Understanding How Black Women Navigate Their Careers Using Funds of Knowledge

Career Advancement
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TAGS: diversity and inclusion, journal, trends and predictions,

NACE Journal / Winter 2024

I have worked as a career services professional for more than 15 years and, at times, my future career trajectory still seems shrouded in mystery. Admittedly, some of the uncertainty stems from my own multi-focused and sometimes fickle interests, but the general lack of clarity comes from the dearth of leadership and career development models that are specific to Black women and other women of color in higher education and in career development.

Similarly, I often hear from other women of color that they spend much of their time navigating workplaces that do not provide enough professional support for the often complex needs of marginalized communities. Much like myself, they are unsure of what steps they should take to arrive at an unclear career goal. Unfortunately, the leadership development models that do exist exclude the perspectives of Black and Brown women and do not account for their unique positioning between multiple, marginalized identities, including race and gender. Considering the experiences of myself and my colleagues, I conducted a qualitative study to understand how Black women in administrative roles advance in their careers in higher education.

Research shows that Black women are less likely to hold leadership roles as administrators in four-year institutions and are more likely to remain at the mid-manager level before leaving higher education for other industries. 1,2 Unsurprisingly, many leave because they feel unsupported and underrepresented in their institutions and are unsure of what tools they should use to attain career success. Retaining Black women administrators is critical for building diverse college communities that use culturally responsive pedagogies.

To understand and remedy the issue of underrepresentation of Black women in leadership, the objectives of the research were twofold. First, I wanted to challenge the current deficit-based narratives that currently prevail around marginalized communities’ career development by unearthing the pre-existing resources that Black women use to navigate their careers. Second, I wanted to develop a set of recommended strategies for professional development for Black women and, by extension, for other women of color and their institutions. Although the current study is centered around the experiences of Black women, the recommended strategies for professional advancement can be applied and adopted by other groups, particularly those from marginalized communities. In an effort to transpose this theoretical exploration into principles that have real-world applicability, I have added reflection questions to each of the funds of knowledge themes below.


The study was conducted at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in the Northeast United States with six Black women who served in administrative roles. Three were aspiring leaders in entry-level and mid-manager positions while three served as executive leaders—two deans and one vice president.

The participants were selected using purposeful sampling to create a discursive space in which both aspiring and current Black women leaders could share knowledge. The women participated in a 60-minute focus group using a semi-structured interview method and a 15-minute working group session in which the participants drafted an outline for a mentorship initiative for women of color.

Using this qualitative approach, I sought to answer two research questions: 1)What pre-existing resources and tools do Black women use to advance in their careers, and 2) what would be needed to create a possible mentorship initiative for other women of color? The data were coded and analyzed for emergent themes. The findings of the study identified four main themes, which the participants noted were crucial to their career development: mentorship, community, biculturalism, and resilience.

Framework: Funds of Knowledge

Using funds of knowledge as the main theoretical framework, this study sought to understand the pre-existing resources and skills that Black women leveraged to advance in their careers. Originally conceptualized in 1992, funds of knowledge referred to the knowledge and skills that immigrant, elementary school students brought to the classroom from their home life.3 In short, they are the “historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.”4 Childhood responsibilities, such as advocating for families, farming, caretaking, and navigating social systems, built students’ skills that were transferable to the classroom. The funds of knowledge framework encouraged K-12 educators to consider integrating the social and cultural capital that students already had into their classroom experiences and in the curriculum. Leveraging the pre-existing resources and coping mechanisms that underrepresented communities brought with them to formal education became the impetus to using asset-based models in working with these groups. Hence, framing this research using an asset-based model such as funds of knowledge was critical for examining the resources and experiences that Black women find useful for supporting their professional growth.


The study found that there were four main themes—mentorship, community, biculturalism, and resilience--that were crucial to the career development of the Black women taking part.


The women perceived mentorship as instrumental to their professional journey. Unsurprisingly, mentors were the arbiters for leadership opportunities, delivering professional advice, supporting difficult decisions, and serving as mitigators for workplace conflicts. Some relationships were formal—the women met with their mentors at designated meeting times with preset topics of conversations. These occurred as part of formal mentorship groups and professional affiliations. Informal mentorship took place as part of workplace dynamics whereby the women organically connected to another professional who gave advice and at times even served as a sponsor for opportunities. It is important to note that mentors were not necessarily representative of the women’s racial or cultural background. While the women noted that having a mentor who was of the same race or culture as them was helpful, it was not necessary to deepen the relationship.

Regardless of the type of mentorship or the structure, the women who perceived mentorship as a cornerstone to their professional development expressed greater satisfaction with their current roles than the women who had no mentors. The relationships that they formed with mentors were pivotal to their professional accomplishments. Mentors strengthened their sense of belonging at the institution by being a crucial part of their community. Most importantly, mentors helped with demystifying the women’s professional pathways. The women spoke of mentors who connected them with professionals who were in their intended careers, providing informal career coaching and challenging their goals by ensuring that their actions were aligned with their passions and purpose. One participant referred to an experience in which her mentor questioned whether accepting a position as a fundraiser was beneficial to her needs and ultimately recommended that she explore student affairs as a profession. She has currently built a successful career as a student affairs leader. Mentors can be influential in boosting professional growth by imbuing Black women with the confidence to take the monumental steps, such as switching careers, asking for promotions, or connecting to appropriate communities.

Reflection: Are there people in our existing support networks who might provide opportunities to learn from their journeys?


The community was perceived as an important factor, particularly in the women’s early career development due in part to community members’ ability to reinforce positive attributes and to instill a sense of belonging.

Communities were made up of people with whom the women would interact frequently during their day-to-day activities and were not limited to mentors or others in higher education or professional spaces. Community members included extended family members, neighbors, and even crossing guards and corner store owners who were familiar with the women and ultimately became invested in their professional and educational growth. Participants spoke of store owners who would reinforce the importance of hard work and education, check in on their progress, and, at times, even chide them for inappropriate behavior. One participant reflected on an instance when a facilities worker at her undergraduate institution reprimanded her for being late to class. This experience reminded her that there were others who were invested in her success. In turn, these interactions with the community members motivated the women to engage in altruism with their immediate community and with others. Having people around them who were willing to support their goals made them want to give back to others. Quite plainly, if Black women experienced their wider community as supportive, they were more likely to return the favor to emerging leaders.

Communities within and outside an organization are crucial for supporting Black women in the workplace. They reinforce positive behaviors but also aid in creating a sense of altruism and reciprocity. While both of these tenets are crucial to Black women’s career advancement, reciprocity ensures that people remain committed to building mechanisms that promote the longevity and the succession of Black women and ultimately expand the network of qualified and diverse candidates in higher education spaces. The engagement with community is integral to the funds of knowledge framework, which stresses the contributions of non-secular knowledge that marginalized groups receive. This very Afrocentric worldview that is centered on the needs of both the individual and the community can in fact create a better understanding of the experiences of Black women in the workplace. Specifically, researchers and practitioners can begin to build models for leadership and career development that replicate their ability to navigate social and communal circles while capitalizing on the benefits of group dynamics. It would be beneficial for organizations to consider creating communities, affiliation groups, and opportunities for community building that will ultimately engender a sense of institutional commitment from aspiring leaders.

Reflection: Where are the opportunities and initiatives that allow us to give back to our community?


Biculturalism referred to the women’s identification with two separate—and, in some cases, disparate—cultures. Having to negotiate two very different cultures was perceived as instrumental to the women’s ability to navigate the often political landscape of higher education and to develop resilience.

Of the six participants in this study, three came from immigrant families and one moved from another part of the United States. Even the other two women, who did not identify as first- or second-generation immigrants, discussed cultural differences in relation to their own marginalized identities as compared to the organizational culture that is perceived as dominant. The participants who identified as immigrants shared that, oftentimes, their approach to the world of work is contrary to the accepted norms of higher education in the United States. Their cultures of origin valued deference to authority figures, family-centered career planning, and prestigious careers, e.g., as lawyers, doctors, or scientists, while U.S. culture perpetuated outspokenness, independence, and careers that were aligned with personal interest rather than prestige. Nevertheless, their ability to persist informed several coping skills, which included their contextual awareness, attentive listening skills, and empathy. The women were better in sync with the organizational culture because their biculturalism forced them to develop their “third space” through keen observation and acculturation and behavioral adaptation. (Note: Third spaces are composite spaces that are blends of both the individual’s own culture and the culture of the institution. They may be physical or social spaces that Black women carve out to be authentic and engage with others from similar backgrounds.5)

Regardless of immigration status, one can argue that Black women and other marginalized groups must negotiate between at least two cultures: their marginalized identity and that of the dominant culture. This intersectionality is the foreground on which many groups build their career planning skills, creating heuristic tools and coping mechanisms that can support their development in higher education.6 By building advocacy skills, relationship and networking techniques become part of Black women’s repertoire because they have had to create third spaces that are the results of multiple behaviors, languages, and approaches. It is apparent that institutions should work toward integrating and maximizing the cultural identities of their Black female employees to create more global perspectives in the world of work.

Reflection: In what ways did my identities influence my skills, knowledge, or identified career path, and how can I continue to grow in these areas?


Despite their experiences with microaggressions, stereotype threats, and general career setbacks, the women detailed their ability to persist toward their professional goals. For the participants, this meant hearing “no” as a response to something they desired but finding other ways to achieve their wishes. These included requests for promotions, salary increases, and additional staff and even requests for restructuring and funding. In fact, the women described anticipating denials and setbacks as a result of their marginalized identities. Their resilience became the capstone experience in their funds of knowledge.

They perceived their resilience to be a direct result of the preceding factors: mentorship, community, and biculturalism. Although resilience is an intrinsic characteristic, the women shared that some experiences bolstered their ability to persist. These activities included accepting additional roles that were outside the scope of their job functions and volunteering for committees and communities of practice, which allowed them to learn from others.

Admittedly, not all Black women are in positions to take on additional responsibilities at work, particularly when those roles are unpaid. However, building communities of practice in which we can learn from other practitioners can catalyze our careers and go a long way toward building stronger resilience.

Reflection: Are there projects or initiatives where we can add collaborative practices and build an interdisciplinary/cross-departmental team to support our work?

Implications for Research

The purpose of this research was to explore the funds of knowledge that Black women used to advance in their careers in higher education institutions. Although this study focused on the experiences of Black women administrators in higher education, it is critical to expand this research to include other women of color in this environment. A broader view of other marginalized identities can better inform the funds of knowledge framework by integrating a comprehensive understanding of their pre-existing resources.

Cultural and racial/ethnic differences account for varied approaches to the world of work, and in examining the results of this study, I recognized the variations in behaviors that were perpetuated by the women’s cultural experiences as immigrants or U.S. natives. The need for culturally inclusive approaches to reconceptualizing career development and leadership development models is absolutely necessary for a better understanding of funds of knowledge for heterogeneous groups.

The use of asset-based models in uncovering the pre-existing knowledge of Black women creates a foundation of tools and skills that aspiring leaders can leverage in their own career path. Rather than focusing on the adversities that marginalized groups must overcome, asset-based frameworks such as funds of knowledge mobilize and empower Black women to use the tools that are already in their repertoire. Thought leaders such as Patricia Collins and bell hooks circumvented the prevailing deficit leadership models that focused on the negative experiences of racism and sexism. They explored pathways to liberation by using their experiences of otherness as Black women to create concepts that transformed Black feminist thought. Funds of knowledge and frameworks that are centered on liberation and access work to improve the attrition and progression of Black women in higher education spaces.

Implications for Higher Education Institutions

The participants in the study emphasized the role of community and mentorship in their professional development. Institutions should therefore maximize resources and strategies that deconstruct power to create communities and collaborative practices. Building interdisciplinary teams and communities of practice that are based on team members’ content knowledge and expertise rather than positionality on the organizational hierarchy can help women build cross-institutional knowledge and expand their skills. Managers would do well to recommend thought partners across the institution who can partner with Black women. These opportunities will expose them to other careers at the institution and clarify various career paths.

Mentorship is a high-impact practice that can transform the careers of marginalized groups such as Black women. Mentoring, whether short term or long term, can build self-efficacy, improve knowledge sharing, and form pathways to promotions and career success. Hence, colleges and universities must support their Black female administrators and ensure their success by providing opportunities for mentorship through meetups, mentorship pairing, and affiliation groups. Leadership practices should include direct conversations about our employees’ career goals, and leaders should become the conduits for establishing relationships with other professionals in the field.

Bringing It All Together

Based on the findings of the study, Table 1 outlines a set of guiding principles that Black women in the professional planning fields and their respective institutions can apply to their current practices.

These action steps were created using the funds of knowledge framework, centering them on the premise that we currently possess many of the skills and resources to support our personal career planning journey. It is my hope that these strategies provide an accessible starting point for charting our professional journeys using the experiences and skills that are already part of our toolkits.


1 American Council on Education (2017). Moving the Needle: Advancing Women Leaders in Higher Education. Retrieved from www.acenet.edu/Programs-Services/Pages/Communities/Moving-the-Needle.aspx.

2 Lewis, C. (2016). Gender, Race, and Career Advancement: When Do We Have Enough Cultural Capital? Negro Educational Review, 67(1-4), 106-132.

3 Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

4 Moll, p. 133.

5 Witenstein, M. A., & Saito, L. E. (2015). Exploring the Educational Implications of the Third Space Framework for Transnational Asian Adoptees. Berkeley Review of Education, 5(2), 117-136.

6 Cho, S., Crenshaw, K. W., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society, 38(4), 785-810. https://doi-org.libproxy.udayton.edu/10.1086/669608 .


Collins, P. H. (2002). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. London: Routledge.

hooks, b. (1989). Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.

Chantelle-K-Wright Chantelle K. Wright, Ed.D., serves as the executive director for experiential education and career connections at Montclair State University. She has 15 years of experience in college career counseling, particularly with multi-ethnic and multi-generational populations. Most recently, she served as the director for the Center for Career & Professional Development at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, overseeing the career services for all students and alumni. Dr. Wright previously served as an associate director at John Jay, managing employer relations, internships, and career education. Prior to her roles at John Jay, she was the career and transfer adviser at Bronx Community College and worked as an adjunct lecturer and internship coordinator at LaGuardia Community College.

Dr. Wright received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Morgan State University;, her master’s in psychological counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University; and her doctorate of education in leadership for organizations from the University of Dayton.