Dear Dr. Rajender . . .

Dear Dr. Shyamala Rajender,

The University of Minnesota and the Rajender Consent Decree are probably far from your thoughts. Most of the time they are far from mine, too. However, recently I realized that it’s been 40 years since the decree bearing your name helped me.

I’m writing to thank you.

Your courage fighting gender discrimination changed my perceptions of the world and set me on a feminist path that informed the rest of my life—how I see myself and thought about my career, how my marriage works, and how I raised my sons.

Forty years ago, I was a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, my first professional job. In the spring of 1980, I got in trouble with the all-male senior faculty in the English department, because I wanted to present a noncredit lecture about women’s literature for a Continuing Education series.

Several of the senior faculty reacted with a policy that stated, “. . . instructors in English should not participate in off-campus events, either formal instruction or informal presentations, which, in effect, call for a person who has been judged expert in the teaching of English literature.” In other words, I wasn’t supposed to talk about literature even though I had an M.A. in English Literature. The policy was odd and confusing. Several of the literature professors at UMM had been tenured with only a Master’s degree. But my credentials—which were the same as what some of them had—were suspect.

At first, I was more scared than angry (anger came later). The Continuing Education director and the EEOC officer knew I was afraid I’d damage my career by fighting the policy, so they informed the academic dean about my dilemma. The dean and others were aware of your gender bias case against the Chemistry department on the main campus. Consequently, the dean insisted the English department rescind their policy, and I was allowed to give the lecture.

Later that year, a number of faculty members, including me, received a $2,000 raise as a result of the Rajender Consent Decree. It’s hard to imagine now, but increasing my salary from $12,000 to $14,000 per year was a meaningful raise then. In general, it’s hard to convey to younger people just how crazy the late 1970s and early 1980s were for professional women.

Your decision to fight the University of Minnesota had a lasting impact on my life.

At 25, I learned gender discrimination was as real and insidious as the fatherly men in the English department, who didn’t see me as their equal and wanted to limit my opportunities. That experience didn’t drive me away from academia, but like you, I left the academic world several years later.

Your career was exemplary (first a Ph.D. in Chemistry, later a law degree). Mine was much more ordinary, but I was always aware of the example I set as a woman in the workplace. Your determination to fight gender bias had a far-reaching effect on me and so many other women. I want to acknowledge your heroic contributions.

Thank you again for your courage.

Sincerely,

Ellen Shriner

Interviewed by a 17-year-old

I got this all wrong from the get-go. I had prepared answers for how to begin a career in human resources. What special characteristics and capabilities are needed in HR? What are my favorite components of the HR role? Describe the HR functions that are under your leadership and control.

The teenager, a friend of Crystel’s, started her questioning easily enough. She asked me about my past. I immediately thought this was an interesting technique. Maybe the teacher taught this method to loosen up your interviewee. Ask the people something they know well. Soften them before the meat of your inquiry.

“What is the most significant event in your life? An event that changed you?”

This was my first inkling that my assumption about this interview was off the mark. My career in human resources was certainly not the most significant event in my life.

How easy it would have been to lie. To not give her true and honest answers. To keep this interview on the surface.

And, wow, how unsatisfying that would have been for the both of us.

I was surprised how easily the answer came to me. How it was right there, bubbling just under the surface, a living certainty.

Without hesitation, I said, “Same-Sex Marriage.” On May 14, 2013 Governor Mark Dayton signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota. The new law went into effect on August 1, 2013.

This law legitimized me, my partner, and our children. I was no longer afraid to talk about Jody at work. I didn’t have to hide. It was okay for two women to be raising children together. I could have a family photo on my desk.

“How did you come out to your parents?”

I had to think about this answer because overshadowing everything, greater than having a same-sex partner was the sexual abuse in my family. It would have been so simple had it just been about choosing a life with a woman. Mired in all this muck was the fact that I wouldn’t stay quiet about sexual abuse. I wouldn’t back down from my truth. Telling my parents about same sex marriage paled in comparison.

“Are you happy where you are in life?”

I thought I’d be dead by the age of 25 either by drugs, alcohol or suicide. And, I would have been dead because of secrets. Not having secrets changed the trajectory of my life.

I told her all of this and more. About having an abortion when I was 14 years old and a baby when I had just turned 17. The same age she is.

“Are you happy with your children?”

Crystel was not just a fly on the wall during this interview. She sat right next to her friend. She watched as I cried. Because of course I would cry. We were talking about my children.

Her friend should get an A+ for this interview, I thought. Same-Sex marriage, sexual abuse, abortion, a baby, and now tears. This might have been more than she bargained for.

I wasn’t done. I asked her to include, if even as a footnote, that teenagers need to use birth control. Condoms are not 100% effective.  Birth control pills plus condoms increase the effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. I wasn’t sure if I was stating this for her teacher’s benefit or the millions of teenagers, including my two, who might read this paper. I told her that I didn’t want Juan and Crystel to be faced with the same decisions that I had to make.

There were more questions. More tears. Through it all, the interviewer was present, serious, and professional.

I didn’t realize until later that this paper was a history project. I’m history. Or, herstory. A study of past events, particularly in human affairs.

My interviewer was rad. The interview wasn’t awks. It was dope, very possible GOAT and I’m HUNDO P.

The Gen Z’s are alright.

Let the Hope Shine

About a year ago, on the way to visit my 90-year old uncle in the hospital, I stopped at a coffee shop. While waiting for my mocha, I glanced at the shop’s bulletin board and saw a flyer from The Spread Sunshine Gang with the invitation to take what I needed: COURAGE, KINDNESS, HOPE, GRATITUDE, HUMOR, JOY or PEACE.

I chose HOPE.

When I got to the hospital, I passed it on to my aunt even though I knew she didn’t really need it because she—a lifelong Catholic—has her faith.

But me? I’m always seeking reasons to hope.

So, when I got home I signed up for the Spread Sunshine Gang’s newsletter. It now arrives in my inbox every few weeks, a welcome reminder that our Land of 10,000 Lakes is filled with people eager to share their goodness in creative ways and inspire others to do the same.  

In addition to their coffee shop flyers, the group’s recent acts of kindness include hosting a holiday party for seniors, participating in a Polar Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics and decorating Loring Park with warm, colorful (and free-for-the-taking!) hats, scarves and mittens.

Their “sunshine” has inspired me to spread my own. Here are three lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Lesson No. 1: Small gestures can have a big impact. Take a smile, for instance. It costs me nothing to give yet can brighten a complete stranger’s day.

Lesson No. 2: Kindness comes in all shapes and sizes. One day it may arrive as a bouquet of bright orange tulips. On another as a warm hug from a friend, an out-of-the-blue postcard from a relative or an unexpected compliment from a colleague.

Lesson No. 3: Communicating love doesn’t require words. This afternoon, I’ll be visiting my uncle and aunt once again. He has recovered enough to be living back at home but spends most afternoons sitting beside my aunt at the assisted-living facility where she now lives after having suffered a stroke.

She won’t be able to say more than a few words, but the way her eyes light up when she sees me fills the room with sunshine and my heart with hope.