Not content with tradition: The racial justice teach-in
Above: A sidewalk at Goucher College during a 2014 die-in student protest.
Photo by Rob Ferrell.
By Molly Englund
The NBA and WNBA refuse to play. It’s August 26, 2020, and teams from both leagues are canceling their games in protest of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, WI. Then, within a few hours, an Africana studies and religious studies professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Anthea Butler, tweets that academics should do the same. The tweet takes off, and the Scholar Strike is born.
What happened next was a whirlwind of organizing. The strike was planned for September 8 and 9, and quickly hundreds of academics nationwide signed up. The event expanded; faculty could strike or take part in a teach-in event at their universities focusing on racism and police violence. It would become what Inside Higher Ed suggested was possibly “the biggest collective action taken by academics” in recent history.
Emily Billo, associate professor of environmental studies at Goucher College, mentioned the event to her colleagues in the Center for Geographies of Justice and suggested Goucher take part.
Billo thought a strike wouldn’t be as effective at Goucher as a teach-in would be. Her colleagues agreed. “We spoke as a center and decided to pursue it,” said Martin Shuster, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Geographies of Justice. Shuster spoke with several faculty members, particularly Nyasha Grayman-Simpson, associate professor of psychology and Africana studies, before deciding how to organize the two-day event.
In a letter to Goucher community members emailed on September 4, Shuster wrote, “Nearly daily, the United States is experiencing wave after wave of police violence; racial injustice; organized white nationalist and white supremacist activity; mass protest and unrest; and increasing authoritarianism, oppression, repression, gaslighting, and brutality. And all of this during a global pandemic that has claimed almost 200,000 American lives, disproportionally affecting marginalized communities, including Black communities and communities of color.”
Shuster explained in the email that over two days, twenty Goucher courses would be open for anyone to join—virtually, of course—each connecting their course topics to racial inequity and structural oppression. On the second evening, everyone was invited to participate in a community-wide discussion.
In Billo’s class, Gender and the Environment, many new faces showed up that day. “It was great,” Billo said. “We had a productive conversation around incarceration more broadly, and gender and incarceration, and then moved into a wider discussion around racial capitalism, and ways in which we can begin to dismantle that system.”
Tudian Francis ’20 is one of Billo’s students. Initially, she wasn’t open to the idea of outsiders joining the class. “But going back and thinking about the conversation and the fact that we had so many people joining our class,” she said, “it was really valuable.” Francis realized it’s vital that open conversations happen across the community, particularly with the administration. “We all need to be taking part and listening and understanding and asking questions,” she said. “Especially because Goucher is a diverse population and students of color, including myself, aren’t always represented, so that’s important to have.”
Francis, who has a job in health care administration, couldn’t take time off to join other classes, but many students did. Mary McPheely ’22 is in Billo’s class as well as Global Change Agents with Seble Dawit, associate professor and director of peace studies. In that class, they talked about the legacies of colonization and decolonization related to Indonesia as well as Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign to register Black Americans to vote in Mississippi. McPheely also Zoomed in to Nonviolence and Liberation Movements, with Ailish Hopper, associate professor of peace studies.
One of the most gratifying parts of the teach-in for many of the participants was talking to new people. “It was cool to see people coming from different disciplines,” McPheely said. “They would have totally different perspectives on the issue. People were really excited, and there were professors and people who joined who were really intrigued [by the classes].”
Hosting the entire event over Zoom worked well for the most part. While virtual classrooms are always at risk of technical disruptions, they’re only a click away. “All it took was a free block to pop onto a different Zoom class,” said Derek Borowsky ’22, who participated in three classes that day. “That was actually helpful.” But he also pointed out that some people aren’t comfortable speaking over Zoom, and conversations with large groups are easier to hold in person.
On the second evening, more than 80 people Zoomed in to the bigger community discussion. According to Shuster, “it touched on student reflections from their classes, their struggles with the present moment, and their desires and vision for Goucher.”
“It was unique in that faculty, staff, and students came together and were very critical about Goucher,” said McPheely. She was touched by everyone’s trust and vulnerability.
Three big action items came out of the broader discussion. One, Goucher needs to revisit its decision to contract with GardaWorld, the private security firm that replaced the college’s Public Safety Office last year. Two, racial and social justice must be a focus of the upcoming five-year strategic plan initiative at Goucher. Three, the Race, Power, and Perspective (RPP) curriculum requirement needs to be fully finalized and implemented.
Billo suggested that the RPP requirement, which students fulfill through several classes, should be expanded and defined more clearly. Borowksy added that some majors offer more in-depth RPP classes than others do.
Several people interviewed agreed that the administration should be equally involved in this work as faculty are, and that must happen before anything else can. Students want to be—and feel—heard at all levels of the college. As progressive as much of Goucher’s history is, it’s still a predominately white institution, one with structures and systems in place that must be examined critically.
“Goucher will need to continue to create an environment wherein these important public conversations can take place and wherein it can be responsive to this changing environment with an eye toward its social justice commitments,” said Shuster.
Francis agrees wholeheartedly. “I know that’s not going to happen overnight, and I know it’s going to take some time,” she said, “but this is something that should happen.”
McPheely believes this is an opportunity for the college. “It’s a moment of change,” she says. “And it happens to collide with a lot of change going on in this country, as well. And with that, there’s an opening for Goucher.”
The students will always lead Goucher’s evolution. “I do feel like Generation Z has a different approach,” says Francis. “We grew up in a world where we don’t always get the opportunity to give input on decisions that impact us. We have to live and try to make a difference based on what we see, and we’re not the generation to sit around and be content with traditions.”