Racist incident becomes catalyst for faculty engagement
San Jose State University made national headlines in the fall of 2013 – but it wasn’t for excellence in sports or a prestigious research achievement. Under an intense amount of national scrutiny, the university was scrambling to respond to a racial incident on campus. Three students in a dorm on campus taunted their African-American roommate: beginning with racial slurs, and escalating to a simulated lynching with a bike lock around his neck.
Hyon Chu Yi-Baker is the head of the MOSAIC Cross Cultural Center at San Jose State University. She saw that this time of heightened attention to racial inequity could be a catalyst for engaging faculty and staff in the sort of diversity training she had long hoped to offer.
Training gap left faculty and staff unprepared
At the time of the incident, San Jose State was transitioning from largely a commuter school to one with a residential student population. The facilities, often eight-person suites for freshmen, were in place. But the campus was still working out how to best serve their students, some of whom come to San Jose with little to no experience interacting with those of other ethnic backgrounds.
The university offered almost no cultural diversity training for the faculty, staff, and administrators who are tasked with supporting students - meaning that while students were participating in diversity activities, their authority figures were not supported in mirroring and continuing that work.
Because faculty and administrators lacked this element of professional development, when the incident happened there was a lot of finger pointing. “In the midst of the chaos, folks couldn’t see clearly as to what was going on. So on campus, it was easier to say it was just about residential life, about the halls, or about the specific part of campus,” said Yi-Baker.
Training goals established
Yi-Baker needed a training partner who could accomplish an array of goals, based on the needs of the moment as well as past experience on campus. Her organization had done smaller trainings before, but not a large, comprehensive campus-wide training.
1) Bring more faculty into the conversation. The group of faculty and administrators invited to the training were “a mix of people with advanced knowledge and experience - some of whom teach on the material - and others whose positions on campus suggested that this competency was especially necessary,” said Yi-Baker.
It was especially crucial that the presentation blend both qualitative and quantitative data, so that all participants - including professors who research in related fields - felt connected to the training. She knew some participants would resonate with the stories above all, while others would respond best to facts and figures. She also wanted to demonstrate relevence. "Departments like Engineering need to have these cultural competency skills as well as the social sciences. They need to see examples of how this work directly relates to them. People who are passionate about social justice will gravitate to this work, but we need to create a bridge to the other departments," said Yi-Baker.
2) Avoid blaming and shaming. Yi-Baker shared that SJSU had had a prior diversity training in which people had been deeply hurt – white participants felt blamed and went on the defensive, and participants of color felt frustrated with the lack of change. It was important to Yi-Baker that a new training not bring up the same negative feelings.
3) Provide understanding of systemic inequity. With the pressure on, it was very tempting for some on campus to think of the incident as an isolated event that could be solved by increasing the numbers of students and faculty of color, or by removing the perpetrators to send a message that such behavior would not be tolerated. But in order to get at the roots of the issue, the faculty and admin needed to think systemically.
“When we talk about race and diversity, it always boils down to a numbers game,” says Yi-Baker. “’How do we increase diversity?’ is about increasing representation. But you can’t address issues of diversity without addressing the systematic piece of it. Faculty and administrators are not looking at structural racism, not looking at the overall system that perpetrators come from – which is racist.” Without an understanding of self-perpetuating systems, institutions often struggle to effect change.
Yi-Baker’s training partner needed to give this group a common understanding of that bigger picture. This would set faculty and staff up to support students and empower the campus, working to heal from the incident and the institutional culture that led up to it.
Identifying the right partner
During Yi-Baker’s search for a workshop facilitator, an intern at the counseling center contacted her about one of World Trust’s diversity education films. She watched them herself, then asked about World Trust founder Dr. Shakti Butler on a listserv for social justice work. “When I put her name out, I got only positive responses, which helped decide me in her favor,” said Yi-Baker, who then contacted World Trust about booking a workshop.
Multi-modality approach achieved multiple goals
During her day on campus, Shakti Butler was able to facilitate a workshop and a film/dialogue screening of Cracking The Codes: The System of Racial Inequity.
The events offered an opportunity to establish a shared baseline for understanding systemic inequity. “Dr. Butler did a wonderful job of laying the foundation, providing statistics and data. Especially for faculty: they want to see some relevant, concrete data that’s out there that speaks to poverty, perceptions of classism and wealth distribution versus the reality. Those findings were surprising. Work around self-identity was also very helpful, and dialogue in small groups. There was a great balance of speaking, using different forms of media, and giving us time to interact,” said Yi-Baker.
Dr. Butler herself said that in her preparations, she remained hopeful that her events would leverage an opportunity. “When something bad happens on a campus like that, it stirs everybody up - but things don't necessarily change,” she says. "Hyon Chu and the MOSIAC Center were committed to using this incident as a catalyst for deeper understanding.
"These incidents do not just happen in a vacuum. Bringing an understanding of structural inequality to a broader audience is important, and getting people to talk with each other about it is particularly rewarding for me. When there is understanding and dialogue, there can be movement toward a better environment on campus: one that honors human dignity and difference."
Moving Forward toward Results
Beginning the conversation was a good step toward change. The campus is still working toward healing, and Yi-Baker hopes to do more training specifically geared toward faculty and staff in order to help create a more conducive culture. In her view, as an educational institution San Jose State’s duty is to capture these teachable moments and use them to propel the community forward.
Yi-Baker sees further opportunity for improvement and change in the way that universities respond to the perpetrators of incidents like this.
“Rather than just shunning these boys [the perpetrators of the incident], and saying they don’t reflect our values and we’re going to expel them – there was no education going on. It’s not just about ‘Let’s figure out how to heal the African-American community, let’s support the individual who was targeted’ – but how do we also support these young men who did something really awful? How do we make it so that the next time this happens, they’re maybe the ones who step in to help solve the problem?”
Healing that embraces, that educates, that holds both individuals and communities accountable to the choices they make and the systems that bind them: this is the change she hopes to see. It’s important to bring up these issues, to have an opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, curiosity, anger: toward productive dialogue and moving forward as a community.