Tina M. Harris Interview

April 2, 2024




Tina M. Harris: A Life Abroad and Intentional Transformation  


When Tina M. Harris was two-and-a-half, she moved with her family from Detroit, Michigan to Naval Station Rota, a Spanish-U.S. naval base just outside of Cadiz, about 50 miles from the Strait of Gibraltar. The move shaped her experience with communication from her youngest years. 


“I moved so young; I didn’t remember anything about the U.S. For a long time, I just knew Spain,” says Harris. “My dad would come home, and I’d speak Spanish to him because I was still too young for school, so I spent all day listening to the words of our Spanish-speaking housekeeper. It really was my first language.”  


She says the experience of growing up abroad made a huge impact on who she is.This much is clear when you consider that many of her almost 100 publications focus on understanding different facets of intercultural and interracial communication.  


“That experience there has had a huge impact on my life, it opened my mind up to accepting people for who they are, teaching me to appreciate other cultures and, you know, really wanting to travel and to see the world and to learn as much as I can and use critical lenses and theories to explain these experiences."  


It wasn’t just positive experiences, however. Harris recalls a vivid experience with racial profiling after returning to the States and enrolling in high school.  


"I remember taking an English class where we had to write a mystery. I was up late at night with my paper and my pencil, and at the end I'm just so excited about what I had written.   

After a week or so, she's giving people their papers back and she asks me to step out into the hallway. So, naive me is thinking: ‘Oh, she wants me to step outside because she doesn't want to tell me how good my paper is in front of my classmates.’  

So I go out in the hallway, and she asks me point blank where I copied my paper from. And I responded, What do you mean, where did I copy it from? I did not copy my paper. I was up until midnight last night writing, you can ask my mom and dad.”  


Skeptically accepting Harris’ response, the teacher returned the story a week later. The grade? An A minus without comments.  


"It was pretty clear. She had to ding me. From my perspective, she probably thought, ‘Oh, a Black girl can't write that well. Something is going on here. I can't put my finger on it.’ And she had to knock me down a couple of pegs. But, I mean, look where I am now?”  


Now, Harris is a few months into her term as the latest NCA Second Vice President.  

The Second VP essentially serves a four-year term; assuming office their first year, planning the NCA convention as the First Vice President their second year, serving as NCA President their third year, and serving as Immediate Past President their final year.   

This level of commitment is significant, but Harris’ 34 years of dedication to NCA signals more than just status quo dedication. Her time also reflects the passion of a scholar interested in working with all facets of the organization, from time on the Leadership Development Committee, to the Research Council, to the Finance Committee, and more.   

On top of all this, as she assumes the VP position, Harris emphasizes mentoring's importance through personal experiences and advocacy.  


“We know that a lot of people do not get mentoring ... we know that,” says Harris. “And some people get ... I mean, it’s hazing. The idea that if you want to come and work with me, you need to be a duplicate of me. I’m a strong advocate of any narrative that pushes against that.”  


Along with her colleague Celeste Lee (Spelman College), she published an article on the term they coined “advocate-mentor,” or one who “speaks in support or defense of another person. An advocate is an intercessor, one who pleads for or on behalf of a less powerful person.”  

Many NCA members might already know Harris from her 2021 Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture . The lecture addresses two pandemics head-on, the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of racial injustice, by proposing “intentional transformation” as a solution forward. She also provides an actionable framework for achieving this transformation:   

  1. Do not grow weary in well doing.
  2. Remain intentional in everything that you do. 
  3. Recognize and manifest the power within. 
  4. Lift as you climb.  

As we’ve seen, this framework not only guides her scholarship and service to NCA, but outside initiatives as well. In 2020 she, with support from Meghan Sanders and Sherella Cupid, founded a virtual writing retreat to provide a supportive space for women of color scholars: "Sisters With a Purpose” (SWAP). For a week every summer, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 accepted applicants take part in structured writing time and receive constructive feedback and support. Applicants must:  

  • have held their doctorate for at least a year  

  • self-identify as a BIPOC woman  

  • have an unpublished working document for the workshop  

  • be available for the entirety of the retreat  

  • be employed at a university/college in the US  

  • have access to reliable internet service  

Applications for this year’s SWAP virtual retreat should open by the start of summer, and more information will be made available in COMMNotes.  

When Harris isn’t performing the duties of the Second VP office or organizing writing workshops, she says you can find her taking time out with a good nap, cooking the best Southern food, spending time with her Dachshund and Jack Russell mix named Jack, or planning trips around the world. This summer, Harris will travel to Beijing to attend the Minzu University of China’s conference “Convergence, Diversity, and Development" and ICA in Gold Coast, Australia. Harris says she plans to do what she usually does – what she has always done when she’s abroad– immerse herself:  


“My goal is to you know, just get there early enough so that I can become familiar with the culture. Obviously, do some research before I arrive, and then expand on what I’ve learned in an un-invasive way. That’s how I prefer to travel, to make it an opportunity for growth.”