The Gatekeeper: Advocate, Outlaw and Demigod

Kelly Keller Brinkema and Daren R. Mooko

Student Affairs professionals working with ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) students are placed in the role of gatekeeper within the university structure. A gatekeeper must interpret policies on behalf of the university administration, provide mediation in times of conflict, intervene in times of crisis and be a spokesperson and advocate for the ALANA student community. This role clearly subverts trust with the ALANA students and works to diminish a true community while benefiting the university administration.

Note: This Field Report is based on the authors' participation in trainings conducted by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, a "national multiracial anti-racist network of veteran organizers and educators dedicated to building a movement for justice by ending racism and other forms of institutional oppression (The People's Institute, November, 1994). More information concerning philosophy, teachings and workshop availability can be obtained by contacting The People's Institute: 1444 Johnson St., New Orleans, LA 70116-1767. Phone: (504) 944-2354. Fax: (504) 944-6119. David Billings, quoted in this report, is a core trainer for the Institute (Billings, November, 1994, Personal Communication).

The People's Institute (TPI) conceptualizes the idea that there is a pivotal role individuals play in organizations and/or institutions which serves to perpetuate racism. This role, and the individual who fills it, is called the "gatekeeper;" defined as a person who is "called upon to explain, speak for, analyze and interpret what is happening inside the communities" he or she serves, to authorities of a larger system outside the communities (Billings, Personal Communication, November, 1994). Through detailed analysis of the social construction of race and its cultural, political and legal history, TPI notes that a "larger system" such as an historically White-run, White-owned institution, usually funded in part by a government system created for and by White people, is inherently racist: The system is built on foundations which throughout history perpetuated oppressive and dehumanizing conditions against people of color.

Billings explains that by the nature of the gatekeepers' job description, and expectations of those upon whom their livelihood depends (salary, funding, budgetary allocations), gatekeepers are expected to uphold values and/or ways of functioning of the larger system of which they are a part. By working under the values of the larger system, gatekeepers "hold a construct of society in place, consciously or unconsciously, even if it hurts their own existence" (Billings, personal communication, November, 1994, italics added).

We (the authors) base our approach to this topic on identified characteristics of gatekeepers manifested in a higher education institutional setting, using the broader TPI definition of gatekeeper. Higher education, as an institution, is not exempt from creating, fostering and thriving on the concept of gatekeeping. Student affairs professionals working with ALANA (Asian, Latino, African and Native American) students in an Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) often find themselves placed in the gatekeeper role by their administrative superiors in a university. This report explores the concept of gatekeeping through our experiences with TPI and through in-depth discussions with two student affairs professionals who work, or have worked primarily with ALANA students. These professionals consistently aspire to apply anti-racist thought, philosophy, behavior and action in their work on university campuses.

Both Anthony Chavez (Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at The University of Vermont) and Rodney Patterson (an administrative staff member at Michigan State) work with ALANA students. They are both expected to uphold the objectives and mandates of the upper administration. However, these professionals are in different "places" regarding their relationship with gatekeeping. Our conversation with Chavez focused on the work he does now as a professional vulnerable, but not helpless to, gatekeeping. Patterson vacated the position Chavez now holds, in part, to develop as a professional without the pressures of gatekeeping practices at Chavez's institution. Our conversation with Patterson focused on his current attempts to ease the impact (and to ultimately eliminate the function) of gatekeeping expectations on OMA professionals. (References to and quotations from both Chavez and Patterson in this manuscript are based on our personal communications with them in November of 1994. These conversations took place over the phone and in person).

We contacted a third professional who declined an interview. So much pain, frustration, and mistrust had accumulated in this professional's experience at her institution, that she had no desire to participate in an attempt to educate those who we "should be talking to." This individual felt we ought to speak with those possessing the power and authority to make decisions affecting her professional position. Those with more power than her, most notably her superiors in upper administration, were the people who should be considering the pressures of gatekeeper-dom. Although we assured her we would maintain anonymity, this professional did not want to take the chance of exposing herself to repercussions as a result of speaking out. This was significant to us in that it represented the high level of frustration to which a committed professional had arrived, and at which she currently operates. (Note: Both Chavez and Patterson requested us not to use anonymity in their cases.)

OMA Student Affairs Professionals: Components of the Gatekeeper Role

Typically, a gatekeeper role on a college campus emerges from conflict between ALANA students and the campus administration. Here, one might be inclined to ask: all of campus administration? The question is irrelevant. Even if there are a few "good souls"—individuals in upper administration who make an effort to establish real relationships with students of color—the weight of university tradition, culture, and structure has an historical and final impact of not serving students of color (Chesler & Crowfoot, 1989). Decisions regarding change in the institution, structural or fiscal, lie with upper administration. As such, the image of campus administration as an entity of oppressors is very real. Attempting to individualize the actions and behavior of those in the highest positions of power denies the reality of the impact of administrative decisions, regardless of individuals' well-meaning intentions. The term "campus administration" is used in this manuscript in conjunction with this reality.

Chavez characterizes the relationship between campus administrators and ALANA students as very "shaky." The stance of ALANA students towards administrators is often challenging and contentious while the stance of administrators to ALANA students can be patronizing, pacifying, unstable and threatened by the power of knowledgeable students. Chavez notes,

It seems that climate issues and quality of life are always things ALANA students are putting on the table with administrators and saying, "we're paying you good money to do something about this and we heard this was a problem five years ago and it's still a problem now.

Many times when ALANA students express dissatisfaction with their quality of life or the campus climate, the students expect the OMA student affairs professional to be an advocate for their concerns. Chavez continues,

I think the students expect me to challenge every member of the community about racism; to challenge them on the issue of privilege. And never, ever, let the university turn this place, [the Office of Multicultural Affairs] the services and priorities . . . let this become some kind of colony for the dominant culture on campus; that this is a place where they [the dominant culture] can get a scoop of culture whenever they want. That this center has to be primarily sustained as a safe haven and a community center for students of color.

On a predominantly white campus, the role of the OMA professional is critical for the ALANA student population. Because the role of the OMA professional is so important to the success of ALANA students, expectations of the OMA professional from the ALANA students should greatly influence decisions and initiatives concerning the ALANA community. Many times the OMA professional, according to Chavez, will have to do "whatever it takes, by any means necessary to help them succeed and to win at the game everyone else plays." When embodying that support would mean having to radically change policies and structures of the university, this kind of support and advocacy becomes difficult. It is not within the power of the OMA professional to do this single-handedly. Instead, he or she is expected to "level the playing field" (Chavez).

A corresponding component of this role is the relationship of the OMA professional with campus administration (upper level administrators/professional superiors). Because in most cases the OMA professional must report to campus administration, the demands made upon him or her frequently conflict with the expectations of ALANA students. These conflicting demands place the OMA professional in a precarious position because his or her livelihood depends on the professional evaluation from and approval of administrators. According to Chavez, "when a person decides to totally become an administrative servant and advocate . . . the conflict really erupts because once you do that, the students see you as . . . selling them out."

The relationship between the OMA professional and campus administration regarding the concept of gatekeeping requires in-depth analysis because gatekeeping is deeply ingrained in the structure and functions of higher education as is racism itself (for an in-depth analysis of racism in higher education, see Chesler & Crowfoot, 1989). This aspect of gatekeeping is also the most manageable for the institution's leaders. While students are a vital element to gatekeeping, they move in and out of the institutional structure as they enter and graduate. They are part of the picture, but not all of it. Although administrators move in and out of the institution, job definitions and expectations built from history and habit persist. Incorporated in the job definitions and expectations that endure are the characteristics of a gatekeeper: spokesperson and advocate, mediator, crisis intervener and policy interpreter.

Spokesperson and Advocate

Because the OMA professional works with a very specific and defined student population, campus administration expects the professional to know exactly what ALANA students think at any given time about any given issue. This framework serves the administration as an information gathering function, avoiding the necessity for administrators themselves to directly interact with ALANA students. Such limited interaction lowers the level of the administration's accountability to the ALANA student population, placing more pressure on the OMA professional to accurately speak for a large constituency.

The students, in turn, expect and trust that the OMA professional will speak, act and work in their best interests in every aspect of his or her job. This expectation is most prominent when the professional interacts with administration, faculty or other staff members, as well as when he or she takes part in policy building and decision-making concerning ALANA issues. Chavez describes the expectations of students in terms of accountability:

[I]t is because of the ALANA students that I have a job. It's almost like I was elected to this position by the ALANA students because it was their support and initiative and confidence in my potential to do this job that got me the position. I think that sets up a mandate.


Fulfilling the role of mediator between two parties requires the person assuming this role to be somewhat neutral and objective. When the OMA professional assumes this role, the ALANA students are automatically disadvantaged by the "loss" of a professional staff member as their advocate in a mediation process. The loss of the OMA professional works to discredit him or her with ALANA students. Trust is lost in a severe and significant manner when the OMA professional cannot meet the expectations of the students as supporter and advocate when the students need him or her most.

Crisis Intervener

The OMA professional, when serving the function of gatekeeper, will usually be contacted immediately when a crisis arises among, or as a result of, the ALANA student community. Campus administrators expect the professional to enforce institutional mandates while the crisis plays out. This manifestation of the gatekeeping role also relieves the campus administration from significant levels of accountability and responsibility. When the crisis is a revolt or demonstration by the ALANA student community, the gatekeeper is expected to act in his or her role as an agent and representative of the university, not as a student advocate.

Policy Interpreter

Conflict arising from the ALANA student community is often a result of dissatisfaction, or a sense of injustice, with university policy defended by administrative officials. Much like the mediator function of the gatekeeper, the Policy Interpreter function is critical to the administration in enforcing university policy. The OMA professional must interpret such policies, then present and "sell" them to the ALANA students as having been developed in their best interests. Chavez explains:

As soon as they [administration] begin to pay attention to issues that affect our students' lives, things don't go well because I'm expected [by adminis- tration] to account for everything the institution does, explain all of its shortcomings, glorify all of its' successes . . . When things go well, I don't have to account for anything along the dominant culture's "take" on what's happening.

Impact on the OMA Professional

Personal Struggle

It is clear that the OMA professional faces pressures in a position of gatekeeper. If a larger system or structure within which he or she works is inherently racist, as TPI demonstrated, he or she works not only on the students' behalf against a strong institutional current, he or she also works against this current on behalf of his or her own beliefs. This leads to a personal struggle to "keep it up" or "keep the faith" in himself or herself on a daily basis, particularly in the face of constant resistance to the professional's perspective, opinion, belief system and direction of energy. The personal struggle that emerges from coping with a gatekeeper role can lead the OMA professional to view his or her professional responsibilites and the institution in a conflicting manner. Chavez notes:

Having been here for four years, it's taken on a progressively more radicalized perspective. When I walk down President's row, people aren't grinning in my face, shaking my hand...their looks are direct and I get a sense that they are thinking, "I can't believe this son of a bitch survived." Because they have done just about everything they can to dog us and derail us in a way that an institutionally racist group would.

Job Security

Although many professionals in the field of student affairs agree that there comes a time when a significant decision must be made that can ultimately influence one's job security, OMA professionals, due to the nature of gatekeeping, must consistently and methodically consider job security. Chavez states:

I'm talking about a life and death issue, when I make decisions out of conscience which will create unpopularity, professionally I make decisions that threaten my employment security. And I have seen this institution where people of color will limit their effectiveness by making the security decisions in favor of keeping their job, as opposed to strategically making decisions that will expose a racist administration for what it is - and taking the chance that the locks could be changed the next day.

When asked how much longer he would be able to continue his present work within the construct of gatekeeper, Chvez felt that, "after three years, and taking the worst the university can dish out to a person, and the worst taht the overall community can dish out in terms of threats of physical safety, integrity ad character," continuing the role of Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs for a significant number of years is possible. After having said that, the pressures and extreme situations incorporated into the gatekeeper role are evident in Chavez's half-joking remark, "And then one of these days I'll wake up and be completely surrounded with a gun to my head."

Chavez developed personal methods for growth and development within his role as Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, but many other OMA professionals have the sense that one day they may be surrounded with a gun to their heads. This type of internalized oppression, a result of the gatekeeper role, clearly presents a barrier to longevity in such a position. Patterson, who searched for a position in which he could blossom without the direct and continual pressures of gatekeeping, noted that burnout is often the final result of such pressures. Chavez credits his current and future ability to maintain his position to continual psychological and emotional transitions. If those measures were not taken, Chavez's term would have been "three years maximum...just like every other Director that was there."

Methods for Overcoming the Gatekeeper Syndrome

Rodney Patterson left his previous university position in order to develop without the pressures and stress of gatekeeping he experienced there. The years spent in his previous job were not spent in vain; Chavez credits much of his learning and ability to walk into, and further the strength of, the Director position to the example and knowledge Patterson passed on.

Patterson's work at Michigan State University involves consultation with student affairs units and daily work with all students furthering their multicultural development. Throughout his work and the nature of his position, Patterson hopes there is some pressure taken off OMA professionals as gatekeepers. He noted that his position provides space of OMA professionals: "to advocate on the [ALANA] students' behalf...making sure students' needs are met on behalf of the university...[and] to represent the university to the students regarding what can be done for them." It is a given, Patterson says, that the responsibilities of such a job description are challenging. Instead of OMA professionals taking on a larger responsibility for educating the campus to create an institutional environment receptive to students of color, Patterson works on expanding awareness, functioning, structure, policy procedures and receptivity of the institution. Such a change in the institutional environment lessens the resistance and pressure from the administration towards the OMA professionals who work to support ALANA students, In turn, Patterson's work provides OMA professionals greater ability to resist the gatekeeper role.

Building a True Community

"The attitude now," Patterson says, "is that multiculturalism is considered a state of being versus the idea on 'managing diversity.'" Instead of taking a moralistic approach (e.g. "dealing with diversity is the right thing to do"), Patterson says his work involves enhancing possibilities for daily life experiences that "get people to touch one another - physically, emotionally, socially, culturally." Patterson emphasizes that there is a need for awareness-raising work. This must be done in conjunction with daily attention to the creation of an atmosphere where daily "touching" takes place. Touching, Patterson noted, is a critical component to this work, as it establishes a human connection where people begin building a true community. In such an atmosphere, Chavez notes that the community also aids in ensuring that the gatekeeper does not remain a permanent fixture of the university.

Role of Gatekeeper Diminishes as Viable ALANA Community is Built

As Patterson's job serves to foster campus-wide community building, pressure is taken off the OMA professional's role as gatekeeper. The professional can then begin to operate in ways that will keep the pressure off. One of the main things he or she must do is ensure the ALANA community is a viable entity, with the strength and flexibility to participate in shaping its destiny within the institution.

Chavez believes his vulnerability to assuming the role of gatekeeper is minimized if his energy is directed toward building a community with the ALANA students. Gatekeepers, Chavez explains,

exist to minimize conflict, not necessarily to build community and viability. Although I'm vulnerable to gatekeeping like everyone is, as long as it is a White-supremacist institution, I'm only vulnerable when I'm not consciously working toward building a community of color that is viable.

As the "steward of community," Chavez feels he should be held accountable to his community. Once the accountability line is clear, the gatekeeping function slowly diminishes. A true revolution on a college campus would come when an ALANA student caucus assembles and drafts a proposal delineating priorities and a strategic plan for the Office of Multicultural Affairs for the next five years. This proposal becomes a direct mandate driven from his constituency, the ALANA community. Incorporated in this plan, Chavez projects, is an evaluation process that the whole staff would undergo every year. Students would evaluate the staff, most notably with Chavez as Director, on what they have accomplished and how they accomplished it. Chavez says of this revolutionary process, "I think that would send a clear message to the administration as to who we really report to and who we really work for. Because right now, I exist in a zone of advocate, outlaw and demigod."


It is crucial that OMA professionals do not and must not operate on their own in supporting ALANA students. However, the gatekeeper function serves to isolate these professionals. Pressures can be eased by the establishment and development of a position such as Patterson's. But the responsibility for eliminating the gatekeeper syndrome lies with every member of the college community.

We and TPI argue that virtually any student affairs professional (including faculty, staff and upper level administrators) actually serves as a gatekeeper. As long as a university maintains service to students as part of its mission, all who work within its institutional framework are accountable to ALANA students. When one is accountable in this manner, there is a necessity to constantly be aware of the impact that one's attitudes, behavior, reasoning, and everyday interactions have on the opening and closing of the gate.

To this end, we leave the reader with several questions student affairs professionals (and others) must continually ask: If I am white and I am not holding myself accountable to people of color, how can I claim that I am against racism on this campus (and in my life)? If I am a person of color, am I, then, being true to myself?

The final question becomes: To whose destiny are we all attached? If we are about building the true commmunity that Patterson describes and aspires to, if that is our destiny, we must all pay close attention to the ways in which we maintain and participate in swinging those gates open and closed. For it is that gate that keeps students of color and their closest professional staff members separate from the institutional community of which we all have the right to live.


Chesler, M. A. & Crowfoot, J. (1989). Racism in higher education I: An organizational analysis. (Working Paper No. 412). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Research on Social Organization.

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond: Informational and public relations literature. (November, 1994). Available from: The People's Institute, 1444 Johnson Street, New Orleans, LA 70116-1767.

Kelly Keller Brinkema is a 1994 graduate of the UVM HESA and lives in Northhampton, Massachussetts.

Daren R. Mooko is a 1993 graduate of San Diego State University with a Bachelor's degree in English. Currently, Daren is a second year HESA student at The University of Vermont and works in the Office of Multicultural Affairs.