which self-care can occur. She notes that supportive spaces promote connection and a shared sense of awareness, helping advisors combat burnout and empathy fatigue.
Black women advisors need to separate, periodically, for their health. While more formal (e.g. staff meetings) and informal (e.g. peer debriefing) supportive spaces may prove helpful in some cases, Black women advisors also need safe spaces where they can engage in deep-talk, speaking truth to power and to one another. As a result, the sista circle is a transformative, healing space that allows Black women to be able to go back into the world and give more.
Sista Circle in Action: NACADA 2018
There are many exciting (and anxiety-filled) parts of this story (including discussing the history of Sista Circle Methodology with its creator, Dr. Latoya Johnson, and leading a sista circle as a concurrent session at the 2018 NACADA Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona with my colleagues). However, I want to reflect on the sista circle itself.
The room, located in the corner of the large conference hall on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, was full of banter between myself and incoming attendees. The beauty of this community, comprised mostly of Black women (and three men: myself, a Latino man, and a Black male NACADA volunteer), reminded me that Black womanhood is not monolithic. Instead, it is a full of difference across complexions, shapes and sizes, ages, job titles, geographies, personalities, and sexualities.
Throughout the introduction (yes, we went around the whole room as a critical community-building practice), I became increasingly aware of and empowered by the energy in the room. The women engaged with one another without my direction, clapping and uplifting each other at every introduction. With my turn coming up quickly, I was inspired by the energy in the room and reminded of Dr. Johnson’s advice: be authentic and vulnerable about my past and present. Following her advice, I shared the purpose for the session and what led me, a Black transmyn (Stewart, 2017), to lead a sista circle.
Now, I cannot speculate how much having men in the room changed the dynamic, but I know it did. I believe that my openness and vulnerability along with setting firm ground rules (i.e. declaring the space as one to center Black women, not to educate men or non-Black people) encouraged the attendees to participate. But, to be clear, the process of gathering in a sista circle is emergent. Though openness and ground rules can help the process, it was the first “mmhm’s”, side eye glance, “okay?”, and a theatrical example of codeswitching—unique cultural ways that Black women communicate that non-group members may not understand (Dorsey, 2000)—that increased the energy and sense of belonging and community in the room.
Where there was healing in laughter, there was also healing in calls for accountability and the sharing of experience and wisdom. Conversations interrogating and working through the complex relationships of power, privilege, and oppression left the group discussing the ways that race and gender oppressions manifested and intersected with other structural forces (e.g. sizeism, ageism, and homophobia) in their everyday experiences. Mentorship (or lack thereof) was a major theme. However, contrary to limited discussions found in scholarship, the sista circle conversation provided layers and nuance. Bypassing what is commonly known about the topic, participants challenged one another to see the fruitfulness of cross-cultural mentor relationships; rallied together to “make sure no woman leaves without talking to mentors in the room”; pushed each other to use past experiences as a teacher; and critiqued the ways in which over-extended Black women mentors are always expected to give more. Bearing faithful witness to the loving yet firm conversations where Black women challenged dominant (and, sometimes, internalized) ideologies and each other revealed the power of culturally relevant support spaces. The deep talk/articulation (King, Barnes-Wright, & Gibson, 2013) led to both visible and verbal expressions of gratitude and a sense of healing and recovery. Following a group photo that commemorated the experience, several participants continued the conversation as they exchanged business cards and hugs, ready to go back into the organizational spaces they occupy with renewed visions and energy.
A Call to Action
In order for Black women advisors to continue doing vital work that benefits the university and its constituents, the importance of sista circles—formal and informal—must be recognized and the spaces be implemented. Such a call to action need not be taken as a call for total or perpetual separation nor should the call be taken seriously solely by Black women. Supporting Black women (and other women of color) in creating spaces made for them by them, within the national organization and at their respective institutions, will help promote a more just and diverse field of advising where both student and advisor receive uncompromised care and support.
Coordinator, Experiential Learning
Undergraduate Studies and Academic Partnerships
Texas Woman’s University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Tamplin, E. (2019, March). Sista circles: Black female advisors in courageous dialogue. Academic Advising Today, 42(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]