Race and pedagogy

To confront inequality and discrimination in education, more than 2,000 people from 39 states converged on campus Sept. 14–16

For three days in September, the university hosted a national conference on Race and Pedagogy, the central concern of which was how to facilitate the productive engagement of race as an inescapable feature of teaching and learning: How can we improve the racial-cultural experiences of all students and prepare them for leadership in a diverse world, where race continues to matter?

To explore this question, the conference was organized around three intersecting themes. The first, “Race, Knowledge, and Disciplinarity,” explored the ways in which specific academic disciplines negotiate race and the ways in which race enables and constrains knowledge. The second, “Racial Dynamics and Racial Performances in the Classroom (and Beyond),” investigated the ways in which students and teachers behave and how such behaviors embody race. “Race, Pedagogy, and Community,” the third theme, examined the relationship between schools and communities, in particular the role of communities in shaping educational curricula.

Rooted in organized, ongoing campus discussions on teaching and race since 2002, the conference grew out of two years of sustained planning by faculty, staff, students, and community partners. It brought together local, national, and international scholars, students, and activists to confront inequality and discrimination in education and to seek solutions.

Beginning with the 2006 Susan Resneck Pierce Lecture on Public Affairs and the Arts by Princeton Professor Cornel West, the kick-off lecture for the conference, the participants shared in three plenary sessions and more than 60 panel, poster, and performance sessions.

Plenary sessions were led by Lucius Turner Outlaw, professor of philosophy and African American and diaspora studies, and associate provost, at Vanderbilt University; Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College; and Robert P. Moses, civil rights activist and founder/president of the Algebra Project.

The conference drew more than 2,000 participants from 39 states, as well as Canada and Great Britain. Attendees represented more than 100 institutions, including liberal arts colleges, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, regional state institutions, research universities, and a range of civic and government organizations.

More than 75 community partners were involved in planning the conference. These partners met with UPS faculty on a biweekly basis for almost a year of seminars, workshops, and planning sessions, with an emphasis on the community focus of the conference. In addition to planning and organization, several of these partners, as well as other local and state leaders, served as chairs, presenters, and performers, representing institutions including the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Foresight Consultants, Pierce County Community Services, Weyerhaeuser, Tacoma school district, MultiCare Health System, YWCA Pierce County, The Evergreen State College-Tacoma, Washington State Fair Housing, the Washington Education Foundation, The Boeing Company, and Centro Latino.

The conference generated significant reflection, interest, excitement, and a sense of renewal and ferment around questions related to race and education. President Thomas expressed pride in the quality, scope, and vision of the conference, and in the commitment of faculty, staff, students, and community constituencies in exemplifying a civically engaged campus and community. “We saw a model of Puget Sound functioning as an intellectual asset for the region on issues of national significance,” he said. “These are the partnerships with the community on matters of mutual interest that are fundamental to the realization of the university’s mission.”

The media also praised the partnership between college and community. Writing on Sept. 6, prior to the event, the Tacoma News Tribune described the conference as an “urgent dialogue on race” premised on a “disconnect between many minority students and academics … one of the greatest problems facing the South Sound, the state, and the nation” and “a catastrophic waste of human capital.”

“UPS Can Take Pride in Conference on Race” is the way the News Tribune headlined opinion writer Sam Chandler’s article following the event. “The Race and Pedagogy National Conference was a tremendous statement, especially in these times when the need for personal refinement and clarity of our thinking, learning, and moral compass is paramount.” Chandler concluded his assessment of the conference with thanks to the “UPS community for being courageous, deliberate, timely, and prescient.”

The conference has already translated into pedagogical practices in the classroom at Puget Sound and beyond, as we continue to address the challenge of preparing students who are critically engaged, aware, imaginative, accountable, and able to function both as national and international citizens in a world of differences and disparities. Faculty, staff, and student conversations on race are ongoing following the conference, and the university’s work with Race and Pedagogy partners from the South Sound community continues. A featured aspect of this is the university’s participation in a collaborative, grant-funded pilot project that has brought together K–12 and higher education, government, and private volunteer organizations in an experimental effort to facilitate achievement in a cohort of public school students in Tacoma. Further substantive and programmatic follow up is still to come, as President Thomas has called for a task force to formulate a proposal for an ongoing race and pedagogy initiative—an urgent and focused articulation of the university’s liberal arts commitment.

— Grace Livingston and Dexter Gordon

Grace Livingston co-chaired the R&P conference program and is an assistant professor of African American studies and education at Puget Sound. Dexter Gordon chaired the R&P conference and is director of African American studies and a professor of communication studies.