In Their Own Words: Women’s History Month Spotlight (Geida Cleveland)

A person, Geida Cleveland, stands indoors against a dark-colored wall. She wears glasses, a neutral-colored sweater and a blue shirt, and smiles while facing the camera.

March is Women’s History Month. The Office for Equity and Diversity (OED) asked students, faculty and staff around campus to talk about the importance of this month, in their own words, through the lenses of their identities and experiences.

by Kianna Notermann

Meet Geida Cleveland. Geida Cleveland is the Events Specialist for NODA – The Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education. She has been working for the U of M since she graduated from here in 2009 with a degree in human resource development and minors in communication studies and leadership. Geida is a member of the Minnesota Association of Counselors of Color, and served as their president from 2014 to 2016.

“I was born in Nogales, Sonora Mexico and lived there until I was 12 years old when my family moved to Minnesota. It was an interesting transition; I moved here not knowing a word of English. It was my father’s decision to have us all move, my two older brothers and I. I started middle school here, which is all a big blur since I didn’t know the language at all. Most of my focus was just on trying to understand what was happening around me. My mother passed away when I was 8 years old, and even though I have many tías (aunts) who have guided me in many ways throughout my youth, I was mainly raised by my older brothers who really helped me in my transition.

I started school here at the U in 2004, and my time here at the U of M is when I really found who I was. I say this because my time spent trying to understand the language and the culture, and just the transition into the US forced me to assimilate to my surroundings which was very much suburban. So, when I came here, I saw so many people that looked like me for the first time in a long time. It helped me find myself again. I was able to come back around and feel proud of who I am, be proud of being a Mexican-American woman. I connected with organizations like La Raza and other student groups that brought me back to my roots and helped me grow.

I have worked in higher education for over 8 years in a variety of roles. Currently, I work at NODA, which is headquartered at the University of Minnesota. As a professional in higher education, there’s a lot of growth that I’ve done in my career but I make a point to share my personal experiences with the students that I encounter. I worked in the Office of Admissions for over 7 years because I wanted to give back as someone who was very grateful of the growth that this school gave me. This is where I found an amazing community of women with whom I can have discussions about the complicatedness that is being a woman, acknowledging all the identities we share but also the ones that differ and make us who we are.

A large majority of professionals in education tend to be women. I should clarify that that is purely observation, I don’t have exact sources or statistics at the top of my head, but that is what I have seen personally in my career. However, the higher you get up in an educational institution, I’ve noticed that the leadership is mostly men. Despite how many women there are in this field, the people who are making the decisions, making changes, and implementing policies are mainly men. That’s not just here: by partnering with other institutions in my position, I have seen the same thing at other schools and other organizations I’ve been part of in general. There have been meetings where I’ve shared an opinion or solution or proposal, anything, and it goes unnoticed or ignored. It’s actually happened quite a bit throughout my years in higher education. I can’t tell you if it’s because I am a woman, or because I’m a woman of color, or my age, but it’s something I’ve been through over and over. As recently, as two weeks ago, it’s happened despite how long I’ve been working in this field. I still have to prove myself. It definitely takes a toll on you, because it makes you question yourself, it makes you question if you really know what you’re talking about, I have to constantly remind myself that I have many years of experience and my opinion matters so I have to remember to not allow myself to be silenced.

Fortunately, I’ve had some great male colleagues, partners, and bosses who have noticed this happening at meetings and use their privilege by saying the same thing I just said, on purpose, to see how that reaction differs from the one that I received. Every time their statements are acknowledged. We have conversations afterwards where they acknowledge my contribution as a way to say, ‘Hey, I heard you. I said it just to see what would happen’. I appreciate it, but not in the sense that I need to be rescued by a man. It’s just good to know that they are aware of their privilege and the discrepancy of how we are treated in the workplace. That way it can lead into a bigger discussion amongst the rest of our the group. Once you move higher within the organization, it tends to happen more frequently so it’s definitely a discussion that needs to be had with all levels at the workplace.

I could also tell you a million stories about when my husband and I were buying a house or just needed to fix something, how I was treated differently. In these situations, the electrician or the salesman, or whoever, would only speak to my husband. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is, this is our home. We’re in this together, we’re making decisions together, but people still see my husband is kind of the authority figure and my input doesn’t matter as much or I don’t know what I’m talking about when it come to those matters. So I see it on a personal level as well, not just at work.

My first professional role in Admissions was to be the Latinx Recruitment Coordinator. It’s always tough because I did what I could to help the [Latinx] community know what the university had to offer and how it changed my life, but also knowing that there are many things that would impact Latinx students in making a college choice. The decision is often about what is best for the family, especially for first-generation students or undocumented students. There are other barriers that come across when choosing a university. As far as Latinxs in higher ed, the representation of Latinx has stayed pretty much the same in my experience, we haven’t really seen an increase especially in senior management positions. Many organizations have a goal to diversify their work field or their student base (however they might define diversity) but, when it comes down to it, they don’t actually understand the work that has to go into acquiring it. There are many cultural differences, that need to be addressed or trained on in the organization prior to recruitment in order to successfully recruit and retain diverse talent, especially in Latinx communities, because Latinx includes people from so many different cultures. We all have multiple identities that shape our lived experience. Due to some our overlapping identities we can be systematically at a disadvantage and at the same time we can receive systematic benefits in other categories or identities. This creates a complexity on how we experience oppression and discrimination, for example, as women we all experience the glass ceiling in the workplace, we are often reminded that women make 74 cents for every dollar men earn, however,  we don’t talk about the fact that wage gap is much worse for Latinas. That intersection of identities can lead to a negative experiences that could lead to lower retention in the workplace.

I was fortunate in my time as an undergrad and while working here to have some great Latina women be mentors to me. In order to support our students, of all identities, they need to see role models and people in leadership positions that they can see themselves in. I was lucky to have these women guide me along the way, and they have since moved onto other opportunities. I wish there were more women in leadership roles at the U, specifically Latina women. That is not to ignore the amazing women we already have working here, but there’s still work to be done. We could always use more.

When it comes to women’s history, the representations that you see in the textbooks often lack Latina women. They aren’t being recognized for the work they’ve done and the work they are doing. Whether it’s throughout history, or right here, right now on this campus, women are there. They are making great contributions, even if they aren’t being credited for them. This is so important for next generations to be aware of, so it’s disheartening to see.

There are a lot of small details that I think even we, as women, miss but start to be more aware of when we work on issues of gender equality. Something as simple as using the term “guys” to refer to a group of both men and women. I try to avoid things like that and be conscious about it, by using the word ‘folks’ even though it makes me sound old. Or ‘y’all’ which makes me sound southern. It takes a lot of work to change that mentality, and I still make those mistakes. I also think when we talk about women’s issues, we can’t forget to include all women not just cisgender women. We must support our sisters of all identities, women of color, indigenous women, transgender women, women of all sexual orientations etc. Being a woman is already complex  so we need to support each other!”

[Header Image Credit: Kianna Notermann, 2017]

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