Finding Your Life-Work: Connecting the Personal the Spiritual and the Professional

Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Featured | 0 comments

Finding Your Life-Work: Connecting the Personal the Spiritual and the Professional

A while back, I picked up the book Finding Calcutta (2001) by Mary Poplin. It had been sitting on my shelf for several months untouched. I am so glad I did. In this book, Mary Poplin recounts how the two months, she spent working alongside Mother Theresa caring for the crippled, the abandoned and the dying in the streets of India taught her important lessons about meaningful work and service. It taught her how to connect her faith walk with her professional life.

This book got me thinking  that one of the biggest tasks each of us faces on the road to personal fulfillment and meaningful service is to connect the other dimensions of our lives to our professional calling—to make the life work connection and find our own Calcutta.

So where is Calcutta and how can we find it? Calcutta represents a place of need to which we are called to serve. Calcutta is the place that challenges us often through sacrifice and struggle to fulfill our life purpose. I firmly believe that place lies at the intersection of our various socio-identities—the personal, the spiritual and the professional. And yet, surprisingly it is off the beaten path – because those who find it must embark on an intentional journey to live in opposition to normative professional expectations. It is a personal journey that begins with an interrogation of our personal, spiritual and professional selves to find the place where we are called to offer our best service. This is the makings of my own journey.

Interrogating the Personal
The most salient aspects of our personal identity are often the most visible markers, for example, our cultural/ethnic, immigrant identity and our gender. Other less visible socio-identity markers include our religious identity, our socio-economic status, professional standing and our identities as outsiders or marginalized group in public and professional spaces.  To understand my positionality in the US academy—I had to confront a few of these identities.  I am a woman. I am also a Black person —what complicates my cultural/ethnic and gender identity is that I am a foreign-born Black woman in a white-male dominated US academe.  Part of my quest to live authentically in this setting was to interrogate how these status-based characteristics were impacting how I negotiate advancement in this context.
What I have become intimately aware of is that “we” women of color are woefully under-represented in faculty ranks within US academe. We are outsiders to the dominant institutional culture, and end up grappling with tokenism, micro-aggression, subtle discrimination, and the accompanying stress. The intersection of gender and race/ethnicity–called the double bind syndrome (Alfred, 2001; Bowie, 1995; Opp & Gosetti, 2002; Thomas & Hollenshead 2001; Turner, 2002) –creates unique challenges for us in the academy. At the same time, “I” sense an aloneness, as a foreign-born woman of color. Whereas considerable research has been done on Black women in the academy relevant to these challenges (Bowie, 1995; Gregory, 2001; Thomas & Hollenshead, 2001), the voices of Black immigrant women have not received as much prominence (Alfred, 2005, 2010; Edmonson, 2006.)

As I interrogated my position based on these identity markers,  I felt a calling to advocate for others like me in terms of cultural/ethnicity and genderm but also  to advocate for others different from me who were in some way marginalized  because of personal identity markers, for example, black males, children living in poverty, and people of color.
Interrogating the Spiritual
Spiritually, what are religious/spiritual principles that guide your life journey—although there has been much debate in the academic community about distinction between spirituality and religiosity, I agree with scholars who argue that religion and spirituality represent related rather than independent constructs and central to both is a sense of the sacred (Hill, et al., 2000). One thing is certain, both spirituality and religiosity challenge us to find ultimate meaning and purpose in life and to live an integrated life in ways that connect us to the sacred (Mitroff & Denton, 1999). Whether you are a teacher a receptionist, a minister, an administrator a government official, a nurse, a doctor—our spiritual sensibilities call on us to do more than clock in and clock out.

Each of us must come to a place where our personal and professional identities are connected as an active part of our spiritual life. Why is that important? Because when we find this connection, we are positioned in an oasis that strengthens and nourishes us. I can speak for my profession, but I am confident that the same is true for any profession. The evidence is clear that spirituality plays an important role in the personal and professional lives of many minority women (Dantley, 2003; Dillard, Abdur-Rashid & Tyson, 2000. It helps people of African descent cope with social and job-related challenges and discrimination from racial and gender inequities  (Lynn, 2001; Dillard, Abdur-Rashid & Tyson, 2000) and provides them with convictions about social justice leadership (Dantley, 2003; Murtadha-Watts, 1999; Jones, 2003; McClellan, 2006; Ngunjiri, 2010).

I came to my life-work connection quite unexpectedly as an associate professor. Fresh out of graduate school in 2004, I had begun research around the study of Black males and factors related to their social and academic outcomes. Yet, in 2008, when I visited a detention center in Memphis, Tennessee with a team of research activists, my interest in Black males was still something a bit apart from me. That was about to change. None of my classes had prepared me for that evening. A complex mix of sadness, fear and despondency settled over me when about 150 mostly Black men walked into the auditorium where we were waiting. I felt cold.  The blood rushed through my veins and I could hear my own heart beat pulsating loudly in my ear.—I did not open my mouth to speak throughout the entire session. I could not. I was too afraid that if I did so, it would unleash an unending stream of tears (Hernandez, 2013).

This experience and others like it has made me realize that my research agenda is not just an academic pursuit –it is a ministry. More than that, it is a call to do more than research, write, speak advocate, raise funds, and organize efforts for X, Y or Z from a safe distance.  Instead an important part of interrogating our spiritual call is to get close to the action—to leave our offices or  step away from the podium and go to the penitentiaries, the hospitals, the nursing homes, to schools and to orphanages –wherever we are called to serve.

Interrogating the Professional
A natural segue to finding the area in which we are called to serve comes out of our profession. However, our professional calling does not automatically lead to our area of service. In fact, it often runs counter culture to the quest for your Calcutta.

For example, I am trained as a social science researcher. My field of study is steeped in the quantitative paradigm, where we quantify and reduce problems to measurable components using theory and statistical analysis. One of the critical aspects of this approach to social inquiry is the need for objectivity—the researcher is expected to distance self from the topic of study. The objective stance guards against bias and ensures accuracy and methodological rigor. Quantitative research is valuable work that I continue to do. However, as I began to think deliberately about my research agenda, I also felt drawn to qualitative methods. For one thing research relative to the Black Diaspora is not something apart from me; it is who I am. Far from distancing myself from the work, I want to get closer to it. Moreover, in recent times, I have focused my efforts on the challenges foreign born Blacks of color face in integrating into US society—that is exactly where I am.

As I seek to find and fulfill my life purpose, I have had to make adjustments in my professional agenda and approach to doing research—to connect myself personally with the topics I investigate—in particular using autoethnographic and collaborative authoethnographic methods as detailed in a recently published book (Chang, Ngunjiri, Hernandez, 2013), and to make choices about my research audience. Am I researching and writing only for those in academe? Or do I want my work to have impact outside university walls? These are questions with which I now grapple.

I have also made adjustments in the focus of my life work. Through Nexe Consulting, I have created a space where I can take off the scholar hat and put on the activist/practitioner hat. In this space, I hope to do as Ivy Toldson, an associate professor in the Counseling Psychology program, at Howard University, recommended in a recent NPR interview, “rather than rehearsing/citing the data over and over again; why not focus on where along the ‘school to prison-pipeline’ we can have an impact on be a part of the solution”.

Connecting the Personal the Spiritual and the Professional
Whatever your professional calling, I encourage you to identify that aspect of your identity that has deep personal significance. What is your story? What are the circumstances that have led you to this point in time? What aspects of your socio-identity have presented the most significant challenges for you, or for others who are similar or different from you that requires social advocacy or action?

Connecting our personal and spiritual selves with our professions challenges us to abandon the notion of business as usual. Moreover, as I have examined the issues at the heart of my personal intersection, I am struck by how great the need is and how urgent the issues are on the social and academic landscape—the inequities in schooling and disparities in access to quality education and resources that facilitate social and economic mobility for the most vulnerable individuals, the rampant incarceration of Black men in prisons and their subsequent disenfranchisement and positioning on pathways for failure, and the underrepresentation, and the marginalization through micro-aggressions and tokenism afforded people as a result of the confluence of their race, gender and/or immigrant status.  I will say this—it is not easy to position oneself at that intersection and respond to your calling. As Poplin writes,
Often people teach that to know our calling, we must know our spiritual gifts, desires, opportunities and special skills. Clearly, these are all useful. However, it is perhaps even more that our crises and grieving reveal our call. Moreover, answering our call is not always exhilarating.
It is challenging—but it is exactly where we need to be.

Eventually each of us reaches the juncture in our life where we must ask ourselves the hard question: Am I well positioned to accomplish my life purpose? I firmly believe that at the intersection of our various socio-identities–the personal, the spiritual and the professional– lies the pathway to not only personal fulfillment but to meaningful work and service.  And the truth is that we cannot afford to walk leisurely to that intersection. The time is short. The issues are too great, and the need is urgent.  We need to run, Run, RUN to that intersection!

Alfred, M. V. (2001). Expanding theories of career development: Adding the voices of African American women in the white academy. Adult Education Quarterly, 51(2), 108-127.
Alfred, M. V. (2005). My journey as an Afro Caribbean woman to America’s ivory tower. Foreign-Born African Americans: Silenced Voices in t, 135.
Alfred, M. V. (2010). Transnational migration, social capital and lifelong learning in the USA. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 29(2), 219-235.
Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Dantley, M. E. (2003). Purpose-driven leadership the spiritual imperative to guiding schools beyond high-stakes testing and minimum proficiency. Education and Urban Society, 35(3), 273-291.
Dillard, C. B., Abdur-Rashid, D., & Tyson, C. A. (2000). My soul is a witness: Affirming pedagogies of the spirit. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5), 447-462.
Edmondson, B. (2006). The myth of black immigrant privilege. Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, 4(1), 16.
Hernandez, K. (2013). Beyond scholarship to social action: Stepping away from the podium and into the penitentiary. Paper Presented at the 9th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, Urbana-Champaign.
Hill, P. C., Pargament, K. I., Hood, R. W., McCullough, M. E., Swyers, J. P., Larson, D. B., Zinnbauer, B. J. (2000). Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 30(1), 51-77.
Jones, S. N. (2003). The Praxis of Black Female Educational Leadership from a Systems Thinking Perspective, (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Bowling Gree, OH: Bowling Green State University.
Lynn, M. (2001). Portraits in black: Storying the lives and pedagogies of black men educators (doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 319.
McClellan, P. A. (2006). Wearing the Mantle: Spirited Black Male Servant Leaders Reflect on their Leadership Journey,
Mitroff, I. I., & Denton, E. A. (1999). A spiritual audit of corporate America: A hard look at spirituality, religion, and values in the workplace Jossey-Bass.
Murtadha-Watts, K. (1999). Spirited sisters: Spirituality and the activism of African American women in educational leadership. In L. T. Fenwick and P. Jenlink (Ed.), School leadership: Expanding the horizons of the mind and spirit (pp. 155-167). Lancaster: Technomic Publishing Company, Inc.
Ngunjiri, F. W. (2010). Lessons in spiritual leadership from Kenyan women. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(6), 755-768.
Opp, R. D., & Gosetti, P. P. (2002). Equity for women administrators of color in 2-year colleges: Progress and prospects. Community College Journal of Research &Practice, 26(7-8), 591-608.
Pargament, K. I. (1999). The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and no. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 9, 3-16.
Poplin, M. (2008). Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa taught me about meaningful work and service. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.
Thomas, G. D., & Hollenshead, C. (2001). Resisting from the margins: The coping strategies of black women and other women of color faculty members at a research university. Journal of Negro Education, 166-175.
Turner, C. S. V. (2002). Women of color in academe: Living with multiple marginality. Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 74-93.
Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., Cole, B., Rye, M. S., Butter, E. M., Belavich, T. G., . . . Kadar, J. L. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 549-564.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

6 − = zero