When gunshots are louder than graphs: The plight of the modern academic

[ April 27, 2016]

When I walked into the office on Monday, it was an unusually somber tone. Our Racial Empowerment Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania is involved in various programming throughout Philadelphia, and I was informed that a student in one of our groups was murdered over the weekend by gunfire. The youth was a former classroom student of the group leader so he was particularly affected.

When the office cleared out, I looked at the large computer monitor that I promised to fill up with words and figures and statistics. But it kinda mocked me in that moment. “What does your paper have to do with the realities of these families and kids on these streets? How does a paper that takes 2 years to hit actually do any good? What’s your purpose? Riana??”

I have been caught in an expected but difficult cycle throughout my postdoctoral experience — attempting to figure out what I am supposed to do with my life.

I know that there are certain aspects of academia and government that appeal to me, but then I hear it. The shots that ring out. And not just in Philly. In Atlanta. In Detroit. DC. Baltimore. All of the places I’ve lived and worked. They’re everywhere.

I’m up here in this office trying to format graphs to align with APA standards while gunshots are echoing in the landscape of cities that are near and dear to my heart. And, every once in a while, the person at the receiving end of the gunfire is one of the babies that I have taught, had group with, been a psychologist to…

Although the student in this tragedy was not my student, I found it important to go to the school the next day to help with any grief that may be present among the group. I don’t know why I’m always shocked when this happens, but the youth blew me away with their profundity and awareness. To note that death is coming closer and closer because it has reached someone at his very school, or that one can be both dead and alive after 21 if you didn’t plan to live past that age, or to query what the comeback line is to death? Man, listen…

I was reinvigorated for clinical work in that moment, resonating with the young men’s statements and feeling like I was simultaneously hopeless and on hope road. But I also realized that no matter how many groups I sat in on, I would never reach every person who would be impacted by gun violence.

So where’s the happy medium? Where do I make my impact? What can I do that will contribute to the lives of the Black people who mean so much to me while also informing others about best practices in the meantime?

I know I typically tie my writing up with a nice bow, but that’s not my mood today. I don’t have an answer. No solution. And for the most part, I feel like I haven’t made much of a difference in the lives of Black people, even with a degree and some fancy institutions behind me. I want to contribute to the people who got me into this work in the first place — to the babysitting neighbor shot in front of my house when I was a kid, to the students I pray for every night to not be in the obituaries the next day, to the kid I would’ve been had my mom not snatched me up from around the corner every time I biked too far. Where is that Riana supposed to work? What is she supposed to do…format more graphs?

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