“Boldly Transforming Higher Education” – the Role of the Strategic Imperative

Written By: Brandii Halliburton and Chris Ambrose

During the ACPA 2019 Convention, our Association was charged with how we can all boldly transform higher education. ACPA sets itself apart through its focus and attention on the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. No system, even those within the realm of Higher Education, escapes the realities of inequity and injustice which have unfairly continued to marginalize Indigenous and racially minoritized peoples. It is important, now more than ever, to capitalize on the unique opportunities present on college and university campuses where Student Affairs professionals can engage in this work directly. As we begin to see more possibilities in the work we can change, we begin to conceptualize that we all have a role to play in confronting racial injustice and colonization head on.

In November 2016, ACPA leaders met to strategically plan for years ahead and found themselves emboldened to be agents of change, especially as it related to issues surrounding racial justice. The Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice was introduced to the larger ACPA membership during the 2017 Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Shortly after the 2017 Convention, the Strategic Imperative was updated to include Decolonization as ACPA began to think more broadly about on-going violence toward Native, Indigenous, Aboriginal, and First Nations people around the world. At this point, the once Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice became the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization.

It is evident that ACPA members were engaging with the Strategic Imperative in meaningful ways, but craved more structure around how to successfully accomplish the Strategic Imperative both as a professional and at their institution. Having heard the voices of their members, ACPA leadership and their affiliates gathered in Detroit in 2018 to more clearly conceptualize the Strategic Imperative in tangible ways for educators across the board. As a result of this meeting, ACPA created and published A Bold Vision Forward: A Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. While this framework does not serve as a checklist, it offers salient practices and steps one can take to engage with the Strategic Imperative in new, meaningful ways.

Strategies for infusing the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization into our work as Student Affairs Professionals.

In wrapping up our time at the 2019 ACPA national conference, the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization (SIRJD) appeared to be the main focus in most panels and the opening and closing ceremonies. We engaged in meaningful dialogue amongst colleagues near and far, which resulted in us feeling refreshed, refueled, and ready to return to our campuses and continue to do impactful work in our halls. Now that you have read the SIRJD, you may ask “where does this leave us now and how can I utilize its foundational principles in my day to day work?” In the next couple of paragraphs, we will be discussing ways to incorporate the SIRJD into your daily functions in housing and on-campus in general in order to become the leaders we have been waiting for.

Imperative Values

In reading the SIRJD, there are three key and interconnected values that are infused through each of the principles. These values are the foundation of the imperative and are important for us as professionals to process through before truly diving into the work: building self-awareness, understanding that love is foundational to justice, and recognizing history and how it is infused in the present.

Building Self-awareness

Self-awareness is one of the most important, yet difficult, parts in doing socially just work. It requires us to reflect on our own experiences that often reveal biases, privileges, oppression, and trauma that are connected to our identities. Self-awareness is a continuous journey that requires reflection during multiple stages and changes in our lives. Without having a deep understanding of ourselves, we cannot know or understand who our students are; therefore we cannot adequately advocate for them and break down the systems of oppression deeply rooted in our institutions.

The imperative also connects our self-awareness to our understanding of personal agency and cultural humility. Personal agency puts the responsibility on us instead of believing that this work is for someone else. Often times, we assume that this work is meant for someone with more knowledge, experience, and expertise than us. This is a myth. As quoted in the SIRJD “Agency allows us to engage in ordinary acts aimed at extraordinary change.” In reflection, are there strategies or methods you can use in your home institutions to facilitate self-awareness for yourself and those around you?

Reconciling with the Past

Reconciling with the past and acknowledging the legacy of colonialism in society and our institutions of higher education is extremely necessary for healing ourselves and helping others heal as well. Without this acknowledgment, we will continue to fall victim of repeating the harm and violence done to indigenous peoples and people of color done in the past. Acknowledgment and recognition are key in helping us truly be able to create change in this colonialist society. Two key concepts in reconciliation discussed in the imperative that would be beneficial to us as professionals include:

  • Land Acknowledgment
  • Engaging in conversations around forced land removal and land occupation

As stated in the SIRJD, “The university system itself is a project of the settler colonial system and while Indigenous land is the literal foundation of the university, it is often the least discussed or examined element within university leadership (Yang, 2017)”. It will be impossible to move forward and dismantle these oppressive systems without acknowledging the violent principles and genocide in which our institutions and this nation were founded on. Moving forward, history must be infused in the work that we do for ourselves and our students if justice is truly what we strive for. We challenge you all to research, learn, and understand the land that your own institutions stand on and the history that comes with it. This acknowledgment will be difficult and come with discomfort but the SIRJD encourages us to sit with and engage with this discomfort.

Love is foundational to Justice

In the imperative, the authors speak about love working in congruence with anger and that both emotions are valid. Love is described as an action and there are many ways for us as professionals to demonstrate this love towards our students and colleagues, particularly those doing the work of social justice and who hold marginalized identities. Love can take shape in many forms. Not just in romantic relationships but also in friendships, extended family, and through professional networks and kinship. The authors in the imperative remind us that “We must not only resent and be angered at injustice; we must simultaneously be in love with justice, and we must love each other.” It is not enough for our fight for justice to be rooted only anger, as that will lead to complete exhaustion before reaching our goals. Love reminds us to care for one another and invest in those around us. Both love and anger play important roles in the fight for Racial Justice and Decolonization.

Implementation within Housing

After reading through and processing the meaning of these values, it is important to understand how we as housing professionals are able to implement them into our work. One benefit of working in housing is the level of access that we have to our students, especially those of us that live-on. In addition to supervising student staff, we also have the opportunity to work with student leaders such as building council(s), and also engage with residents in their halls through programming, etc. All of these opportunities for access enable us to help ourselves but also help our students understand self-awareness and critical consciousness. As housing and residential life professionals, we need to ensure that our halls are high functioning environments with spaces for open dialogue focused on the principles and values of the SIRJD.

One way to start a foundational supportive dialogue that is focused on self-awareness, acknowledges history and is love is through Restorative Practices; specifically through Circling. The SIRJD brings up a point in how many of the teaching practices in our institutions are products of colonialism, specifically centered on the concept of “Banking”. According to the SIRJD, Banking assumes our students have little knowledge or experience of the given subject when they enter the space. It frames the educators as experts and assures students are not capable of contributing knowledge. Instead, the imperative suggests that we move towards the framework of Problem-posing. Problem-posing de-centers power and authority in the space and redistribute to the students. It gives students the agency to contribute meaningful knowledge and dialogue. The SIRJD also describes Problem-posing as a method that centers liberation as a goal, views students as contributors to the space, and encourages them to question and challenge knowledge. One method of Restorative Practices Circling that would best fit here is the process of intergroup dialogue between two or more social identity groups with the goal of increasing awareness about social inequalities at the macro and micro level. Restorative Practices comes with a set of restorative questions to help guide the conversation on the path of healing and learning. Through this approach, we as housing professionals can provide spaces for students and colleagues to begin the humanization process, emphasize agency, develop authentic relationships through storytelling, and also develop our levels of self-awareness.


We hope our reflections can serve as a catalyst to you as you think critically within yourself and within your work about how you engage with the Strategic Imperative. As outlined, the Guiding Document offers strategies that we can use in our daily lives and in the work we do with students. As the Document alludes, this does not serve as a checklist or a solution, but rather an understanding that we are all “becoming the leaders we have been waiting for.” We encourage you to respond back to us letting us know how you are engaging with the Strategic Imperative in your work.

Peer, A. (2019). Restorative Practices: Words to Know [Training handout].

Towson, MD: Towson University, Restorative Practices Training.

Quaye, S. J., Aho, R. E., Jacob, M. B., Domingue, A. D., Guido, F. M., Lange, A. C., Stewart, D. (2019, February 4). A Bold Vision Forward: A Framework for the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization [Scholarly project]. In ACPA Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization. Retrieved from http://www.myacpa.org/sirjd

Yang, K.W. (2017). A third university is possible. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 



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