Commentary

Reflections and Action on the Murder of George Floyd

Dean for institutional diversity urges us not to squander this moment.

By Prof. Mary James, Dean for Institutional Diversity | June 15, 2020

A Letter to the Reed Community

It has been a very difficult and tumultuous three weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. As a Black person who has witnessed the deaths and dehumanization of Black and Brown people at the hands of law enforcement for every decade of my life, I found George Floyd’s murder devastating not only in its brutality, but also in the routine nature of the event, conveyed in the passivity, indifference, and calm with which his murder was executed. This brutality and indifference are nothing new to Black and Brown communities; what is new is the video camera in every pocket—the community's ability to document the degradation and destruction of human life happening all around us.

This time, the nation is responding. The outcry is visceral, raw, and urgent and continues to grow. From the streets of every major American city to the boardrooms of corporations come calls to reform public and private institutions to address systemic racism. This is a powerful moment in which the nation is coming to recognition of long-standing and long-ignored injustices.

What I most fear about this moment is that it is exactly that: a moment. We are outraged now. We want action now. And that sense of urgency and hunger for change is admirable. And it does not, in and of itself, do the hard work of creating lasting change.

What I find most hopeful in this national outpouring of sympathy and calls for change is that so much of the change required is local: municipalities, counties, and states create and fund their police departments, criminal justice systems, public schools, and mental health agencies and do or do not hold them accountable for systemic racism. Private institutions, including Reed, are looking inward at how their policies, practices, and narratives serve either to reinforce or break down existing structural racism.

For all of us, there is no community more local than Reed. We are the actors who collectively can create the structural changes necessary to address systemic racism. But here’s the rub. There is no single or immediate action that the president, the dean of the faculty, or I can take to transform Reed into an institution free of systemic racism. Many of us have been doing this work for a long time; we’re working not for quick fixes, but to embed anti-racism into Reed’s DNA. We’re working for lasting, systemic change. I don't say this to dampen your sense of urgency, but rather to implore each and every one of you to keep that sense of urgency strong when the work toward change takes more than a month, a semester, or a year.

So, what are we to do?

To Students

You are the heart and soul of Reed. You are the reason faculty and staff are here. You have helped drive progress before and are integral to any progress we will make now and in the future. Many of you are involved in activism right now in Portland and your home communities. When you return to Reed, I want you to keep your sense of urgency and your commitment to inspire Reed to become ever more equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist. I do not mean to imply that it is your job to do the work of faculty, staff, and administrators, but that your insights and perspectives are crucial to our work.

Racism operates both overtly and surreptitiously and on both individual and systemic levels. Be willing to do the following: examine your own identity and privileges; understand the experiences of others; take advantage of opportunities to learn about systemic racism and how it operates; sit with discomfort while talking about race and issues of race; develop deep listening and empathy skills; lean into the hard conversations; learn from mistakes even when you had the best of intentions. We recognize that grappling with systemic racism is not easy and does not come naturally. It requires skill and practice. We are committed to providing opportunities for you to sharpen these skills. It is not the job of Black students and other students of color to educate their peers. Faculty and staff can help you find the resources you need to help you with this work.

To Faculty

Our Black students are telling us that they need more from us: more courses focused on Blackness in America, more Black faculty to teach them and all other students, and more inclusive pedagogical practices in classrooms, labs, and studios. At Reed, the curriculum is the purview of the faculty. Only faculty hire faculty. And faculty embrace or decline to embrace culturally responsive pedagogical practices. We have made progress in all of these areas in recent years, yet we are far from done. Responding to the needs of our Black students requires new commitments by faculty at the individual, departmental, and college levels.

The outgoing and incoming deans of the faculty will appoint faculty members to the 20/21 Committee on Diversity (CoD) early this summer. This timeline will allow the CoD to solicit input from students, faculty, and staff and bring recommendations to the Committee on Academic Policies and Planning (CAPP) and the faculty to better serve our Black students. By doing this now, we set ourselves up to have concrete steps in place by the end of fall semester.

To Staff

Many of you have participated in workshops offered by the Office for Institutional Diversity (OID), the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and Human Resources on inclusive hiring practices, intercultural communications in the workplace, and understanding the lived experiences and perspectives of students who are members of marginalized groups. This summer and into the coming year we will be offering more opportunities for professional development around inclusive, anti-racist practices for individuals, managers, and departments. All such professional development opportunities will involve participants committing to specific actions to embed inclusive anti-racist practices into their work. OID is in the process of hiring an associate dean whose primary responsibility will be increasing the capacity and skills of community members in inclusive approaches to teaching, learning, working, and living across difference. You can continue to educate yourselves on structural racism and anti-racist strategies, starting with the resources here.

To Administrative Leaders

We set the tone for the campus. We can set expectations, allocate resources, and model the engagement we are asking of other community members. Our Black students are telling us that they feel isolated, even alienated, on their own campus. They need more faculty, staff, and fellow students who look like them and understand their lived experience. We can commit to putting more resources into successfully recruiting and retaining more Black students. We can commit to supporting faculty in increasing Black representation in course offerings and adopting new pedagogical practices shown to increase the engagement and retention of students of color. We can commit to the following actions: fully adopting our inclusive hiring practices for all staff openings; providing more opportunities for managers to learn about and adopt inclusive management practices; and providing staff development opportunities specific to anti-racist practices in the workplace.

To Myself

Believe in Reed’s capacity to grow and change. Believe that this is not a moment, but an inflection point. Believe that I can help Reed be better, do better. As the dean for institutional diversity, I will continue to support and lend guidance to all of our constituencies in each of the areas listed above.

  • I will use my expertise as a faculty member and inclusive practitioner to support the faculty in their pursuit of more culturally responsive pedagogical strategies.
  • I will use my influence as a dean to motivate others to stay true to their commitments and assist them in making those commitments more tangible and actionable.
  • I will use my own teaching skills and the recently expanded OID staff to bring more workshops to managers, staff, and faculty so that they can examine and reform their professional practices in alignment with our anti-racist aspirations. 
  • I will use my social positions as a Black woman and Reed College dean to support Reed’s Black community as we collectively grieve, heal, and grow stronger.
  • I will learn. I will learn from our successes and failures and the successes, failures, and promising approaches of other institutions so that we can deepen and sustain this work.

Anti-racism is a community effort. It will require all of us to commit to this work, to engage with resolve, especially when it involves discomfort, and to support one another as we shift our narratives, perspectives, and practices to become a more anti-racist community. I believe we are up to the task.

Sincerely and with appreciation,

Mary 

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Mary B. James

Dean for Institutional Diversity and A.A. Knowlton Professor of Physics

Tags: Diversity/Inclusion, Institutional