Since the inception of the SUNY SAIL Institute, we have operated with the value of diversifying the leadership pipeline and fostering inclusive leadership and cultures on our campuses. Given recent events in our nation, the need for more active dialog and work to address issues of systemic racism embedded in our own culture, policies, and practices has become even more critical and apparent.
We write this with heavy hearts, filled with anger and sadness. It is difficult to come up with the right words and we know that no words can adequately address what many of our colleagues endure on a daily basis and which has been brought to the forefront of our attention of late. But, we believe it is important that you hear from the SAIL Institute and we write to share our reflections and efforts to move forward. We have all seen the news about the horrific murder of George Floyd by a member of the police in Minneapolis kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes. Sadly, this is just one of many recent brutal deaths. In March, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was killed in her own home, when the police raided her apartment in Louisville. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by three white men while he was jogging in Georgia in February. Last week, Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back by a police officer in Atlanta.
OUR SHARED SUNY COMMITMENT
Chancellor Johnson recently noted “Despite the beauty of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the force of law is still regularly applied unequally and with malicious and disproportionate impact on people who are black, brown, and LGBTQ.” The above aforementioned acts are poignant reminders of the systemic racism and discrimination that continues to exist in our communities across the country and here in New York. They have brought into sharp detail the acts of oppression and vulnerability experienced especially by people of color and members of the black community. We know we cannot in any way fully comprehend the pain, fear, and struggles being experienced today and every day. What we do know is it is important for us to be aware and engaged, to speak out against the injustices we see, and to be more sensitive to perspectives beyond our own.
Over the last several months as we have dealt with COVID-19, we have discussed the importance of leading with empathy and caring. Those two tenets are as important now as we address systemic racism. Many of us feel the pain of COVID-19, but the burden is disproportionally felt by black people and people of color. And, we, as an academic community, have a choice as to whether we sit back and watch or step forward to act and become a beacon of hope amidst the chaos.
We have an opportunity to change the system from within – by preparing leaders who can identify discrimination and inequities; who have the tools and resolve to create change and advocate for social justice; who can restructure policies and programs to eradicate the systems that suppress equality.
OUR MANDATE TO LEARN
Of course, this also means we need to turn a mirror on ourselves. Among our core tenets are action and reflection and so we have initiated new activities to help us move forward. We have started a process via our SAIL alumni conversations to bring people from across institutions together to tackle difficult yet necessary conversations about race and racism. We have started a working document to collect actionable suggestions and form working teams. We will communicate with you initiatives that emerge from these alumni conversations, and will invite you to join a working team in the coming weeks to move efforts forward. These activities will be open to all, and at this time we invite you to submit ideas and suggestions for our alumni to consider by June 21. We also encourage our campus leaders to engage in similar conversations with your teams and campus colleagues.
Individually, many of us are actively educating ourselves to be anti-racists. There are several great texts to get started, including White Fragility, Waking Up White, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, How to be an Anti-Racist, and Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think and Do. We also have reached out to Dr. Christopher Rounds, Associate Professor of History at Allen University, and he offered a video to shed more light on the history and significance of Juneteenth as this not-widely known holiday, also known as Freedom Day, is fast approaching. Kudos to Governor Cuomo for recognizing it as a new New York State holiday. It marks the end of slavery in the US, and now that we know a little more about it we want to join in the celebration. A quick Google search will generate many ideas to celebrate, even amidst a health pandemic.
OUR WORK AHEAD
So much more needs to be done. We know that many of the actions to which the media is now bearing witness are merely the tip of the iceberg. They are reflective of patterns of behavior, often subconscious, that lead those in the majority to treat people of color in differentiated ways. What we have seen acted out by the police and other members of the community are not disconnected from what we see in all social institutions including schools and colleges and cause direct and lasting harm – perhaps not as dire as some of the actions we’ve seen of late; but still harmful. Not acknowledging and challenging these patterns and their underlying assumption leads to disparate impacts in how students are assessed, disciplined, and engaged. Scholars, including some within our own community, have developed evidence-based and carefully designed initiatives that can create more supportive educational experiences that empower all students and lead to improved life-outcomes. In fact, it is not surprising that we are seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that some students who have struggled to learn in schools are now excelling academically by moving their learning to a different environment.
By engaging in equity-focused research and consciously acknowledging how our structures may result in disparate treatment, we can work toward a better future that addresses the issues we are collectively confronting now. It is easy for us to say that our thoughts are with those who are directly affected by the moment. It is not always as easy to know what we can do to create change. We invite you to be part of the efforts and are open to suggestions about other ways SAIL can further support you in this important work.
Thanks to all of you for the work that you do each and every day to make a difference in the lives of the individuals, families, and communities that we serve. Your work is essential to taking steps toward the equitable, just, and inclusive society for which we strive.
Jason Lane, Carolyn Mattiske, Merissa McKasty & the SUNY SAIL Team