The subtle art of breaking silence


You know when it is happening instinctively. It’s the moment when you sense an implicit silent nudge to tuck in your wings to take up less space, or when you begin to purse your lips together to quiet yourself despite what the situation demands. It’s the moment when you hear those dueling voices in your mind, as conservative “oughts” overpower the calls for an audible response or act of resistance to a matter unfolding.   

Many women in higher education (and across workplaces) experience these moments, especially aspiring leaders who are women of color. We know when it is happening. It’s the moment when you are sidelined for a major initiative; the moment when you are not invited to an important meeting even though you are driving the content being discussed; the moment when you do all the work behind the scenes and then written out of the ensuing public accolades; the moment you are relegated to work in the shadows.

This silencing has a voice to it. You can hear it becoming audible. It’s the moment when you are told you are too direct – even though directness and clarity are celebrated as positive male leadership traits. The moment you are told to wait your turn and you look around for the invisible line, the invisible waitlist, the invisible arbiter who will tell you, “now, your turn,” or decides what waiting a turn even looks like; the moment you wonder if you’re being told to sit at the back of a bus indefinitely. 

As a dean and also a woman of color, my instincts and training tell me to pick up on the silencing cues and the silence-breaking strategies I have developed over 22 years leading in higher education. This shapes how I teach, serve and lead at Guttman Community College, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY). For example, when I teach, my inclusive classroom centers and amplifies the lived experiences of students. My students and I look carefully at literary texts, artistic portraits, theory and history to produce inspired reactions to a variety of curricular content.

Beyond the classroom

My work as an instructor does not stop in the classroom. I elevate students’ critical and reflective works into the public realm through social media, in physical photography showcases held in high-traffic areas of the college, and by creating an edited short story collection by and for students, something they can physically have and hold.

I teach students to expand their wingspan by reminding them that they have value and that their voices matter – not only in the context of class, but more importantly, on the wider public stage. Students are makers, thought agents, barrier-breakers who can participate in different types of discourse, self-advocacy and protest. Helping my students take their first steps into the wider public realm of commendation and criticism is crucial to me. Beyond creating the assignments and forums for their work, I pay careful attention to details like their biographical information, artist statements and work-related documents, such as CVs and resumes.

To further carry the voices and expand the wingspans of Guttman students, I created and teach an internship course for liberal arts and sciences students that provides the opportunity to learn directly from professionals in NYC workplaces. Throughout the course, students discuss the internship experience and process the theoretical framework with me and their peers.

In those discussions, I share with them my leadership journey and life experience as a woman of color aspiring for executive positions – my own path from CUNY undergraduate to a CUNY college dean. We study how good ideas can be fostered, how innovation works, how to recognize microaggressions, and, most importantly, the strategies they need to navigate challenges brought on by racial, economic and gender inequalities. Real talk: My students leave our conversations knowing that no one has intrinsic authority to shove their wings in a box.

Leading and setting an example

When I serve and lead as dean of academic and faculty affairs, the foiled attempts of others to silence reverberate loudly. When I sit with a faculty member, write a policy, create the Reappointment, Promotion and Tenure criteria, or lead a project, I am constantly thinking about developing fair, clear, transparent, and equitable processes and guidelines.

My work as dean of faculty hinges on using institutional parameters to guide faculty work, to motivate them as they serve the college and to set them free from entrenched institutional voices that would like to keep them caged.

While equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives seem ubiquitous in academic workplaces, the reality is that for this work to gain a foothold, it is imperative to use silence-breaking strategies to extend the wingspans of faculty, staff and students. Leaders must use our own voices to embolden those usually silenced to speak, to slow down meetings with their questions, and to challenge those awkward moments when dominant participants bristle, over-explain or talk over them.

The traditional institution — developed to raise up white male voices — does oppress. Through thoughtful EDI work, a renewed institutional structure can empower all its constituents. When our institution’s culture silences any of our constituents, we who have administrative power have to raise our voices to reclaim their space and time. While there is a risk in doing this work, as leaders, we have to take those risks. We must change the written policies and the unwritten practices we have inherited and left unexamined.

Take care of yourself

Lastly, we have to practice self-care because even with learned, successful strategies, a network of amazing and talented mentors, and the catharsis of writing as an act of silence-breaking resistance, this is exhausting. We have to replenish our reserves of patience, experience and courage to be ready for the moment someone again signals, whispers or taps us on the shoulder, saying, “get back in the box, fold those wings, wait your turn…”

We must keep saying to ourselves and the people we serve: Don’t listen to them. Spread your wings to take up as much space as possible and even if your voice shakes, SPEAK.

About the Author

Nicola Blake
is dean of academic and faculty affairs at Guttman Community College in New York City.