No More Applause, Please!

By Lawrence Q. Alexander II

nomoreapplauseNACAC has now hosted three sessions of our Antiracist Education Institute and served more than 700 professionals. As I reflect on our work so far, I'm reminded of the story of the Amazing Blendini—the death-defying, high-wire, tightrope walker.

His story has so many lessons to offer, and it goes something like this:

After a rousing night of entertainment at the circus, the ringmaster, dressed to the nines with fancy robes and slick, leather shoes (which he can wear because he’s only announcing the acts, he won’t actually be performing himself) comes out to present the final act of the evening—the Amazing Blendini!

The crowd goes wild and a reverberating cascade of applause fills every corner of the big tent. The Amazing Blendini takes center stage and scales a high-wire apparatus that is at least 30 feet above the ground. The crowd holds its collective breath as even the ascent bespeaks the danger associated with the evening's final performance. Once Blendini reaches the platform high above, the crowd begins to applaud again, but this time, the ringmaster admonishes them, "No more applause, please! The Great Blendini needs complete silence in order to focus on this death-defying sequence."

From above, Blendini asks the crowd, "How many of you believe that I can walk safely across this tightrope from one side of the platform to the other?" The crowd members immediately respond by applauding, but soon remember the admonishment of the ringmaster and instead quietly offer their approval--some nod, some give a thumbs-up. Blendini then scoots across the tightrope with all of the agility of a house cat--the crowd offers its approval.

Next, Blendini reaches for a unicycle and asks the crowd again, "How many of you believe I can make it across?" The seated audience again offers its approval and Blendini successfully crosses the high-wire. With the full confidence and attention of the crowd, Blendini prepares for his final pass of the evening--the crescendo of the performance. He takes firm hold of a wheelbarrow and pushes it toward the tightrope. He then stops and asks the crowd: "By a show of hands, how many of you believe that I can push this wheelbarrow safely across the tightrope?"

Fully invested, the audience members raise their hands in unanimity. That's when the Amazing Blendini knows he has them and asks the most powerful question of the evening: "Since all of you believe that I can do it, who will join me up here and get in the wheelbarrow while I push?" The crowd fell deafeningly silent. It seemed they only wanted to be entertained; they did not intend to participate.

The challenge of antiracism, equity, inclusion, and justice work in college admission is to coax those who only came to be entertained, to participate. As the ringmaster implored—"No more applause, please!" When it comes to doing the work, hold the applause, roll up your sleeves, get in the wheelbarrow, and help us push!

The story of the Amazing Blendini is, after all, an allegory. Blendini was a performer in the circus, a hired hand, if you will—someone who was meant to entertain the crowd while the ringmaster enjoyed the show, safely on the ground. For far too long in our profession, people of color, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and white allies have been the calloused "drum majors for justice." In their respective offices, many have had to serve as the "only and the lonely" voices for systemic change—and many have filled that role while white-knuckling in fear that their advocacy and their professional futures were antithetical to one another. How do we create a more critical mass of college admission and enrollment management leaders who can reimagine our profession through a more just, equitable, and inclusive lens? How do we hold the profession that we love accountable while looking ourselves squarely in the mirror? How do we come to terms with the fact that our very profession, predicated on access and inclusion for students, is neither accessible nor inclusive for its own professionals? Welp! That's what we've been talking about at NACAC's Antiracist Education Institute!

So far, each session challenged us to grow while offering practical solutions for leading our profession forward. For our recent session on inclusive hiring, I was particularly encouraged that the vast majority of attendees were either hiring managers or colleagues who served on search committees.

Since that time, I've been involved in a number of conversations with admission and enrollment management professionals around the country who are fundamentally reimagining their staffing, recruitment, and retention practices through an equity lens. I have to shout out two institutions in particular—Clark University (MA) and Amherst College (MA). Meredith Twombly and her admission team at Clark are looking to make equity, inclusion, and access work part of a senior leadership position—a crucial step in elevating the importance of the work. Too often, access and inclusion efforts in admission offices are relegated to entry and mid-level professionals who seldom have the agency to effect change. I'd also like to highlight Matt McGann and Gail Holt at Amherst as they seek to embed the work of equity, access, and inclusion within the senior level of the college's financial aid team. Financial aid is often left out of the access and inclusion conversation, yet it is a department and function that is consequential for our most underserved students.

There are a lot of great opportunities ahead for us and for our profession. We just have to hold fast to the idea that now is always and never the right time for some…we’ve just got to decide who we’ll be. We can be the cheering, comfortable, complacent circus crowd; the well-dressed ringmaster who basks in unearned applause; or we can join the Amazing Blendini.

No more applause, please!

Lawrence Q. Alexander II is director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Carney, Sandoe & Associates and the lead facilitator for NACAC's Antiracist Education Institute.

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