Blog Post

Bring Your Identity to Your Leadership Journey

Published April 1, 2022
By Sinead Gallivan, MArch

It’s been difficult, if not impossible, to have intimate and personal conversations over Zoom. Coming out of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) Emerging Leaders DEI Focus Panel of Unique Stories and Perspectives, I was moved by the personal narratives that were told by the four panelists (Lilian Asperin, BA, AIA; Ivan Banks, EdD; Ivy Banks, JD; and Chris Gilmer, PhD) and my 30-plus colleagues.

The panelists shared their lived experiences about what diversity, equity, and inclusion meant to them: in the classroom, in higher education, in the SCUP community, in the workplace, with their families, in a conference room, and in a courtroom. In 90 minutes, they shared learning moments from their childhood, career, and throughout their life that molded them into the leaders they are today.

Some of their experiences were conventional DEI learning moments, but many they described were not. One panelist talked about sitting down to chat with grandparents to understand their family’s history, another spoke of feeling out of place as the only young “BIPOC” woman at a SCUP conference, and another talked of earning students’ trust so they could learn together what the students needed to succeed. Ivan Banks shared something he discovered early in his career: equal and uniform treatment did not mean equity for individuals. The speakers had backgrounds unique from mine and distinguished careers, yet throughout the program I found myself weaving their experiences together with my own and finding collective commonalities. The session showered light on the power of connecting with each other by sharing meaningful parts of our identities—and how that can define and drive who we see as leaders today and empower the next generation to rise up.

A central question and theme that grew out of the conversation was: Who is a leader? I immediately started thinking about the leadership team in my office, in my current position and in past roles. With a background in architecture, I had worked for male bosses in a male-dominated industry for the first eight years of my career. Panelist Lilian Asperin reminded us that the architecture industry is only 13 percent female and 1 percent Latinx. It’s a vibrant industry that is changing, but in 2022 it still has a long way to go in supporting, developing, and retaining people of color and those historically underrepresented. While I feel fortunate to have had brilliant and supportive leadership, it’s hard to find your voice as a young woman in the industry that at times can feel very homogeneous. It was refreshing for me to begin a new role in higher education a few years ago, reporting to a female boss for the first time, and surrounded by a team of women architects.

With my current and past bosses on my mind, we discussed that leadership doesn’t have to be tied to title, professional achievement, or academic credentials. There are leaders in our families, in our homes, and in our peer groups. Ivy Banks encouraged us to “see yourself as a leader,” which may allow us to shed feelings of imposter syndrome. She motivated the group to take our individual identities and histories on our leadership journeys—and bring folding chairs to tables that we perceive to have no seats for us. That way we can represent and welcome the next generation of leaders who have diverse backgrounds and continue to bring more seats and voices to the table.

The workplace, whether it’s in an office environment, academia, a lab, or in our home office, is such a huge part of American life and culture. The session made me realize what I value most about the people I’m surrounded by in my work life and what I don’t always share with them: my background, my story, and my authentic self. I love when colleagues reveal the meaningful parts of themselves with me; when we find that human connection, we’re motivated to lift up and empower each other. Despite the differences in our prologues and denouements, there’s so much to share if we allow ourselves to scratch the surface. If we can find the bravery to disclose our perspectives and engage in difficult conversations, we can open the door for meaningful dialogue that can ignite change and realize justice and equity.

In this threshold instant, I look forward to more maskless moments and face time with my peers and colleagues. The session has inspired me to step outside of my comfort zone, to bring more of my authentic self to my work life, to listen, and to ask hard questions. When we bring our diverse identities to the conversation, we may find unexpected connections that resonate with who we are as emerging leaders.

About the Author

Sinead Gallivan, MArch, is a campus planner passionate about creating memorable spaces that are accessible and inclusive. An architect by training, Gallivan works as a planner at Brown University, where her portfolio consists of institutional master planning, and academic, administrative, library, and arts planning. Previously, she practiced architecture in Boston and throughout Massachusetts for eight years. Gallivan was an Autodesk technology center resident in 2017, and currently serves on the planning board and community preservation committee for the City of Lowell, Massachusetts.