In response to the public murder of George Floyd, I wrote an open letter to my campus community, where I am an alumnae and current member of the faculty. This letter was written to ask the campus to remember our Black students who were still reeling from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. I was asking colleagues to have compassion for our students’ vicarious and lived trauma from the constant viewing of unarmed Black people being murdered at the hands of law enforcement. Furthermore, we were in a global pandemic and the world was watching our people, Black people, violently dying in the public eye. This letter went “viral” throughout the campus community and opened the door for faculty and staff to publicly speak in support of our Black community.
The Ujima Program hosted a campus-wide listening session centered around the voices of Black students. These students courageously shared how they felt invisible, broken, and unheard by the college and by society as a whole. Through the tears and sorrow, the students spoke truth to power to over 600 faculty, staff, students, and administrators via Zoom and YouTube. The only non-student voices heard at the session were by me, Professor Armia Walker, Counselor/Coordinator, Blackademia, and Rebecca Cobb, Dean of Student Life. It was a powerful example of directed outrage and a focused “calling out” of the institution for its complicity in centering whiteness and neglecting its minoritized populations. Since the “Student’s Call to Action,” there have been numerous changes on campus; some for the better and some not.
As educators, student advocates and lifelong learners, it gave Professor Walker and I great pride to witness the campus center support for Black students, faculty, and staff. The Black Student Success Center that we worked so hard to create was greenlit for expansion, our Black/African-centered programs were given significant funding, and our years of advocacy for Black students was propelled to the forefront of conversation. However, having been Black women all our lives and primarily tackling issues of race, power, and privilege most of our careers, we knew that the proverbial “iron” would only be hot for so long. It was time to strike towards campuswide change.
We saw this as an opportunity to expand our work on a higher platform. Although a campus leader, I had never been formally introduced to the academic senate. Due to my new visibility, I was appointed to the Academic Senate Executive Committee (ASEC) as secretary. I was able to see the influence the senate had on college policies, processes, and curriculum. I saw that our support for students could be broadened beyond our programs. So, after convincing Professor Walker to occupy a vacant senate seat from her department, we worked with our senate allies to draft resolutions denouncing the killing of unarmed Black people and an antiracism resolution, which were both unanimously approved by the senators.
Clearly, the academic senate was ready for change and for the first time in the history of the college, two Black women were voted onto the ASEC. This was not the only change. We, as a senate, established a Social Justice committee, opened a campuswide discussion on liberatory education/outcomes and are currently working on an antiracism policy to be adopted by all constituency groups.
Liberatory education, as discussed by Dr. Barbara Love (2013) and Dr. Gina Ann Garcia (2020), places the needs of minoritized students at the forefront of pedagogy and practice. It strongly suggests that students be empowered to work in tandem with institutions toward liberation (freedom from oppression and oppressive structures). According to Garcia, this goal should be prioritized by the institution on behalf of students of color. We were not sure what to expect from our local academic senate when we made this the primary topic of our first semester retreat.
As one can imagine, most of our senators had not heard of liberatory outcomes/education. Most had not thought about the impact that traditional college praxis had had on minoritized students, at least before George Floyd. However, it was pleasantly surprising that our senators were not only receptive to the idea of liberatory education but infused the concept into our senate goals for the year. It was amazing to witness new and seasoned senators discussing how to merge liberation into their curriculum and how they would expose the concept to their respective divisions. It was exciting, to say the least.
As the academic senate president, I am charged with occupying a seat on various, high-profile committees. At times, I am even called on to co-chair these committees. The ASEC and I had decided early on that we would discuss liberatory outcomes in all the spaces we occupied. So, whether in a Strategic Planning, Insti‑tutional Effectiveness, Outcomes Standing Committee, or in my one-on-one meetings with the vice president of instruction or the college president, I brought up liberatory outcomes and the works of Dr. Love and Dr. Garcia. From the floor of the academic senate, to boardrooms and classrooms across the college, the discussion on liberation is being had.
These changes have not come without consequences and pushback. Calling out white supremacy is a complicated and heavily contested item to discuss in any space where it is allowed to exist. Our campus is not immune to the complexities and nuances of discrimination and micro-aggressions. However, our determination, new positions, and familiarity with oppressive structures allowed us and our social justice partners to navigate what was starting to become hostile waters. As a Black woman who has been in leadership for many years, I found this new level of politics to be overwhelming but necessary for authentic change.
Currently, we are seeing the bright exposure from the George Floyd murder starting to dim. As Black campus community members, we have discussed amongst each other that our proverbial “15 minutes of fame” is in its final seconds. Unfortunately, as folks are starting to forget the horror of watching Black people being murdered over and over again, the chill of status quo can be felt on campus. However, we continue to work on behalf of our students. Although there have been situations that have momentarily distracted our senate, we still have vowed to meet our goals of liberation for all.
However, the truth remains that those who have always worked towards decentering whiteness and voicing the call for equity will continue to do so, with or without having to witness the public murder of Black folks. Those who were moved by emotion only will end their temporary advocacy and limited allyship once their emotions move them past the shock of these public events. It is my goal to get as much done on behalf of our students and colleagues of color before the status quo settles back in or another public tragedy forces us to revisit our views of oppression, racism, and inequity through the lens that George Floyd’s death provided.
Garcia, G. A. (2020). Is liberation a viable outcome for students who attend college? HigherEdJobs. https://www.higheredjobs.com/blog/postDisplay.cfm?post=2256&blog=28.
Love, B. J. (2013). Developing a liberatory consciousness. In Readings for diversity and social justice (pp. 601–606). Routledge.