In last month’s column, I talked about how working at an organization whose values don’t align with your personal goals for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) often results in one of three things: a) The person stays at an organization in the hopes that the organization will change its vision, b) the person leads the charge and creates JEDI initiatives that align more with their personal vision, or c) the person decides to leave the organization completely and search for another entity that aligns more closely with their goals and mission.
To illuminate the process of what happens after you discover the place where you work, provide services or volunteer does not align with your own personal JEDI goals, I interviewed my colleague Keith Dempsey about his journey to align his life’s work with his personal JEDI goals and mission.
Dempsey previously worked for 15 years at a private university as an associate dean, associate professor of counseling and chair of the counseling department. Now he is the owner of Keith Dempsey Counseling & Consulting and serves as a community advocate, mentoring young Black men and providing information about Black mental health to churches, schools, hospitals and other organizations in Portland, Oregon.
Kimberly Frazier: What did you do when you discovered your university’s values did not align with your life’s purpose and goals for JEDI?
Keith Dempsey: I wouldn’t say my values didn’t align with my department; I worked with some great people. However, the university’s focus and enthusiasm on folks of color paled in comparison to mine. I struggled because the population at the university did not match the mission statement that was saturated in diversity, equity and inclusion. Year after year there was a small percentage of folks of color in the classroom, in the faculty and in leadership. Although I was glad to talk about multiculturalism and diversity — the JEDI stuff you talk about that is so near and dear to your heart — it still made me wonder if the university was just providing politically correct lip service. My program had few students of color enrolled and even fewer students who used their mental health expertise to serve communities of color. I spent several years witnessing little movement on diversity at the university, and I wondered if I was in the best place to serve the folks that I really wanted to serve. Eventually I felt it was time to answer the call for me to help in my own community, which has always been a core value for me.
KF: How was your mental health affected by the misalignment of your personal JEDI goals and your job’s execution of JEDI?
KD: When I started to think about leaving the university to work in the Black community, I got conflicting viewpoints. My colleagues in the professorate said, “No, you cannot go. There are few Black men in the professorate. You have to be there. You have to be there for our colleagues, for the Black students, for folks of color.” It seemed unanimous that they felt I had to stay and continue this work because it was what I had always done. They came up with all kinds of reasons such as the need for the diversity within the leadership pipeline, the need for representation and so on.
But the one thing that they did not ask about was my mental health. They didn’t ask, “How do you feel? What are your values? What do you want? Who do you want to serve?” In fact, I did not even tell people that I made the decision to leave the university because I knew people would say, “Oh my God, what happened?” As if I could not do good work outside of the university, which baffled me a bit.
Only one person responded differently to my decision, my long-time mentor and friend Linwood Vereen. Linwood said, “Good for you, man. I am so proud of you! Some folks wish they could explore other things but fear holds them back.” Linwood is a good mentor; he always encourages me to do what is best for me and my mental health.
After leaving the university to focus full time on my clinical practice and consulting, I continued to work hard, but I experienced a different level of peace. I was doing what I wanted to do, and I was serving my community. I am a year in, and the peace has increased and that is affirmation I am supposed to be doing this. My community always welcomes my talent and my commitment to advance the Black community. This gives me peace.
KF: How did working for an organization that did not match your personal goals and mission alter how you perceived yourself?
KD: You have the organization as a whole and you have the people that you work with. I loved the folks I worked with, and they always encouraged me to be me. They always knew that I looked at things from a different perspective and presented things a different way, and they welcomed that. Overall, I do not think the university recognized my true value. At the university, you sign your contract, you come and do your work, and when you leave, they will throw you a little party. But at the end of the day, there is probably somebody already lined up to fill your position before you are gone.
When I stepped into my new role as a counselor in the community, I was surprised by the unsolicited job and contract offers. It reminded me that I have personal talent outside of the box of academia. Opening this box and exploring other opportunities allowed me to rekindle my confidence and own my true value.
KF: How did working at a place where the JEDI goals and missions differed from your own affect your personal and professional growth?
KD: It is a prestigious thing to be a professor at a university, and it seems like the world acknowledges that “you have made it.” So, when you continue to buy into that notion, you can become stagnant and not do other things to advance your personal and professional growth. That is why I encourage folks to do things outside of being a professor. Have your own consulting business or have different streams of income. That way you can test some of your other skills and have experiences in other places.
Hear me and hear me well: If you teach for 25 years at a university and that is what works for you, good, go with God! I do not have anything against that. However, far too often, I have seen folks in that predicament who do not feel valued but don’t know what other options they have. When they don’t explore talents and skill sets in other areas, fear can set in and hinder them from stepping outside of the academy. I encourage folks to get out there and do other things. When I left the university, I was so surprised that all the skill sets I had learned being a counselor educator were transferable to be a business owner, leader and consultant.
KF: What would you tell other counselors who find themselves in a similar situation?
KD: I went into education because I loved to teach and I did well at it. I would advise my colleagues to constantly assess and reassess how their values and goals line up with their job regardless of setting. I’d also encourage folks that work in academia to take on faculty positions that make room for private practice and consulting work. This will allow you to learn more about other streams of income before making a full pivot. Always ask yourself the question, “Is this working for me now?” If you choose to pivot from the university, it isn’t a bad thing. It does not mean that you have not achieved. It does not mean that you have given up some power and prestige. The most important thing is to follow your values, your passion and what is best for your mental health.
I hope that Keith’s journey to pursue his life’s passion by transitioning from being a counselor educator to working full time as a clinician and consultant within the Black community will inspire others to evaluate and map out a plan on how they will pursue their life’s purpose. This month, I challenge you to consider what you need to do professionally and personally to follow your values and passion while taking into account your overall wellness.