Melissa Gamble: Addressing Racism In The Classroom is Detrimental To A Student’s Ability to Learn
Melissa has carved an untraditional path for herself towards teaching, and one that has really caught my attention. Her success proves that the skills and knowledge from one industry can help to build a strong case for change in another. With her degree in law, and being part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team at Columbia College Chicago, she is making the case on very important topics while also creating courses centered around them. We can't escape how politics, law and systemic racism has affected our country, and the school is so fortunate to have someone who has been both personally and professionally affected. She gives me her view on the ethics and visions of what could and should be within education and political standards in the fashion industry by starting with the simple notion of trusting your intuition. Her own experience of growing up with self-doubt and having her fair share of sexism and elitism in her professional life has given her the strength to help students see their own potential and bring their own individual contribution to society. Melissa has found what it takes to really look out for yourself and how that perspective can bring value to others as well. I have to admit that I am also fortunate to have benefited from this value-driven approach of hers. Without her help, I wouldn't be able to find the balance of focusing on the positives of higher education and cut through all the noise of the difficulties adjunct faculty face, to just remember that I am valued and appreciated.
You have a degree in law, so if you can talk about what that experience was like and how a shift in your professional path led you to teaching in academia?
My career path has had a lot of unexpected twists and turns. I knew practicing law was not the right fit for me. I loved the attorneys at the firm where I worked, but the legal field was not the right place for me. Once I let go of what I “should do” and focused on what I wanted to do, it all changed. I look at whether the opportunity interests me intellectually, does it fulfill some purpose that I feel passionate about, and will I be working with people that I respect, can learn from, and generally, align with my values. I have always loved all types of design, but I knew I wasn’t “the designer.” After transitioning into fashion, I quickly learned the value that I could bring to the fashion industry came from my business and legal knowledge not design knowledge. After working with fashion designers and entrepreneurs for a number of years, I was invited to apply for a position at Columbia College Chicago as they were launching the Fashion Studies department. “Teaching” per se had not occurred to me until that time, but as I thought about the opportunity, I realized that I’d been teaching designer and entrepreneurs for years already. The chance to provide students with knowledge before they launch their businesses, help them to learn what questions to ask, and when to go to a legal or accounting professional for help made so much sense to me. As an attorney, I often worked with clients who did not seek legal counsel, did not know what they were getting into, and you have to help them unravel the problems they’ve encountered. As the Director of Fashion for the city, I worked with many designers and entrepreneurs who graduated from arts programs and started a business but didn’t know anything about running a business. Teaching at Columbia College Chicago gave me the opportunity to help people from the very beginning of their business.
What is your opinion on higher education and is there a cause that you are most passionate about when it comes to the administration, students, or curriculum?
I’ve had discussions with folks who work for the tech-based certification companies who believe that a four-year degree isn’t necessary. I disagree. The growth that happens for students intellectually, emotionally, and even physically is significant in that four years. The change I see in students from the time they come in as freshman to the time they leave as seniors is incredible. That doesn’t happen without the time, space, and intellectual challenges to explore and push yourself as an individual. To find yourself in uncomfortable situations, and have to figure out how to deal with them. To develop your professional self, and really think about who you want to be and what’s important to you. That doesn’t happen in certificate classes, and it doesn’t happen as fully at community colleges when you’re living at home. I am most passionate about two things: (i) helping students develop to their own best potential, and think about themselves as individuals, not about who the college, society, or even their families think they should be, and (ii) the journey toward racial equity and antiracism that I am on and that the college is on as well. I am proud of the ways in which Columbia College Chicago strives to develop each student’s potential, and the critical focus on addressing systemic racism issues, working to build racial equity for students, faculty, and staff, and supporting efforts toward antiracism as an institution and individual community members. All of that is much more difficult to do, if not impossible in the current climate, at a public institution.
The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked so much passion, love and controversy, this past month and I know it sparks something for you. Can you speak to your efforts on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team for the School of Fine and Performing Arts at the college?
As a white person, I will never be done reading up on this and working to understand and change the ways in which I contribute to a highly racist system and need to better myself in personal interactions. I think about that every day, and I’ve been working on this for a few years now… It will not happen overnight, and white people have to be in it for the long haul and be willing to get really uncomfortable.
I am part of the DEI team for our department and the School of Fine and Performing Arts. In addition to the Undoing Racism training which we participated in 3 years ago, we have launched a book club for faculty and will transition that into a reading group open to faculty, staff, students, and our community partners this coming academic year. We are working on a plan for a mentorship program for all students, but also, a mentorship experience specific to students of color as we know that they face very specific issues and challenges in the workplace and in the fashion industry. At the SFPA level, we have worked to determine where faculty in various departments are in this work, what resources are needed, and other ways in which we can support faculty in this work inside and outside the classroom. We think about this specifically as it relates to classroom experiences for our students. That is a paramount concern because racism in the classroom is detrimental to a student’s ability to learn and has physical and emotional impacts that can prevent them from succeeding in the ways they could otherwise, and that is unacceptable to us. We also think about it as it relates to experiences outside the classroom as well. That being said, it’s a long road. There is much more to do, and it will take time. We try to identify where we can have the most impact at a given point in time with the human and financial resources we have available.
"In academia, and especially at Columbia College Chicago, we can have discussions and explore ideas that would never be accepted in many corporations – or even public institutions. We have that privilege, and we want to effect change wherever we can."
When it comes to teaching and learning, I truly believe both students and teachers can benefit from attributes of physical, spiritual, emotional or intellectual decisions and experiences. How would you describe your experience with this in both a private and public sector?
I agree with you. I probably teach more from the physical, emotional, and intellectual decisions. I feel like students are in very different places as it relates to spirituality so I try to respect and support wherever they are, and if they choose to incorporate that into their work, then I fully support it, but I don’t necessarily bring it into my teaching practice quite as much for that reason. For me, the physical and emotional are crucial. If you are not in a place physically or emotionally to learn, to engage, or challenge yourself intellectually, you’re not going to get much out of class. This part was really challenging last semester when we had to transition mid-semester to fully online work and deal with pandemic, job losses, etc. We were all working hard to manage emotional well-being, and sometimes, we could do it better than others. So, I dialed my expectations way back, and there was a lot more leniency in terms of deadlines, coming to the Zoom sessions etc. than I usually have because I felt like students needed support and not deadlines. Intellectually, I think about challenging students preconceived notions about the industry. Helping them think more critically about their work and the industry, and explore and develop who they want to be professionally. No question the corporate sector and public institutions could benefit as well. That is one of the reasons we decided to include our community partners in the reading group on race. In academia, and especially at Columbia College Chicago, we can have discussions and explore ideas that would never be accepted in many corporations – or even public institutions. We have that privilege, and we want to effect change wherever we can. If we have a couple of community partners that are open to participating with us in this group, maybe it affords them a time and space to listen, discuss, and learn about these issues that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
What do you hope for in the future, and is there any advice you could have given yourself years ago that might have prepared you to establish the work you want to do for this type of future?
Hmmm, that’s a hard one. It’s ok that you’re career is not a straight path and to trust myself – intuition over all. I grew up with a lot of self-doubt and have dealt with my fair share of sexism and elitism in my professional life. I’ve fought that throughout my career in different ways and at different times. Over time, I learned what I needed to do to take care of myself with that, and I realized that I have a perspective that is valuable for myself and for others. So, I listen to that and am more rooted in that. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen or respect other people, but rather, I don’t immediately discount myself. I wish I could have known and embodied that from the beginning of my career. But, hey, live and learn, right?