Jordan and his guest, Appalachian's inclusive excellence consultant and assistant director of multicultural student development, Spenser Darden, share stories and discuss life from their perspective as young, black, professional men in rural Appalachia.
Jordan: Hey, welcome everybody. Welcome to “What’s Your Truth?” This is Jordan again. This week, I talk to a man named Spenser Darden, inclusive excellence consultant here at Appalachian and also assistant director in Multicultural Student Development. It was a really cool conversation. We talked about being black and professional and male in this space. This space is Boone, North Carolina, or western North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains at Appalachian State University. We talked about being black, male and professional in this space, but the best part of this conversation — it’s probably not going to be useful for any podcast or anybody around. It was more a cathartic experience for him and I, where for so much of our existence in this world, we have these messages around being black and male and heterosexual, and what that means for us and who we are. The same crazy, sometimes racist, sometimes classist and homophobic messages that the world gets, you know, we get those, too, and so, we, in turn, start acting out those same messages against other black men. Even in this conversation, it was just one of those cathartic experiences to sit here and just have a regular conversation — a regular conversation with another brother that’s just trying to make it … just trying to survive. So, I hope you all enjoy that.
Jordan: Spenser Darden, welcome to the program. How are you?
Spenser Darden: Good. I'm doing well. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Absolutely. So, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself to get us started?
Spenser Darden: Um, so I'm originally from the D.C. area, uh, those who are familiar call it the DMV Virginia. Uh, born and raised with my parents who are both from New York, so I spent a few years up there. But you know, did, did my bachelor’s at West Virginia University, home of the Mountaineers, and got my master’s at the University of Arizona before, uh, you know, traveling around a little bit and landing here at App most recently.
Jordan: You went from West Virginia to Arizona?
Spenser Darden: Yes, sir. Yeah.
Jordan: Is that a big jump? Like, feels like a big jump.
Spenser Darden: It goes from the mountains to the prairies as the song says. It's pretty flat up there, but yeah. So, uh, I did my master’s out there, spent two years out there. Um, and then after I finished, I moved back to West Virginia. My partner was still there, and so, I did my first professional role there, working with low-income and first-generation students, TRIO programs, student support services, in particular. Um, and then from there, man, uh, we decided why, why stay on the mainland when Hawaii is an option.
Jordan: Wow. West Virginia, to Arizona, to Hawaii.
Spenser Darden: Yeah, you got it. You got it. So, we moved to Oahu, the beautiful island. Um, and uh, we were there for a year and a half, almost two years. Um, and I worked there with student activities at one of the most diverse universities in the country. Eighty four percent of the students, nonwhite. About 25 percent of the students were from territories.
Jordan: What's that like —
Spenser Darden: Man, it was —
Jordan: — that, that I can't even imagine if that were outside of, you know, elementary school in Memphis, but I can't even imagine, man. What that's like, like how do you, like —
Spenser Darden: Yeah, it's full immersion man. And that's, that's what's so cool about it, is the history and the community that's there is absolutely incredible and almost inexplicable, you know what I mean? Because there's such an emphasis on celebrating who you are, celebrating your history, your culture.
Jordan: Celebrating who you are.
Spenser Darden: Exactly. And um, it's something that's, it's beautiful man. I mean, all the, all the universities out there, they do a lot to celebrate the history and the heritage of the islands. So, not just the state of Hawaii, but, you know, there's Guam and Saipan. There's um, you know, students from Puerto Rico, from Americas, Samala there, students that come up from Tonga, you know, so from all over the Pacific. Um, and so, you know, there’s a lot of really intentional ways that they get to celebrate their culture and, and share that with the community that's built there.
Jordan: That’s a fantastic gift to give students. They're like, to experience that kind of culture, that community, man.
Spenser Darden: And from, from elementary all the way up through college, it's something that's absolutely imperative. Right? So, it's not an option. There are schools there that, from kindergarten through fifth grade, it's only the Hawaiian. They don't even speak English until, really, the end of their elementary years.
Spenser Darden: Full immersion. Um, that was something that was really incredible, and something that was really important to me.
Jordan: So then how did you go from there to Appalachia? And I'm not saying, I don't, don't, please, don't misunderstand, you know, I'm not talking bad about Appalachian, and I'm just thinking, you know, going from that, how did you even find this as a space to be, here in Boone?
Spenser Darden: Yeah. So, uh, you know, I was looking for a role like the one I have here, you know, I was looking to do, um, you know, inclusive excellence and cultural immersion, diversity and social justice education. Um, and the opportunity here was right, the location was right. Like I said, my family is in D.C., my partner's family is in West Virginia, and um, you know, a lot of it was getting back closer to family. Um, you know, and the physical distance is tough, but really, it's the time difference, you know, it's a six-hour time difference from there to the East Coast.
Jordan: On the West Coast, it's weird that football comes on and at what, 10:00 in the morning? I can't deal with that. I can only imagine what it’s like, you know … and, and look at me looking for, you know, football, football is what matters. Not talking to family, no; it's what time the game comes on. So, that’s what my priorities are.
Spenser Darden: And imagine, too, man, college football starts at noon on the East Coast, 6:00 a.m., right? So, so the game comes on, 7:30 game is at 1:30 in the afternoon. You know what I mean, and I still have my entire Saturday to get to spend.
Jordan: So, you came here to do this kind of work. Like, what do you do here? Talk a little bit about that.
Spenser Darden: Yeah. So, there's what my job is and there's what I do. Um, and so what the job is, you know, supervising grad students, it's about engaging with students. It's about, um, you know, creating spaces for students of color, for low-income students, first-generation students, LGBTQIA students, you know, and really helping them to know that there are people in spaces and communities here for them to thrive while on campus. Um, and so, you know, that's really what the job description says is to be here. Um, but you know, what the work is, the work is a lot of this social, emotional, you know, support.
Jordan: The social, emotional support — can you talk more about that and what it looks like?
Spenser Darden: It's about connecting students to one another and it's about, um, you know, being a representation of, of excellence, right? Of being a professional and aspiring scholar of color and showing our students that these people exist and they exist here. Um, and it's not just you, you know what I mean?
Jordan: A representation of excellence.
Spenser Darden: That's right.
Jordan: And, and, and I'm here, I hear that, and I'm sitting across from you, and I, I like, I feel that when you said that, because that means something, there is some weight behind that, there's some, uh, at least for me, some pressure behind that, man. Do you experience any of that?
Spenser Darden: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, and I think, I think the reality is part of being a person of color, not just in Boone, but in the United States, is there's always pressure, right? Is that people look at us to be the representation of who this race culture community is. Um, and so, you know, I strongly believe in this idea of lifting as you climb, right? And the thing as you climb, that's something that isn't an often-reframed mantra and belief, um, especially in the black community, but in a lot of communities of color is, as we do better, we elevate those who are coming after us, and people always talk about standing on the shoulders of those who come before us. And that's something that is part of why I'm here, right? Is that, you know, I had an experience at an institution very similar to this. It was in rural Appalachia. It was, you know, 15 or less percent nonwhite, um, you know, and so a lot of my experience as an undergraduate student was really shaped by that. Um, and so, when I was looking for positions, I saw myself here because I have been here, um, and I saw students here being who I was when I was there. Um, and so, you know, yeah, there's, there's definitely pressure to, um, to be excellent and to be the best and to be all things to all people. Um, but, but honestly, and I'm sure we'll talk about this later, that's part of what drives me, right? Is not being, um, not being mediocre, but really taking the next steps.
Jordan: Yeah. And, and so I'm curious, you know, what fuels that, and also, man, what's the price for you? And I think I know the price for me, and it's, it's a lot of different things, but for you, like, what is the, what fuels you and what's the cost of this in your life? Of doing these things, of being these things?
Spenser Darden: Well, I think first what fuels me is, first and foremost, the folks that I'm doing it with and for — the students that, you know, come in and say they couldn't imagine this place without me, um, the staff that's around me saying you're doing great work. You know, it's part of who I was raised to be. Um, you know, my dad is an education lawyer, and so, all of his work is around public education, access for low-income students and especially low-income students.
Jordan: Access. Access.
Spenser Darden: Access is an important word. Um, and my mother is an elementary school teacher, and she's taught in Title I schools for the majority of her educational career, which is elementary schools that are specifically designated as high density of low-income students.
Jordan: Did they say anything to you? Do they … so, so, they showed us their actions, or what they did with their, you know, their careers, you know, they show you what's important, but were there any words that they would impart to you and say, hey, that lets you know that this is, you know, I don't know, your responsibility, what you need to be doing? I'm always interested in that.
Spenser Darden: Yeah, it was never a message of this is, it's your turn, right? But it was the discussions at the dinner table, the questions that were asked, the conversations that we had of, of trying to figure out, you know, make meaning of the world, uh, and, and what impact that we're going to have on it. It's funny, I call education the family business because my sister has her degree in marine biology, and she is a educator, first and foremost. Um, you know, and obviously I work in it and my mom is a teacher, my dad does education law, and, and he works in a position now that, actually, um, he's a grantor, right? So, he gives grants for folks that are doing education advocacy and education access work. Um, and so, you know, of course it was the actions, but it was the conversations of, you know, what is right? You know, this idea of difference between opportunity gap and the productivity gap, or whatever else that we talk about. I can, I … the words “opportunity gap” entered my vernacular around the age of seven, which is not a normal second-grade experience, right? And so, from the very start of, of my parents, you know, raising my sister and myself, it was thinking about systems and structures and inequalities, and trying to figure out, you know, how is it that you rectify the wrongs that have been created, even if they weren't created by you or even those around you. Um, and so, it was really a, a whole process of, of my, my development.
Jordan: I hear that. I hear that. So, so then, you don't have to do this. You don't have to do this. You don't have to be here, put yourself through this. I don't have to be here and put myself through this. And what this is, is being, you know, black and male in this space that is, you know, sometimes openly hostile. Um, and that's a nice way to put it, um, that is sometimes openly hostile. Sometimes, um, soul-crushing, you know. You know, we don't have to do this. Why be here and do this? Why? What, what, why keep coming back for this?
Spenser Darden: And I, I wouldn't have known how to answer this, were it not for, uh, my current project, which is, um, I'm, I'm leading a reading group for graduate assistants here at the university, um, and we're reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. Um, and he put the words in my mouth, and, uh, I'm just going to go ahead and read a quote here that I prepared because I wanted to make sure to convey this to you. Um, it says “Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility, but as an historical reality. The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons is possible only because dehumanization is not a given destiny, but the result of an unjust order.” And I think that, I mean, first of all, I can't say it any better than that, which is why I just let the man say it for himself. Um, but I think that that's really the drive, right? Is that, is that understanding that, as I have these conversations at the age of seven with my parents, that is not normal, but why not? Right? And as I do this work, these conversations are difficult for people, but I have them every day. Why is that? And I think it's really about that idea of humanization, right? Of being able to help people understand that experiences outside of themselves are valid and creating the space for those experiences to be seen as valid. Um, and it's about, you know, why do I do it? I do it because it feels like it's a responsibility, right? It feels like it's part of who I should be and it’s part of my role in humanity, right? Is, is, I want the next generation of students, of kids, of scholars, of whoever, um, to be able to build on what it is that I'm done — I'm doing, excuse me — and you know, and I'm sure, I'm positive that when we think about multiplicity of civil rights movements, whether it's for disability rights, or women's rights, or, um, black rights or LGBTQ rights, or, you know, all of these things, it's the same thing, right? It's about acknowledging that the way things are isn't the way they have to be, and creating a space where people are able to be more fully themselves while other people are able to more fully accept them for what that means. Um, and then that's why I do it, man. And you know, it's, it's not an easy answer or simple answer. There's definitely some, some sacrifice that comes with it. But it's important.
Jordan: And how do you pay for, how do you personally, like, what is it like for you to do the, what is the price for you to do this work?
Spenser Darden: Yeah. Uh, first of all, it's time. Um, it's a lot of time, you know what I mean? It's nights, it's weekends, it's, it's days, day in and day out, being in meetings. It's, you know, all of these things institutionally that are now responsibilities of mine and my supervisor and our office. Um, so the first price is time. The second is this, you know, you're going to hear it all the time, is that emotional labor, that mental labor, um, you know, is that I, I, I'm, what I like to refer to myself as a critical scholar. Right? And so, you know, I can't look at things and just say that is, but I see things and ask why, you know, and so there's definitely some labor and there's definitely some, um, some mental costs that comes to it. Um, because I always am asking why is it and what could it be. And, um, so, you know, I think that's a big part of it, and obviously it has an impact on relationships that I have. Um, you know, I've had to change or disengage from relationships whether personal or professional
Jordan: That’s tough.
Spenser Darden: Yeah.
Jordan: Yeah. Like, it's just, it's just sad when you, you know, you … even friends that you had or acquaintances that you've had over a long time, then you get into this work —
Spenser Darden: That's right.
Jordan: — and then, you know, it just, it's, you hit that moment of oh no, no, it's just not going to work for me. Like, it's just, I was hoping we could be together. We just cannot. It's not going to happen. Um, yeah. We're just going to have to cut these losses here. Yeah. Yeah.
Spenser Darden: And there's some people that have been in my life that, at different times, were important to me, um, that I can honestly say are no longer in my life. Um, because of, of conversations that we've had. And it's very rarely malicious, right? It’s not me trying to —
Jordan: Sure, sure.
Spenser Darden: — to tell them or anything, but it's me trying to share that, hey, I'm not comfortable with this. Whatever that this is. And sometimes it's me opting out and other times it's them opting out.
Jordan: When it gets to a point where you're just too much.
Spenser Darden: That's right.
Jordan: You're too much. I can't do this. Can’t we just, you know, be like, you know, be cool like we were?
Spenser Darden: Why's it got to be so serious?
Jordan: Because it is. Because it's dead serious. It is dead serious, that's why.
Spenser Darden: That's right.
Jordan: Oh. So, so connected to that. So, connected to those relationships in what you, what you are, um, what you can do and who you can be in relationship to others. Like, what is, you know, have there been those moments for you? And if you could talk about any of them where you've had to be the island, you know, where you’ve had to be that guy. Kinda like, can you speak about that?
Spenser Darden: Yeah, absolutely. So, um, when I was in grad school, I played rugby. I’ve played rugby since I was 17 years old. Um, and, uh, so being in grad school, playing rugby, there's a culture that comes with that. And that culture is, um, gruff, for lack of a better word. You know, I mean, rugby is a, is a collision sport, you know. It's, it's a very masculine sport, um, you know, and so what comes with that is a lot of different things. Um, it's a lot of grabbing and hitting and touching, and so there's a lot of the, oh no, homo, you know what I mean? You know, all these different things. And so, um, you know, and being in Arizona, um, there are certain things that are Arizona, for lack of a better way to say.
Jordan: Yeah? There are things that are Arizona, OK. I'm interested to hear about this.
Spenser Darden: Yeah. Um, so, you know, I, you know, I was on the rugby field with some of my buddies and we were practicing and things were said, and I said, I said, you know, I stopped practice and I was like, listen guys, I was like, if we're going to create the best team, the best family, the best pride, right? Because we were the lions, and so, we refer to ourselves as the pride. Um, some of these things are not OK. Some of these things cannot be said or cannot be done. Um, and essentially what they told me was you’re excused to leave.
Jordan: Wow, that stings.
Spenser Darden: And yeah, and that's community, right? That's, I mean, that's not just guys you play a sport with. That's friendships and bonds and stories and experiences. Um, but you know, after, after being there for, with that group for over a year, um, I thought we were in a place where I could say that, um, and it didn't go that well.
Jordan: Yeah, yeah. It's, you know, I've been in those moments where, you know, we are, we're having a conversation like we’re friends, like close friends or acquaintances. I try not to use the word friend for everybody, but with close acquaintances where, you know, we've been connected for a while, and then, um, you know, we're, we're, we're, we're both talking about something and then, you know, we're both like pushing back on something, like, pushed into something, and then, all of a sudden, it's almost like a, it was like a snap. It just comes out, and you hear it and it's like, oh whoa, whoa, no, no, we were just having a good time. And then you had to take — no, I am not on board for that. But it means you got to be the island.
Spenser Darden: That's it, man.
Jordan: That means you got to be the island, and I have found like those moments when I have those, those things that, um, you know, those values, those truths in my life that I, that I cling to, that I hold to that, that, you know, it's painful for me then. It's just like, ah, you know, this is just, this is just not going to work.
Spenser Darden: And you know, it's sacrifice man, and you know in that moment that you're doing what feels best for you in a way that feels awful. And you know, and I talk about this all the time when I'm doing trainings or having discussions with students, staff, faculty, with everybody, right? Of, I don't want to be that person and what does that person mean? Right? And I don't want to be the buzzkill, or I don't want to be whatever. Um, but it's also about a commitment to culture, right? And it's not just about, you know, it's not just about doing or not doing because you're supposed to, but it's about changing the way that you are. Right? It's about challenging your thought processes and it's about challenging that of those around you, you know. I know, you know, as I began to develop the language for this work, um, I would have discussions with my partner, and of course, you know, there's a time difference there between Arizona and the East Coast, and you know, and there'll be times where she would say, you know, I really don't know how to have this conversation with you, you know, and so we explained some, experienced some growing pains, and that was part of what brought us closer. Um, and I think from seeing that, that's always what my hope is in engaging in these conversations. But, you know, at the same time, I know that a lot of people, depending on the nature of the relationship you have with them, may not feel prepared to have the conversation or appreciative.
Jordan: Definitely not appreciative. Definitely not going to say thank you after this is done.
Spenser Darden: So yeah. So, sometimes that island, man, sometimes standing for what it is and who it is you are, um, it's a lonely place. Yeah.
Jordan: It is lonely. And speaking of that, that lonely place, I was, I was talking to someone, a colleague friend of mine, um, who, uh, I was trying to suggest other brothers to connect to around this campus, and I realized that you and one other person were the only people I could connect them to. And I had this moment where I, it was, it hit me, of like, really? Is this all we have to talk to in this space? I'm thinking about age differences and stuff like that. So, it's not like we can just connect with anybody on campus. But, I was thinking of for the folks that were viable, you know, mentors for him, that there was, just, you know, two other brothers I could point him to. And so, so with … being this island, being so few of us black men around here, you know, what is that like for you existing in this space that is Boone? You know, what is that like to be this black and professional person here?
Spenser Darden: Yeah. Well, and, and I think that that answer comes in a couple of different ways. Um, so first, what does it mean to be black in this space? And I think that oftentimes it comes with this lack of legitimacy, right? Perceived or actual, this lack of legitimacy of, of your, your being here. Um, you know, I was just sharing with somebody that I had an experience at a restaurant where, um, you know, I was saying I hadn't been to the restaurant before. Um, and somebody turns around and says, “What do you mean you haven't been to this restaurant before? It's fantastic.” And I said, “Well, I'm new to the area.” And they said to me, “Well, you're a student, right?” And I said, “No I'm a staff member.” And they said, “Where?” And, and I said, “At Appalachian State.” And they said, “At App?” They said — incredulous, right? — “You work there?” they said. And this conversation was not a conversation that involved that person, right? This was a conversation between me and somebody else.
Jordan: Wait, what now?
Spenser Darden: And yes, and interject into mine, right? Because, and so, I think that that is characteristic of what it feels like to sometimes be here and be black here, right?
Jordan: So much so, that they felt like they could get in your conversation.
Spenser Darden: That's right. That’s right. And he says, “Are you a student?” Right? Because I could not have the knowledge to be giving to others, right? And it always comes with this idea of, of, you know, we talk about microaggressions, and I know people are not impressed by that. You know, they say, “Well, it's not intentional. It's not this and this. How can you hold people responsible for it?” But you know, intentional or not, that's something that I feel daily, weekly, monthly, right? And so, that combination of that nonlegitimacy over and over and over and over again.
Jordan: Yes. I have colleagues who repeatedly introduce themselves to me. And I know you. I have been here. We have connected before. You know who I am. We've talked about family together. Yet, somehow, it is just your, your stereo, the stereotypes in your mind are so powerful, that the, they just totally reject any of that previous relationship. It's not possible. You have to be a new person. You're not from here. You don't belong in this space.
Spenser Darden: So, an example I always think about is, there was a black professor at Harvard University, and he would say that anytime that he had an interaction with the police, he would include his Harvard faculty ID underneath of his, his license as a way for, for them to look at him and somehow prove his legitimacy. Right? And so —
Jordan: He belongs, that he's OK. I'm safe, I'm all right. Yes, I'm fine. I'm good.
Spenser Darden: And he said, “You know what? And I stopped doing that because what it assumes is that blackness is the exception and not the norm.” Right? And so, what it really demonstrates is that there has to be a price to our inclusion. Um, and so, he said, “No more. I'm not doing that anymore.” And I think that that's such a powerful graphic of, where do I belong? And that's a constant question, and that idea of this imposter syndrome, right? You know, I'm educated, and I've done this work and I do these things, but I still am not seen as legitimate. Right? And you were just talking about conversations you've had and introductions that you've had to make with colleagues. And I experienced the exact opposite. And what does that mean? That means that I am supposed to be in a space and people don't introduce themselves to me. I was, I was going to a meeting, and I was the only person of color in this meeting. And other white folks walked into the room, you know, I was the first one there, I was working on my laptop and you know, the first person comes in, they look at me, they kind of have this questioning look on their face and they go about their business. And then another white person walks into the room, and they introduce themselves to one another. Right? So, there's no previous relationship between these two folks. And yet, there I sit, name badge, university-issued computer —
Jordan: Name badge! Name badge!
Spenser Darden: — collared shirt, dress pants. And yet, nobody sees me as being and belonging in this space.
Jordan: But, you are, this is where you're supposed be.
Spenser Darden: That’s right. So, I think for being black in spaces like these, not just in Boone, right? And these are, these are experiences that I can talk about all day. From my experience growing up, to my experience in undergrad through grad school, as a professional. Um, you know, I think that that is really part of what it means to be black at an institution.
Jordan: I, you know, I really connect to that because, like, in just talking about that, that having those types of experiences over and over and over again, like, I exist in this space as constantly believing of myself, you know, that it's only a matter of time before I am found out. Like, that I have to be a fraud. Like I have to be. There's no way, because of these messages I keep getting over and over again.
Spenser Darden: It's a pattern.
Jordan: You know, and any one isolated incident is OK, but this is over and over again with that, that is so bad for me that, I still, you know, I've been teaching now since 2000, full-time teaching now since 2009, and I still before, before 80 percent of my classes go to the restroom and dry heave because I'm so anxious that I'm going to get found out. Like, it makes no sense. It makes no sense that I talk to myself in the restroom: “What is wrong with you? Why are you in here? You know you can do this. You know you're supposed to be here.”
Spenser Darden: And you've navigated the processes to prove that you belong.
Jordan: Yes, I have earned this. I have earned the right to be here, yet I'm over the toilet, and um, it's, it's, it's sad, it's sad. And it's, it's for me, that's one of those prices that I pay, like, it's constant sickness to my stomach that I am, I'm not supposed to be here. Like, I'm not allowed in this space.
Spenser Darden: And part of that, you mentioned it sort of as we bridge into this part of the discussion, is seeking mentorship, right? This conversation is not to say that the end-all and the be-all is people that look like you, right? This is not to say that there's nothing to be gained or learned from folks that are different from you, but there's, there's a certain kind of power, um, in being able to connect to somebody who can have these conversations. Who can similarly say, you know, as this type of a person, whether it's, you know, an LGBT faculty member, whether it's a man of color, whether it's a first-generation female student, uh, being able to see that reflected and say, this is what I experienced, I hear you. Right? And we just had an experience with students where a lot of us had a similar identity, and we were in a room and one of the students was trying to explain what it was like to have that experience on campus. And she was just like. “Yeah, you know what I mean?” And that was it. Everybody knew exactly what she meant. That’s all it took.
Jordan: That's all it is.
Spenser Darden: And nobody had to ask her what she meant. Nobody needed further clarification. Everybody saw and heard what she was saying, and said, “Yep, me too.” And there's a certain kind of power and there's a certain kind of uplift that comes from this, and you know, and so, you know, thinking about the price that I pay, thinking about, you know, what is it that it's like to be a professional here, you know, a lot of times that comes with a lack of that mentorship, or a lack of that reflection of both who I am and who I want to be. And where I want to go.
Jordan: Exactly. So, so, how do you hold to who you are in this space when it is constantly challenged, both, um, directly, overtly and covertly? How do you, how do you hold to who you are? How do you know who that person is?
Spenser Darden: That's always a hard question of, uh, you know, I think we always try to approach the question of resiliency, right? And that's part of what you're getting at. And that's a really hard question. You know, how can I teach other people to do? Um, you know, I think part of it is, is just the way that these conversations happen in my family have really grounded me in my belief. Um, from, like I said, from the time that I was six, seven years old, these were normal conversations, um, you know, and so thinking about, you know, having these conversations, having these experiences and being assured enough to say it wasn't something else, it was exactly what I thought it was. Um, a lot of that comes from, you know, the experiences that I had growing up. Um, I would also say that the spaces and relationships that I have and have sought out and created, um, really help empower and reaffirm that I'm doing this, and I'm, I'm doing the right thing. So, friendships that I've, you know, created, um, the few mentoring possibilities that are on this campus or, you know, wherever I might be seeking those out, um, you know, and also validating them. Right? So, uh, there was a black professional in my office earlier today and they introduced themselves to a student by their first name, and I said, “No, no. This is doctor, who this person is.” Um, you know, and again, that almost sounds counter to what I was speaking about with that faculty member who no longer includes his, um, his faculty ID. Um, but I also think again, with that idea of representation, mentorship and seeing yourself that it's important for them to know who this person is, and even if they don't call them doctor so-and-so, even if they just call them by their first name, for them to know that’s who that person is, you know, that's something that folks have done for me, and I'm not doctor, but —
Jordan: Right, right, but I see what you're saying.
Spenser Darden: But um, and so, you know, for me to also do that, I think that that builds that solidarity of, of belongingness in this space.
Jordan: I hear that. I hear that. So, you started, you started at West Virginia?
Spenser Darden: That's correct.
Jordan: You went to Arizona.
Spenser Darden: That's right.
Jordan: You went to Hawaii, and now you're in a back in Appalachia at Appalachian State. Where do you go from here, man?
Spenser Darden: That's a big question. Um.
Jordan: Where is the fight? How do you continue to fight? Where's, what's the next piece for you?
Spenser Darden: Yeah. Um, I don't, I don't, you know, I don't, I don't know. Um, I definitely want to get my doctorate. Um, I see myself in more of a policy type role, and maybe a lot of that comes from my dad as a lawyer. A lot of that looks at policy and law and, and practice. Um, and so, I believe that the way to create sustainable change is by effecting how things happen.
Jordan: Say that again. Say that again, please.
Spenser Darden: The way to affect sustainable change is to affect how things happen. Um, and so, I want to be that decision-maker or one of those decision-makers. Um, you know, and so, you know, I know that on your show, you had Dr. Fleming, chief diversity officer — that's a role that has the power to make change, to effect policy, to be in the rooms when discussions are being had that have a huge impact on our campus without them even knowing those conversations are happening. And so, that's part of where I see myself. Um, I see myself as spreading these discussions, you know, empowering folks to have these conversations and, you know, part of it is, is it makes good business sense, you know. And so, working with businesses to learn how to truly live their values is part of what I see myself doing.
Jordan: Absolutely. And in the spirit of this show, you know, in this podcast, ”What's your Truth?,” and, um, in thinking about other black men like you and like me who are out there, who are the island, who are trying to, you know, just trying to make it in whatever space like you and I are trying to make it in this one, is there any truth you'd like to share with them?
Spenser Darden: So, um, in addition to the periphery quote that I shared earlier, my favorite quote, um, it was on my iPod Touch. I was in middle school.
Jordan: Taking us back. Taking us back.
Spenser Darden: That's right. I've put it as my saver screen. When you needed a phone and a music device, right? My favorite quote by the psychologist Alfred Adler is, “It's easier to fight for one's principles and to live up to them.” Um, and that's, that is the truth, I think that I really try to live my life by, is that it's not enough to say that it's what I'm about, but it’s what I have to be about, right?
Jordan: True that.
Spenser Darden: That song “Take It to the Head,” right? Don't talk about it, be about it.
Jordan: True that.
Spenser Darden: Um, and so that is, that is the big T truth, as you say, in my life, is that I can't just talk about it, but I got to be about it. I got to show it. I got to walk it. I got to live it.
Jordan: True that. Spenser Darden it's an honor to have you, my brother.
Spenser Darden: Hey man. I appreciate the opportunity.
Jordan: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
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About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls nearly 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.