Alumna’s Work with Women of Color Continues at Stanford
After graduating from UVA in 2014 with a degree in History and African-American and African Studies, Dejah Carter returned to UVA for her Masters in Higher Ed in Student Affairs and joined the Women’s Center as a Greer Fellow. The impact of her work with the center’s Women, Girls & Global Justice team that year is still felt today with the programs she helped build like the Black Womanhood in College Workshop. She is currently the Assistant Director at the Women’s Community Center at Stanford University. She supervises and works collaboratively with student staff coordinators on various programming and community engagement efforts including the Men and Masculinities Project and the feminist library. Dejah contributed a chapter titled “Neoliberalism in Higher Education and its Effects on Marginalized Students” to Feminist Responses to the Neoliberalization of the University: From Surviving to Thriving a recently published volume for which Women’s Center Director Abby Palko was one of the editors. Dejah recently talked with us, sharing her focus on student-driven empowerment and personal strength, and her personal journey to her current position in this Q&A.
Whose work inspires you to aim higher or think differently?
I would say two things. One is the students that I work with and the students that I have been able to work with in the past, first at the Women’s Center at UVA, and now here. It's been really rewarding to be able to see students grow. I work one on one with students and I oversee certain program areas and get to see them come in with their passions and the things that they want to tackle and the things that they feel need to change at Stanford and really work through the details. Figuring out, “How do I put on this? How do I create this project? How do I create this new way of engaging with the community?” It's really rewarding to see students grow in their knowledge. And it's also really humbling too because like in any space, as professional staff, I feel like it's important to come in with a knowledge that you don't know everything and that there are things that students can teach you because students know their needs more than anyone else. It really inspires me to aim higher and I am learning and growing with them. I really, really enjoy it.
And I'd say the other one is my mom. When I was younger, she would create different businesses. She would bake things, make gift baskets by hand, make dolls by hand. At one point she made jewelry. Now she's had a business for the last 15 years or so of being a clown, like a children's clown. That was a business that ended up becoming a family business, and I worked there as a teenager, my brother worked there, and it's taught us different skills and it taught us to give back to community as well. She would volunteer for certain causes or give more of her time than what people paid for it. Her thing was to always make sure that black and brown children specifically were left feeling great and beautiful and loved because you would never see a black or brown clown anywhere. So even down to face painting, making sure that the colors on their faces pop and look beautiful and other things like that. She always taught me to give back in any way that I can, in any method that I can, and use the skills and the knowledge that you have to give back. I think just working with my mom and the things that she's seen and has experienced, she's always been someone who has continuously left me in awe.
What was your very first job and what’s something you learned from it?
I mentioned this earlier but just working with my mom, with her business, she was always determined to get her kids involved and for us to make money for ourselves and support ourselves. So, I took an airbrush camp in middle school and I learned how to airbrush and I was like, “Oh, I can do something with this.” And she said, “Oh, you can do airbrush tattoos.” It was kind of a subcontract business. We would just do parties and festivals every weekend and it was how we survived. I started doing that at maybe 14 or 15. And I've just been working ever since. But I'm glad that that was my first introduction into working, being a part of a family business and being instilled with the knowledge that you don't just have to go out and get a job. You can learn skills and create businesses and create avenues for yourself. Especially me being able to see that my mom is doing that as a woman of color, as a black woman specifically, and being able to figure out ways around it and to work through it, because there's definitely challenges to it as well. I learned to be community oriented. My mom would just do it. If we were hanging out at a party, she would just pull out her balloons and just start twisting for kids. Make them smile, you know? So, doing things, not necessarily for your own sake, but just to give back and to give to others without necessarily looking for anything in return.
How do you practice work/life fit?
It's really tricky. But in a good way. It's hard because I love my job so much. It's hard to cut it off. Talking to my students, a one-hour check-in will turn into two hours. I'll give them my time because, I want to help them and I'll look up and like, “Oh, it is like two or three hours,” and the students will kick me out and say, “Why are you still here?” But that's a happy position to be in. It helps to have leadership that emphasizes that. I'm someone where I’m like, “Do you need to get it done? Let's get it done.” I'm not necessarily someone who's like, “I need to take a break” or “I need to go do something else.” So, it really helps to have a boss, or leadership, that emphasizes that. I'm lucky enough to be able to work with our director Faith Kazmi, who really stresses that.
We also have a non-hierarchical approach to leadership. That helps me with work life balance as well because I don't feel like, “Oh, I'm the assistant director, so I got to like do everything.” It's three directors, so we each share the work evenly and we make decisions collectively, which helps me not stress out so much because we can figure out things together. This helps me have more balance in my off time because I'm a thinker, so if I don't figure something out I'll go home and just think about it. But being able to share that work with the directors and with the students is helpful.
It's interesting because I oversee Health and Wellness as well, which is an extra reminder. It helps because I get to do that as part of work too, like our yoga for women of color. That was my first time ever doing yoga because I felt weird doing it as a plus-size black woman, but being able to incorporate that into work and to have conversations about health with students was great. I also think of just trying to maintain some separation. I don't get notifications on my phone anymore and I do meditation. I don't do it every day. I'm not someone who gets up in the morning and sits and does meditation and yoga. I just can't do that. But being more mindful of my breaths and when I feel really overwhelmed or anxious and just taking those deep breaths and taking a second to recenter and come back into myself. It really helps me be able to get through or push through whatever it is. Those little things and sitting outside really helps.
What lessons or skills from your work at the Women’s Center play a role in your career or life today?
There's so much! Being able to work with someone as cool and amazing as Jaronda Miller-Bryant was such a treat. As a black woman, it was hard to envision myself in these roles after graduation, because there are not a lot of black women in these roles. There are not a lot of women in leadership, different women of color, and specifically black women. Especially when you couple that with the fact that I had this perception of women's centers as being centered around like cis whiteness and essentially white womanhood. It was very refreshing to be able to work with Jaronda and be able to learn from her. Jaronda taught me how to lead, how to work with students, and how to supervise and do it with care and empathy. She would be someone who would ask me how I was first. It wasn't just, “What work do you have for me?” She was like, “How are you doing? How are classes? Let's manage things.” She was very graceful with me. I did not realize how much I needed that until I was able to receive it. And I realized a lot of other people in my cohort weren't receiving that. That was something that I definitely pass on to how I supervise students now. Checking in with them first and we may not talk about work for most of the session and that's okay. I want to make sure they're doing okay. And we can adjust, we can ease back on things. She really taught me leadership and supervision in that sense.
Also, being able to work collaboratively with a team of interns was really, really rewarding. I was there when we put on the first Black Womanhood in College Workshop and it was such a powerful experience to have that at UVA with other black women. The focus was on us and it was such an amazing thing to be a part of. It taught me how to help guide students, push them along, show off their strengths, and work on things. And to really lift them up and support them, and that's something that I've definitely taken with me. I learned so much in the Front Lines of Social Change class, and I remember thinking, “I'm a grad student and I'm learning the same thing as these undergrads.” It wasn't just learning these theories and writing papers but taking yourself out of that and seeing that it's about community, it's about giving back, it's about service, it's about the stories of the most marginalized, and uplifting that. Putting that theory into practice and making sure that it's intersectional by looking at different identities.
There is an emphasis on the voices of students and collaboration in your book chapter and in your women’s community center. What has been your favorite student-driven event so far?
Oh, that's hard. That's really hard. We had someone come and speak last quarter. Terisa Siagatonu who is a queer Samoan poet, activist, organizer. We had her come and do an event on climate justice. We worked really hard and had to get co-sponsors and it was a major thing. It was really great to see my student who worked so hard on this event, who did the leg work, who made sure everything went well. We had planned so many things for the event and to see it play out was so wonderful and it brought new people into the space that had never been in this space. We're fighting the perception of our students seeing the women's center being a white cis space. Even when all the professional staff are women of color, we're still finding that. So, it was great to see new people come into this space and realize what we are and what we do. I really, really appreciated that.
We also had our gender equity and justice summit. It's a summit that we put on every year to bring in different speakers and mentorship and the whole staff really works together. We had Danica Roem come, who is super cool. And Fabiana Rodriguez who is a visual artist in Oakland. We had a talk on queer people, people of color, mental health. We have so many cool events so it's hard to choose.
You describe several ways that your women’s center is working to cultivate a space where students can be their genuine selves and explore their identities in a supportive and uplifting environment. How has this evolved over the past year at your women’s community center?
I would say, first and foremost, before I even got here, they were doing this work. That's why I came and they pulled me in and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so cool.” I feel like it's everything, even down to our physical space and how we arrange it and the colors that we use. We have different murals on our walls that past students have done themselves. We're actually commissioning a current student staff member to do another painting before she graduates because she's such an amazing artist. Students have literally shaped the actual physical space and I think that really plays an important part. Even down to our mission, intersectionality is in our mission. That is what guides us and having that be in your mission is important. I think it is really powerful and it's very much needed in order to push for more inclusivity and intersectionality. Also, I would say it's hard. Cultivating a space that's promoting true authenticity and that's what we're still trying to do continuously.
One thing that's changed since I came last summer is, we hired a new associate director. The demographics of the staff have changed. That's something that I'm seeing directly have an impact on students who may have been hesitant to come into our space before. Now we are all women of color. The majority of our student staff are people of color as well. I think having that representation, not just for visual sakes, but to actually include their voices and their perspectives is huge. When you have that, you can really do great things from there and you can put on great events. It's hard because a women's center, our population is so broad and you have to pick out specific communities and give voice to these different sub groups of our community with different voices and different representations. I think when you have a staff that reflects that, you're able to put on the programming that you need and that incorporates those different voices and perspectives. From there, people will feel comfortable coming into the space as their full selves and expressing that.
There are a lot of little things like with WCC, we opened the door, we make cool signages, we're trying to figure out ways of engaging on social media. Having different representation or sharing different articles for and by people of color or queer people of color and centering the most marginalized, that is the thing that we are constantly striving for. That in and of itself helps create a more welcoming and inclusive environment where students feel like they can be their full selves and they can use their voice, their roles, and the work that they're doing in the space, to really tackle issues that are important to students, but also discover their own identity as well. It's not just putting on events and doing XYZ, but asking the question, “Who are you?” They're coming of age in this moment as well and figuring out their own identity. Community centers are definitely at the forefront of encouraging that for marginalized students.
What is your favorite UVA memory?
It's hard to pick out a specific memory. I would say one major one was orientation. I transferred in and, I don't know if you've ever seen a transfer orientation, but it was hell. It was horrible. It was not cute, not like the freshmen orientation at all. They’re like, “Come in, pick your classes and go.” I was driven by my best friend who also went to UVA. I had never seen the campus and I didn't visit UVA when I was applying because I couldn't afford to. He showed me around, showed me where everything was, but left me alone and to fend for myself a little bit. I met my first friend there and we ended up both being transferred from the same area, from the same community, and both of us were history majors as well. That was friendship right there. I remember it feeling so new and so different and I was a FLI student, a first generation/low income student, so I didn't necessarily have that same experience. My mom had gone to college but she wasn't able to finish. So, I knew certain things, but to be in that environment and in a completely different culture, was something else. I'm from Hampton Roads and it is not Charlottesville at all. Even the way people dress. I remember being very overwhelmed and some culture shock, but also excited as well. I was just excited to take classes and to learn. I just remember that feeling of excitement and even though I wasn't there that long, I still really, really enjoyed it. And being in Brown my last year, that was quite a trip.
Looking back, what advice would you give your former, student-self?
I would say patience and to be kind to yourself. I remember when I first got to UVA, I felt really alone. I lived in Copeley my first year, not the house you want, not the place you live in if you wanted to be welcomed into UVA. So, I remember feeling very lonely at times. But I would probably say, this will pass, you will get through this, but also enjoy it as well. Because I really wish I was at UVA longer, that I was able to enjoy it longer, and that I was able to meet more people. But, overall, have grace.
Learn more about Dejah’s work at the Women’s Community Center at Stanford University here. You can find the book, Feminist Responses to the Neoliberalization of the University: From Surviving to Thriving here!
Cheryl Drew served as a Casscells Fellow at the Women’s Center during the 2019-2020 year.