Black History Month: President Blake shares her story, encourages others to find their voice
In just one generation, Ira K. Blake grew from being the daughter of sharecroppers to becoming the fifth president of University of Houston-Clear Lake, the first woman and the first African American to serve in the role. For Blake, education was the key to transforming her life, and is a crucial part of her story.
“I tell my story often as a way of encouraging students and staff to tell their own stories,” she said. “It’s important, because people sometimes hold negative stereotypes of underrepresented minorities, the working-class and women in certain roles. Who thinks a sharecropper’s daughter is going to become the president of a university?”
She added that by telling our personal stories, we remind each other that the expression of humanity comes in many different faces, languages, belief systems, preferred dispositions and cultural practices. “Doing so helps us to see others as individuals who also have the potential to contribute positively,” she said.
Challenges, not discouragements
Blake, who is one of nine children, grew up in a segregated community in Southern California. She said her parents only had elementary-level schooling, but they always stressed the importance of hard work and respect for others. “I was always a very curious person, so my challenge was trying to understand the benefit of learning certain concepts without knowing their value for my life,” she said. “This may be a problem for other first-generation students like me, who haven’t had supported access to definable opportunities. Doing homework for homework’s sake wasn’t always that interesting. You look at an assignment sometimes and ask yourself how much effort should you invest if you don’t see the value of work.”
She remembered one instance in a high school history class when, having completed her preparation for her assignment, asked her teacher why, if there had been a long war fought about slavery, there was only a single paragraph addressing it in their textbook.
“The teacher didn’t have an answer, but he gave me a copy of ‘The Sound of Music,’ which to this day I have not read,” she said. “It wasn’t what I was curious about. I wanted to know why if a whole group of people, of which I was one, had been treated like property and there was a war to end slavery, there was not more about the issues surrounding that war. To me, that was a challenge.”
Others she knew growing up, she said, had likely faced more difficulty due to racial discrimination than she had. “I was curious about living things in the world so learning was important to understanding it all. My schoolwork had value in seeking answers as I moved through life,” she said. “Not always getting a meaningful answer to my questions was a frustration at times, but not a discouragement from continuing to move forward.”
Making your door
Having grown up in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, Blake said she was raised to know she would have to work harder. “My parents expected me to apply my full effort to everything I did,” she said. “I was told to be persistent and endure, but not forget where I came from. Higher education is the gateway to opportunity, even if there are many obstacles along the way. This is why it’s so important to tell your personal story.”
Blake said she experienced some frustrations throughout her own education, but never got to the point when she considered giving up. “I remember when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, which was about the language development of African American toddlers,” she said. “I videotaped the talk and play behavior of toddlers and their mothers., with each hour of video tape requiring 30 hours of transcription to accurately account for interactions. One day, my video tape machine wasn’t functioning properly, and I had a firm schedule to have a certain amount of work done by a certain day.”
As her frustration mounted, she received an unexpected call from her father. “I told him about the problems I was having,” she said. “He told me that I could either throw the towel in and toss the completed transcripts off the balcony or I could figure out what was wrong. Either way, he told me to call him back when I had made up my mind. Of course, I figured it out.”
From that experience, she learned that there was more than one solution to a problem. “You go around, you go under, or you go through,” she said. “If I couldn’t get through, I learned to seek assistance. If someone says no, it’s OK. Go to the next person. I’ve always tried, and what I’d like our students to do, is not to throw in the towel. If one door closes, are there other ways in? Maybe you wait for someone to go in with you.”
Sharing your story
As Black History Month begins, Blake said it serves a reminder of our collective past, and celebrating it draws people of all ethnicities into the complex, diverse story of America. “We should celebrate the heritage of every group of people so we recognize each group’s contributions to humanity,” she said. “African Americans have contributed enormously to this country.”
Blake said that in telling your personal story, make sure that you select your words with meaning and intention. “Words can help or hurt. They can encourage and support, and I want us all to be mindful of the words we use and the consequences they can have,” she said. “As you tell your story, speak up for fairness, justice and opportunity. There’s nothing extraordinary about me; it’s always been about my relationships with other people. The overridingly important act is to care about others, develop healthy relationships, and help the world be inclusive of others. Find your words and tell your story.”
Her story, she said, continues to be defined by her inventive, curious nature. “Everyone said I would be in school for the rest of my life,” she said. “And here I am, still in school.”
President Blake shares more about her life story in a video interview online.