Psychology professor leaves USF after 19 years as a student, faculty member
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the University of Toronto as the institution where Whitneé Garrett-Walker is finishing her doctorate.
It took a lot of thinking, feeling, and talking.
The choice was not something psychology professor J. Garrett-Walker decided on easily, but she wasn’t about to split up her family. So when her wife was offered a job at the University of Toronto, the USF alumna decided she was headed to Canada in June.
Garrett-Walker was born and raised in Oakland. She said it is not easy to leave the Bay Area; it’s a mixed feeling – bittersweet.
“I’ve had a long road in the Bay Area,” she said. “There’s this sadness of leaving a community that I’ve invested a lot of my time, energy, love into. The students, who I frickin’ love and who are amazing; the faculty, who are also amazing — that’s the bitter part. But there’s also the sweet part of exploring something new with my family. It’s like sitting between these different ends of emotions.”
Garrett-Walker’s wife, Whitneé Garrett-Walker, is finishing her doctorate at USF’s School of Education and was offered a tenure track position at the University of Toronto. The University also offered Garrett-Walker a spousal hire position in the applied psychology and humans development department within the Ontario Institute of Education (OISE). Garrett-Walker added that there were other reasons the family wanted to leave the country too.
“When we think about the United States, and where we are currently in the social-political climate that we live in, and having a one-year-old – your priorities shift a bit,” she said. “For us, it became increasingly important that our child is raised in a place where maybe there’s less fear of police brutality.”
Looking back on the 19 years Garrett-Walker has spent as a Don, the span of her work is huge. She graduated from USF with her bachelor of arts in psychology in 2006 and became a faculty member in 2012.
Interim vice provost Pamela Balls Organista has known Garrett-Walker from the very beginning of her time at USF. She taught her when she was an undergraduate psychology major.
“She does wonderful work and research,” Balls Organista said. “To have her come back and do research in the department was so rewarding. It was like saying ‘Welcome home.’”
It is no surprise, then, that Balls Organista is blunt about how big of a loss Garrett-Walker’s departure is. Balls Organista said it’s not just a blow to the psychology department, but the entire university.
“It’s a true bummer. But what you hope is that our faculty, our staff, whoever is in community with us, is shining so brightly that others see that radiance. You can’t hide it,” Balls Organista said. “We try our best to hold our faculty, but I’m glad there’s a positive draw for her and her family to pursue this opportunity.”
After spending five years on the opposite coast in New York — where she completed her doctoral degree from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York — Garrett-Walker returned to the Bay Area in 2011 for a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. Her CV contains critical research topics like “Resilience and depression: The roles of racial identity, sexual identity, and social support on well-being for Black LGB emerging adults” and “Re-imagining masculinities: How Black Queer Feminism can liberate Black people from the toxicity of patriarchal masculinity.”
Watching students encounter these big ideas for the first time, and watching them grow in their knowledge of these topics, brings Garrett-Walker a lot of joy.
“I think those are the moments I cherish the most,” she said.
The professor’s impact goes beyond just academics though. Teresa Moore, a media studies professor at USF, is a big fan of Garrett-Walker. Moore shared a story of how Garrett-Walker uplifted her goddaughter in a big way.
“I have a Black goddaughter who has two white dads. She favors her brother’s hand-me-downs, but as she was developing, the fits weren’t fitting. My own style is too colorful for her taste, so I turned to J. for advice,” Moore said in an email. “I’d always admired how J. rocked wingtips and tailored trousers and the occasional bowtie. Also, I knew it would be good for my godchild to meet a beautiful, cool, non-gender-conforming Black woman.”
Moore solicited Garrett-Walker’s mentorship for her godchild in August 2017. During this time, following her creation of USF’s Black Student Orientation (BSO), Garrett-Walker was bashed in conservative college media for encouraging what the outlets characterized as segregation in favor of Black students. In what was a stressful time for Garrett-Walker, she was still a boon to Moore’s goddaughter.
“As we were waiting outside of dressing rooms or scouting sneakers, J’s phone was blowing up with hateful notices from social media. She told me what was going on but all my goddaughter saw was J’s enthusiasm and encouragement. It was a great day,” Moore said. “The two of them bonded over joggers, dogs, basketball and vegan food. I’ll never forget J’s grace or how happy — and how seen — she made my godchild feel.”
Garrett-Walker is no stranger to negative attention. She said she received hate mail from 2014 through 2020. This is also due, in part, to the viral social marketing campaign she and colleagues at USF created called “Check Your Privilege” in 2014.
Check Your Privilege was a campus-wide, social marketing campaign that sought to raise awareness around social inequalities and privilege. In a 2014 interview with the Foghorn, Garrett-Walker explained the impetus for the project: “We just hope that people use this as an opportunity to think critically about the world around them and challenge themselves to really consider the implications of structural inequalities and how they, as an individual, can help mitigate the negative effects of social inequalities.” The posters that were the main component of the campaign invited viewers to check the different ways they are privileged, considering their racial, gender, religious, sexual, and physical ability identities. Garrett-Walker’s campaign spread all the way to Canada and New Zealand, which brought with it even more negative backlash.
“I’m sure if some other social media website picks up on the campaign again, I’ll get another slew of hate mail,” Garrett-Walker said. “I think the campaign was amazing. It really got USF thinking and talking about privilege and power. The outside sources were less thrilled by it.”
Garrett-Walker remembers that even on campus, there were folks who disparaged her and her colleagues’ work, citing the then-popular app YikYak as a platform used for anonymous trolling.
“We got a lot of backlash from people right at USF, so not everyone was ready to have those deep conversations,” Garrett-Walker said. “Not everyone is always ready at the same time.”
Garrett-Walker helped create the campaign to foster a more understanding community at USF and beyond. Her community building extended to specific USF students, too.
Bella Dickson, a third-year student in the psychology department, first met Garrett-Walker as a senior in high school. Dickson attended the students of colors overnight program at USF and sat in on a mock class led by the professor.
“My first impression of her was that she was dope,” Dickson said. “There is someone who looks like me, who is interested in the things I am interested in, teaching people things they might not know.”
Dickson said she was in awe of the way Garrett-Walker incorporated pop culture and music into her mock lecture, and that it sealed the deal on her wanting to come to USF.
“It gave me peace of mind that by working toward my psych degree I would have someone who had my back and saw the world the way I did,” Dickson said.
Months later as a freshman, Dickson would attend Black Student Orientation, the program Garrett-Walker ideated and implemented in 2017. The professor said, at that time, the University did not have many initiatives designed specifically for Black students, as USF’s Black Achievement, Success and Engagement (BASE) program had not yet kicked into full force.
“I brought the idea to my board in the African American Studies program and I was like ‘Hey, we should have a Black student orientation,’ and people loved the idea,” Garrett-Walker said.
She then pitched BSO to the student life department and came up with a curriculum. The orientation has been held every year since (and will continue despite its founder’s departure) to welcome Black undergraduate students to campus in the fall.
Garrett-Walker’s move is sad for Dickson. She said it’s always tough to see someone who looks like you leave campus.
“Seeing that intersectional identity, as a Black woman, is its own safe space,” Dickson said. “There’s one less person to share that.”
Ultimately, though, Dickson said she is excited for the professor and that she feels the work that Garrett-Walker has done for Black students cannot be undone.
Organista said something that makes Garrett-Walker special is her ability to activate Black students.
“She leads the students by her own example, and her own scholarship,” Balls Organista said. “It’s important that students know her courage in doing that kind of work. It’s powerful, and it’s not easy.”
Balls Organista added that Garrett-Walker is incredibly talented at teaching outside the classroom as well. “She creates space — the meetings, the one-on-ones, the collective groups she works with — I think she is one of those all-around teachers,” Balls Organista said.
To all the Black students still at USF, to all the Black students who will return to in-person learning in the fall, and to all the Black students who will enroll at USF in the future, Garrett-Walker said to continue to lean on each other for support.
“Stay steadfast in your efforts to dismantle white supremacy everywhere,” she said. “Even at USF we engage in a lot of anti-Blackness.”
Garrett-Walker said she hopes Black students continue reaching out to Black faculty, as well.
“We love y’all,” she said. “We literally do this for our students, so stay in community. Continue to lift each other up.”
Editor’s Note: Teresa Moore is the Foghorn’s faculty adviser.
Paolo Bicchieri is a graduate International Studies student. He is a staff writer at the Foghorn. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @paoloshmaolo.