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Amid COVID-19, fighting for social justice remains important at Springfield College

By Joe Arruda

On March 25, then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ruthlessly kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. 

The public execution was caught on video which circulated and sparked a national cry for justice. The fight, already hundreds of years old, was reinvigorated by technology. 

The news turned quickly from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery as he went for a jog, to the police being used as a threat against Christian Cooper as he was bird-watching in Central Park, to the video of George Floyd’s life fleeing his body and the nationwide call for justice for Breonna Taylor, months after she was murdered while asleep in her own bed. 

The knee on Floyd’s neck represents the restraint of black and brown people for hundreds of years. Juxtaposed to this was the explosion of built-up anger from injustice by people from all communities that followed.

Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper sent an email – signed by herself, Kris Rhim, Calvin Hill, Felicia Lundquist, Brian Krylowicz and David McMahon – to the entire Springfield College community on June 1 with the subject “Silence is Not the Answer.” The email included an invite to the College’s first Zoom conversation on race, hosted by President Cooper and Student Trustee, Kris Rhim. 

“A call to action is needed, and we want to include your voice as we move forward,” the email read. “Racism, bigotry, and violence have no place at Springfield College. We may not be able to eradicate hatred, bigotry, and injustice, but we cannot stay silent and not act. Our mission directs us to lead in service to others. All others.”

In that Zoom meeting, hundreds of Springfield College students, faculty, trustees and staff joined where some voiced their experiences, their reactions and their concerns and many others listened.

The meeting sparked the creation of a series by the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement titled “Conversations on Race” which ran throughout the months of June and July. 

The conversations began shifting into specific requests for change. 

In meetings with deans and administrators, ideas started to flow. Student groups came up with a list of changes they would like to see on campus in order for the response from the College to not only be compassionate, but effective.

According to statistics provided by the Springfield College Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement for the 2019 academic year, 72.9 percent of the traditional undergraduate student body and 81.7 percent of the faculty at the college is white. As a result of these numbers, students of color have expressed that they do not always feel fully comfortable in the classroom.

“I just want teachers to be able to understand that when you say turn and pick a partner, that’s like the worst thing I have to hear in class because most of the time I’m one of a few – if not the only – person of color in the class and no one wants to be my partner,” Student-Trustee Elect Sabrina Williams said. 

This experience was shared in meetings with alumni of color that took place over the course of the summer. In those meetings, alumni have expressed that they didn’t feel a part of the community while they were on campus, and have only grown apart since their commencement. 

Calvin Hill, Springfield College Vice President For Inclusion and Community Engagement, said, “We know like some of our students today, they walked out of campus without having faculty that mirrored their experiences, without having a lot of administrators that mirrored their experiences and they didn’t build the relationships. They also know that the relationships they had, the stronger relationships, were with their fellow black and brown students – they weren’t with the campus as a whole.”

While diversifying both the student body and the faculty and staff is high on the list of priorities, it is understood that it is something that will change over time. For now, the faculty has been asked to include anti-racist teaching into their curriculum. 

There is no handbook for this, however, and it will take learning on both sides. 

“For me, I am obviously a person of color, I’m a political scientist and I attended a historically black college in D.C. for my PhD,” Hill said. “It is very easy for me to bring about issues of race in my lectures because I call upon my lived experience.

“It is more complicated for someone else who doesn’t have my lived experience to be able to incorporate diversity and inclusion. They have to do a different level of work to be able to speak. Very similar to a woman in a classroom – I have the academic knowledge, but I can’t speak to women’s issues as well as they would.”

This year’s faculty institute will focus on cultural humility and what faculty members can incorporate or should know about in their classrooms. 

It is to be expected that the College will be promoting the fight for racial justice on signage and through the creation of a “Black Reads” section in the Learning Commons. 

President Cooper announced the formation of the Committee on Public Safety Policies, Practices, and Training which will examine the policies, practices and current training requirements of the Department of Public Safety. 

“This committee, which includes students, faculty, staff and trustees, is charged with identifying areas of improvement and recommending changes that promote greater equality and safety for our students, faculty, and staff,” according to an email from the President.

Williams, a junior and a member of this committee, said, “I think the craziest thing that we heard – which is why we decided to form this committee – is the fact that if you had an issue or an altercation with Public Safety, you have to report it to Public Safety. It just doesn’t make any sense, that just seems like the biggest conflict of interest. Let’s say you have an altercation with your teacher, the only person you can report to is your teacher…”

She stated that she has not had any personal issues with Springfield College public safety officers, but sees room for necessary change. 

She, along with current Student Trustee, Kris Rhim, have pushed the importance of supporting clubs on campus such as Men of Excellence (MOE), Student Society for Bridging Diversity (SSBD), Women of Power, Scientists Embracing Equality and Diversity (SEED) and the Office of Multicultural Affairs in order to hear differing perspectives on not only social justice issues, but life in general.

“Just support our events, come to our events, educate yourself outside of the classroom, get to meet other people of color and question what it is you know or think you know about other people,” Williams said. 

Being a primarily white institution, it is important for white students to understand what it means to be an “ally.” Rhim and Hill have both emphasized that it is important for white people to use their voice in lifting the voices of others, to stand in the background in solidarity and support for black and brown people. 

“The most important thing is calling out your peers,” Williams said. “If you’re an ally and you know something is wrong, you should call it out. I think that’s the most important thing – accountability and holding yourself accountable.”

Photo: Luther Wade’s Instagram

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