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Removing Statues Won't Rectify Your Institution's Racist Past

Episode 83

December 7, 2021 36 minutes


President Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon of Carleton University and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Carol Henderson of Emory University discuss how universities across Canada and the United States are reckoning with their historical ties to slavery, indigenous dispossession, and racial oppression.

This discussion was excerpted from a November 2021 EAB webinar moderated by EAB’s Kurubel Belay. The webinar was the first in a series of engagements EAB is leading as part of a new research effort exploring authentic and productive ways for institutions to address and heal from their legacies of racism.


0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today’s episode is a little bit different. What follows is an excerpt from a longer conversation EAB hosted with university leaders recently around ways that schools across the US and Canada are dealing with their institutions’ historical ties to slavery and racial oppression. These kinds of discussions make some people feel uncomfortable, but these are issues that have to be addressed and they won’t get solved by removing a few statues from your campus. I encourage you to listen with an open mind and I hope you find value in the discussion.

0:00:53.9 Kuru Belay: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you again, Jane, for the overview of our research. It’s really exciting to see all of that come together in that way. My name is Kuru Belay, I’m one of the many researchers that has contributed to this project. And for this part of our session today, it is my privilege to introduce and facilitate a conversation with two of our guests that have truly been really impactful to the development of that research in how they are grappling with their own histories. As Jane mentioned earlier, our team had a chance to speak with both at Emory University and Benoit Bacon at Carleton University. And what was really impactful for us was not necessarily the work that they were doing, which is, again, really a learning moment, a teaching example for all of us, but their views on leadership, their views on how they can advance the usually large-scale equity and racial justice initiatives at their institutions. It’s my hope that we can all learn from them in this conversation. So without further ado, I’ll welcome Benoit and Carol. Thank you both for joining me here. Oh, perfect.

0:02:14.2 Benoit Bacon: Brother Kuru, nice to see you.

0:02:16.8 Carol Henderson: Yes, likewise.

0:02:18.9 KB: Yes, well, thank you again for agreeing to spend some time with us. For our time, I’d like to have each of you talk a little bit about some of the work you’re doing at your respective campuses at Carleton and at Emory. And then from there, we’ll pivot to talk through your perspectives as leaders advancing this work. Benoit, let’s start with you and some of the work that you’re leading at Carleton.

0:02:48.4 BB: Happy to go first, Kuru. Thanks for that, and many thanks to EAB for inviting me today. It really is a pleasure. Thanks everyone for joining us. And Jane, great presentation, very thorough, and from my perspective, very interesting and instructive to get us started. As you mentioned, Kuru, I’ll try to hide the ad perspective from our experience at Carleton University. I think that’s really all that individual institutions can do is share what has worked and what has not worked and enrich that discussion on this extremely complex topic. Carleton, for those who might not know, is about 32,000 students strong in the national capital here in Canada, Ottawa, founded in 1942 on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Nation. So I’ll speak a little bit about this, and then I look forward to learn from you, Carolyn, and from your own experience at Emory.

0:03:53.2 BB: So by definition, my part is from a Canadian perspective and in a Canadian context. And in Canada, when you speak about historical reckoning, usually the conversation starts with indigenous people. That’s the way that the conversation has evolved here. There is, of course, a broader EDI conversation and a number of anti-racism conversations. But I would say that the conversation around indigenous peoples and truth and reconciliation is distinct and should be considered linked or parallel, but never be lumped here in Canada with the broader conversation or indeed with the other equity-seeking groups that are being recognized, I would say, increasingly, and that’s a very good thing. I don’t think that it would surprise you, there is in Canada, anti-Muslim racism, especially since 9/11. Since George Floyd, there is more strategic and explicit attention to anti-Black racism, and that is truly a good thing. I do want to highlight the work of my friend Gervan Fearon and Wisdom Tettey, the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion, that about 40 Canadian institutions will join later this week, which advances this conversation, anti-Asian racism, the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and so on.

0:05:37.8 BB: But in Canada, really, the most advanced conversations is with indigenous people, and I don’t think it will surprise anyone that the history here in Canada, and I think I can say in the US as well, is harrowing, and it’s recognized in various places to different degrees. Here in Canada, as you highlighted in the deck, it’s been formally recognized that through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report in 2015, which was a tremendous work, Senator Murray Sinclair, 94 recommendations to try to establish truth and start to redefine relationships with indigenous peoples in a better way for the future. So six years in, we are trying to do that work and universities, I think, have a tremendous part to play in this.

0:06:42.5 BB: Not to make too long of a history lesson because these facts are well known but 2019, the national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. And we’re not, we’re talking thousands. And that rightfully continued to raise the profile of this work, and then over the course of the last year, there’s been a number of finds of children’s remains by the hundreds near the sites of indigenous residential schools across the country, and once again, that has raised a level of that conversation, the people that failed to either acknowledge truth or recognize that this truth was important, I find it increasingly difficult to make that argument, and that is an excellent, excellent thing, ’cause there’s no progress without that truth first of being agreed upon. So the question is, what can we do as universities and as university leaders… And these are not easy conversations, and I think that’s okay. We need to be comfortable with that. We need to sit with the discomfort. We need to acknowledge that we’re gonna make mistakes, and we need to be okay with these mistakes being pointed out and not be defensive about it.

0:08:02.5 BB: Welcome the opportunity to learn. And I think that’s what we’re doing today. For me question number one as a university president is the question of allyship. What does that mean? How can I be an effective ally? And that’s a difficult question. I think there’s two ways. You can err both ways on the one hand, obviously ignoring the situation, looking the other way, I think we’re all past that, and that’s what universities did for a very long time. Nothing to see here. We’re fine. But then over time, I’ve seen, and I’m sure you’ve seen too, people taking allyship by saying, “Well, I’m gonna solve this, then I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that,” and to assume that you have solutions is a terrible form of allyship, in my experience in this realm and my definition of allyship which I want to share with you today is based in my work with indigenous peoples, you always say here, nothing without us, nothing about us without us. Which just makes intuitive sense. How can we make any progress without putting at the very center of the work, the very people who are most concerned with the progress of that work, so nothing about us without us is tremendously important.

0:09:36.3 BB: And Kahente Horn-Miller, one of our indigenous leaders here at Carleton, said to me, you know allyship is really to know when to step in and to know when to step back.

0:09:51.5 KB: I love the notion of Nothing about us without us. I think that is a difficult challenge in figuring out how to actually build those relationships, I want to come back to that, because I know Carol has also been thinking through some of these questions at Emory. Carol, I would love for you to speak a little bit about the recent symposium that you all had. As Benoit mentioned, oftentimes, work around indigenous communities is thought to be a Canadian priority, and not something that US counterparts really think through or advance, but you all have tackled both the conversation around connecting with indigenous communities, with your institution’s history of slavery. So I’d love to hear a little bit about how that symposium came to be and what you all learned from it at Emory.

0:10:55.5 CH: Sure, so again, let me say thank you so much for the invitation, Benoit, thanks for sharing what’s going on at your institution, and for this great work that I think will continue to ground how we look at higher education and what our responsibility is as thought leaders and partners across a nation in an industry that should be at the forefront of reconciliation, reckoning, if education doesn’t do it, I don’t know what can.

0:11:28.4 CH: Let me also say that I wanna acknowledge that Emory University was founded in 1836 on the historic lands of the Muscogee Creek nation, 15 years after the first treaty of Indian springs in 1821, dispossessed the Muscogee of land, including both Emory campus locations. We also acknowledge that Emory’s University’s founders were slave holders, and the Oxford campus was originally constructed by enslaved people, to these people and their descendants, we acknowledge the grave injustices inflicted on them, and we recognize the indelible mark of their labor on the creation of the university. That is our land acknowledgement that was approved and set through and actually approved by a board of trustees, a version of that so that that now is going to appear on in the Student Center and other significant parts of our institution. I start with that because that’s how the two knit had to be joined during the symposium. The symposium came about because students, the Coalition of Black organizations and clubs set demands to the institution around the George Floyd time that we want to talk about… And I say George Floyd time because I’m thinking of the spectrum of 2020, his murder.

0:12:58.7 CH: For us as a nation to witness that trauma, and let me also say that as the mother of a handsome, gorgeous African-American son, I did not witness George Floyd’s murder, my mind would not allow me to. So I have not seen that. I know from the impact on others, when we talk about trauma-informed leadership, what that murder did for our nation. And that along with Arbery, the Arbery trial, which is ongoing now and has its own racial components in our backyard here in Georgia, the murders of eight members of the Asian and Asian-American community, six of those being women, and other atrocities across the country meant that our students who are members from some of those communities, made it our responsibility to reckon with that in the higher education space. And so the symposium came about from that conversation, those conversations, and we named it the… We have a steering committee, it was a combination of people from different backgrounds, and the title of it was In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism, and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice, because we did not wanna just look at slavery and dispossession of land and people of their land and of their own bodies, but also look at what the imprint of that was on the ways in which we govern operations in higher educational space. And there were three tracks for the symposium, history, impact, and then healing and restorative justice.

0:15:04.8 CH: And so we looked at… People presented from all across the country, we had over 60 plus proposals come through and then we put them in their tracks. It was a fabulous three days of engagement, we filmed it all, and so it is actually in the archives in our library. We partnered with communications and marketing, and they also did follow-up stories and historical reflections that were rooted in Emory’s own history and those were published as well. So it was truly an institutional effort.

0:15:49.2 CH: And this work was in the middle of doing DEI strategic planning work that we were doing. There were two task force that had been put together, one on naming and honors to think about names on buildings and what should and should not be honored, as well as a committee on untold stories of marginalized communities, which looked at what we weren’t… How un-inclusive we have been in telling the history of Emory and what was left vacant in that.

0:16:19.2 CH: And so all of that was in the atmosphere, and this symposium was a critical component of us saying this is us unveiled, and I think we have to do that. My hashtag has always been you can’t build a foundation on broken pieces. If you do not admit and start to acknowledge those pieces, what kind of foundation are you building? And restorative… When I also think about in 2020 Ryan Stevenson was our keynote for commencement, and he talked about three things that you have to do, and this will lead… So I can hand it back to you, Kuru, but there are three things you have to do, get proximate to the work, you have to have uncomfortable conversations, and you have to change the narrative, and that charge is the… It kind of fueled what we were thinking about on our campus, that was the charge given to our graduates. But it was also, as an attendee of that virtual commencement, a charge to us as administrators, as staff members, as faculty, to look at our work that we do every day and root it in the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, but also the principle of equity-mindedness. What barriers are available, what barriers do we see that prevent us from actualizing a truly inclusive campus community?

0:18:02.9 CH: So this symposium will continue to be used, the three things that we are focusing on in DEI are professional development, education awareness, climate and culture, and accountability in our strategic planning. This symposium adds to that first component, it provides an opportunity. We think of DEI training and intercultural competency, if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is, and the fact that it’s recorded means that we’ll continue to use that in our first-year diversity DEI modules in our race and ethnicity requirement that is required of all students to graduate from Emory that was instituted this past fall. That kind of work, that’s what this symposium will help for. So it’s one thing to acknowledge, it’s another thing to put it into practice, and it’s another thing for it to live. So what we learned is in order for this work to continue, it must live in the infrastructure of the learning apparatuses of an institution, whether that’s through the student portal curriculum, whether it’s through onboarding staff who walk on land, that they don’t know who… Have not acknowledged who owns it, and whose labor built the institution. Faculty and staff should know that if they’re working at an institution. And my comment has always been we do our students a disservice, and it’s unconscionable that we graduate students who don’t have intercultural competencies around these topics. It’s unconscionable. And change will not come until we have those conversations.

0:19:43.8 KB: I think that’s such a strong point around the duties of an institution, what’s really expected, not only from students, but on a much larger level, what are the responsibilities that an institution holds to the broader community. Thank you both for sharing of the high-level overview of some of the work that you’ve done. A theme that I’m hearing in what you both shared was this commitment to discomfort and agreeing to tackle difficult questions, difficult histories, but I’d love for each of you to talk a little bit more around how you do that as a leader. I would imagine that everyone that has registered and is in attendance here today, cares deeply about this work and wants to advance this on their own respective campus, but what do you do when not everyone is on board? How do you really advance or secure that allyship or that buy-in to advancing this work?

0:20:52.8 BB: Maybe I can start and…

0:20:54.4 CH: Please do, please do.

0:20:55.9 BB: Pick up, Carol, on your excellent phrase that you can’t build a foundation on broken pieces. That is so true. And I think, Kuru, your role as a leader is to recognize that there’s no foundation and that we’re gonna have to build it together, at least that’s been my experience everywhere I’ve worked. And for me, that means strategy, and the strategy will not work unless the process is also right, because the process is how you ensure that everybody is brought along and that your foundation is solid as opposed to broken and not functional. So as I tried to say, my first intervention, you need to step in and say, as a leader, you need to create a space. This is one of your few powers as a university leader to determine what is important and to create a space for the work to happen.

0:21:58.1 BB: So this is what we did for Kinamagawin. Two months into my mandate, the first major initiative that I commissioned was a major task force, and I stepped in to create that space. I was tremendously fortunate to have brilliant indigenous leaders prepared to lead that work, and in their hands that work proceeded through the establishment of a diverse task force. They established a consultation process to make sure that everybody, the community, the Senate, the board, the senior leadership team was brought on board. And from that moment, it was easy for me to step back and empower the work, but let that work to occur.

0:22:48.4 BB: But then you need to be prepared for the recommendations that come through and to accept them as valid and important, even if some of them can be uncomfortable. And for us, that led to 41 calls to action in Kinamagawin that we’re now in the process of implementing. And it has been a truly transformative journey in the short term, though of course, we recognize that long-term change will take much longer. There’s still a lot of work to do.

0:23:22.7 CH: Thank you so much, Benoit. And for where you all are with the 41 recommendations, we’re getting to that point. So we had seven communities come together. I charged seven communities around faculty, undergraduate, graduate and professional, staff and alumni, civic-led community partners and post-docs. And those seven communities got together, 10 each, and came up with DEI goals focused on the three things that I just mentioned. And so that report was just completed. Will be shared with the broader community. And then we will prioritize because over 200 recommendations came in from those seven communities combined. We cannot do 265 recommendations, but those reports will live. They are public.

0:24:17.7 S1: And then I’ve selected 12 recommendations from each of the seven communities, lifted those because they’re institutionally driven, and then we will work with infrastructure to develop the plan, the benchmark, set goals, a timeline. In the interim, and I wanna go back to something that I think, Kuru, you asked, what do you do when everyone is not on board? And my comment has always been, we love to focus on the 5%, 10% that don’t wanna be on board when there’s another 90% who do. And so my focus is usually on that 90 and to get ambassadors in that 90% who will engage the 10%. I may not be the one person or the right person to do that.

0:25:05.6 CH: I also anchor the work in the common and greater good. So even though it is about diversity, equity and inclusion and equity-mindedness, we cannot claim to be excellent institutions if we’re not inclusive. My comment has been, we’re… The world has always been diverse. This is not a new conversation. We’ve been diverse since the beginning of time. When we have campuses that are one-dimensional, that is not demographically or racially or ethnically diverse and otherwise, that’s intentional work to make it that way when the world is diverse. So if people can do that, we can undo that, and it takes the people. I come from a people, as a woman of color, who most of that work has always been grassroots. So you have to go to the folks to get that change. That’s how change is leveraged, and so I anchor the work in the greater good. DEI and equity-mindedness is not optional.

0:26:13.1 CH: It is part of the value proposition of an institution, so that needs to be interwoven into the operational and infrastructure of an institution. And then you make that, how I judge or how I evaluate you as an inclusive leader has to have the DEI equity-minded principles interwoven into that process. And so it has to be a part of just the ways in which we do business.

0:26:45.6 CH: When we separate DEI and JEDI, if you will, Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, from the operational infrastructure, it dies on the vine because it’s separated from the work and it becomes people-driven, personality-driven. I told my institution, “Put me out of business.” I wish they didn’t have to have chief diversity officers. Put me out of business. I’m trained as a faculty member, I can find something else to do but the fact that I need this is because we have to rethink the ways DEI is included in the business of higher ed, the responsibility of higher education to create informed circles of change so that we can develop scholars who go out to impact the world in transformative ways.

0:27:47.4 BB: Can I add briefly, Kuru…

0:27:47.5 KB: Go ahead.

0:27:47.6 BB: ‘Cause there’s so much good stuff in what Carol just said. I think we’re both saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, that to get a community of 35 or 40,000 people to agree on what you need to do, you need formal processes and formal strategies with clear objectives, short, medium, and long term that you can measure and you can say, “Well, we’re actually progressing.” And the process of developing these strategies and then the strategies themselves are the tools to build consensus, to build momentum, to educate your community and then to measure your progress towards transformation. I think this is how you bring everybody on board starting with the Board of Governors and the Senate. There’s an education piece with these bodies, “This is why we’re gonna do this, this is how we’re gonna do this. This is the first draft of what we plan to do, this is a second draft.”

0:28:52.0 BB: And then eventually, you get them to want to approve and to want to monitor your progress. So, we’ve moved our board from a form of suspicion to some of those initiatives to the board wanting and looking forward to the annual report on progress. And the senate was more receptive from the get-go and the entire community as well, and then you realize that through these processes and through these plans, it’s now part of culture to want to do better over time in terms of equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. That’s the path to transformation.

0:29:31.6 CH: It is. And if you think of it now in our national conversations and what I’ll add too is data, also presenting data. Right now, we have partnered with USC, their Race and Equity Center, and we’re doing the NACCC survey campus-wide on race and equity and excited about what that data will reveal to us and be able to use that to have institutional conversations. But you’re absolutely right, to move that, to get transformation, you have to involve key campus partners in that conversation. That is a must.

0:30:15.4 KB: My final question for you both is going to be, if you had a secret recipe, what would it be? What’s your keys to success? But both of you have really highlighted some actionable items that you do in your own work and so in lieu of that question, I do wanna ask another question to you both. Something that we talked about during our individual calls was the role of identity in this work. It is not lost on anyone here that our own individual identities inform the ways in which we understand the histories, the ways in which histories then impact us. I’m curious, in your own efforts to move your institution forward, how have you considered your own identities as factors in those efforts?

0:31:07.2 BB: Please, Carol, after you.

0:31:08.6 CH: Well, it’s kind of hard not to factor that in. When I step into the room, I am a black woman, all of it, and I have to embrace that. I make no apologies for it. I started in this field, and when I say this field, I started in higher education as an assistant professor of English, so I’m professor in Merida in English and Africana Studies. I bring all of that. I know what… I think the classroom for me, I know what education can do not only for your lived experience, your genealogical family roots but also, the responsibility that I had with students who were in my classroom and how I impacted their lives and how they continue to… How the system keeps paying it forward. And so I acknowledge who I am, acknowledge my principles and values and step into this work based on that, equity-mindedness, the greater good, wanting Emory to be its best, caring about people, going into this with compassion, having a lot of patience.

0:32:23.2 CH: Activating grace cards when needed. And we need to give people, I go into the space not assuming everyone has malicious intent, and if that’s where I start it, then we can continue to have conversation. If you prove me wrong, we can have that conversation as well. So being nimble enough as a leader to understand how people come to the space, to understand that really in some ways it’s about fear, the unknown, the fact that some people think they’re gonna lose something if they lean into the work, and to let them know that there’s enough room at the table for everyone if we keep putting the leaves and the chairs there.

0:33:07.8 CH: So I keep thinking about Thanksgiving and you know how you have your table set and there’s only six, and then when you invite the family and you add the extra leaves so you can expand. That’s what we have to continue to do in this work, is to give people, let them know it’s gonna be uncomfortable, but I as a black woman am walking this journey with you because there are things I don’t know, and we all come with biases and we’re not all perfect, and being transparent about that has given me graces and space that I need to get this work done.

0:33:50.7 BB: To add to that, obviously, as someone who doesn’t have the same lived experience, the notion of ally-ship becomes central from my point of view, and ally-ship starts with listening and people often skip that part. You need to be prepared to meet people on their land, on their ground and to listen and not to shy away from these conversations and to learn to be educated. I’ve received an education over the past 10 years in these matters, and I’m grateful for the mentors who’ve had the patience to take me through that.

0:34:37.2 BB: Then when you move to action, you gotta remember that it’s never individual work, it’s always teamwork. So you always have, especially when you’re in a position of leadership, the capacity to assemble teams to help you to do that work, including people with lived experience, and then your role, especially in the president role, is to open the space and to allow people to lead that work from the point of view of the people who really understand and live that reality.

0:35:14.8 KB: You ask about the secret recipe. To me, it’s the notion of ally-ship and stepping in and stepping back at the right time. It’s process over time towards designing strategies that are clear and then implementation in the short, medium, and long-term and you mentioned the data, Carol, I think that’s essential measurement and demonstration that we’re making progress. Maybe to end on your question, you ask about our own identity. It’s never an excuse not to get involved is what I would like to end. Quite the contrary, I think it’s our shared responsibility, everyone, to get involved and to contribute, regardless of our identities.


0:36:09.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we check in with some of the folks working on the front lines at schools that signed on to EAB’s Moonshot for Equity, a project designed to eliminate gaps in college graduation rates across entire regions by the end of this decade. Until then, thank you for your time.


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