On Monday afternoon, June 8th, 2020, Lesley University held a virtual accountability forum, which was open to the entire Lesley community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The purpose of the forum was to “discuss what accountability looks like at Lesley University in efforts to dismantle racism at all levels; individual, systemic, and structural.” The event was a collaboration by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, BERT, LUDC, Office of the President, GSASS, GSOE, CLAS, LA+D Dean of Students, Office of Communications, and Counseling Center, and it was held via Zoom. The forum was well-attended: over 400 people registered for it, and 350 of them remained for the discussion period.
The accountability forum was co-moderated by Associate Diversity Officer and Executive Director of Urban Scholars Initiative Maritsa Barros, and Director of Field Training for Expressive Therapies, and Chair of the Lesley University Diversity Council, Associate Professor Deborah Spragg. Professor Spragg began the forum with a land acknowledgement: a reminder that our campus occupies land which was traditionally home to the Mashpee Wampanoag people. The sobering introduction set the tone for the rest of the meeting.
Ms. Barros shared the following quote from Jane Elliott, who exemplifies white allyship. ““We wouldn’t have to have Black Lives Matter if we hadn’t had 300 years of Black Lives Don’t Matter.” She then read a very small fraction of the names of those taken by police brutality, inviting attendees to repeat each one aloud:
“George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Trevon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Justin White, Sean Monterrosa, Eleanor Bumpurs, Alberta Spruill, Kayla Moore, Natasha McKenna, Shantel Davis, Tanisha Anderson, Maya Hall, Alexia Christian, and many, many more.” A moment of silence afterwards invited contemplation of the magnitude of that tiny fraction of lives cut short by racially motivated police brutality. Rayshard Brooks’ name was added to the list just days after the forum—his murder brutally illustrating the point of protesters country-wide.
Forum attendees were given the opportunity to text in up to three words describing their feelings about the racial climate in our community. The words were displayed, the popularity of each sentiment reflected by the size of its font. Some of the more prominent words were “Overwhelmed,” “Exhausted,” “Sad,” “Unsure,” and “Steinmayer.” The word “Angry” appeared largest of all.
Before attendees launched into group discussions, they were shown a YouTube video explaining how systemic racism is perpetuated nationwide—through redlining, property taxes funding public schools, name-discrimination on job applications, etc.
With so many people registered to attend the forum, the planning group decided that the best way to manage it would be with break-out groups of around 10 people each, to give space for more voices to be heard and to create space to discuss what is working, what is not working, and what changes needed to be made within our community; this information could be collected to guide the work of the Diversity Advisory Committee. Of the 350 attendees who stayed for the discussion, they were put into randomly-assigned break-out groups. Each breakout group was asked to name a facilitator and note taker to move the conversations along. There were about 15 pre-assigned facilitators, so approximately half of the groups were tasked with designating one of their own.
Each group was to turn in notes with their answers to the following three questions:
- In your experience, what practices and structures are supportive in creating an inclusive environment and campus climate at Lesley University?
- In your experience, what practices and structures are not supportive in creating an inclusive environment and campus climate at Lesley University?
- What changes do you want to see at Lesley in order to meet your individual and/or community needs that reflects an equitable and inclusive environment?
The groups’ responses will be presented to President Steinmayer and the Diversity Advisory Committee (a “temporary committee that will be in place to help us restructure and reestablish our Division of Diversity Equity and Inclusion and launch a search committee to hire [a] leader of this division,”) in the upcoming week.
Maritsa Barros characterized last week’s accountability forum as “a response in a time of urgency,” intended to help collect data for the committee to work from. With the president in the process of hiring a new Chief Diversity Officer (a title which may be changed to reflect the “vice-presidential” duties that come with it), time is of the essence.
Lesley’s current president and CFO have both been in office for under a year, and they are on the brink of decisions weighty enough to determine the legacy of their administration—and more importantly, the future of our community.
Representatives of the Lesley University Black Student Union, President Amara Obiora, Vice President Osa Odeh and Treasurer/Representative Victoria Massey shared in an interview that they would have liked to be involved in planning the forum. Because of the time-sensitive nature of the event, they were not able to be. But leaders “are working towards including student voice and participation in this process in a formal way,” according to Barros. “I hope to have that figured out in the coming days.”
Victoria Massey, an Expressive Arts Therapy major who is minoring in Africana Studies, was hoping the forum would “center on voices of students, faculty and staff who are black or of color, and actually discuss what would help those individuals thrive on campus.” Her experience in her breakout group was instead that “the voices seemed to be centered around predominantly white faculty members.”
There are no official numbers regarding the attendees’ demographics, but there seemed to be far more faculty and staff than students. And, in line with Lesley’s current overall demographics, the 350 community members who attended the forum were largely white. Victoria described the break-out group as a “very uncomfortable” and “very intimidating experience” for her, as one of only two black women in her group.
Because the groups were randomly assigned, moderators were unable to ensure an even distribution of demographics—a problem which Barros readily admitted, “may have caused some dynamics that may have caused harm.” She stated that “it was not our intention to create an uncomfortable space nor was it our intention to offer affinity spaces and moving forward we will be more intentional about the management of future forums with more planning time and logistical support in managing virtual spaces.
“The space the community found themselves in during the forum is only a reflection of the community we are a part of at Lesley University as a predominately white institution (PWI).” She stressed that faculty are not immune to the problematic racial dynamics presented at a PWI like Lesley.
“If you think about the number of students of color in our predominantly-white institution, I want you to also think of our faculty and staff who are people of color on our campus,” Barros said. “What our experiences are when we’re the only ones in the meetings. When we’re the only ones in the space. This issue of representation is prevalent across all levels and experiences of the institution.”
Gregory Saint-Dick, newly-appointed Vice-Chair of Lesley’s Diversity Council, shared some insight during an interview as to why universities nationwide hire mainly white professors. “Historically, black faculty are viewed as radical because of implicit bias. Because they are Black, their careers are thoroughly examined under a microscope” and Black faculty members are rarely offered tenure even after working for years at the same institution. “They don’t attain that status,” because many universities fear that with a secured position, black faculty will mobilize students to “raise hell” on campus. “While other universities just hire who they know and trust. And unfortunately for many faculty of color, they were never invited to that boys club.”
Saint-Dick asserted that, as an institution, “Lesley is not necessarily known for enticing and developing faculty of color,” and this reputation deters many from even applying. When asked about potential solutions, he had one already in mind: to implement new doctoral fellowship programs that would “house a number of faculty of color and help them professionally.”
The Executive Board of the LU Black Student Union felt that concrete solutions such as this one did not receive enough attention during the forum. They took particular issue with the first discussion question, which took up 1/3 of the groups’ discussion time looking for positive feedback for the university. “I really just wanted to dig into the issues,” Victoria Massey said, “and then follow them up with solutions.”
Osa Odeh is a junior business management major, who stated that the accountability forum was “surface line,” and wished there had been more discussion about “how we as a group can work on [improving the racial climate] together.” The forum left the three BSU executive board members wondering what will come next. “How are we going to implement everything that we discussed at Lesley?” Massey wanted to know. “How are we going to be a part of that process of implementing it at Lesley, and holding Lesley accountable so that those structures are changed?”
The LUBSU advocates for the following changes:
-Increase mandatory diversity trainings for students, faculty and staff.
–Make resource materials widely available for the continued self-education of white students
–Increase hiring of well-equipped and qualified faculty who are black and of color.
-Send education majors to internship placements at a more diverse array of schools
-Make the Bias Education and Response team more easily accessible to students.
-Implement zero-tolerance policy for bias incidents
-House more affinity groups on campus
The initial accountability forum was intended to be one small step of many in addressing systemic racism at Lesley. LUDC has also hosted two subsequent forums since then: one for students of color and one for white student allies, to ensure that students of color have a space in which they can discuss these issues and solutions without having to compete with white voices. The goal was to bring the two conversations together in a time and manner that will be conducive to a positive and productive interaction.
Maritsa Barros and Greg Saint-Dick are optimistic that these actions will lead to positive change for our community. Saint-Dick shared his assessment, based on “very limited interactions with [President Steinmayer],” that she seems genuinely open-minded. He praised her willingness to work with the Diversity Advisory Committee, which is comprised of over forty concerned community members. “She’s moving in the right direction.” he said. “The community just needs to hold her accountable to continue on in this fight.”
Amara Obiora, a junior Middle School Education and Math double-major, pointed out that when issues of race are brought to light, “sometimes [administrations] try to brush it under the rug until someone forces it to be addressed.” The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as Lesley’s Black Student Union have made it clear that they won’t let the conversation be extinguished. “We don’t have the privilege of walking away and ignoring [racism], because every day we are in our skin,” explains Massey. “It’s not something that we can run away from.”
At the end of last week’s the accountability forum, participants were asked to send in words they associate with accountability. “Action,” “Leadership,” “Transparency,” “Funding,” and “Janet Steinmayer” were some of the most prominent.
According to the LU Black Student Union, white allies can support accountability in our community by “being okay with feeling uncomfortable and holding these discussions. Being okay to educate themselves and not rely on their friends of color” for diversity education.
“Don’t just sit down and be silent, and feel like because you don’t know what to do, you can’t do anything at all.”
“Your silence says a lot.”