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Personal and Professional Philosophy in an Educational Enterprise


Illustrations in two panels, the first one shows a young Karnell, the article's author, looking at a Banyan tree, and the second panel shows Karnell today, with a group of people around him.

by Karnell McConnell-Black, MEd., Dean of Students
illustration by Amber Mott

Invite your imaginationto create an experience: Listen to the sound of gunshots outside a drug-infested apartment complex. See the flashing lights from police officers’ vehicles; peek through the window to watch Black men being arrested and thrown into the back of a squad car. Couple that with the protective force of a southern Black mother who rarely let her young boys go outside because she was afraid they would be taken either by a gun or by drugs. This experience you are imagining is mine.

The reality is that my experience is shared by many within marginalized communities of color. Had it not been for an opportunity my mother received from the Dallas County Housing Authority, I would not be where I am today. My childhood experiences shaped how I show up in my personal and professional life and serve as reminders that to whom much is given, much is expected. I share with you two elements of my personal and professional philosophy that guide how I navigate the educational enterprise.

Compassion and Vulnerability at the Core

Compassion is at the core of who I am. Being concerned about humanity guides my work and challenges me to detach from any preconceived notions of people and situations. As a result, compassion forces me to see many perspectives—even when I am immersed in the feelings of being dealt the bad hand. Being compassionate can be very difficult when you do not fully believe in an education system that, in theory, is meant to help marginalized individuals. But it allows me to suspend judgment and take people’s intentions at face value. The only way for me to do this is to be vulnerable—vulnerable to a point where I still feel some sense of physical and psychological safety as I am living and breathing within the confines of Blackness. Vulnerability is difficult and scary to practice. However, as I continue to grow as an individual, it becomes more important to let down my walls for the sake of others who need to grow. Vulnerability sometimes means letting go and being open or willing to engage in something unknown.

Creating a Sense of Understanding Through Knowledge 

As an educator, it is important to be a lifelong learner. We must be willing to acknowledge and engage difference on many levels in order to get to a place where understanding and compassion are at the core of how we are to be. As educators, we must prepare ourselves to engage this difference free from our own misconceptions. We must be academically informed and acknowledge the daily lived experiences of others to be the most effective educational change agents. The experiences we encounter—and the knowledge we possess—should be on a continuum that pushes us toward a more thoughtful understanding of self/others in our community. It is important to utilize that deeper understanding to cultivate well-rounded individuals through our work as educators. Our actions must align with our words and thoughts. The hope is that in creating a sense of understanding through knowledge, we come to a place of understanding for the betterment of everyone.

Understanding the struggles and challenges of our environment helps us learn to navigate the world we live in. To be a transformative educational leader is to take compassion, vulnerability, and understanding and create environments that allow for individuals of all identities to be true stewards of the community we live in. This is what we should and ought to be about: the making of people who want to change, challenge, and stimulate the environments for those who are not given the opportunity to do so for themselves.

If you take anything from this article, my hope is that you take time to critically reflect on your life’s purpose and realign your journey to that purpose while considering ways to give back to the community that got you to where you are today. I invite you to write down your leadership creed and share it with friends, family, and colleagues who will hold you accountable when you deviate from your creed.

Karnell's Leadership Creed

  • I am bound to the community that produced me and as result there is a duty to give back fully for the greater good of the generations to come. There is a foundation on which I stand that I did not create. “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Luke 12:48

  • I am called to work for the betterment of the people. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is this place to be selfless in my actions and fully invested in the needs of my community.

  • I will honor and respect my values and morals. When they are tested, I will ask for clarity and understanding in order to make the tough decision to either stay or move on from my employment. 

  • I am determined to be patient and understanding even in times of extreme frustration and chaos. The relationships with my students and colleagues are important. It matters when and how I connect and show up for them.

  • I will be loyal to all and when that loyalty falters, I will honor my commitment to compassion and vulnerability to move through the healing.

  • I will challenge the status quo and be unapologetic about it. In doing so, I must strategically navigate the issues impacting my students. This at times will require me to be radically still and depend on allies to move forward the concerns of my students.

  • I will recognize that I cannot make change on my own and that it will require a collaborative approach with individuals from various backgrounds and experiences. Therefore, I resolve that it will be important for me to develop strong relationships with individuals whose values align with my ideals.

  • I am determined to say YES before saying NO. I am required to do the work necessary to support the needs of my students and colleagues. There is no easy way out. I must not rely completely on past traditions to make decisions. Every decision should begin from the current perspective at hand.

  • I will always question everything. It is important to move beyond face value.

  • I will engage fully in experiencing the journey while acknowledging the end is not always as important as what I learn on the journey.



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The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.