For Terri Givens, the former provost of Menlo College and a resident of unincorporated West Menlo Park, the key to overcoming racial barriers in America comes down to two deceptively simple words: radical empathy.
As a Black woman who's been an academic, a professor of European politics, a college administrator, a community member active on local nonprofit boards, and a mother, sister and daughter in America, she reflects on how perceptions of race have shaped her life experiences in her new book, "Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides."
Givens' book, released in February, shares a number of her personal experiences as she discusses the importance of vulnerability and empathy in her own life and how those traits have enabled her to overcome obstacles and become a leader.
In the book, Givens describes herself as a girl who grew up in a military family away from her extended relatives in Spokane, Washington. A diligent student, she eventually made her way to Stanford University as a first-generation college student, then UCLA for her Ph.D. She went on to teach at the University of Washington, then the University of Austin at Texas, where she became a college administrator. She then worked as provost at Menlo College before starting Brighter Higher Ed, a higher education consulting firm.
At each step, she dissects how her racial identity created ripples and complications for her ambitions. As a child, she saw teachers make assumptions about the capabilities of Black students that "can inhibit their potential for success."
At Stanford, her racial identity triggered stressful choices, like whether to attend orientation activities specific to Black students, or those focused on getting to know all of the other residents of her dorm.
And even as a professor, her white, male colleagues were often more likely to have endowed chair positions with lighter teaching loads, she explained.
In her personal life, she struggled with dating until she reconnected with a college classmate, Michael Scott, who is white, and they fell in love. Now, as parents to biracial teens, she said, they've navigated the complexities of helping their children understand their African American and Danish roots.
Along with Givens' story, she provides broader information about how empathy can be applied to tackle racism in many different areas of life, including family dynamics, politics, health care, higher education and relationships, adding context with historical details and academic references.
One of the biggest areas where she saw racial inequality manifest in her life was in the health system. Givens said that the questions that would drive her to write the book started after her father died of a sudden heart attack in 2001.
"I would go on to lose several other family members in that first decade of the new millennium — most of them to preventable illnesses," she wrote.
The impacts of race on health continued to inspire her research and advocacy. Particularly striking is data that African American women, regardless of their class or education, are more likely to die of maternal mortality than their white counterparts, she said.
While living in Austin, Texas, Givens started "Take Back the Trail," an initiative that encouraged women in East Austin to get out and exercise and provided them with healthy food donations, check-ins and mentoring.
As further confirmation of the ways that racial inequality shapes health, she said, she finished writing the book in the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic people throughout the U.S. Several of her extended family members are front-line workers who became sick with COVID-19, she added.
Givens also describes her experiences with leadership, and notes that there is a significant dearth of women and minorities in leadership positions. She cites a 2018 report stating that there has only been one Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Ursula Burns of Xerox, who retired in 2016.
"Here we are in 2021, and we're still just breaking into some parts of society," she said.
Givens plans to take on her own guidance as an academic leader and advocate for diversity in a new position she recently accepted at McGill University in Montreal, where she will be teaching as a part-time faculty member and working as provost, academic lead and adviser tackling anti-Black racism. She plans to continue to spend summer and winter breaks in Menlo Park.
While many universities have diversity initiatives, she said, she was especially drawn to this position because of its emphasis on addressing anti-Black racism, which has "been part of our country for 400 years," she said. "It's intractable. It's something we've all internalized, and the only way to break it down is if we all take individual responsibility for tearing down structural racism, particularly against Black people," she said.
"It could change higher ed, if we're successful," she added.
As Givens describes it, radical empathy means having two kinds of empathy: emotional empathy, or feeling how another person feels, and cognitive empathy, or understanding how another person sees the world. It also involves taking action to change structural inequality beyond just being nice to other people, she said.
"We all have to understand that we live in this society that's built around structural racism ... and it's not just structural racism, it's inequality," she said.
Her recommended steps to build radical empathy are to be willing to be vulnerable, become grounded in who you are, open yourself up to learn about and understand other people's experiences, practice empathy, take action, create change and build trust.
Despite the daunting inequality and structural racism that persists, Givens said she draws her inspiration to keep fighting them from both past generations and young people.
"I can't forget that my grandfather was a sharecropper in Louisiana, and my mother was a seamstress, and I got a Ph.D.," she said. "And my children are going to have great opportunities because of my education, and ... (are) getting great educations. In the end, I do see progress."
Anyone interested in purchasing the book can visit policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk.