Stonecatchers: The power of empathy in supervision by Laura Arroyo

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Over the past 10+ years working within higher education, I have had the distinct pleasure to serve on a number of professional opportunities outside of my immediate area of practice in Residence Life. Without question, one of the most defining experiences has been serving as the student life representative on the first year common read committee at Elon University.

First year common read programs, when done well, can be incredibly impactful to creating a cohort experience for first year students upon their arrival to college, and at Elon which is a small private, liberal arts college, this is definitely the goal. Elon’s common read selection is chosen based on books which are nominated for selection by all faculty, staff, students, and alumni; just about anyone connected with the university can nominate a book. The Elon common read committee itself is made up of faculty, staff and students, and ultimately it has one fixed, salient goal— to choose a meaningful book that will resonate with students, staff and faculty across disciplines, one not only culturally relevant, but also forward moving in spirit and design.

The current Elon common read for the 15-16 academic year is “Why We Can’t Wait,” the recollection of nonviolent protest by Martin Luther King Jr. This book touches on the history of the civil rights movement and includes the full script of the letter from the Birmingham Jail; the timeless language and spirit brought to life current events across the nation including protests within Ferguson, Baltimore and the University of Missouri. As the passion of MLK’s prose jumped off the page, I saw students, staff and faculty came together for a single purpose, interwoven meaning and unity. This book meant something to us— it inspired dialogue, discourse and meaningful personal identity work. In short, the common read committee had our work cut out for us in choosing a follow up.

Serving on a faculty driven committee is an interesting thing, one which I strongly suggest you do within your professional journey. Faculty doesn’t care how you reach your decision— just that you have reached a decision—and then majority ultimately rules. It is somewhat liberating, this notion that a group of professionals do not have to collectively agree on an outcome, but an outcome can still be reached. However, after all of the book reviews, the Elon common read committee ended up rejecting all nominated book entries. To my knowledge this outcome had never occurred, we had always been able to choose a book from the original proposed list. But the stakes felt so high, we were trying to follow up Martin Luther King after all! What then resulted was a flurry of research, discussion, goal development and mission review.

I learned a great deal during this time, about my own personal bias, the importance of a clear vision and committee purpose, and to not be afraid of standing behind what I believed students needed, even when that meant standing up to tenured and respected faculty.

 

Ultimately, the committee had to refocus on what they really wanted to see in a common read, go back to its goal and find a book that encompasses that. At the root of our discussion, it became clear that what we wanted has a secondary goal; we wanted a book to continue and deepen the discussion of race, privilege, and discrimination occurring within our university and our nation. After much discussion and review, the book “Just Mercy,” by lawyer and civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, was ultimately selected.

I have spent a large part of my professional career in residence life, but my professional journey started long before this. My background and experience originated in clinical social work, specifically in individual psychoanalytic theory, where paths are mulled over and multiple journeys are explored slowly. Counseling helped me learn a great deal, it taught me how powerful the process of finding truth can be, how everyone deserves and needs a confidential place to vent, process and learn. It taught me that a good counselor serves as a mirror, constantly reflecting back to the client what is said, and unsaid. However, I also found the work in the therapist chair to be physically and emotionally constraining, Slow down I was told, the answers were to be found in the journey. I understood what my mentor was trying to teach me, that the client has to find their own answer themselves without too much (or too little) direction from the therapist or they would never truly own the plan.

And yet, I still felt something was missing, I wanted to provide deeper meaning through my own personal narrative, I wanted to help a client pinpoint mistakes that were looming in their horizon in a more direct way, and then not be afraid to push, challenge and dig in. I found residence life by chance during that time, and I was refreshed by the honesty that can come within mentorship and supervision—I could still help people, but with less rules and more honest sharing and dialogue.

 

I was hooked, my movement from counseling to residence life was swift and without hesitation.While I have certainly learned a great deal in higher education, over the past few years I have increasingly begun to wonder what my lasting contribution to this field will be, but ironically, the book Just Mercy has reunited me with the passion of why I am here, and continue to come to work every single day—to mentor and supervisor through empathy. Just Mercy is a collective of stories of humans on death row and Bryan Stevenson’s work fighting injustice within the criminal justice system, particularly for African Americans. It is an eye opening book of systematic and structural racism, bias, personal character, and human resilience. There are so many parts of this book that resonate with me, but overall, this book promotes the idea that we are more than the worst things we have done in our life— we are imperfect, flawed human beings void of perfection. Through those flaws, we are all deserving of mercy.

Empathy

As I read I began to wonder how we as supervisors, mentors and guides of this journey take the time and space to adequately develop a staff member. One of my supervisees calls this “Life Chats with Laura,” the idea that I as a supervisor am completely incapable of not pulling the elephant into the room, dissecting the challenges that rest right under the surface, pinning a star on the things that we least want to address but know we have to confront. I have actually come to now warn new supervisees of these conversations that will undoubtedly happen once the door is closed and the tissue box placed on the table. I warn that should they NOT want to go there, I can indeed restrain myself and keep the relationship focused solely on professional merit. I rarely need to remain steadfast however, in my experience, we as humans are looking to dig deep, we just may not know how, and these need someone, a supervisor or mentor, to help them dig deeper and question their thought, intent, meaning and purpose.

In “Just Mercy,” stonecatchers are described as people whose sole function on this earth is to act as a deflector, a mirror if you will, they help to bring the distorted into focus, question the road untraveled to challenge and create moments of deeper learning. Often times these individuals are very resilient due to their own difficult story, which informs their practice and care for others. This personal narrative brings great perspective, an ability to resonate with others, and practice guided by empathy. In essence, by helping others, stonecatchers also help themselves. A quote from “Just Mercy” explaining the idea of a stonecatcher—“I’ve been singing sad songs my whole life. Had to. When you are a stonecatcher, even happy songs make you sad. But you keep singing. Your songs will make you strong. They might even make you happy.”

I believe that this is my guiding purpose within supervision and mentorship, to function as a stonecatcher.

In my ideal world, supervision would be at the heart of all the work that we strive to do, it would indeed be the very last thing we push to the side.

 

But does this truly happen within our daily work? Do we actively strive to push others to their own greatness? The call to rise is a strong one, but the day to day monotony of this work and the perceived rules of professionalism often get in the way of our best of intentions. Do we truly see our fellow professionals and not shy away from the work and commitment that confronting challenge can clearly take? How can we all serve as stonecatchers—collect emotion within a room, move toward empathy, and then diffuse these emotions into greater learning for both the supervisee and for oneself?

Supervision is a gift, a gift that I believe we are sadly wasting, and this is the call that I make to our field— to truly make impactful change for students, we need to put the best of our intentions in the right place by refocusing our time, effort and impact back on identity work, back on the power of supervision, and back on the power of empathy within humanity.

I call you to consider three questions in your next supervision moment:

  • What are the things left unsaid? I dare you to dig deeper because there are always things left unsaid within this work.
  • How can you really “go there?” What would happen if you did and what are your fears about doing so?
  • How can you serve as a stonecatcher right now, during this very moment, in your professional life?

Congruency in our work starts in understanding self, accepting our faults, developing empathetic practice. This, I believe, leads to mercy, and in the end, acceptance, of the beautiful gift which is humankind. This call for change is where I leave you.

 

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Laura Arroyo currently serves as the Associate Director for Residential Education at Elon University and has worked within Residence Life for over the past 10 years. Her current position oversees supervision of professional staff, residential education including training, recruitment and selection, living learning communities, faculty collaboration and assessment. She is currently the Chair-Elect for the ACPA Commission for Housing and Residential Life.

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