In this first episode of What's Your Truth, Jordan gets real with Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Willie Fleming and Associate Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Compliance Jordyne Blaise. They talk about pivotal moments in their lives, the legacies they want to leave, and answer the question: "What's your truth?"
Jordan: Hey everybody. This is Jordan. And welcome to the first episode of ‘What’s Your Truth?’. I’m on a journey. I’m on a journey to find truth in this universe. And I’m not talking about the little tea truth, the truth that’s for me or for you. I’m talking about the big tea truth, the truth that exist in this universe. That’s true for me, that’s true for everybody, that’s true for everything.-- I’m a therapist. I’m a family therapist, and I believe and the only thing I believe in this world, the only truth I have that is true for me and true for everyone and the truth that I stand up in that does not have exceptions is that love and violence cannot exist together.-- Other than that, everything in my life has exceptions, but just because I don’t KNOW that truth doesn't mean it doesn’t exist. So I'm on a journey, I'm searching, I want your help, I need your help. Help me find truth.-- So in this episode of the podcast, I sat down with Dr. Willie Fleming, Chief Diversity Officer at Appalachian State University, and Jordyne Blaise, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Compliance. And it was a really interesting conversation. Jordyne brought up something that I’ve never been able to- give words to. This idea of expanding articulation, almost how we perform who we are within our own identities and I exist in this world as black and male and a therapist and administrator and all of these great things, but you know when people see me they don’t expect what they see. And so I really liked what Jordyne was talking about in her expanding of articulation, and it’s always a pleasure to have Dr. Willie Fleming on--- he’s also a counselor like myself so, it’s a great conversation and I hope yall enjoy.
Jordan: Alright, Dr. Willie Fleming thank you for being here sir.
Dr. Willie Fleming: Good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Jordan: And Jordyne Blaise, thank you so much for being here.
Jordyne: Thank you for having me.
Jordan: To get us started, and I, I'm gonna tell a very short story and I'm curious about your experience. So existing as --- black and on this campus and who I am and on this campus and in this world, I often, you know I get through, I have experiences that are different from others. Even just today, I was at a meeting-- where I knew it was gonna be tough, I knew when I got to the meeting there was gonna be some unfamiliar faces, some people who didn't look like me and you know we’ve all had to manage that but for me in this moment, for whatever reason, maybe it’s cause I didn’t have breakfast or lunch. I got into this room knowing that I didn’t have the answers they were going to be looking for, and before I could help myself, I said to them “So, I’m up here to dance about this for a little while and do my best but” and then I kept going and it was, it was like almost one of those moments of “oh my god that actually came out of my mouth” I can’t believe I'm talking about dancing for these-- cause I knew it was gonna be in front of a bunch of, you know, white folks, who are perfectly nice people and I-- you know again have these experiences that come along with me, but it leaped out in a way that I was like “Oh God this is how we started”. So my first question for you and thinking about your truth and your beliefs about the world and how the world works and what you do and all that is,-- are there moments that it leaps out sometimes?
Dr. Willie Fleming: That I'm a man of color? That I'm a black man?
Jordan: Yeah! And that experience comes out when you’re not expecting it to.
Dr. Willie Fleming: I am aware of my blackness every day of my life. And-- it depends upon where I am and where I'm going, whether that awareness is a good experience or a bad experience.-- However, on the inside of me, it’s always good to be black, and it’s always okay-- but I'm always super hyper vigilant, and aware that-- my response, unfortunately, represents all of my race in certain situations.
Dr. Willie Fleming: And it should not have to. -- and so yes I am very aware of that. Very aware of it.
Jordyne: I would say-- I have sort of the unique experience at the table here that I interspace as both black and a woman. And so --- sort of consistently being cognisant of the intersection of that experience. I would say yes there is times that it spills out or leaps out or that I might think to myself “Oh is it okay that I said that?”. --But I think that, that is a really enriching part of my experience and my identity that I think if more people were aware of what spilled out and leaked out, that I think we would avoid a lot of uncomfortable situations that don’t have to be that way if people were more cognisant of who they are and what they bring into spaces that they enter. So, I-- yes it happens and my hope is that it-- I don’t look at that as a bad thing, I really do hope it keeps happening because it means that there’s a check happening. With something that comes out of my mouth, something I say or something I do, there's some check that I'm saying “Oh is this okay? Is what I'm doing okay? Is this problematic? Is this challenging?” and I'm working through it.
Jordan: Right. So you hope it keeps happening where as for me I'm terrified that it’s happening like I-- How do I get to be like you?
Jordyne:--Well because I mean I-- ya know when and where I enter right and Julia Cooper told me When and where I enter-- my race and my sex enter with me. And so-- I don’t-- I don’t know how I got here, but I think it’s a place that I am comfortable and that I accept as a status quo for me and I feel like if it is happening, if I'm thinking about it, that means that I'm bringing the fullness of myself with me and if it’s not happening, then somewhere, I left some part of me behind and I never wanna enter spaces that way.
Dr. Willie Fleming: I agree, and -- when I hear Jordyne say that, I think about my favorite author, Langston Hughes, who wrote “I too sing America”. And son I welcome that whether it’s a positive or negative experience. I welcome that my uniqueness and who I am, I bring all of me into an experience. You know as therapists we both know that we take all of who we are into a situation. We may not express all of who we are.
Dr. Willie Fleming: But we take all of who we are into every situation we go into.
Jordan: So, in the spirit of this podcast being ‘What’s Your Truth?” the big things I'm curious about from the both of you is -- you know your truth. Like, what is your big truth for you in your life in your existence? Like how do you see it? How do you live it? How do you breathe it? I’m curious for you, What’s your truth that you bring everywhere you go?
Jordyne: I would say for me, my truth is -- quite simply I’m worthy. And you’re worthy. Cause you’re here.-- I think it’s quite simple thing but to me it is a sense that I'm worthy without qualification. And I think I happen to be very fortunate that I do have a lot of those qualifications that I think the society, that we are currently in, sees as worthy. You know -- I'm educated. I make a certain amount of money. I dress a certain way. I am-- and so I think when I enter spaces I think people see that and I -- in some, in many ways, I get to be worthy. But I never want to forget that I'm worthy, not because of my degree or because of my job or because of my income I'm worthy because i exist and I carry that with me in my interactions with others so I can honor the place where they exist and that they exist because of who they are. And I think that helps me interrogate some really difficult and challenging questions about -- how do you support? How do you advocate for people in ways that is not convenient? They aren't the easy people to root for.
Jordan: How did you learn that cause that's not something necessarily that we are-- you know at least I don't think I was born with that. Believing that about myself. I still sometimes question that in me but, -- How did you learn that you’re worthy -- without qualification? I thought that was very important.
Jordyne: -- I think that it’s sort of a combination of a lot of things. I think that I had a really interesting childhood. I’m-- Afro-Carribean background. My family is Haitian and so if there are any sort of -- I think children from immigrant families. So, particularly from the continent of Africa in particular and I think I also I could say South Asia, and Asian immigrant children as well as Afro-Caribbean and Caribbean children tend to have this experience of like, you get straight A’s-- you know a B might as well be an F and if you don't get straight A’s don't come home. You know there's a lot of kind of heavy stuff that comes along with that and so it certainly made me really hard working. It made me a perfectionist. It made me-- a really strong and talented learner. But I think as both therapists you probably are familiar with stories of people for the first time seeking therapy because they get to college and they have this experience of like “Oh you know I failed. What is it like to fail for the first time?” and that causes a fair amount of trauma because you're getting these messages from your entire childhood that say it's not okay to fail. And I think for me a lot of my coming of age was really about that. About the concept that I am worthy of love, I’m worthy of care, I'm worthy of kindness. You know even if I fail in some way. And so I think it was a--sort of a opposite reaction to some of what I have experienced growing up and in my life.
Jordan: Mhm. What about you Willie?
Dr. Willie Fleming: I believe that love is the greatest and the most powerful emotion in the world. And every human being is worthy of love and how do we express that? And my definition of love is, or expressing love, because love is an action word for me, is that I allow the highest in me to relate to the highest in another human being. And I, when I say I love someone, whether it’s a friendship, whether it’s love for humanity, I'm always seeking out what’s best for that individual. And if you're my friend then I'm going to study you to see what it is that you’re working on and where you’re trying to go in life. And my goal is to be that support to you -- because I say I love you and when we love each other-- I loved your truth, I think you used the term love and -- Is it love and violence can’t exist together?
Jordan: Yup, that’s mine. That’s my only one.
Dr. Willie Fleming: Exactly, exactly. And so actually I feel the same way about love. Love, you hope the best for another human being-- and when you have that and when you have it you’re really seeking out the absolute best for the other person.
Jordan: So how did you get that then? How did you learn that?
Dr. Willie Fleming: I was modeled love everyday of my life until October the 16th from one individual and that was my mother. I’m one of ten children, and I saw her give her resources away so that I would have-- I saw her give her power away so that I would have. And you can’t be around that and not learn how to replicate that. And she made that so important -- that you just see someone in need, you help them. You don’t look for something back in return because it’ll happen to you, it’ll come back, and I found that to be true. You just give and you just do for others and-- and that individual may not be the person who returned love, matter fact that individual might return something to you pretty horrific, that’s really almost even evil if you will. However, I believe that in this universe, there is someone out there who will give you back what you gave. But you don't give it just to get it back, you give it just because it's the right thing to do. I remember my mom kept children in our community and were brought up very poor, and there were women that she kept their children and she knew that they didn't have the money to buy food for their children. So she would say “Don’t worry about that, just bring the baby and i’ll feed it.” and she fed children in the mornings and if they didn't have pampers or diapers, she made sure that they had what they needed and she’d never humiliate those mothers. Never humiliate them. Now those mothers who could afford it she wanted her money on pay day and she didn’t play with it. “You gon’ pay me”. But I was modeled. It was modeled before me everyday of my life and I was talking to a mentee and said that and it helps us to understand that people don’t give and don’t care, that they didn't get a chance to have that experience, and I was sharing that I saw love everyday of my life and I see it all the time now too. But from that one individual I either heard it, saw it -- and it was a beautiful thing.
Jordan: So and the hard part, at least the hard part in my eyes for you is --like you know I'm worthy and everyone is worthy of love.
Dr. Willie Fleming: Everyone.
Jordan: How do you then, in this world that we exist in, bring that to your job and what you do on campus. Like how, how does that fit in and what does that look like for you in your job? For me, you spoke Willie about my truth, my only truth being that love and violence can’t exist together at the same time. Like I think at least for me, you know I'm a therapist, it's pretty easy, I can -- look across a room and say to a couple and be like “Hey” and who’s really gonna say anything to me about that like I don't really think anybody is gonna fight me on that in the same way. But, you know “I’m worthy” and “Everyone is worthy of love” in what YOU do seems like it might be -- a little difficult to pull off all the time. So how does that look in what you do? Does that question make sense?
Jordyne: Yes. It's actually easier than it probably looks on the surface for me because you know my work is about equity. People who come to me have experienced some harm. Now, some of my harm is to figure out whether that harm has met a certain standard under a policy. But whether I decide it has met a standard or not, their truth is really real. They’ve experienced something very real, very tangible, that has caused them some harm, some distress. And so what I want them to get away from the process is that they're worthy of the right to ask the question. And a lot of the people who come to me will come under the impression that “I don't think I'm allowed to ask this. I don't think I'm allowed to question whether something happened to me because of my race or because of my gender or because of my age. It feels wrong to pose the question.
Jordan: Wow. you may not even have access to that kind of answer.
Jordyne: what does it mean to have access to ask the question. You know depending on your national origin, people know-- you ask those questions and you can die. Like that can be in exchange for your life, and not too distant history in the United States, that also was the case. You weren't allowed to ask those questions, to challenge systems and to say “Something about this system has caused me harm, and I believe it's a harm that was done because of some identifying characteristics about myself” and so I find that the root of my work is really in this premise that you are worthy. Youre worthy of asking the questions, you are worthy of interrogating systems around you and you are worthy of an answer. And so a lot of my work is providing an answer. It may not be an answer that you like --but some of it is about --this is due to you. You’re due an answer because something somewhere went wrong where you experienced this. And how do we get you whole? And if it is the case where that happened because of your identifying characteristic then a lot of my work is around “How do I remedy that? How do I provide healing in my own way?”. I’m not a therapist, I don't get that gratification the same way but--
Jordan: I don't know if you'd call it gratification, would you Dr. Fleming?
Jordyne: I guess it depends, but so yes, to that extent I think it's an easier fit than it might seem on the surface.
Dr. Willie Fleming: Well, how do I express love? I actually never use that word in my work because even though I'm thinking in my mind empathic love that can come across as something inappropriate. However, the words that come out of my mouth that talks about everybody as worthy of love, we think about social justice, we think about inclusion. To borrow a word that Jordyne used I think about social justice, I think equity. In my role as chief diversity officer I’m thinking every person, every individual, deserves from this society an equitable, fair treatment, and chance and opportunity. And we used the term inclusion here but we always say “Inclusive Excellence”. And so when I think about inclusive excellence it means that all the excellence we have here in terms of bridging the gaps, in terms of academic achievement, what have you, theres excellence here. Everyone should be included in receiving that excellence. Everyone should has access to it. So, how do II show that and how do I do that? First, you don’t use the term love-- because you look pretty weird.
Jordan: Come on man, come on now.
Dr. Willie Fleming: I can’t go to my supervisor and say “I love you today” or my students.
Jordyne: Please don’t.
Jordan: Man, come on. Dark skin dude rolling up “I love you.”
Dr. Willie Fleming: Exactly. Or as handsome as I am ---you know.
Jordan: That might be confusing.
Dr. Willie Fleming: We might have a problem. But I can say to every person “You have a right to be here.”, “You have a right that, when you pay your tuition you should have a right to everything every other person who pays tuition here has access to. And so we need to be equitable, we need to be fair, and everyone should be included at this table. And we’re handing out excellence. Everybody should have a chance at getting some.
Jordan: Now I have a bit of a weird question. Those weren't weird enough. I believe that but for a few different decisions made for me and a few different decisions I made for myself, I could be anyone else in the world. I could be anyone. I’m curious for you, like what was the decision you made, or was made for you that got you here, in this moment, in this place. And I can tell you what it is for me and it’s little. My mother, back in highschool, I was late to class all the time. I was about to get suspended, principals had come in, you know called me out of class. I was coming in, it was first period, called me out of class, I'm in this room with all these principals they're telling me “You're gonna get suspended because you were late to class”. And I'm like “OK”. They said “I’m gonna call your mom” and then I was like “No, no, no, no. You don’t wanna do that. You don’t wanna call my mom.”. And it wasn’t because I was gonna get in trouble, it was because I knew my mom would come down there and then -- it would just be crazy. And so I would say-- I begged them, I said to them “Please don't call my mother. You don't wanna do that because if you call her. Then she’s gonna come here and I'm not gonna be suspended. So, I just wanna save your day, you know just don't do that.”. So “No we gotta call your mom” so fine, sent me back to class I said “Okay”. And then they called my mom and sure enough she came down there and there was all the principals and like some of the teachers and security guards, all in this one room. And so they called me in-- about fourth period, just like I said they would and I had the biggest grin on my face when I got in there because I knew-- I knew what my mom had done. And I was laughing and I said to one of the principals, in my own cocky, conceited, stupid way, I said to him “I told you. I tried to save your day. I tried to help you but you didn’t listen.” but anyway, I believe that moment right there when she stood up for me, when she came down there, when she came through for me in a way that I knew she would and a way that was so powerful for me because you know starts cycle and what not --- but I think that decision right there has more to do with me being at this space being at this table with the two of you than anything else right now in my life. So I'm curious for you. What was the decision, like if you could pinpoint one, what was the decision that was made for you or you made for yourself that got you here into this room right now?
Dr. Willie Fleming: Wow. I was a nerd in highschool. Middle School. Elementary School.
Jordan: Came out that way.
Dr. Willie Fleming: A nerd. -- I think what got me here really was that because I was a nerd, I didn't follow the crowd. And I was never easily influenced. I always had my own mind and so when there was a choice, and I also has a mother again who could swing a switch like -- nobody’s business
Jordan: Did she make you go pick one? Did she make you go pick it off the tree?
Dr. Willie Fleming: I wish I had the luxury. -- But I think a combination of things of that I have always been a very independent person and I always never cared about what the group though and pleasing the group. I always cared about making sure that I was kind to other individuals. But there are people in my life, and it seems like through life there was just someone stationed at every important juncture in life and if it had not been for that particular individual and it was like -- they were giving me the baton to go to the next -- and I really wish I could take credit for having the wisdom and the intelligence to get to a certain place but, I think the intelligence I had was that I knew what not to do. But there was always these wonderful people who were just, stationed. And I believe there are people that I have not met yet who are stationed and who are in place right now waiting for me to get to that next juncture.
Dr. Willie Fleming: I really believe that’s perfect. A perfect perfect word. Because I know people who had the same opportunities, much smarter, and they made some poor choices and I think that they wanted to go along to get along. And as black men we look at a lot of brothers and sisters who got caught up. So i wish I could take credit. I think I made some right decisions but I think i probably did more not making the wrong decisions, and significant folk and destiny.
Jordyne: I think I'm just fortunate to have not gotten caught, a lot of times. There are many people I know who have gotten caught doing far less than I have probably done in my lifetime, and I think I had the great fortune of missed connections. But i will say, I think one thing that i can point to that really shifted the trajectory of my life and really has a lot to do with why I'm sitting here in this space today; In elementary school I was apart of a gifted program and I went to a local elementary program in my neighborhood, I grew up in Miami, Florida. And I went to a gifted program and I was bussed two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays to -- a school very different from mine. So Tuesday morning I would hop on the bus, spend the day at the gifted program and come back to my neighborhood school and go home and then Wednesday, try to catch up on Tuesdays work. And it was a really dynamic program for me. I learned to speak Chinese. I took a law class. As a third grader, that was a really dynamic -- this was a really dope program. So, -- and it was really because my mom pushed and said test her, test her, and they let me in this program. But one of the things we had was this sort of hybrid drama music class, and we had this project to paint a piano. And so, I have some complex feelings about that, looking in hindsight.
Jordan: To paint a piano?
Jordyne: Yeah. So we got this kind of vintage piano.
Jordan: Oh! To actually paint a piano?
Jordyne: Correct. To decorate, yes yes. It was a piano. A playing piano that they bought from a thrift store somewhere and you know it was like a classic wood piano and they got us these different paints and you know we were gonna paint it and decorate it. And so here I was coming from Norland Elementary. Shoutout to Norland Elementary! -- Going to this elementary school, and one of my friends was with me. Her name is Kim, and I still know her to this day, she was also an attorney. In hindsight that must've been happened for the both of us. But, so me and Kim and some other members of the class are painting this paino. And Kim knocks over a cup of paint, and she spills it kind of on the keys of the piano, right? And so we got a really really traumatic response from the teachers. And they were very upset with us and typically you know teachers have a nice way of being disappointed and not angry but, they were angry. So in my mind, I'm like first of all why am I engaging in labor here? Like why am I painting a piano for you? And like why wouldn't you expect a third grader you know, to knock over paint? I feel like that's what children do. And so I really was troubled by-- and I remained trouble when you know adults expect children to make adult decisions as children, right? And so --- but there was some venom in their response toward us that struck me as very odd and very wrong. And it was something that I didn't quite know how to articulate then that I can articulate very clearly now, based on the work that I do. But they just didn't like us. I don't think the wanted us there, I don't think they liked us, and I think that very tiny opportunity was the opportunity for them to share their disdain for us and I said what is happening with everyone else in the classroom? Who’s watching this? Who’s watching us kind of-- be taken to task? And no one stood up, no one said “chill out”, no one said “That’s too much”, or anything. It was just us in that space. I didn’t feel like that was fair. And so then I started asking questions. And I think what got me to where I am today is I ask a lot of questions and so I wanted to know well “Why do I have to take a bus to go to this program and learn chinese and learn about the law?”, like “Why can’t I have that in my neighborhood with my neighborhood friends?”. “Why?” you know “Why am I engaging in labor? Why am I painting this for the benefit of everyone else? What does that mean?”
Jordan: You were painting a piano!
Jordyne: I just wanna know why! And so I asked the question, and I was fortunate enough to ask my mom the question, and my mom went up to the school and asked them the questions, and so I think that started me on a path of interrogating this question, What is equitable? What is just? What is moral? And what is my obligation to say something when I see something that unnerves me in that space?. And so, I think i’ve just continued to do that ever since.
Jordan: Wow, wow. So, wow, I’m just trying-- I’m imagining the spilling of the paint, like just oops, like you're right third grade, oops.
Jordyne: Yeah! And that can be hard on a third grader to be like “Oh man, I really messed this up.’’. And --did I feel worthy in that space? Did I feel like I belonged there after that? Did I feel like I was allowed to touch the paint or touch the piano?. That was a really-- it really sticks out in my mind like a sore thumb. I just never forget it, it was a very very defining moment in my life.
Jordan: Dr. Willie Fleming you've been here just over a year now in this position and you just got here, Jordyne, like a few?
Jordyne: 2 months ago.
Jordan: 2 months ago. So, right here-- and so my question now is, I don't know about you all but I don't plan to be here forever. This is not gonna be what I do with my life for all time, whatever it is I'm doing right now. So I'm curious, when you're done in this space, you know as a black man and as a black women, like what truth do you want to be spoken about you when you leave this space? When you're done here what is it that you want whoevers left, whatever-- whoevers left here on the battlefield to say about you?
Dr. Willie Fleming: Jordyne and I both have used the word equitable from time to time. And -- I want folk to say that as a result of him being here, our community is more equitable. That people have really have started to embrace others more. It would be in that line. Two of the main responsibilities I have is to encourage underrepresented recruitment and the retention rates-
Jordan: Which I hear you do very well. Very well.
Dr. Willie Fleming: Well, I hope that others will say that and continue to say that, because I don't want to leave here anytime soon. But I think it’s deeper, again because our positions are similar in many ways, but dealing with diverse populations and folk feeling like they really do feel included and they are respected and supported. So, if I would have influenced that piece, and people feel like “I was treated fair and as a result of his work, that is more pervasive than it would have been had he not been there”.
Jordyne: So, Toni Morrison has this quote that says you know “My goal is to expand articulation not to close it.”. And if when it’s all said and done and I'm far gone, I want people to say “You know Jordyne really expanded my understanding of what was possible to believe about “X”. And whether that is through education, so the work that I'm doing, like “I just never knew that there was this much depth, or value, or entrance equality, or interest in “X” people. Trans people, non binary people, black people, asian people.” Or whether it’s my lived experience, because I do believe dynamically, that you know you can on your way to work listen to Trina and then get out of your car and look at your law degree on the wall.
Jordan: Isn’t that nice when you can do that?
Jordyne: And then do some really fantastic and dynamic work. And be brilliant.
Jordan: Isn’t that nice?
Jordyne: And go home and watch insecure and do all of these things in the same day and that’s okay. And that I dont have to exchange one for the other, because I think that so many people get messages that say “ Well if you wanna do this, you have to look like this. You have to act like this.”. And so my goal is to create hip hop loving lawyers and Toni Morrison reading school administrators. Like I think that--my goal is to expand the articulation of everything you believe about me or about anyone else. And so when I'm long gone from here, I hope they say “That girl there, she blew my mind. She just, she showed me something that I never knew could exist.”
Jordan: I really, i resonate with the listening to Trina on the way to work, and then looking at a law degree. There's nothing better than blasting Mos Def in the car--
Jordan: And then coming into the office and -- there's just few things better than that. So this is your opportunity now, it’s open mic, you're gonna reach a population that you may not necessarily reach is there anything you wanna share? Any truths you wanna share? Or anything else you wanna say?
Jordyne: Well, I’m in I.G Greer hall. That’s one truth. I’m new to the community, and so I welcome conversation, I welcome the opportunity to engage in the community, I’m excited to be here, I consider it a really deep and profound honor to be here, because I didn’t have to be.
And so really my truth is just I look forward to engaging with the community in really dynamic ways and making us more excellent as Dr. Fleming would say. Engaging us in excellence is -- I look forward to it.
Dr. Willie Fleming: To echo Jordyne, I am also here in the Chancellor’s office as chief diversity officer. There’s some trainings that I will share with you, vice trainings, and what have you. So I would just like to let you that I'm available here as you need me in those roles and really excited about being here too.
Jordan: Alright. Well Willie, Jordyne, thank you so much. Really appreciate you taking the time, being on this first of “What’s Your Truth?”. So, Thank you.
Jordan: Thank you.
Dr. Willie Fleming & Jordyne: Thank you!