On Thursday February 26, 2015, a group of St. Thomas students courageously organized a die/sit in in the Anderson Student Center. The purpose was to pay respect to the many lives lost to senseless violence in our country within the last year. As a brief recap to name just a few of those we lost: Tamir Rice (age 12) was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, OH in November of 2014; Micheal Brown (age 18) was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO in August of 2014; Eric Garner (age 43) died of neck compression from a chokehold at the hands of police in New York, NY July 2014; and most recently, three Muslim students attending the University of North Carolina, Dean Barakat (age 23), Yusor Abu-Salha (age 21), and Razon Abu-Salha (age 19) were shot and killed this past February by a neighbor.
According to student James Mite, President of the Black Empowerment Student Alliance, the protest had multiple goals: (1) It was intended to provide a safe space for students to express themselves, (2) It would allow students to pay respect for lives lost in the Black and Muslim community, and (3) It would build a community across cultural lines. In an email to several members of the community, Mr. Mite noted that his hope was “that students would leave the protest with a better sense of belonging here at St. Thomas.”
I decided to write this brief thought piece after learning about a series of posts to an anonymous social media site. As a diversity educator, I value diversity in all forms, including diversity of thought. Therefore, rather than let what could be an explosive situation go unchecked, I felt that this was a great learning opportunity for our campus community, to “build a community across cultural lines” as Mr. Mite stated as one of his goals for the protest.
February’s UST die/sit in stirred conflicting feelings from across our campus community. Why? My guess is that we had many members of our community examine the protest from their own lenses. The lives lost in the Black and Muslim communities have caused pain and outcry across many sectors of our country. As a Black male, having an understanding of historical oppression, and concerns over issues of trust, especially from those in positions of authority in this country, as well as the knowledge that any of the deaths noted above could easily have been me, a son, brother, father, or partner is frightening. But how could those who have not experienced the world, as I have understand my pain?
Conversely, for those who have grown up experiencing the police (or others in positions of authority) as being there to serve and protect them, how could they understand, that their lived experience interacting with the police is not universal? Arguably, we need to explore how our varied social identities bias how we see each other and the world around us. I write this to note that conflict around issues of diversity is not uncommon, but how we deal with our conflict will dictate the type of learning experience we can take from it.
I see this conflict as an opportunity to explore how our varied lived experience has caused us to think and interact as we do. Over the next several weeks, I will be working with the Division of Student Affairs to organize a series of Courageous Conversations. These conversations will serve as opportunities for us to address issues and learn about each other so that we can grow together as one community. I believe that we have a common interest in valuing each other and our diversity. Let’s make a commitment to challenge ourselves when we turn to the safety of our social identity and do something; let’s not be satisfied with continuing the status quo.
I want to encourage our community not to insult each other, or use personal attacks when we simply don’t understand conflicting realities. As noted above, diversity tension is inevitable, but we can argue our points responsibly.
Calvin R. Hill, Ph.D.
Diversity and Inclusion Officer
University of St. Thomas