Bertice Berry: Professor Of Life
Meet the sociologist who says that how we relate to others will help us become our best selves
Years ago, in a club in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, a group of stand-up comedians entered a contest to get the biggest laughs and win a $50 cash prize. The lineup included Drew Carey, Jeff Foxworthy and Steve Harvey.
The winner was sociology professor Bertice Berry, PhD.
“I was different, I was a Black woman that could deal with hecklers,” Berry recalls with a laugh. “And I had already been using humor to teach my students.”
While a comedy stage may seem like a strange place for a professor, it only underlines Berry’s gift and passion to bring her ideas to wherever they may be heard.
“The concepts of sociology, who we are and how we relate to one another, should be accessible to everyone,” she says.
A Way Of Seeing
Berry grew up in a poor neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware, with six siblings. No one in her family had been to college; though she dreamed of being the first, the odds were against her. But certain teachers and mentors had noticed how the young Berry’s mind worked. She was always trying to “figure out the ‘why.’” Why humans behave the way they do, especially in groups. Why certain groups of people come together, and why social ills such as racism and sexism can threaten to break them apart.
“I think through that lens,” she says. “I was told I had the mind of a sociologist before I even studied it.”
Berry was also a voracious reader.
“I lived in the library,” she says. “I had two cleaning jobs—one before school and one after school. The second cleaning job was at a bank, so I had to wait for it to close before I could clean. I spent the time in between in the library. It helped give me a way of seeing beyond my street.”
Her hard work and studying helped her dream come true—she attended undergrad at Jacksonville University, the first in her family to do so. Her professors encouraged her to go to graduate school.
“I was like, ‘You mean there’s more?’” Berry says with a laugh. She received her MA and then her PhD from Kent University at age 26, and later became a professor there. That’s when she tried stand-up, and though she enjoyed scholarly pursuits by day and laughs by night, she felt she’d be most effective in combining those two talents, and then adding in books, media, workshops and more.
The plan worked—throughout her career, Berry has lectured and held workshops at companies like Google, Kaiser Permanente, Marriott International and Gulfstream, to name a few. She had her own syndicated TV show at one point and was a guest on The Tonight Show and Oprah Winfrey. She’s written 13 books of both fiction and non-fiction. One of her next projects is to produce classes online. She is also a candidate to receive Holy Orders to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church.
In other words, she has no intention of slowing down.
“At night when I’d be working on a piece of writing, my kids would say, ‘Mom, you should be tired. Go to bed!’” Berry recalls. “But I’d remember my old cleaning jobs and think, ‘Hey, I’m not cleaning. I can read and write and think all day.’”
The Human Experience
Sometimes the connection with people happens organically, as when Berry began creating short YouTube videos, sharing personal stories and nuggets of life experience. One video in which Berry opens up about how she was sometimes looked down upon as a cleaning person, and how it affirmed her belief that everyone deserves compassion and respect, has more than 11,000 views.
“I thought I was talking to five people,” Berry says with a laugh. “But then they went viral.”
Berry has seen how people respond to the human touch that she brings to each lecture, even those that deal with corporate culture and the often-impersonal world of business.
“I need people to know that systems or organizations are not machines, they’re people,” Berry says. “So if we are trying to focus on—or fix—a system, we must not forget that it is full of people who are living a human experience, trying to be their best every single day.”
In her work, Berry will often introduce the idea of ubuntu, a philosophical concept that originated in South Africa.
“Ubuntu means that ‘I am, because we are,’” she says. “What I do impacts what you do and vice versa. I’m an individual, but I have a collective part, and I become more human through the collective. When people come together this way, they can build something amazing. We’ve already done some amazing things, but just look out for what’s next!”
Building Strong Teams
Bertice Berry, PhD, sees the power of teams everywhere, and during a recent visit to St. Joseph’s/Candler, she was encouraged by the team-centered approach she found.
“I have seen an evolution happening in healthcare, and St. Joseph’s/Candler is already demonstrating it,” she says. “Teams are being intentionally built to work around the whole person. I met a surgeon with the bedside manner of a nurse. I had a nurse who focused above and beyond her regular duties. I met housekeeping staff that wanted to make sure I was comfortable and happy with my room.”
Berry believes that organizations, and the departments and units within them, are able to be more effective, even powerful, when working in concert.
“Power is not the same as forcing things, it’s about love and service,” she says. “And when you have a collective mindset about wellness, everybody wins.”
Learn more about Dr. Berry on her website.