By Carmen Rodríguez de France, Ph. D.
Indigenous Education, University of Victoria
I remember her putting down her briefcase and her white robe on the last day she worked; after 35 years, my Mother had decided to retire from her work as a psychiatrist. As I watched her place her things on the bed, my mind recreated images of me being very young, and looking up to her as she combed her hair, put on some make-up, and gathered her things to go to work. I remember being mesmerized by her beauty, although she was sometimes ready to reiterate the words from her grandmother, who had raised her: “You are not pretty, you are poor, and you are prieta” (term meaning dark complexioned). These words were imprinted in my mother’s upbringing, in her life, and in the ethics and values that ultimately became part of my own.
Being pretty, smart, wealthy or light complexioned are perhaps values that some might still hold in high regard when discussing leadership, success, and worth. Through listening to, and learning from my mother, I have embraced a definition of leadership that includes compassion, empathy, love, and respect. Her grandmother’s words were not just reminders of who my mother was due to a social condition and heritage; my great grandmother (whom I have only met through stories) was also kind and gentle when she would say to my mother: “Respect is the simplest form to show love”. It might seem paradoxical to think of these two scenarios where words were strong and might even seem disrespectful, but seeing my mother as my best role model, demonstrate to me that values and principles are embedded in what we do, and perhaps less so than in what we say.
My mother taught in the Nursing School for 25 years, additional to having her private practice, and alongside a Directorship she held for 10 years. All that while managing a home with 4 kids who were born within 4 years, a husband who was also a medical doctor, and a few dogs throughout the years. From her, I learned how to balance life and work, stay healthy, stay optimistic, and stay connected to the world, and to myself. As an educator, I aspire to stay optimistic and constant in spite of change. I want to promote leadership as a way of being in the world, not as a position one holds for a five-year term or within a title.
Leadership can take many shapes and forms: from being in a high paid position, to the prestige that positions brings, to the examples of respect from mentors, colleagues, and students. Leadership is words that hold people up, that respect ways of being, and that support those around us to become whom they are meant to be. Leadership is tact, empathy, compassion, guidance, mentorship, collegiality, encouragement, reflection, and discretion. Tact to be reminded that everyone has a story; empathy to be understanding of those around us; compassion to approach everyone as equal; guidance to always lead by example; mentorship to allow learning to happen; collegiality to stay connected; encouragement for self and others; reflection to recognize one’s privilege working in academia; and discretion in our words and actions.
Leadership must also take the shape of justice, equality, equity, fairness, and balance. Justice to act when needed; equality and equity to respect each person’s birthrights; fairness to treat each person according to circumstances; and balance to remember there are always two sides to a story.
Perhaps my great grandmother had one version that implied one needing to be pretty, wealthy, and light complexioned in order to lead or succeed. Perhaps her words were pronounced to convey the value of having a strong work ethic and strong principles in order to succeed. Perhaps her words were a reminder of the opportunities my mother would have through an academic formation (which my great grandmother did not have).
In working her way through medical school, helping raise her four siblings, being the first female psychiatrist in Northeastern Mexico, and raising four children along with my father, my mother proved that you lead by example. She proved that there are always two sides to a story.