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July 12, 2023

Minority Mental Health: Women Knowledge Workers in Higher Education Show Themselves Out

By: Ike Evans

In the series premiere of Mind of Texas, host Ike Evans explores Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor’s research into how the gendered and racialized organizational structure of large universities affected women in a way that made their Great Resignation a uniquely painful one.

In the second half of this rich conversation, Ike and Yvonne are joined by Black Austin Matters host Dr. Richard J. Reddick alongside one of Yvonne’s actual research subjects, who assumes the alias “Sunshine” for a hands-on recollection of the dual pandemics, the Great Resignation, and what the future of knowledge work in Texas may look like.

The full transcript of this episode of Mind of Texas is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Introduction voice I would love to see some real healing in the mind of Texas.

Introduction voice The mind of Texas is affecting me very deeply. The mind of Texas is critical to what the future of Texas is about.

Ike Evans Hi, I’m Ike Evans, host of The Mind of Texas podcast from KUT News 90.5. Texas is a big and diverse state, and so are the minds of the people in it. Each episode we bring you a discussion on what’s happening in Texas and its effect on our mental health.

Dr. Richard J. Reddick My university didn’t deserve my time, my talents or my treasures. So one of the best pieces of advice that I got from a colleague at the university really was don’t let these white people drive you crazy. And I was like, Bet, say no more. And it did get to a point where I felt like I was breaking because I was trying so hard to make the horse drink water. I felt like I was trying to make my university drink from a fire hose and it just wasn’t working. And so I decided to leave.

Ike Evans Mental health shows up in a lot of different places, including the places where mental health is quite regularly written about and researched and taught. I’m referring to places of higher learning institutions where there is a lot of stressful work going on to just keep the institution running. Knowledge work, which entails its own unique stressors and in particular for women of color. So today on Mind of Texas, we are in studio with Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor, a newly minted Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy from the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Disclosure Note In 2022, she received a Moore Fellowship from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Yvonne. Hello. Hello.

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Hi. Thank you for inviting me. It’s nice to be here.

Ike Evans Your dissertation is titled You Won’t Break Our Souls. Women Knowledge workers in Higher education show themselves out. I’d love for you to say a little bit more about first how you chose that title. But then, you know, what questions are you trying to answer with this work?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor So my dissertation is about the great resignation, and I look at the great resignation in higher education through the lens of women, knowledge workers, women who worked in roles that we would consider business roles in higher education work like communications development, I.T. program management. These are roles that aren’t usually highlighted when we talk about higher education or even staff in higher education. I used the title You Won’t Break Our Souls. It’s a song from Beyonce. That is actually a song that talks about the great resignation. I used the song because it fit the theme of the research. And the women in the study also talked about the emotional impact and the psychological impact that the work had had on them and their decision to leave the institution. And so the dissertation is about the women’s resilience and their ability to keep their souls intact as well. So that song title just really seemed to fit with the dissertation. And so I kind of go back to what led me to decide to go back to get a Ph.D. in the first place is I had worked in multiple institutions of higher education throughout over a 22 year career as a communicator and a person who worked in development in higher ed and as a staff member. I noticed that people who were in roles like mine were often invisible. When people think of higher education, they think of faculty and students. If they think of staff at all, they often think of staff who are student activities folks. But there are plenty of other people who work in higher education, including people like me. So I knew that I wanted to study the experiences of that group of people. And when the great resignation came about and I saw many of us leaving institutions of higher education all across the country, people who did work like me and also people who had marginalized identities like me as a black woman or a woman of color. I wanted to look at how the organizational structures, the racialized and gendered organizational structures of the institution affected their experiences, which may have pushed them out. So that was ultimately what I wanted to know and why I decided to study this particular phenomenon in circumstance that happened in 2021.

Ike Evans Yeah, So the great resignation, I’m kind of thinking of it as like for many of the women who you’ve written about as kind of the camel straw, you know, they may have already had one foot out, but just the wild circumstances of that period kind of gave them all the extra nudge that they needed.

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Yes. And I’d done a pilot study before the great resignation looking at some of these issues. And the women in my pilot study didn’t actually have a foot out. They were understanding that they were experiencing hardships related to identity and identity based on their own identity and also their position within higher education, which is a lower level position within the institutional and organizational structure. So they knew they were navigating that, but they weren’t actually thinking of leaving necessarily. They just thought this is the way it is. And it’s hard, you know, I’m realizing I’m having to navigate all this and it’s hard, but this is the way it is. I think what happened in 2020 with what I call the dual pandemics of both COVID and the racial uprisings of 2020 is, I believe that those are inextricably linked. It gave people not just women, but people within working organizations a chance to reflect on what it actually is like to work within those organizations. We had both a pause for some people and then overwork for other people, and I can talk about that. What I mean by that too, but we had this kind of time in the circumstance. Where a lot of people are doing a lot of reflection, and that actually pushed people out the door. So the circumstances were already there. What they were experiencing was already there, but it was either exacerbated and worsened or people had a chance to reflect during that time.

Ike Evans So what you call the great resignation belongs to a specific moment in time. What you just referred to as the dual pandemics of COVID and the racial unrest of 2020. Why is this historic dimension so important?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor I believe that this particular time was an unusual time. I mean, we have not in our lifetimes experienced a global health pandemic before that alone. The global pandemic of COVID 19, we started to see that there were disparities in health. Those were highlighted because of the pandemic. Black, Latino, indigenous folk were more heavily impacted by COVID 19 and were dying at higher rates. And so we were seeing that. Then we also had this period of time where we have had this ongoing pandemic regarding racism and police brutality. But when George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were killed and so many others, all within a short period of time, it was at a time where a lot of people were home. A lot of people had time to reflect. A lot of people had the ability to go out into the street in ways that they would not have had had COVID 19 not happened. And so you had this confluence of events that was unusual and was a huge moment in time that had a lot of us rethinking all kinds of systems and systemic inequities that we were experiencing.

Ike Evans So I want to take this back to mental health. Is there a sense that research like yours can be a tool of healing?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Yes. When I first started, I did a pilot study in the summer of 2021 with Dr. Pat Summers, who has just recently passed away. I wanted to bring up her name because she was pivotal in this work. I started that pilot study and as I was interviewing the women in the study, I realized that many of them were recounting issues and emotions that sounded like trauma to me. And so I then thought, you know, I’d really like this work, not to just extract their stories and recount their trauma, but actually to serve as a form of healing in some way. And so the research that I looked at related to trauma informed and trauma responsive research showed that the act of telling your story to someone, and especially the act of telling your story to someone who has been through what you’ve been through, can be healing in and of itself. I also included the opportunity for the women in the study to journal about their experiences and to reflect on their experiences through journaling before I actually interviewed them. And journaling is shown as a form of healing as well. Many of the women recounted to me that just the act of journaling and telling their stories was healing for them, but knowing that what they experienced would be heard and then also translated to an audience that they really wanted to speak to too. Academia was important to them and a form of healing. None of the women in my study, my study included 16 women. The institution that they left did not offer them an exit interview. So a couple of them asked for exit interviews, but the institution didn’t offer them exit interviews. So my dissertation gave them a chance to tell their story to a willing audience for them to know that their stories would be written about and then shared, which was something that was important for them. And that was all an act of healing as well.

Ike Evans How close have you ever come to showing yourself out?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Well, I’m a participant in my dissertation, so my dissertation is what in academics is called a critical ethnographic study in late people’s terms. I included my own story, along with the stories of the women that I recounted, and that was important for me because I recognized that this was happening because I was showing myself out. It was during an event where black women’s staff members in particular were being recognized for their service to the institution. And that recognition happened with a black faculty and staff association meeting. And I was one of the women who was being honored. And of the women being honored. And there were about ten of us, at least five of us were leaving within three weeks period of time. And some of us had been at the institution up to 15 years. That was in May of 2021. And when I saw that, I thought, Oh, this is my dissertation. This is what I want to study. So I am a person who experienced and went through and was one of the people who left during the great resignation and because I was leaving is how I recognized that this was a phenomenon that was happening across campus and was something that I wanted to study.

Ike Evans So I can’t help but be curious about the outcomes. As best as you can know, that for some of the women who you got to interview and maybe even yourself as well.

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor So what I learned in the study was that the women knowledge workers who were in the study of the 16 women, all of them had experienced the effects of a racialized and gendered organization regardless of their race. So white women experience this in harmful ways, as well as Latinxs Afro-Latinos. And there was a woman who identifies as Arab and black women. We all experienced it to some degree and experienced the harms of it to some degree, which affected our experiences and also pushed us out the door. Leaving was an act of self-care. One of the five themes that my dissertation kind of uncovered one had to do with mental health and the acts of self-care and resistance of the women who were in the study and what leaving meant to them. So I just kind of want to talk a little bit about some of the effects that they had had. One woman wore an Apple Watch all the time. She was a black woman, and she said that when the pandemic happened and the campus shut down in-person operations, it allowed her to leave the city, which was a predominantly white city and one in which the African-American population is leaving at high rates. It allowed her to leave the city and be with her family in a much more diverse city. She was still doing her job and doing her job online. Her Apple Watch gave her data that showed her that her sleep schedules had improved remarkably and that the quality of her sleep had improved by 20% just by not being in the city and on the campus where she worked. So her leaving and then ultimately leaving the position gave her tremendous improvements in her health and well-being. There were other women who said that they noticed that they had been drinking a lot and had really wanted to take control of their alcohol consumption and that when they left the job, their alcohol consumption automatically went down because they were so stressed at the job. And there was one woman who said that her role had become so unmanageable, the overwork had become so unmanageable that when she did leave, she felt like she couldn’t even look at a computer anymore. She calendar via paper. She wouldn’t write emails to people anymore because she was so traumatized by all the emails and all the calls that she would get 24 hours, seven days a week with her job, that she had to take care of her mental health by abstaining. And she, of all the people in my study, has not gone back to work. She’s decided to stay home.

Ike Evans So after talking to Yvonne, I really wanted to hear from one of the women that took part in her dissertation research just because I thought it was really necessary to add that point of view to this conversation. I was able to get a hold of one of them known in the dissertation as Sunshine. And as well, we are joined by a familiar voice, Richard Reddick, host of the Black Austin Matters podcast. And once again, Yvonne Taylor. As we started to get into in the previous segment, Yvonne Story is intertwined with that of other women in Texas. For starters, there’s the women she interviewed for her dissertation. We caught up with one of them known in the dissertation as Sunshine for her thoughts. Sunshine. Our listeners would love to know more about you and how it is that you came to know our previous guest.

Dr. Richard J. Reddick I got to know Dr. Taylor at Baylor University. I was working in Mary University communications office and Dr. Taylor was a comms colleague at another college on the university campus. My background is in journalism. I got my bachelors in journalism with a concentration in public relations. I spent seven years in university communications before resigning from my position at Havens and starting my old company out to War Solutions.

Ike Evans We just talked to Yvonne, who interviewed you for her dissertation, the title of which included the phrase You Won’t Break Our Souls. What Can Be Soul Breaking About Life in Texas for Women Knowledge workers like Yourself?

Dr. Richard J. Reddick What was soul breaking for me was to hear my university say they wanted to do all of these things in the space of diversity, equity, inclusion, access, but not actually do the things that I thought they needed to do in order to achieve that. What was so breaking for me was to realize that I’m giving so much of myself to my university, my knowledge, my skills, my talent, and then feel like because of the actions that they were taking or not taking, that I was not appreciated as a black woman individual. And lastly, I would say what was so breaking was to put in all of this work, leading the employee resource group and putting on a virtual symposium about the state of black people on the campus and then not be recognized for that work, whether that be by my peers or by my management in my office.

Ike Evans Yeah, any one of those things can be soul breaking if it goes on long enough, let alone altogether. Right. So, Yvonne and Richard, I would love to know your thoughts just in response to what Sunshine has offered.

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Sunshine was a leader. She mentioned the Employee Resource Group, which was very helpful in providing community and support for black faculty and staff within the university. And I think prior to 2020, there was an awareness that that work was cultural taxation, meaning it was like an added effort that she and we as black women were making on campus. But I think after 2020, it became soul breaking work. I think there was a recognition of how hard that was on us and how hard it was not to be recognized for that labor.

Dr. Richard J. Reddick Just hearing these countenances make me think about the fact that cultural taxation One of the things about cultural taxation I often say is the second part, which is without representation or compensation or recognition. So the important thing is that many folks come into the space, especially black women, understand that cultural taxation is sort of part of what happens to build institutions and to make them Welcoming spaces for historically marginalized people requires additional effort. People know this, but it’s the issue about having the recognition, the compensation, the rewards that come with that to go through massive undertakings of time, energy and emotions and to sort of have it say, Well, I’m glad you did that, but that’s all that matters. It’s not sufficient. And I think what George Floyd showed all of us is, first of all, the incredible burden that bipoc folks, but particularly black folks and particularly black women hold in institutional spaces. But it’s often assumed that this is part of the nurturing nature of black women. You know, they do it because they care about the institution, they care about their community. That’s all true. But we all have to work in the same sort of society that people advance based on those kinds of things. No, about attachments, more about simply being credit for the work, because most people are doing this work and thinking Sunshine’s case, this is true as well. They’re doing this in addition to what their job description says. It’s not. Your job description is to go out and do things to support and endorse and build a community, especially at a time when the community is in crisis. These are things that if you can make that happen, aside from your 40 hour a week full time job that you’re already maxed out on, Great. And that’s the real concern I. My writing. I think about the fact that there are two exemplars a case of Simone Biles in the case of Naomi Osaka, where black women who had given their all and performed at the peak of their capacity and basically were world renowned, decided to say, It’s time for me to take a break. And instead of getting empathy and respect and support, they got abuse. And it just shows you what’s inside. It’s kind of alluding to that the understanding of the costs of that work have not been appreciated and it needs to be appreciated.

Ike Evans You mentioned Simone Biles. I remember having my own thoughts kind of best summed up with She doesn’t owe you all anything else. You know, she has a right to be tired, you know, at a bare minimum. So, yeah, that really that really resonated with me.

Dr. Richard J. Reddick I think the alacrity of mediocre white men critiquing Simone Biles and, as you said, had given her all didn’t have to, but did it anyway in the fact that the very first voices to condemn her and call her out were what I would consider, Like I said, mediocre white men whose job it is to speak, to give opinions. They don’t bring any particular aspirational values or talent. But that very juxtaposition was what was jarring. You just had no athletes of note. Nobody in the high levels of accomplishment made those comments. Most people in those kinds of spaces that I get it. And in fact, I respect you for doing that.

Ike Evans Sunshine I’m also interested in the second part of Evan’s dissertation title. How close have you ever come to showing yourself out of higher education?

Dr. Richard J. Reddick I believe it was my intention, although initially I was leaving my position at the university. I underwent my job search for a different role. Nothing was working out. I would get to the final round of many interviews and would not be chosen for the position for different reasons. So I took that as a psych as my time had ended. This particular university that I was at. Then I resigned in 2021, so start to work solutions and I had wrapped up about five years of my life in the university. A lot of the extracurriculars, that idea was with the university. I had made a lot of friends, which I quickly realized was I live weren’t really friends. They were just colleagues because lot of those relationships fizzled out. So it was a really hard decision to make to leave. And I ended up leaving because I realized that my university didn’t deserve my time, my talents or my treasures. I decided that I would not let my situation break my soul. So one of the best pieces of advice that I got from a colleague at the university really was Don’t let these white people drive you crazy. I was like, Bet, say no more. And it did get to a point where I felt like I was breaking because I was trying so hard to make the horse drink water. So the saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. I felt like I was trying to make my university drink from a fire hose and it just wasn’t working. And so I decided to leave.

Ike Evans Yvonne anything to add on the showing oneself out theme?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor Yes. I mean dissertation was about racialized and gendered organizational structures that affected the women in the study and led to their showing themselves out as a way of taking care of themselves. And I also asked the participants to share metaphors to describe their experiences working at the university. And Sunshine’s metaphor was plantation like a sophisticated plantation. And that also resonated with me because plantations have both in the house and kind of invisible labor, as well as the being on the field labor and the exploitation of bodies and in particular black bodies and also black women’s bodies in multiple ways. I liken it to the University of Virginia, which had within it surgeries and places where black bodies worked. But we’re not seeing and I thought it was fascinating and horrifying that that same type of labor and exploitation could be felt even within the organization of a university like Haven State.

Ike Evans I want to get back to the dual pandemics of COVID and the racial unrest of 2020. So, Sunshine, just thinking back to that period. Not that anyone loves doing that, but what helped you stay resilient and how do you look after your wellbeing today?

Dr. Richard J. Reddick I’m actually sitting here. I’m getting goose bumps as I think back to that time because it was a really tough time for me as a black woman working at a university that was also having its own issues with race. And then you compound that with what’s happening at a national level with George Floyd, and then you add on the pandemic, and I can’t really sit here, I’m trying to remember was like, how did I get through that time period? Because it was so, so hard. One of the things that I think about is what Yvonne had mentioned before we started to record this conversation, which was taking mental health. That is, I use my sick days as mental health days. And when George Floyd had happened and some other issues that we were working through as a university had happened, I took that time off. I took time off in protests. Rest is protest. And so I took that time off the process to process and to really just disconnect from the place. That was one of the sources of my pain, which is the university I was working at at the time. Another way that I worked through that time was leaning into the community that I had built at Hayden State. I had mentioned that I was helping to lead the Black Employee Resource Group. And so just being able to confide in and converse with people who were working in the same environment that I was having to work at who looked like me and has similar experiences as me, that really helped as well. And then I would say prayer. I am a very spiritual individual and so just leaning on a higher power to process what is going on and continue to live through what is going on as well as therapy. I leaned on the resource groups that they have for employees at my university and took advantage of that to get some expert advice on how to process everything that I was going through.

Ike Evans Okay. So I have one last question for all three of you. Just any general thoughts since you since you have this platform about minority mental health in Texas? And I know that’s a huge that’s a huge topic. You know, there’s no wrong answer just from the heart, your mood, the mood of your community as you see it, whatever you want to throw in there. Yvonne, why don’t we start with you?

Dr. M. Yvonne Taylor The work that I’ve done related to this dissertation has really moved me into thinking more and more and researching more about trauma informed practices, trauma informed and trauma responsive practices not only in research, but within our organizations, from K through 12 to higher ed to all of our organizations. When we talk about equity work, which of course, within this state has become almost a dirty word, we can’t even do any of that equity work without understanding the trauma that is ongoing that peaks at times, but it is constant and ongoing because of the ways that our organizational systems are structured. And so when I think about our communities and minority communities and mental health, I think that understanding the trauma that is ongoing, whether we are at school or at work or walking down the street, having that be addressed in order for us to heal is vitally important. And so I really urge other researchers and leaders of organizations to become more versed in what that means to be trauma informed, to trauma responses.

Dr. Richard J. Reddick Richard, you know, we’ve been talking about things like cultural taxation. We’ve been talking about things like John or genetic Henry ism and those impacts, but we tend to frame those within the spaces of academia that are the more privileged spaces. So faculty roles, and that’s important. I don’t want to minimize the impact that faculty members feel, but I don’t think we’ve had that same expansion of the conversation to include staff members who are often little. Are we on the front lines of these discussions and dialogs? The work that happens in the employee resource groups, for instance, are places where a lot of this is happening and people are coming with the most raw emotions, the most raw sort of sensitivities. And the folks doing that work who are often black women. You know, I use the term in my forthcoming book, Restorative Resistance, you know, how do you do this work and maintain and restore women? And sometimes, as Sunshine has demonstrated, the resistance has to be to withdraw. And I don’t see that as anything but doing what’s right for oneself and putting oneself first and foremost. And I think that has to happen because institutions have to start realizing that unless it’s understood that people cannot keep doing this work without costing some massive part of their lives. And quite frankly, institutions are. You see that happening. Our resources are built on people who are willing to sacrifice their lives, their health, their happiness in the pursuit of knowledge. And that’s just not a realistic or a healthy way to exist. So I think we started a resistance piece, and I actually draw on some of the work that Yvonne has done, and that in the book is really about understanding what that looks like and organizationally understanding that the responses have to be robust and be love informed. If they’re not, it is perfectly acceptable if something had to go through a little journey myself, because I think before George Floyd, I would have say, No, you’ve got to stay in the organization, you’ve got to work, you got do these kinds of things. I also now think that, you know, you put your mask on first before you help others, and that might mean this space is out of space I can operate in. No, this time doesn’t always mean forever, but it does mean this time my well-being, my health, my sense of belonging is more important than these very large issues that we have to grapple with. And I’m going to be better for the world if I’m taking time to take care of myself and coming back to it. But, you know, I’m just so grateful we were having this conversation because it needs to be heard. It needs to be amplified.

Ike Evans And Sunshine, where are you at right now?

Sunshine What Yvonne was talking about regarding trauma really resonated with me because to be honest, I didn’t realize how much trauma I was experiencing at my university until. Yvonne started asking me different questions related to her dissertation research. So it was really eye opening to me in regards to what was going on, how what I was experiencing was impacted me mentally. And I think that’s the case for a lot of people, specifically with this conversation. Black people in higher education, they don’t realize how different things are impacting them mentally because we work so hard and it’s wake up or you do the same thing over and over again. So I would encourage people to take the time to really reflect on how things are impacting you and to not see seeking help with your mental health as a weakness. But as Rich had mentioned, as you putting your mask on before you put on someone else’s match, you have to help yourself before you can help others. And I think the same goes with mental health. And from my vantage point, in my experience, some black people don’t do therapy because they do see it as a weakness or they don’t do therapy because it’s unfamiliar and it doesn’t seem like a safe space.

Ike Evans Okay, Sunshine, I am so glad that we were able to find you because I think that this was a very necessary addition. Yvonne, thank you so much for connecting us to her. And I just want to thank all of y’all for taking the time to have this conversation with us. And good luck with everything.

Sunshine Thanks. I thank you for providing the platform to share about the great work that black women are doing, especially the Academy, and to share about Yvonne’s dissertation. I think the work that she’s doing is flipping incredible, and I was honored to just be a part of that. And I’m also honored just to have the opportunity to speak with you all today as well.

Ike Evans During the conversation that you just heard, a very loaded word was used by one of our guests, and that word was plantation. Some of y’all might disagree, but I think it is the case that one thing that higher education has in common with a plantation is that it is a vast, productive enterprise that needs a lot of bodies to keep it going. However, you might feel about using a word like plantation in such an offhanded way when the conversation is mostly about mental health. I encourage all of you listening to really take to heart the heartfelt words that you just heard from our three guests and to really take to heart that knowledge work. And in particular for the period of time that we are talking about COVID and its aftermath that we’re still all carrying with us is stressful work. And it’s not so easy or so straightforward and particular for women and in particular for women of color to navigate both the needs of their institutions without forgetting their own, you know, as people who need support, who sometimes need credit, who need respect, who need acknowledgment, who sometimes just need to take a break. And so hopefully all of that came across in what you just heard. Thanks for listening to mind of Texas. You can find our full list of episodes at Coyote Dawg or wherever you get your podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on your preferred podcast player. It really does help. Mind of Texas is a collaboration between KUT 90.5 and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. Original Soundtrack by Jaron Marshall. This episode was edited by Jack Anderson and executive produced by Terry Fox for KUT Austin. I’m Mike Evans, communications manager for the Heart Foundation for Mental Health and host of The Mind of Texas podcast. Thanks for joining us. Hope to have you back soon. See you next time.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.