As we have lived through the events of the past few weeks—the murder of George Floyd, the police violence, the mounting protest movement, the larger context of a pandemic, and an economic crisis that disproportionately harms black lives—it has been hard to know what to say. It’s been hard to find words adequate to the moment and the feelings of horror, grief, exhaustion, and hope that we and others have felt. But here is a start.
Black Lives Matter. Black lives matter. The lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery mattered, and they still matter. So do the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and many other lives cut short by police and vigilante violence. Honoring their lives and mourning their deaths means taking those words seriously and taking action on them.
Bringing Theory to Practice is a community of educators, and the lives of our black students and black colleagues matter. We cannot be real educators, or real citizens, or decent people, if we don’t take seriously the commitment to uproot white supremacy from higher education and make equity, inclusion, and safety finally a possibility for all black lives in America.
BTtoP is a multi-racial community of educators. Many of you have done amazing work to make higher education less racist, more inclusive, and more equitable, to partner with communities of color as they confront white supremacy and state violence. We’re proud to have supported that work in grants and conferences. We’re proud to celebrate it in our Newsletter and Bringing It posts. We’re proud to be launching a new multi-institutional collaboratory aimed at overcoming racial and class inequities in student well-being.
Yet this is only a start, a down payment, on giving the words “black lives matter” the commitment they require. We—the four colleagues sending you this—are white. We don’t confront the daily fear, violence, disrespect, and exhaustion that being black in America brings. We can’t experience the gut-punch that our black students, colleagues, family members, friends, and neighbors felt in watching the video of George Floyd’s murder. We know that our black students, colleagues, family members, friends, and neighbors have had to shoulder an unfair share of the struggle against racism (even as they have to shoulder the whole burden of racism itself). That has to change. As the protests put it, silence is violence.
What does it mean for Bringing Theory to Practice to take seriously that black lives matter? It means committing ourselves to working more intensively with the campuses that serve the large majority of black students: historically black and minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and comprehensive universities. It means working to make all academic institutions places of welcome, support, safety, growth, and joy for black students and colleagues. It means working to make the understanding of black lives in all their fullness an indispensable part of education. It means speaking up and stepping up when academics, academic institutions, and we ourselves fall short of these goals.
Given BTtoP’s focus on student well-being as a core purpose of college learning, it means heeding the voices of black student activists and their allies, who are now challenging the presence of police—especially armed police—on campus as a key impediment to well-being. Given our focus on civic engagement as a core purpose of college learning, it means expanding collaborations with communities of color, especially around issues of racial justice and community empowerment. Given our focus on holistic institutional change, it means working to unpack and attack the myriad, underhanded ways that systemic racism erodes black lives and achievement on campus. It means unpacking and attacking how systemic racism undermines all teaching and learning.
And alongside action, it means listening to and learning from black and anti-racist scholars, educators, students, and activists. Speaking personally, we continue to challenge ourselves to learn and live what it means to take seriously that black lives matter. Over these past weeks, we’ve been inspired by the passion and creativity of young black leaders and their allies of all races and ages on the streets of American cities and towns. We’ve engaged with books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist, Staci Haines’ The Politics of Trauma, Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. We’ve been moved and stretched by reflections and calls to action in blog posts, op-eds, and social media. Some of the most powerful (for us) include “I Am So Tired,” by Robert M. Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; “Why We Protest,” by Milmon Harrison of UC-Davis; and “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet,” by the marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
As it happens, Johnson is one of the foremost experts on the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans, and we’ve been following her work as part of our effort to imagine how to educate students for meeting the climate crisis. “Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America,” she writes in her Washington Post op-ed. “I would love to ignore racism and focus all my attention on climate. But I can’t. Because I am human. And I’m black. And ignoring racism won’t make it go away.” Johnson ends with a call to white readers who share her passion for climate activism: “I need you to become actively anti-racist...I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.”
It is long past time to answer this call. We hold ourselves accountable for responding with specific actions (not only those we described above, but also others we will come to discover). We are accountable to you, our BTtoP community, to our Advisory Board, to our Elon partners, and to our black students and colleagues.
As we said at the top, these words are a start. We welcome your responses. And we thank you for the work you do.
David, Caitlin, Mercedes, and Kate