This is an (informal) report of observations I made of the staff that I supervise (most likely some inherent bias there). Because my staff consists of Asian Americans working at a predominantly white campus, I felt their words and actions resonate with me. I’ve given a (brief-ish) synopsis of what I inferred from their words and actions and the impact it had on me.
The group I chose to observe was the undergraduate staff of the Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center (YKCC). There are three members of this group (whose names I have changed for the sake of anonymity): Ashley, Tina, and Mike. All three staff members self-identify as Asian Americans. Ashley is a senior who is studying public health and graduates this semester. She is the program coordinator of the YKCC. Tina is a sophomore double majoring in anthropology and psychology. She is the administrative assistant. Mike is also a sophomore, and he is an electrical engineer. He is the liaison between the YKCC and the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success (CMASS).
To provide a little more context, the YKCC is part of four cultural centers at UMass Amherst. The other four centers are the Malcolm X Cultural Center, the Latin American Cultural Center, and the Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center. These cultural centers are part of CMASS, which falls under the Advocacy and Inclusion cluster of student affairs. All four cultural centers and CMASS are four years old. Before CMASS was created, each cultural center had a full-time professional staff member and an academic programming component. Each center is now staffed by a ten-hour graduate assistant and three undergraduates.
I chose this group because I also identify as Asian American, and I feel invested in this community and its development. I am the graduate assistant for the YKCC, so I felt that doing this observation (with the permission of the staff, for a period of three weeks) would be a good way to gain insight on what the staff members believe their role is, what they believe my role is, how much agency they feel they have, how I validate them, and how they validate one another.
While I observed this group, I noticed that in daily interactions, the students rarely go deeper than what Richard Francisco refers to as the surface level of communication (p. 33, 1999). For example, during weekly staff meetings, the two women would sometimes admit that they hoped the staff would have more time to meet in social settings outside of work instead of only within the office all the time. Sometimes the staff would talk about homework assignments that were taking up a lot of their time, or when they were going home to visit their families.
I believe there were many factors that kept the conversation at this level. First, all the staff members are Asian Americans. Their parents were immigrants to this country, and most likely raised their children outside of the monolingual, extraverted, and materialistic context in which a lot of American children are raised. In my experience, and as a person who identifies with the Asian experience, I find that Asian American students might not verbally express everything that goes on in their lives, unless they trust someone very deeply. However, this does not mean they do not feel deep emotions or do not connect to people on a deeper level. I found it interesting that even though she does not talk about her identity too often, Ashley hosted two events about identity this semester. One was called Breaking the Monolith, which was about how Asians are frequently represented as a homogeneous group of people that all have similar physical features, abilities, and backgrounds, instead of the diverse communities that actually make up the Asian community. The other was called The Model Minority, and it focused on how (in)accurate it is to describe Asian Americans as the minority that has “made it” in America. In the evaluations of both events, many participants wrote about how they appreciated the space to tell their stories authentically, and to learn from other people’s experience. Many of the participants were Asian Americans, though multiracial students and other people of color did attend as well. From this, I could infer that this space for expression was meaningful to Ashley. She believes in the importance of discussion and allowing people to form their own opinions.
When the group did go to the fourth and fifth levels of group development, it was often because of pressure from their jobs. For example, this semester, the staff was supposed to prepare events for Asian Heritage Month. Due to a lack of both communication and inclusivity from my supervisors, the undergraduate staff felt as though their work was being solicited but they were not given an equal chance to be part of the planning process. I began to hear a lot about how they felt our department was being run. For example, Tina had been going to the committee meetings for the heritage month in my place because they had been planned at a time when I had class. Tina was one of two undergraduates on a committee of six people. One day, she said, “I never hear this other undergraduate [sic.] talk at these meetings. If she’s never even been to the YKCC, why is she there?” To me, this conveyed a lot of frustration about how these committee meetings were being held. Tina felt that she was taking on a lot of responsibility as one of the few undergraduate representatives at these meetings. This other undergraduate, whom none of us had ever met and who seemed to be there only because my supervisor knew her, did not seem to understand that there was a community counting on her to represent their opinions, and was subsequently wasting the committee’s time. I could infer that Tina feels invested in her community and wants it to be represented fairly. She feels despondent and underappreciated when her input, to which she gives a lot of thought, is not validated.
Another moment when the group stumbled into level five was when I was asking them to evaluate how well the center had accomplished its goals this semester. When I asked the two women to give their input, they gave it very freely. When I asked Mike, however, we did not get past the first question because he refused to assign a number to the way he felt. When I inquired further about why, he said, “It seems pointless to be evaluating things right now when we have not been keeping track of this all year.” I thought that was a brave thing for Mike to say. He is referring to the fact that our cultural center is lacking the kind of structure that allows for people to keep track of goals in an adequate manner. This is partially my own fault for not doing a better job of revisiting our goals throughout the semester. I can infer that Mike wants a more authentic relationship with his work. He wants to feel as if he is actually making a difference. Though he may not be aware of it, his quote is indicative of huge structural flaws in the way our cultural center, and cultural centers at UMass in general, are run. All four centers are in the attics and basements of buildings, and there are problems with access in nearly all of them. The YKCC is right next to a bathroom. There is no custodial service available to the room, and the air circulation is terrible. Mike’s quote seems to point out the irony of how much these huge departments of student affairs ask of these students, and how little they give them to work with.
From what I observe, these group members enjoyed one another’s company and often found solace in being able to relate to one another. Ashley would frequently offer the other two staff members rides home. She also would offer to pick up bubble tea from Lime Red if any staff members were interested. When we wanted to create staff hoodies, Mike offered to find a store with good quality material so that we would not waste our money.
I think balancing the gender dynamics of this group was difficult. Mike was the only man on the staff of four individuals. He also worked with my supervisor, who is also a woman, and my supervisor’s supervisor, who is also a woman. The two women on staff tended to be more talkative than Mike. Mike also expressed himself very differently from the women. While Ashley and Tina were very open about their complaints and opinions, Mike was most likely to express how he was not concerned. His most frequent response if anyone asked for his input was to say, “I don’t really mind what you decide.” This tells me that somehow, the center is not talking about things that are relevant to Mike. He has disclosed to me that he is from Boston, and that his family is Chinese. My instincts tell me that his background is working class, and I am inferring that this has a lot to do with how he comunicates. Ashley and I are from upper-middle class backgrounds, and while Tina is from a single-parent family, she still relates to me and Ashley as a woman. I think Mike has difficulty in expressing what he needs because he does not relate to our narratives. The way this impacts me is that I feel I have not done a good enough job of including him in our conversations, but I am also not sure what to do because I do not want to seem condescending in my interactions with him. I wonder if just naming my observation to him would help.
My main take-aways from this observation are that this group is very close-knit, in spite of each individual’s differences. While they have faced significant challenges this semester, they have found comfort in being able to support one another through hard times. They seem to value even just having a space where they are allowed to complain about the institution, and their complaints are validated by others who have had similar experiences. My hope is that the group (including me) can find ways to either confront or circumvent our frustrations next year. I think it is a good thing that we have created a space where frustration can be acknowledged, but I also want to think of ways that we can overcome that frustration and thrive.
Barkakati, L. (May, 2015). Group Observation. Amherst, MA: UMass Amherst.
Francisco, R. (1999). Five Levels of Interpersonal Communication: A Model That Works Across Cultures. In Cooke et al. (1999) Reading Book for Human Relations Training. (pp. 31-39). NTL Institute.