As waves of civil unrest across the country continue, faculty and staff are prepared to address issues of institutional racism, unconscious bias, and police brutality, in and out of the classroom with tools and resources they acquired in dialogues over the summer.
In the early afternoon on Friday, July 24, a group of more than 20 St. Lawrence University faculty (and a few staff) members gathered in a virtual meeting room, prepared to address a topic still dominating headlines and Twitter feeds amidst waves of Black Lives Matter protests taking place across the country and in the University’s own backyard.
“Over the summer, with the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, it became increasingly apparent that something had to be done,” says Assistant Professor of Education Jessica Sierk. “We’re at a critical moment of unrest.”
Sierk, who teaches contemporary issues in American education and critical whiteness studies in education (among other courses oriented around social justice), was one of the co-facilitators of the Dialogues on Race workshops that took place in late July and included over 60 faculty and staff participants from across campus. She worked with Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Kimberly-Flint Hamilton on programming that tackled difficult topics through vitally important conversations about racism and bias on campus and provided practical resources for addressing racism, unconscious bias, and microaggressions in the classroom.
“To me, it’s a little bit like a game of whack-a-mole. If you look at history, the way that racism happens changes over time. Who is the subject of oppression changes over time. I don't know that we're ever going to reach a utopian society, but it’s such an ideal worth fighting for,” says Sierk.
"We can't mandate that students are talking about race at Dana. We can't mandate that they're talking about race in their dorm rooms, but we can make sure that they're having these conversations in their classrooms." —Assistant Professor of Education Jess Sierk
A series of focus groups, round table discussions, and St. Lawrence’s recent Campus Climate Survey revealed that the urgent need to act on issues of race and bias on campus is felt most acutely by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) students, faculty, and staff, and that the time for the silence of their white peers and colleagues is over. As summer transitions to fall and waves of civil unrest across the nation continue, faculty can expect students to be eager to discuss and address issues of institutional racism, unconscious bias, and police brutality, in and out of the classroom. Sierk believes she and her colleagues have a proactive role to play as the St. Lawrence community strives to foster a culture that welcomes, values, and respects all people and ideas.
“We can't mandate that students are talking about race at Dana. We can't mandate that they're talking about race in their dorm rooms, but we can make sure that they're having these conversations in their classrooms,” she says.
Right now, much of the work is in debunking common misconceptions about what constitutes acts of racism and in building the confidence to address them when they arise. Sierk and Flint-Hamilton asked participants to dig deeper into the small, everyday actions that amount to larger, systemic issues.
‘I think that a lot of people think racism only occurs in instances where somebody calls somebody else a racial slur or somebody says something overtly racist,” says Sierk. “I think it’s important for faculty to be more reflective of how we’re acting within a larger system. Who are we writing recommendation letters for? What do those letters look like? Are we more effusive for some students than for other students and along what lines? How does bias creep into our grading?”
A topic that groups returned to during the dialogues and that tends to come up during broader conversations about race on campus is the problem with defaulting to “niceness” when conflict arises. Participants discussed how, in order for our community to tackle unconscious bias through the un-learning of habits and norms, we must consciously reject the impulse to politely ignore or dismiss instances of bias out of fear of embarrassment or discomfort. At the beginning of these dialogues, Sierk urged participants to expect conflict when broaching these topics, because avoiding conflict under the guise of niceness can perpetuate inequality.
"If you look at history, the way that racism happens changes over time. Who is the subject of oppression changes over time. I don't know that we're ever going to reach a utopian society, but it’s such an ideal worth fighting for." —Assistant Professor of Education Jess Sierk
“When you try to keep things nice in a classroom, nothing really gets done. The tensions stay below the surface,” she says. “It’s okay if they come up, they need to come up, we need to get them out in the open. We need to talk about them because otherwise they're felt more acutely by the people that they directly affect, like faculty and students of color.”
Sierk believes long-term education, continual sharing of resources, and a commitment to personal accountability are critical to undermining the detrimental effects of conflict avoidance through niceness. Part of this is realizing that there is no end date to that work that the University must do at every level to promote inclusivity and empower students, faculty, and staff regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, or identity.
The dialogues over the summer were elemental—they laid the groundwork for more complex and nuanced conversations in the future as participants gain skills, knowledge, and awareness. Shortly after moderating these discussions, Sierk partnered with Professor of Global Studies John Collins on a workshop that encouraged faculty to decolonize their syllabi and pedagogy by reconsidering course policies and examining their readings and assignments. This, too, was the first of further continuing in-depth workshops to be offered throughout the fall.
As the semester picks up, faculty will have opportunities to put these dialogues and teachings into practice. They’ll have one another to share experiences and resources with and the skills to hold one another accountable instead of resorting to niceness. Sierk recognizes that not every conversation will go smoothly, but she encourages faculty, staff, and students to embrace this reality.
“You are going to mess up. It’s not an if, it's a when. You have the resources to try to have a successful conversation. And when that doesn't work out, you have resources to turn to… Conflict is okay,” she says. “You don't refuse to do the hard thing because it's hard. You do it because it's worth it.”