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Take-Aways from NACAC Town Hall: Navigating the Impact of Racism

By Mary Stegmeir

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The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have intensified debates about police brutality and the longstanding complacency over the assault and murder of unarmed Black people. As calls for action reached a fever pitch nationally, NACAC hosted a virtual town hall meeting on June 29 moderated by journalist Jamaal Abdul-Alim. The event examined the current climate, as well as systemic racism and its impacts on students and professionals.

Featured panelists included:

  • Dr. Ted Thornhill, associate professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University
  • Dr. W. Carson Byrd, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville (KY)
  • Ericka Matthews-Jackson, senior director of undergraduate admissions at Wayne State University (MI)
  • Tevera Stith, vice president for KIPP Through College & Career with KIPP DC

During the 90-minute conversation, viewed live by over 1,000 NACAC members, panelists encouraged attendees to harness the momentum of protests around the globe to dismantle systemic inequities within the college admission process.

The work, they said, will be hard.

It will likely require personal and professional risks, and is guaranteed to make some people feel uncomfortable. But confronting racism, inequity, and privilege—within our institutions and, in some cases, within ourselves—is critical to the future health of higher education and society at large, they said.

“We need to remove every barrier that exists because education is the key to opportunity for everyone: It allows people to move into different socioeconomic classes; it allows them to be the force for change that we need,” Matthews-Jackson said. “We need activists, we need advocates, we need allies, and we need people to be educated in order to do that work.”

View a recording of the discussion and consider these insights and ideas from the panelists. Some comments have been condensed for space and/or clarity.

On the power of this moment:
The outrage is widespread. “(The killing of George Floyd), even though there have been a number of high-profile incidents similar to it and in some ways just like it—this one seems to have set off so much more outrage than before…The outrage is not just local or national, but international.” – Jamaal Abdul-Alim

More Americans are tuning into racial inequities. “Some folks in America…they didn’t pay attention or they didn’t recognize that this was happening (prior to this spring).” Now they do. – Matthews-Jackson

Educators and academia have a role to play. “For us to not have the same issues come back up in a decade, or five years, or 20 years, we need to be paying attention…What do our campuses need to be doing to assist with not only opening up dialogue (among) colleagues, but among community members as well.” – Dr. W. Carson Byrd

Courageous individuals can make a difference. “Not everybody can be in the streets (protesting). But we can do the work on campus in a way that we haven’t done before. These institutions…they need you. They are not the places that you probably want them to be. But we’re at a moment now where we can compel them to become those places. And we need you involved…it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of approach.” – Dr. Ted Thornhill

On next steps for college admission professionals:
Call out racism in schools, communities, and colleges. “I think one of the things we need to do is to be bold enough to disrupt racism or to disrupt bigotry as soon as we see it…Sometimes we leave these sort of ‘packages’ of racism and bigotry sitting at the footsteps of Black and brown people to have to deal with, stomp out, make alerts about. But if you see it – you say something, too.” – Tevera Stith

Require racial impact statements to accompany any policy change. “Any time (admission officers) are going to institute an office-wide or institution-wide policy…before its implemented, there (should) be some kind of serious consideration about the disproportionate negative impacts that such policies and practices could have on Black students and on students of color. Allow the different admissions counselors to speak more forcefully on these matters without fear of retribution for their jobs.” – Dr. Ted Thornhill

Set campus-wide expectations and stick to them. “We have to be very intentional about saying we’re not going to tolerate racism and discrimination at our institution, and we have to be very intentional and very candid about saying what our expectations are of the people who visit our campus and for the people who are part of our communities.” – Ericka Matthews-Jackson

Demand accountability. “We need to see institutional change, but we also need to make sure we don’t see regression back to the same things we’ve always seen after some of these calls for racial justice…Oftentimes, the work of (student activists) gets co-opted and kind of diluted into policies for institutions to look good and feel good, (but) not actually be good.” – Dr. W. Carson Byrd

On complicity, white fragility, and becoming self-aware:
Speak up. “If you’re white and you consider yourself a fellow accomplice, put yourself out there. Say some things. Call your white colleagues out. Storm out of the meeting if you have to. Make some demands. You’ve got to bear some of that risk with us. We shouldn’t have to take all that risk by ourselves. That’s how you can help. Anything less than that, you’re not really helping…It’s going to be discomforting to some people who might be more introverted, but really, your silence is not an option in this kind of moment.” – Dr. Ted Thornhill

Understand the difference between being “not racist” and antiracist. “Colorblindness is still complicity with perpetuating racial inequality in this world. And, you know, (as white people) we need to get beyond workshops. We need to get beyond a book or two here and there. Reading groups—those are great. But this is a prolonged, long-term effort. We need to be able to use some of this work every day. We need to figure out how to make this part of, not just our professional lives, but our personal commitments.” – Dr. W. Carson Byrd

Know when to step aside. “We need white people to speak up. We also need white people to move aside. Far too often, you have been the voice…and you have taken on power seats that aren’t really yours to have. So where are the folks that are willing to say: ‘All right, I’m in this seat, but why am I in this seat? And maybe I do need to step aside for a second because, at such a time as this, we need a different kind of leadership to move our institution to a new place.’” – Dr. Ted Thornhill

On serving students affected by racism and/or the pandemic:
Offer flexibility and support within the admission process. “It’s so important that we recognize and that we tell students: We see you, we hear you, we understand the difficulties that you’re going through…It’s hard enough to navigate college and the journey to college without a pandemic and without racial injustice in your face every single day…It’s the responsibility of all of us who are in positions to be able to help and to support and counsel, that we step up and do that even more; and that we do that intrusively and intensively.” – Ericka Matthews-Jackson

Make student safety a priority in the college search. “There are so many colleges that have been using their gates to protect their students of color, and one trip to the Walmart—one trip down the street—shows a very different existence. So if I was a parent, I’d say I also need to look at how this town is reacting to what’s happening…I think we need to steep our kids in a lot of reality when it comes what the statistical data is around these campuses.” – Tevera Stith

Prepare students to respond to racism. “There were lots of sessions that happened before my ancestors or their allies sat at those (Woolworth’s) counters (in 1960)…In a different way, we need to give our students (training) on how they share: This (racist incident) is not OK, and here are my next steps based on how you’ve treated me.” – Tevera Stith

Support student activists. “At our institution, we already have a statement on our website that tells students: You don’t have to worry about your admission decision being rescinded if you are out there and you are protesting. I think it’s really important for people to know their rights and to know where they can find advocates to help them.” – Ericka Matthews-Jackson

On protecting yourself and your job:
Take copious notes. “Anytime these types of things happen, these racist incidents, you’re going to need that evidence at some point and that will help protect you as well….Social media and the traditional media can be useful as well.” – Dr. Ted Thornhill

Connect with others. “People shouldn’t feel like they’re alone. There are thousands of people doing this work. It’s just trying to figure out how we connect with each other to make sure that we look out not only for lives, but for livelihoods.” – Dr. W. Carson Byrd

Mary Stegmeir is NACAC’s assistant director for editorial content and outreach.

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