Being Selfless, Persistent, and a Social Activist…Meet Dr. T. Morton

Dubois publicized the phrase “the talented tenth” in his 1903 essay. This term fixated on the idea of preparing a tenth of African Americans for leadership within the US. Post slavery options for Africans Americans were limited, and while it was still new to see African Americans as free, Dubois and other northerners pushed for education amongst this group.

If ten percent of African Americans gain education, they would become those leaders to assist the ninety percent with following suit. This plan didn’t fail. As a matter of fact, over 100 years later, ways to modify and merge this concept with new and old ones are continuously being challenged. The goal to uplift is still as much in the souls and hearts of the new age “talented tenth.”

When I think of the numerous proposals that have been created in hopes of uplifting the African American communities, I feel that each activist, each solution thought of, and all followers contributed to making significant changes. We have read about those changes, and some of us continue to study those changes.

The person that I am introducing is a good friend of mine who I deem as clever and wise beyond his years. He is steadfast, he is observant, and his drive is gigantic. Yes… I really did use the adjective gigantic to describe his drive… 😳🧐

Dr. Terrell Morton’s energy and persistence, along with that steadfastness is noticed by those he is around.

I’ve been lucky to have worked with him in many capacities and he constantly impresses me. He is that person that I can see bridging all of those ideas into one to take in “all of those…(🤦🏾‍♀️I remember that convo we had Terrell…)babies” and assist them with not just believing in themselves, but to take moments to mentor and uplift the next.

From being my TA, to having long convos during his masters program, to being my lead counselor for the AISP program, to seeing the effort he put into obtaining a PhD program before he was 30, he is THAT Black male, the intellectual, the social activist, the mentor we need to have around our young Black males. He is THAT person that I can see to assist with impacting and implementing the much needed change to help elevate and advocate for ….US.

I can say so much more about him, but because I want you to focus on his words, I’ll refrain from saying…. (Well …. ok a few more words)

Terrell is a leader who (I’m certain I can speak for everyone that knows him) will be in the forefront to advocate change, while also using his free time to selflessly help others in all ways possible. I honestly don’t even know if he sleeps, but I know so many are appreciative of this characteristic that he has to just give…Selflessly…and all…of…the…time…

From being my terminal degree accountability partner to always being in the corner for someone who needs, Terrell should be applauded…🙏🏾

Thank you Dr. Morton!!

so…. How do you describe yourself?  

 

Lately, my descriptions for myself have been contextually-specific. What I mean by this is that while the underlying premises are the same, the verbiage used changes. I do not necessarily consider it to be “code-switching,”but more so audience specific. How can I communicate all of the complex, amazing (if I might add) aspects of myself to let other individuals know who I am and what I stand for? So, to answer both your question and my own (seeing as how I pretty much reiterated your question with my own version of it—getting to the complexity of my response, smh) by response is as follows:

To my professional audience, I am a scholar-activists. What that means is that I live a life where I not only write, research, and discuss elements of my professional endeavors, but I live them on a daily basis. Currently, I am a Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow. This title simply means that I am in a program “designed” to give me a leg-up on the tenure-track faculty life, and that I do not do the work of more traditional postdoctoral scholars. Traditional postdocs either teach or do research that is assigned to them by their postdoctoral mentors. As a PFF, I am able to conduct my own research, co-design and teach courses, and engage in service as I see fit.

Why did I feel the need to explain that?

Well, that goes along with my activist identity of how I describe myself. In the academy (field of higher education, scholarly research, knowledge production, etc.) there are politics (and perceived and actual power) in names. When you say that you are a Postdoc, despite the accolades that you have amassed to get to this level, you are perceived to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy on university campuses. Postdocs are “expected” to “stay in their lane” and simply do what is asked of them. Those who know me, know that “my lane” is work that advocates, supports, empowers, uplifts, cultivates and engages racial justice, racial progress, and racial liberation. And so, with that being “my lane,” any work; no matter, what the project is that involves these elements; particularly within my loci of control and work environment will be my work and I will be involved to some capacity. These actions that I am describing transcend the traditional “expectations” of a postdoc, and to some degree a junior scholar (Assistant Professor, the next achievable rank in my current trajectory), aligning more with how Full, Endowed Professors carry themselves or Senior-Level Administrators who are tenured.

To my community audience, I am someone who loves and cares for my people! I use the talents God has given me, the knowledge and wisdom I have amassed, and my energy and effort to dismantle oppressive structures, create space and opportunity, and cultivate my people. My “professional” endeavors focus on transforming institutions of higher education; particularly for Black students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My “work”also involves my service and support of my home community through the non-profit organization my family started: the Christine Avery Learning Center ( http://cwalearningcenter.com) for youth ages 2 to 16 and their families. It involves the informal mentoring that I do for individuals Ive come into contact with across the United States and throughout my many engagements (e.g., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.; Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, Inc.; Volunteering as an Assistant Band Director in Miami, FL and Durham, NC; Working as a Camp Counselor at various institutions).

To those I have dedicate my life to cultivating, empowering, and equipping—my students/mentees, broadly defined—I am someone who is “bout that life” or who can “walk it like I talk it.” I have a genuine, caring, somewhat abrasive demeanor when it comes to engaging with my students/mentees, and I demonstrate my commitment to supporting them and set high expectations for their performance when it comes to enhancing themselves and their overall quality of life.

In short, I describe myself as someone who loves, someone who gives, and someone who works to make a change for the better.

What do you do for a living?  How did get into this field?

 

While I somewhat answered this question earlier, I work in education. As a scholar-activist, it is my job to create new knowledge, cultivate others, and hold myself to the same if not higher standards that I expect of those that I support. I got into this field after having some challenging yet reflective life circumstances. Without sharing my full story (part of it you can find here and here), here is the short and sweet version:

 

In the process of exploring my interest in science, ( receiving a B.S. in Chemistry and pursuing a Ph.D. program for Neuroscience-Neurobiology) I had an identity “crisis” that was complimented with family challenges. This identity crisis involved me questioning, “who am I?” as it aligned with what I was doing professionally, and what mattered most to me. During this reflective moment, I realized that while I was interested in science, my passion was education. These experiences were taking place during a time in which:

1.) My grandmother, a key figure in my life, passed away. She was the first person in our immediate family circle to do so causing a real shift in our family dynamic. This shift, thankfully, was one where we became closer as a family unit.

2.) I had several high school and college friends pass away from health-related conditions that one would “presume” would happen to someone who is much older in life. One of my high school friends was also murdered during this time span. These experiences brought about a whole different perspective for me regarding life and how it should be spent. At the time (and I can sometimes still be) I was very future oriented. I saw (see) my life lasting decades, and felt that I could achieve some of the joys of life much later and that now was a moment to grind, sacrifice, and work. My friends’ passing and murdering taught me that time is not guaranteed, and each moment should be filled with joy. Now to be fair, I am still future-oriented to some degree, but I now take and make more time to enjoy the present. What I mean by this is that I try to make decisions to that fulfill both my immediate and future happenings and circumstances. I try to be there for people in their moments, celebrating and loving them, and I try to make sure that “I close my eyes each night” being at peace with the decisions that I have made for that day or days prior.

3.) My grandfather, another major key figure in my life, became terminally ill and would now require assistance and care. And,

4.) My mother was also diagnosed with Graves Disease, an auto-immune disorder that results in hyperthyroidism, that to this date is only treatable and not curable.

All of these things were taking place while I was over 1000 miles away from home, fresh out of college where life was amazing. I was struggling financially to make ends meet (me buying the industrial jars of peanut butter and having it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner quite frequently). I was also in a professional space where I was quite often the only Black male or the only Black person trying to figure out if what I was doing was fulfilling and sustaining for my immediate and future life.

Among all of these occurrences, I found a way to connect with my passions of music and mentoring. I started volunteering at a local high school as their assistant band director. This experience made me aware of the grotesque inequity that was taking place along with showing me how it was affecting my students’ everyday life. I found a sense of fulfillment while being there to work with and support those students both inside and outside of band. It was then that I realized that I needed to make a switch. Since then, I have been involved in education, and I continue to develop and prosper in this field.  

 

What do you do to promote positivity amongst your race?  Do you think it’s necessary?  Racism doesn’t exist, right?  (I’m being extremely sarcastic here). 

 

So, I don’t necessarily see the work that I do or the way that I live my life as promoting positivity among Black people. I more so understand myself to be someone who strives to empower and equip Black people. I would say that positivity—me interpreting it as self-love, self-valuing, self-worth, self-efficacy, and agency—is a key component to the empowerment aspect of my work. I make this distinction because in my professional world; particularly within positive psychology and splinters of the sort, there is a high chance that individuals will engage this work without acknowledging, critiquing, or challenging the structures and power that reside external to the individual that influence and shape the decisions and choices that individual makes to advance their lives.

At lot of positive psychologist tend to focus on the individual and ways by which they can adopt, modify, or change their practices to promote more positivity within their lived experiences. While individual choice and decision-making are key, these things do not happen in isolation or outside of the environmental conditions or cues experienced.

In connecting my response to your second point, it is because racism exists and it is because racism is systemic, institutionalized, and engrained within the very fabric of western philosophies and ideologies embroidered here within the United States (akin to colonialism and colonization more globally speaking) that we cannot separate the actions and experiences of the individual from the context. And, in cultivating and supporting Black people (my race), it is impossible and improbable for me to adequately do so absent of what Critical Race Theorist deem as a “Racial Realistic” perspective.

Having completed my Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis in Learning Science and Psychological Studies and combing it with my M.S in Neuroscience-Neurobiology, I take a critical-developmental-ecological perspective with scholarly and activist endeavors. Essentially, I look at how our identity informs and shapes our experience and choices (which are influenced by our perception of our experiences as they are housed within specific contexts and the challenges and support available), and how it contributes to our in the moment and overall outcomes, while also critically examining (along dimensions of racism, power, and oppression) the ways by which the immediate, surrounding, and larger societal environments impact and influence our identities, perceptions, experiences, and choices. This is a lot easier to explain with a graphic (check out some of my published and soon to be published scholarship). Maybe my scientific example will help unpack it more. In my Neuroscience-Neurobiology studies, I recall one of my professors lecturing on stem cell research. This is not the acronym STEM, but this is looking at the cells that are present during the human development process that generates the body and all of its organs. In this conversation, my professor said that a lot of people doing this work are looking at how you can inject stem cells into a diseased area as a way to revive that area and help it function. These examples were for the brain and thinking about diseases that destroy neurons like Alzheimer’s Disease. The professor continues to say that if you take new, healthy neural stem cells and inject them into an unhealthy environment (because of the glia and the various chemical signals they expose) then those once new and healthy neural stem cells will too become sick and die. It is the environment that kills!

 

And so, I say empowering and equipping because it not only provides my race with the tools, insight, and skills to cope with their immediate circumstances, but it also brings out and sharpens their desire for better, giving them the tools, insight, and skills to harness and use their voice to challenge and change structures of oppression.

 

Are their challenges as a black man in this field?

 

In short, HELL YES! Black men are numerically underrepresented in higher education, unless we are working in service-based jobs. This statement, in no way shape or fashion diminishes or is meant to slight those of us who do these jobs, because truthfully, those jobs are the backbone of higher education. But, those jobs are not given the power or respect they command.

When it comes to the jobs that “command” the respect and power (i.e., tenured or tenure-track faculty, senior-level administrators) there are very few Black men who hold these positions nationally speaking. There are even fewer who take the scholar-activist stance. The scholar-activist stance comes at tremendous costs; especially if it involves racial justice and liberation. Historically and currently, you find more Black women who take on this mantle in higher education. While I have various speculations as to why, I will not go into them.

To be a Black male, and a young Black male at that—young for my title, position, way by which I carry myself—there are enormous challenges that I face on a day to day basis. Some of these challenges, I think, are consistent for Black men in advanced positions (e.g., people with terminal degrees like MD, PhD, JD, DDS, etc.). There have been times in which I have been macro and micro-aggressed within my work environment. Some of these challenges are due to my internal conflicts with how I navigate the academy as a scholar-activist who does research on Black women in STEM. To unpack that sentence, being somewhat aware of the challenges Black women face as a result of me studying undergraduate Black women and reading on Black feminism, Intersectionality, womanism, etc. (somewhat because I am not a Black woman so I will never fully know or understand) I become exposed to the oppression that is unique to Black women. Being in higher education, I have many Black women colleagues and friends who I work with, collaborate with, (you name it) given shared interests, experiences, etc.

Recognizing the privileges that I do receive because of my male cis-hetero-gender identity, there are spaces and opportunities made available to me that are not readily made available to my Black women colleagues and friends who are equally or even more deserving of them. So, as a scholar-activist, being somewhat learned and “bout that life,” the challenge becomes how do I become an advocate and co-conspirator for my Black women colleagues and friends, particularly within a structure the values and rewards individuality? How do I “walk it like I talk it” regarding equity and justice, knowing that the system I work in will come for me for not exceeding their standards based in whiteness (i.e., solo or first-author publications, lead PI on research projects and grants, instructor of record on courses) as a Black male operating within “their” space? In education, we may preach collaboration, but when the doors are closed and the meeting is had, if you do “too much” collaboration or you are not the lead, then your intellectual merit, contributions, and work are all questioned, and “new rules” for evaluating and assessing your abilities come into play.  

Now, do not get me wrong.l, because I can acknowledge these challenges and do not mean that I do not have solutions for them; particularly the second challenge that I shared about supporting Black women. While I think that a more “true” (yes, I know this is not the correct way to say it but it is my way of acknowledging that there is no capital T truth but only multiple truths that exisits) answer would come from my fellow Black women colleagues and friends who I collaborate with, I would like to think that how I work with and support them aligns with my scholar-activist stance. It does require more work on my part (again getting into the coping aspects of navigating whiteness embedded within structures) and I am ok with it.

 

What are challenges that you have had as a black professional man?

I think my responses to the first question cover this one as well. If there were anticipated distinctions between the two, it might be telling of my life that my one answers addressed both. In my reflective moment, I guess a question could be raised as to what is my life outside of work? Have a constructed a life where the things that make me, me, are the things that I get paid to do and so there are no differences between life, work, play, etc.? Or, am I so engrossed in my purpose and mission that I have reverted back to my old “future” oriented self and am not doing enough to enjoy the present?  

 

What are ways that you have overcome obstacles that have been in your path?

 

I surround myself with very specific friend groups that help me unpack different aspects of my life. I am a very spiritual person and I seek understanding regarding what God has allowed to be in path and why. I look at my obstacles as stepping stones to what is bigger, better, and greater. And, I am content with knowing that should I come upon a challenge that I do not overcome (not trying to be morbid but that would be THE challenge), that I have lived my life in a way that the work that I have done and do speaks for who I am and what I believe.

 

What is your day to day mantra?

 

Ha! This changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. It all depends on what I am going through at the moment and what type of words of encouragement I need for the circumstances. Some of my mantras include/ range from Romans 12:2, Philippians 4:9-13, May the work that I have done speak for me, to Young Stunna, “FTON”, Big Sean, “IDFWU” , and Soulja Boy, “Yahh – Yahh.”

 

There are plenty of other songs and sayings that also capture my mantras:

 

“Once a task has begun…” “I am lovable and capable” “If” “See it through” “I’m building this bridge for [them]” “YOU CAN’T STEAL MY JOY!” etc

 

How do you manage everything that you do?

 

This is also worthy of a good Ha! Lol. But, I put everything in calendar. If it is not on my calendar, then it does not exist! I also do to do lists. I know that the jury is out on them, but I get joy in knowing that I can cross something off of the list so I’m not going to let the jury steal my joy.

 

What or who inspires you?

 

Multiple people and things inspire me. I have your more traditional role-models who inspire me. These individuals do so because of how they carry themselves in service to their community. I was about to start a list and decided not to do so. This is because in giving mass recognition or public recognition to a large group, there is always somebody that you do not mention that gets in their feelings. And then mentioning individuals is also a political act because there are many individuals who go unnamed and unrecognized that should be named and recognized. And so, when you do or do not name and recognize some individuals or preference others, you engage in all kinds of social-political negotiations that have all kinds of social-cultural-political consequences.

 

What inspires me, the change that I see I am making and the impact and influence that my work has on the lives of those who have either been placed in my life of whose lives I have been placed in. That growth, progress, development, that I was involved with (directly or indirectly) inspires me. Seeing their outcomes improve and enhance inspires me. It shows that the work does not go in vain.

 

Any advice for young men who are facing challenges being black and trying to move up?  

 

Yes, lots. To get adequate advice, I would say to hit me up. I make time to cultivate and support my people.

 

For more of a broad stroke, I say:

 

1. Know yourself! In knowing yourself, identify what you like, dislike, will tolerate, will not tolerate, etc. Having self-awareness allows you to make in the moment decisions that thoughtful and reflexive.

2. Take a stance! No matter where you lie on the “Blackness spectrum” in America, if you have the visible morphology of Black (e.g., skin tone, hair, bone structure, etc.) at some point in time, you will be treated as Black (e.g., socially, politically, culturally). Society projects identities and experiences onto us that we have to respond to. I know that people say that “perception is not reality” but argue the contrary. Perception is reality in that other people’s perception of you alter and inform the way you carry yourself and respond. Even if you do not necessarily “change” or “adapt” or “code-switch” or “fake,” what people think of you affects your decisions, actions and outcomes. For example, if as a Black male you are perceived as a threat in your environment (FYI even if they don’t say it they are still thinking it) you will be treated as a threat by those that perceive you as one.

This means that there are certain things that you will be given access to and certain things that you will not. There will be opportunities kept from you, there will be coded ways in which people talk to and about you, there will be expectations placed on you, there will be anticipations regarding your response to situations and scenarios. And even if despite this all, you stay “you,” the choices that you are making to stay “you” are still in response to the perceptions that people have put on you. That said, define who “you” are, and decide to be who “you” are, recognizing that no matter who “you” are and what “you” do, they will always be looking at and judging “you”. Let who “you” decide to be, be someone who “you” are comfortable with at all times. If you ever have to second guess who “you” are and how authentic or not “you” are then the only person “you” are fooling is yourself.

3. Find a community of individuals who are part of that area in which you are seeking to advance and connect with, grow with, learn from, and support them. As cliché as the saying goes, it really does take a village. And that is not just to raise a child, but to live life. Without a village, you will surely struggle in ways that are unnecessary.

4. Know that happiness and joy are not destinations but states of being. You cannot find happiness or joy, you have to create it. Now, that being said, you can find healthier environments that contribute to your holistic well-being. You do not and should not remain in a toxic environment looking to create happiness and joy. But, you should not constantly be seeking happiness and joy in your endeavors but rather creating those moments.

 

Any last words for our readers?

Know that my thoughts and responses reflect me, and who I am in this moment, at this time. Ask me these same questions 5 years later, and who knows what my responses will be.

6 thoughts on “Being Selfless, Persistent, and a Social Activist…Meet Dr. T. Morton

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