"I think the worst thing you can do and the best thing you can do is tell a woman 'no.'" – Tamika Wordlow
In recent years, across all levels of government, an unprecedented number of women have been elected to public office, many of whom are the first woman or the first woman of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender identity to hold such a position.
Likewise, a historic number of women at Rhode Island College have taken on top leadership positions. They are VPs and deans, they are seasoned and they are young, they are white and they are women of color, some of them speak more than one language but they all have come to the table ready. They sit on the President's Executive Cabinet, they make up the majority of the Provost Council and they lead all but one of the six schools.
In this three-part series, 12 phenomenal women leaders are asked: What does it mean for you, as a woman, to sit at the leadership table? Here, they reflect on who they are and what they bring to the table.
"WE ARE LEADERS AND INDEPENDENT THINKERS, AND ALL OF US ARE WORKING TOGETHER TO BRING ABOUT CHANGE AT RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE."
– Jayashree Nimmagadda
I've been in leadership positions for over 10 years, yet I've never seen myself as a leader. It's not something that I aspired to. Circumstances happened and I was elected chair of the M.S.W. program. Then I decided that I wanted to be in the room where all the decisions are made. I applied for and was elected interim dean. That's when I found my voice.
Culturally, I was socialized to think I didn't belong at the table. I was born into a very patriarchal society, where there was no encouragement nor expectation for women to become leaders. Decisions were made by men. Females were raised to go to school and get married. My mother saw opportunities denied to her and made it clear to me that marriage is not my goal in life. My goal, she said, is to live up to my full potential and to be happy.
Today I lead the School of Social Work. I bring to the table a set of lived experiences that provide a different perspective. I am innovative and entrepreneurial. I love looking for opportunities, particularly through grant funding and other initiatives, to better the students' experience and to build the profile of the school. I believe my journey, like those of many of our first-generation students, tells a great story about our school. Being part of the Provost Council has allowed me to bring my innovative, entrepreneurial spirit to the table. It has also given me an opportunity to learn from a community of independent thinkers. Every one of the women on this amazing council is a leader and an independent thinker, and all of us are working together to bring about change at Rhode Island College at one of the most critical times in the college's history.
Do I still wonder if I belong at the leadership table? All the time. I don't think that question will ever go away. As a leader and a woman of color, I think the expectations for me are higher and so I am always striving to do more to prove that I belong here and that I earned it.
"I THINK THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO AND THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS TELL A WOMAN 'NO.'"
– Tamika Wordlow
As a Black woman leader, I come to the table knowing that I represent far more than myself. I represent groups of people who have been disproportionately underrepresented. I am able to support as well as challenge practices and policies and help push agendas that benefit all populations, especially those that have traditionally been underrepresented.
I read a quote that I thought was really fitting for women in leadership or women of color in leadership or any marginalized population in a position of service. It read: "I refuse to sit at tables that want my image for marketing but don't want my voice for perspective." There's been this big push for diversity, and that's great, but with diversity must come inclusion. When I am asked to sit at the leadership table, I need to know that you are ready to receive my voice. I need to know that you are willing to listen to a different perspective and, if necessary, change the way things are done to better serve the entire community.
I think the worst thing you can do and the best thing you can do is tell a woman, 'No.' That's because we've heard that word so much we've redefined its meaning. When you tell us 'no,' you've just given us the green light to show our strength, to create a plan, and it's going to be a plan so detailed, so organized, so strategic that you will begin to see its value and question why you said 'no' to begin with. Never underestimate a woman with a plan. I would also say the same thing for men, but the problem we have in our society is that most people don't question men. It's already assumed that they have a plan. Women have been underestimated. When we come with a plan, it is to show you that we've always been prepared, we just needed you to listen. When we come, we come ready.
As far as my leadership style, I come from a family that is largely women. I've had many examples of seasoned women in my life who have been able to speak life and meaning into those coming up after them. They have been my mother and immediate family members, school leaders and church leaders. One of my most influential mentors is Dr. Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor of Student Affairs at East Carolina University. As a Black woman, I saw her move in circles and spaces with such grace, confidence and competence that I knew I wanted to emulate that. She taught me how to live with integrity and purpose, how not to lose yourself and to always make sure your actions are something you can sleep with at night. I have carried that ideology with me.
"THE MOST EFFECTIVE LEADERS ARE THOSE WHO PRIORITIZE LISTENING."
– Leslie Schuster
My experiences working with faculty and students have shaped my ideas about how to best serve students at RIC. The results are rarely positive when one person leads the conversation and determines both the goals and the process and shuts out everyone else. Instead, the most effective leaders are those who prioritize listening and genuinely acknowledge the skills and expertise of those involved in the issue or problem at hand. Collaboration, that is, determining the steps or strategy with that group and not as a singular, decisive voice, has the potential to create a culture of mutual trust and responsibility. This is how I hope to work.
My perspective remains student-informed but with particular attention on how to best support working-class students as they pursue their degrees in an institution that has invisible and unfamiliar values. As a working-class student myself, I remember, painfully, the disjuncture between my own values and habits and those shared by the faculty, the college and many of my peers. Most institutions are not sensitive to this conflict for working-class students and I try to insist on recognizing their position as much as I can.
"MY PARENTS INSTILLED IN ME THAT I COULD DO ANYTHING I SET MY MIND TO DO."
– Holly Shadoian
My first leadership position at RIC was as a student, where I was president of the Gold Key Society. John Foley '67, was the Gold Key Society advisor, director of Admissions and a mentor who helped start my career in higher education. My first job at RIC was in Admissions. I have now worked at RIC for 46 years. Though I bring longevity to the leadership table, I realize that longevity doesn't necessarily equal value to an institution. I believe you have to be willing to grow and adapt to be of value. Along with longevity, I bring adaptability. As a leader, I try to listen and be responsive to people and to work collaboratively. My strengths are problem solving and thinking outside the box – it's the creative side I inherited from my mom and dad. Ultimately, I think my leadership style came from my parents.
Early on, my parents instilled in me that I could do anything I set my mind to. Dad's advice of "always give a firm handshake" stuck with me as a means of showing confidence. Mom's role as a peacemaker helped me recognize that reasonable compromises are an option in accomplishing a goal. So, I have never been afraid to speak up and join the debate but recognize that to be heard, delivery makes a difference and respect is not granted just because of a title. Being a leader also means stepping up – not only in your role but also stepping in to better understand the work of those around you. I feel that women are far more willing to step in, which helps us know more. As a leader, I think it's important to speak up in a way that is not disrespectful of others. A sense of humor also goes a long way. I've been very fortunate to be able to build really good relationships based on that philosophy.
In Part I of this three-part series, you will hear from Associate Vice President Anna Cano Morales, Provost and Vice President Helen Tate, Vice President and Interim Executive Director Kimberly Conway Dumpson and Interim Vice President Ducha Hang.
In Part III, you will hear from Associate Vice President Jen Giroux, Dean Jeannine Dingus-Eason, Dean Carolynn Masters and Interim Dean Alema Karim.