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Patricia Parker, Department of Communication Chair

December 1, 2015 | M. Clay

Patricia Parker discusses her work at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. “It was the Institute for the Arts and Humanities that really helped me go from idea to action,” she says about creating the Ella Baker Women’s Center for Leadership and Community Activism. Parker is Faculty Fellow (2002), Academic Leadership Program Fellow (2010) and participant in the Chairs Leadership Program (2015).



Part 1

M Clay: Welcome to the IAH Podcast, where we profile current and former Fellows of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Melissa Clay, communication specialist. In this episode Coordinator for Faculty Programs Phillip Hollingsworth speaks with Patricia Parker, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication. Professor Parker is participating in the 2015-2016 Chairs Leadership Program at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities with eight other newly appointed chairs. This program, along with the Academic Leadership Fellowship Program, support the IAH mission as a faculty home for interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration. This includes training and supporting current and emerging university leaders. In part one of our conversation with Dr. Parker, she discusses her new role as department chair, her academic research and its connection to her current position, and her experience in founding the Ella Baker Women’s Center, a nonprofit committed to serving disenfranchised communities by empowering women and girls to be leaders, building productive and equitable relationships between citizens and providing community organization training to residents.

Philip Hollingsworth: This is your first year as, you’ve just started as the chair of the department.

Patricia Parker: Yes, July 1, 2015 was the date.

PH: How’s that going? So far? How’s that experience been for you? I know that’s a big transition. Correct?

PP: It is a huge transition in terms of departmental leadership. But the interesting thing that I think maybe sets me apart somewhat from other new chairs is that my research is centered on leadership, organizational leadership. So I’m a leadership scholar. So my degree, PhD, undergrad and PhD is all in communication, and particularly thinking about organizational communication and leadership.

PH: So you’re preparing yourself for this job? In a way.

PP: Well, I guess. That’s just what I study. And so I study women and women in leadership. I think about organizational structures that how they can be inclusive of difference. So those are all areas of my research. And so before I was appointed as chair, I had served for three years as the director of faculty diversity initiatives for the College of Arts and Sciences. And that was that was a position that was a leadership position at the College level. So it was it was, you know, still had my primary appointment in the department, but I was working quarter time with Karen Gill and Terry Rhodes, who was the senior associate dean for arts and humanities but also doing work around diversity for the College.

PH: How did that experience prepare you for moving into this chair position?

PP: Well, I have to tell you, it prepared me I think very well. And again, I think that’s something that just, that’s sets me apart. So that’s the second thing. The first thing is my research. And the second is the fact that I did have that experience learning a great deal about how the College works administratively. So I worked with the other senior associate with senior associate deans in the college. I worked with chairs. One of the things that was I’m most proud of is that I was successful in with the dean’s support and all of the chairs’ support appointing, asking each chair of the academic units – and there are over 70 academic or 70 units in the college, with center centers and curriculum so forth, but there are 34 academic units with chairs. And so they each had a diversity liaison. A faculty member who was to support the chair’s efforts in terms of thinking about diversity. So with that experience of really sort of creating that network of people who are working and thinking about issues of diversity across different departments, I learned a lot about what chairs do, what they like, what they don’t like, what irritates them. And I try my best not to be one of the things that irritate – like I figured out what is it that you know, that you’re that’s on your plate? And then but also, how can I accomplish the goals that you know, that we’re trying to accomplish with the college level, in terms of diversity and recruitment and retention, like curricula, curricular needs, and so forth. So that experience really did prepare me for taking on this position as chair because I really got a chance to see the importance of the chair’s role. And especially how I think one of the things that’s important for me is how you know, there’s a great, great deal to hold. There’s a lot of I take it very seriously this being a good steward of the University for the college and for my colleagues and the students in the department.

PH: So, yeah, so that it seems like you felt pretty prepared coming in. Were there any unexpected challenges in the first few months?

PP: Yes, definitely. So that was just, I don’t know, if I… Well, it did those experiences did prepare me to expect the unexpected, right? And so, and the fact that I’ve been in the department since 1998, so I’m very familiar with my colleagues and feel very supported by them. But there are challenges. I mean, all sorts of, you know, there are lots of different roles that a chair has to play, lots of different hats. And, you know, I think one of the most important roles, I think, is working with the staff. So we have a wonderful staff, our department manager, the Student Services roles. And we also we have two locations we have, we’re located here in Bingham, but also in Swain Hall where we have a lot of our media production faculty and staff that are over there. So again, I think this is something that faculty members are not generally exposed to, right? It’s like running an organization – we’re trained to be sort of individual operators, and doing our research and that sort of thing.

PH: Well, one thing I’ve noticed about your research is you integrate the community in the importance of community organizing, or working with the community. And I’d like to talk a little bit about your work with the Ella Baker Women’s Center, and kind of getting that off the ground. And one thing that struck me is there’s always this seems like this gap between the idea and the execution of that. And I’m just wondering, how do you make that or create that bridge to go from that idea to execution just not just personally, but you know, advice for others that have maybe have great ideas, but want to make it happen?  

PP: Well, I have to first begin by saying that it was the Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ programs that really helped me to go from idea to action. So I definitely want to start there. And in terms of framing this, so I think most faculty members will, you know, who are will think about their teaching, research and service as integrated processes and projects. Like our teaching, and our research and our service are not separate entities, but they are integrated. And that was true for me. And the Ella Baker Women’s Center was a way for me to really see that come to fruition of that integration of teaching, research and service. So I was, I had been doing research on women, African American women executives, that was one of my first book was about that. And I was really interested in how this leadership tradition that I saw in the women that I interviewed for my book, how that came to how that was doing in terms how’s that legacy doing in terms of girls in communities. And about the time that I started thinking about what this looks like, what a tradition of leadership looks like for girls and communities. I had gotten promoted with tenure. And the university was starting to sort of emphasize social entrepreneurship and supporting things, and so I got a Kaufmann Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship. And that was through an IAH initiative. And I had a year to work with I had a mentor David Kiel was a mentor. And in the process of that year, I was able to go from this idea of hey, what would it look like to work, be in community, working with the girls, maybe having a class that would support girls doing projects in their community? So they see what they, how they’re thinking about leadership? And it answers this question about what is the leadership tradition in Black communities? How’s that doing in terms of these girls who are living? And I was working with girls who were living in public housing communities. And I mean, I was really just amazed at maybe that was the basis of your question as to how that really came about that – having that year to think about this. But at the end of the year is really to do a ready to do a pilot program in a community I was already working with. David Kiel got me connected with someone who could help me to do the paperwork for the nonprofit so I actually was able to create the nonprofit organization. And I think it was nice to have that institutional support for something that you were already doing you sort of have that momentum. Sometimes you lose momentum when the institutional supports not there, but I feel very fortunate.

MC: In the next episode of The IAH podcast, Philip continues his conversation with Dr. Patricia Parker. Be sure to visit the Institute’s website and for future episodes of this podcast, the latest news on our posts and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at IAH_UNC.


Part 2

MC: Welcome to the IAH Podcast where we profile current and former Fellows of the Institute for Arts and Humanities here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Melissa Clay, Communication Specialist. In part two of our conversation with Patricia Parker, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication, Philip Hollingsworth, IAH coordinator for faculty programs, inquires how the Ella Baker Women’s Center reinvigorated Dr. Parker’s passion for teaching undergraduate students. They also discuss Ella Baker’s role in the civil rights movement and her life as inspiration for positive change in the Triangle and the university community. We conclude with a wonderful discussion on making time for writing and personal sources of inspiration.

PP: My teaching award was the Provost Award for Engaged Teaching. So they give an award for engaged research and engaged teaching, one on one for teaching.

PH: So you mentioned that ignited your teaching. How do you feel? Do you have kind of an idea of what kind of ignited that? Or was it just the interest or the passion in the work you put into it, or?

PP: Well, I mean, I think it was part of it was that… Well, I think the main thing was that I had a direct connection of supporting the girls who really wanted these opportunities to, you know, for growth, and had some knowledge about, you know, they had some ideas about how they wanted their communities to change. And here, I had students, our students – we have the best students in the world, right at UNC-Chapel Hill – who come in, who are ready to change the world.

PH: Right, right.

PP: And I wanted to make that connection between students who really wanted to work with people in communities, to make communities better, and to have people in communities – in this case, African American girls who are living in low-income communities – teach our students knowledge about what change looks like. And so that, and that’s an ongoing project: this idea of, you know, universities engaging with communities, and what does that look like when you have elites working with people in vulnerable life situations? And then we call it partnership, but you have this different this power differential? Right. And so that was, I mean, I’m still learning about that. And the things that I learned in teaching that first year seminar, first of all, my, my approach was that I get them in there as first year students, and then I’ve got four years that, you know, they can still, first of all, grow in terms of what they’re learning, and hopefully continue to work with me. And so I have had several of the students who were in my first year seminar, who continue to work with the Ella Baker Women’s Center. We have workshops in the summer, and so sometimes they’ll come back and work for me in the summer. I have alumni who now come back to speak in the courses. I’m thinking about an honors seminar that I’m proposing in which I’ve really sort of ramped that up, because I now have a whole cadre of alumni that are themselves working for nonprofit organizations going to you know, graduate school, working for think tanks.

PH: That’s great. Yeah, it’s pretty inspiring.

PP: Yeah.

PH: Real quick. I’d also like you named the center after Ella Baker.

PP: Yes.

PH: And I read a little bit about her and her work. And I was just wondering, could you speak a little bit to who she is or who she was? And who she what she means to you, personally?

PP: Yes, first of all, absolutely. So in fact, I’m writing a book right now, based on the work that I’ve been doing that’s called Ella’s Daughters. And it looks at, you know, sort of the organizing tradition through the eyes of African American girls. And Ella Baker was a human rights, feminist civil rights organizer that lived. She lived; she was born in 1913. And died on her birthday in 1986.

PH: Wow.

PP: Right. I mean, because she was born in 1903. Died on her birthday in 1986. And probably from the time that she was in her early 20s, she was doing activism and working on thinking about the liberation of people everywhere, working on oppressed people. But she’s most well known for her work with the civil rights organization in the ’60s. And it is because of her that the youth — what everyone remembers about the youth organizing of the Civil Rights Movement, SNIC, which is the Student Nonviolent Coordinating. If it not had not been for Ella Baker’s advocacy for youth voices, we wouldn’t have SNIC – she was the person that organized the conference, where students were already, they’d already been igniting you know, these the sit-ins, and the struggle for civil rights all over college campuses in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And so it was her idea to bring them together. And then for them to have their own keep their own voice in working. And so what Ella Baker stood for, was just that. People understand… she had a famous quote that said, “People who are living on the under the heels of repression should be the ones who are in the lead of getting that heel off their neck.”

PH: Right.

PP: And so that’s the model that I try to follow in working with people in communities. If we think about the impacts of poverty and racism, or, you know, any kind of oppression, we have to start with the experiences that people who are, who are, you know, most impacted by some of those practices, what their experiences are, and what their knowledge — the knowledge that’s already in the community that we can use to sort of change that and to inform different policies. So that’s how she’s impacted me, in terms of working with communities. It was the same approach that I’ve used in working with diversity liaisons on this campus. As someone who is, in the Dean’s office thinking about diversity, and I’m in communication, how do I go to a chemistry department and say, “so here’s what diversity means to you and your department.” No, you’re the ones who are in your professional organizations. So that was the message that I spread to all the diversity liaisons: you think about and talk about what does difference mean, and how is it impacted? Who’s most impacted? Sometimes it’s gender, sometimes it might be race, sometimes it could be language minorities. That’s sort of a new phrase that people nobody talks about, maybe you know, Romance languages. But how are you defining what the complexities are? And then my role then, is to be a facilitator of that conversation of how to start to define that for the people who might be resistant to it. To think of tools and opportunities for change. To me, it’s the same process, whether you’re working with people in communities or working in organizations.

PH: You mentioned resistance, how do you tactfully kind of soften that resistance or mitigate that?

PP: Well? Yeah, I mean, it’s not really that’s not my approach, to soften the resistance. Okay.

PP: So I see resistance as knowledge.

PH: Okay.

PP: So in other words, that’s a perspective, that’s helping us to understand this complexity, right? When people are resistant to something, it’s probably has something to do with their experience with a particular way of doing or being, you know, and it might be just resistance to change. And then to me, it’s about — and this is Ella Baker — her approach was to create free spaces for dialogue. And by free spaces, that means that you can come into that space and show up with an opinion and there will be a way of having that dialogue. As long as we’re working toward trying to work out something where we are, we are in community together.

PH: Okay.

PP: Right? So if we have that as sort of our underlying approach, right, that we come in with the idea that, you know, there might be conflict, but we are in community. So we’re going to stay in this community. But so once I get that, like, I love being in those spaces, because I can tell you what I think, knowing that it’s not going to take us out of community together and we’re working toward a way that we can coexist.

PH: That’s great. So you mentioned your book you’re working on now, Ella’s Daughters. Can you share a little bit more about your process? Our either the content or, you know, with your new position? How do you find time to work on this?

PP: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, I have an agreement with my staff, and I have a wonderful assistant who helps me to manage my calendar. So she sees my calendar, and is able to help me to manage it with lots of people who want to have my time. And so I carve out, you know, technically the chair’s position is a halftime position. So in other words, we’re… You know, so that that translates into 20 hours a week. So that’s a myth, obviously. But it gives me something to work with. So I carve out two hours of research time and my prime time is morning. Okay, so I try to carve out that time, three days a week. And I’ve been pretty consistent with that this semester. There are times that I can’t do that. And I have an that I have an accountability structure built in where I’m working with someone who, that I sort of check in with and doing some writing together

PH: I think that always helps. It kind of speaks to the theme of community for you. Yeah, that accountability that’s involved with that. And that’s it includes the writing process too.

PP: Right, it does.

PH: And last thing, at a recent dinner at the IAH, we had a table. As is tradition, we have a table topic. And the table topic was inspiration. And where you derive inspiration, where is that source? And I just like to ask you, where what do you have a personal source or a subject area? Where does your inspiration come from?

PP: That is a good question.

PH: Or a source? There’s not always one, singular.

PP: So today is the about the 17th year anniversary of my mother’s passing: October 22. And, and that actually happened about the year that I came here. I came here in 1998. And so I would say that my mother is my inspiration. But… so I’m the youngest of 13. And so my whole family and my dad passed away years earlier. And but… so my family of origin is my inspiration. I have one of my oldest sister’s was one of the first to attend the liberal arts college in Arkansas, where we all grew up, 13 of us, right. And so by the time I went to third grade, that was the year that desegregation was happening in the South. And, you know, Little Rock happened in 1957, Central. That was that big, that sort of an icon of the resistance to change. And I was born in 1958. So it took until — that’s how long it took for the schools to desegregate. I wanted to say that by the time I went through that experience, I already had an older sister who was in college who had already made, she was such a role model for us, you know, in terms of making that sacrifice to go to the all-white university, previously all-white university.

PH: That’s powerful.

PP: It is. And so my family has always been a source of inspiration. I mean, I’m the youngest, I have a PhD, I’m the chair of the department is still never, it’s never… I’m still just, you know, the baby of the family, kind of saying.

PH: So am I. So, same. I completely understand.

PP: But with that experience, just comes this incredible sense of… I have a gratefulness, for all the opportunities that I have, but at the same time, there’s a power. So this contract this paradox of being grateful, but also feeling powerful.

PH: Yes.

PP: You know, that I’m capable of doing, whatever challenge is placed in front of me.

PH: Yeah, it makes me think a few years ago, you know, being someone in languages that I’ll actually think of the words, what they actually mean, just instead of just how we use them. But that word ‘encourage’, if you really think about it’s to like, ‘give courage,’ so it’s that.. Oh, wow. And that’s empowering in and of itself, right? It’s that encouragement that support you have from your family. Just examples, for example, your sister. It gives you that courage that power to succeed.

PP: Yes, absolutely. And by the time I went to, I went to that same small liberal arts college. I was the seventh or eighth in my family to have gone there — out of our 13. All of us went to college, most of their like, seven or…. I used to know all these statistics, like seven or eight master’s degrees. Mine is the only PhD so far.

PH: That’s amazing. Yeah, it’s great.

PP: I’m incredibly proud of my family. And so yeah, that’s my inspiration.

PH: Well, thank you very much. That was great. It was a pleasure talking to you and well, I really appreciate your time.

MC: In the next episode of The IAH podcast, Melissa Clay will speak with James Ketch, Professor of Music, be sure to visit the Institute’s website at for future episodes of this podcast, the latest news on our fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at IAH_UNC.

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