THE BLOG
03/08/2016 03:38 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2017

Transforming Universities: The Lives and Labor of Student Activism

By Casidy Campbell and Lolade Oshin, Student Activists, and Ajay Nair, Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life, Emory University

The persistence, pervasiveness, and plain messiness that constitute race relations in America have rendered traditional models of social change ineffective in higher education. While incremental change has occurred, the continuing inadequacies of traditional models are apparent in well-documented racial disparities across generations of our nation's social landscape - disparities re-exposed by today's Black Lives Matter movement.

The current racial justice movement on college campuses nationwide provides us with a needed sense of urgency and clear insight into how the racial contours of a university can change.

While our instinct as institutions of higher education too often is to tout our significant financial investments in "diversity" initiatives, a radically different approach is occurring at Emory University. Although the experiment is still underway, we have already gained insights about our own institutional structures and the notion of a community of practice that can inform higher education practice.

Traditional models of social change have too often fallen short at Emory, as well as across higher education nationwide, in five important ways.

First, institutions that are reactionary in nature - as is much of higher education - struggle to effect systemic change. Our tendency is to manage and negotiate racial protest without critical analysis of our institutional racism and the urgently needed reform in the policies and practices that enable it. Hence, the cycle of oppression is perpetuated.

Second, our reactionary nature as institutions of higher education doesn't encourage meaningful relationships to be cultivated or for deliberative dialogue to occur on issues of critical importance like racial justice. Nor does it stimulate systemic change based upon the needs of an evolving society.

Third, the work of creating a racially just campus community shouldn't occur in a vacuum. Administrative leaders must take responsibility and be held accountable for the shared goals articulated by the community. Administrators must aggressively ensure continuity of initiatives when students graduate and move on. This should include facilitating input for decision-making by students.

Fourth, advancing racial justice in higher education has historically and disproportionately fallen on the shoulders of students of color. They carry the burdens of advancing a social agenda, achieving academic success, and teaching others about their histories and experiences.

Through deliberative dialogue, the responsibility for facilitating learning and understanding should be shared by all community members, not disproportionately by marginalized individuals or groups as is the case currently. We too rarely account for or honor the lives and labors of these students and their enormous contributions to transforming our communities.

Fifth, institutions must resist forces of bureaucratic multiculturalism, including our desire to dwell on our past achievements, which often diverts our attention away from contemporary and salient issues of racism on our campuses.

Higher education's historical inability to authentically prioritize one of the most formidable issues facing society reveals the systemic nature of racism in the academy. A few months ago, some students and administrators met with Emory trustees to discuss the state of race at Emory and beyond. Black student leaders called on the institution to put a stake in the ground, to prioritize racial justice.

This challenge inspired us to create a sustainable movement that is reimagining and recreating a more socially just institution - a goal closely aligned with our university mission "to create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity."

From this dialogue, a powerful guiding principle emerged: No endeavor will better serve humanity than cultivating leaders who can create systemic change at Emory and ultimately pursue real and lasting social justice throughout our society and our global community.

Following demands set forth last fall by the Black Students of Emory movement, university leadership worked closely with a range of student leaders to plan a retreat to address concerns expressed in the demands. The agenda was developed jointly by student leaders and university administrators.

Working groups were formed and facilitated by students, faculty, staff, and administrators. They met in advance of the retreat to develop proposed action steps, timelines, and accountability measures.

Approximately half of the invited participants were students and the remainder faculty, staff, and administrators. They represented a broad cross-section of our community and brought a range of perspectives to the dialogue and decision-making. Reflecting on community feedback, the working groups were charged with incorporating appropriate changes and presenting revised drafts during the retreat. Subsequently, they will submit post-retreat final reports that include recommendations, action plans, and parties responsible for achieving specific goals.

The process in which we are engaged at Emory - emerging from our response to a set of student demands - represents the beginning of a potentially powerful paradigm shift at our institution. Our team of students and administrators are working together to shift the racial contours of the university by engaging with two key areas: 1) power and education, and 2) building a community of practice.

We have gained a greater understanding of how power operates at the university and the great value of student agency and collective impact. However, we recognize that the power of collective impact on the issue of racial justice was achieved primarily through the physical, mental, emotional, social, and academic sacrifices of Emory's Black students.

It became quite clear to us that the disproportionate toll on Black students could be eliminated only by deconstructing our own oppressive institutional systems. The lives and labor of our students are not expendable. Their work must be honored and privileged as a sacred part of institutional memory and the education of the next generation of students.

And, although we do not imagine unpacking all of these systems in the short term, we have discovered a promising foundation by nurturing a community of practice - by articulating community principles that operationalize the mission and vision of the university, promoting the values of the institution and its community members, and identifying shared passions and pursuits.

Unlike traditional notions of community, the community of practice is regenerative and can create structures to fully realize our potential when traditional structures or inadequate structures exist. Ideally, one benefit of the community of practice will be removing the unfair burden of racial justice work on Black students by promulgating institutional structures that redefine the center.

At Emory, the working groups that culminated in a racial justice retreat are creating pathways to challenge and dismantle hegemonic structures and create new avenues to address long-standing issues. For example, at our racial justice retreat, a space was created for atonement of our racist past while concretizing our plans for a racially just future. In our community of practice, hope, compassion, and deliberative dialogue help us to transform our university in unprecedented ways.

We must be steadfast in our commitment to racial justice. We are connected through the multiplicity and fluidity of our individuality. We are guided by the salience of our racial identities and our lived experiences as people of color.

As coauthors of this essay - as students and administrator - we ask that our words here reflect the labor and lives of so many who came before us and those who remain silenced. Our often conflicting and sometimes confounding views are imperfectly and authentically presented for your interrogation. We offer an essay woven together with care and compassion through the messiness that is race relations in America.

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