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East Coast USA, United States
Lowcountry porch sitter. Appalachian Mountain lover. Finger Lakes dreamer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It's not fatal if we shepherd change.


A seven-year old has a natural curiosity to understand the world around them. Everything is new and most anything invariably involves asking why it is so. That was most certainly true in 1970 in Huntington, West Virginia. 

I recall that evening in October when my father came home from the Marshall University campus after students protesting recent drug raids were tear-gassed. As an Episcopal minister it would not have been unusual for my father, also an adjunct teaching social work at the university, to believe his campus presence a necessary protocol as a member of the faith community. He certainly would have been easy to identify with his white clerical collar. Whether he chose, was asked or just happened to be on campus that evening one thing remains vivid in my memory and that was the sense of relief my mother expressed when he returned home. (Tragically this unfortunate event was followed by the plane crash on November 14, 1970 that claimed the lives of thirty-seven members of the Marshall football team, its coach, its doctors, athletic director and 25 team boosters. To say that Huntington as a community introduced me to the art of resilience is an understatement. It remains a special place.)

Flash forward to Ithaca, New York in October of 2015 when a campus wide assembly was
called by the Ithaca College administration to address racism and cultural bias. I remember catching the clerical collar out of the corner of my eye and denoting the gentleman’s location in the lobby as I, along with other alumni, members of the staff, faculty and student population proceeded into the College’s Athletics & Events Center. Truthfully, this assembly was crafted as poorly as prior attempts for fostering genuine dialogue. A heavy uniform presence, staff instructed to marshall attendees to fill seats on the floor, a panel of speakers comprised of white-haired caucasian men...all the trappings and appearances of inflexibility. However, what made this particular evening different was a student protest by POC at IC who took to the stage to verbally deliver a bevy of information recounting the campus experience for students of color. When the students concluded their remarks they asked the audience to join them in walking out on a panel prepped to talk at them rather than include them. By my estimate 75% of the audience elected to leave the assembly and I was part of that procession.

At the onset I intended to listen fairly to the discussion, taking in all that was to be said, but one look at the panel suggested my good intention would be lost on yet another misguided, maligned attempt to control the conversation. I grabbed a quick video clip of the procession out of the building, walked up a short flight of stairs on a mission to locate the man in the clerical collar. When I found him I hugged him, whispering quietly to him “Father, I think we’ve been here before.” I gingerly gripped his arm in recognition and walked away. In that moment, hugging a man of the cloth, it was as if I had the chance, some fifty years later, to understand fully my father’s commitment to his faith and to the students at Marshall University that fall evening in 1970.

While one can deliver instruction on recognizing discrimination and embracing an ever-expanding definition of diversity it is wholly another challenge to grasp the impact of bias academically, economically, and culturally. Change takes time. That is especially true when it seems to be languishing in the bureaucracy of decision-making and disingenuous dialogue on a college campus. Thus, sometimes negotiating a new way forward necessitates action. 

As similar calls to action are made at several institutions of higher education I imagine those with the greatest to lose are those seeking to avoid or negate the conversation about doing things differently.

Frankly, presidents, Board of Trustees, administrative heads, alumni, faculty, staff and students at any of these institutions will find they are compromised by inaction perhaps even culpable. It's only fatal if we don't take action to shepherd change. 
Life Enrichment is like a travel and learn program...offering infusions that make every day life thereafter far more interesting! ~ Ann-Marie Adams, Reflections on a Meaningful Life