By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
I lost a colleague from this side of the heavens on December 28, 2018. I said my last goodbye in person on December 19th, nine days before her passing, and I knew then that the end was probably near though I hoped for a different result. So I knew when our mutual friend texted in the very early hours of December 28th what the sad news was before I even returned the call.
Charlease Kelly-Jackson was 42 years young. A fierce mom of two. A loving daughter. A loyal sister in a family full of brothers. And a badass scholar in the STEM world.
Before I wax nostalgic about our relationship, let me be clear that my post is not meant as a tribute piece. I could never properly capture Charlease’s impact. Furthermore, tributes are often written by those who are closest to the deceased. I do not want to exaggerate our closeness. I find it offensive after someone’s passing when folks mischaracterize relationships. We did not have a girlfriend’s type of friendship. We never took a trip, had drinks after hours, went to the nail salon, or did retail therapy together. I characterize our relationship of several years in a different way.
I call myself her older academic sister—though her footprint in the field of STEM grants outsized us all. And this is the relationship I wish to highlight in this post. I remember our first lunch; a colleague who knew us both separately thought I might be able to ease her transition to our university—this place can be culture shock for even the most seasoned academics.
I don’t know if I eased her transition with the advice I gave that day, but we became closer as a result of some mentoring through her tenure and promotion process. In the last few years, I have found that mentoring, especially as it relates to getting underrepresented faculty tenured and promoted, is one way to advance my commitment to social justice.
We developed our professional relationship through our work with a small group of public schools our college partnered with; she worked at the elementary schools and I worked at the high school. We both felt at home in these schools, working to better prepare teachers for “our” kids. I pride myself on knowing how to work respectfully and thoughtfully with teachers, families, and communities. But Charlease had me beat. Every. Single. Time. She had five schools, I only had one. We often joked that we worked with our teacher colleagues much more easily than our university colleagues.
Our closeness came through countless phone calls. I can hear her fast talking now.
Guillory, you got a minute? I have a situation and I need your advice…
Guillory, am I making too much out of…
Guillory, let me read this email to you so you can tell me how to respond before I go off…
Guillory, have you worked with such and such before? She’s asked me to do a grant with her…
Let me pause here to say that many women of color in the academy will be familiar with the topics of these exchanges. They come from having to navigate a higher education system where our experiences, regardless of institution, go something like this: Woman of color enters the academic space. Woman of color works and works and works some more. Woman of color is dismissed/devalued/disrespected. Rinse and repeat.
Women of color find myriad ways to survive this cycle, and one important strategy is to seek support from other women of color who have traveled our same path. We offer advice, an encouraging place to land, and knowing affirmation while we help each other make sense of our individual experiences within a system that too often diminishes our humanity.
Charlease was not always receptive to my suggestions, but she always accepted them. We had this familiar process. She called for advice. I’d give advice. She’d argue with me about the advice. I reminded her that she called me for the advice, and I’d ask her again if she really wanted it. After she was less mad, she’d tell me that her mom told her to do the same thing that I had just suggested. And I always reminded her that her academic big sister might not always be right, but her mama always was.
And then there were the heads-up phone calls. You know how we do. We call each other to share important information which helps us to navigate an unexpected or difficult situation because there’s never a shortage of struggle for women of color in toxic, oppressive academic spaces.
And then there were the calls for the last two and a half years that were mostly about her cancer, its effect on her children, and the full-time battle she waged on top of an already over-full plate. She kept me informed—I feel privileged that she trusted me to know some of what she went through at each stage of a new treatment plan, a new clinical trial, another doctor’s opinion.
I wish for any one of those calls now. I wish she was on this side of the heavens. As is often the case in the aftermath of death, you reach clarity, which has been the case with me too. What seemed big at work before I left for the holiday break seems really small now, so inconsequential in comparison, especially when I think about Charlease’s family.
And perhaps this is why I felt compelled to write this post. To make a public promise to continue to mentor others in her name. To answer the late night call to dictate an email that settles a stressful situation before morning, to weigh options when a new work request comes through, to mirror someone’s worth back to her, to pay forward all the laughs we had together.
And to remind us—and myself especially—that mentoring relationships have a lasting impact on the mentor too.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.