RPI | Public Statements

This page consists of public statements made by the Race & Pedagogy Institute, dedicated to the current issues within our society.

 


Statement of the Purpose, Value, and Impact of
African American Studies (AFAM) and the Race & Pedagogy Institute (RPI)

From:  LaToya Brackett, Nancy Bristow,  Dexter Gordon, Grace Livingston, Christina McLeod, Renee Simms, Jonathan Stockdale, and Carolyn Weisz (RPI leadership team)

Introduction

This is what you might remember about RPI. On September 29, 2018, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors--two of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement--stood on the main stage of the University of Puget Sound fieldhouse to deliver together their keynote address before an audience of close to 3000 attendees at the 4th quadrennial Race & Pedagogy National Conference.  They were joined as keynote speakers during the 2018 national conference by Brian Cladoosby (chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community), Jeff Chang (formerly executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University), and Valerie B. Jarrett (former senior advisor to President Barack Obama).  These scholars and leaders join a much longer list of nationally and internationally recognized public intellectuals who have provided critical teaching regarding race across four successive Race and Pedagogy national conferences at Puget Sound, including Cornel West, Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lucius Outlaw, Lani Guinier, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Bob Moses, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Joseph Graves and numerous others.  These thinkers reflect some of the deep work in critical race education that RPI has brought to Puget Sound.  While the quadrennial national conferences are perhaps the most visible expressions of the Institute’s work, RPI’s commitment to critical learning and teaching practices about race has a long, embedded history. This commitment comes out of the traditions of critical orientation, rigorous scholarship, and responsible community engagement that characterize African American Studies. These practices are manifested in a number of different ways.

 

Brief History of RPI

Grounded in Critical Reading and Responsiveness

The impetus for a Race and Pedagogy Institute at Puget Sound began in 2002, following a series of Blackface incidents on campus.  Even at this time when the minor in African American Studies was just being built and the major did not yet exist, the critical orientation of African American Studies made the imperatives in this turbulent moment on the campus clear.

The turbulence was experienced and expressed by students of color in the Black Student Union who bemoaned both their sense of isolation and alienation on the predominantly white campus and their feelings of disconnection from communities of color in the diverse city of Tacoma. This turbulence was exacerbated by a rendition of Blackface and made worse by the response of some students and faculty who advanced the well-travelled, dismissive response of “you are too sensitive, you are overreacting” accompanied by the unsatisfactory response of “we are not racist,” “we meant no harm.”  Additionally, to hear the words, “we did not know” repeatedly was particularly egregious and devastating in an educational setting.  Professor Dexter Gordon, in his open letter to the faculty and the wider campus, noted this recurring claim of ignorance: “This ignorance is costly, more so for some than others.” The letter (2003) goes on to ground the significance of what can be seen as simultaneously a knowledge claim and knowledge gap akin to what Lucius Outlaw (2007) formulates as the epistemology of ignorance. In the open letter, Professor Gordon elaborated this moment as part of the long practice of institutionalized violence:

Blackface is an integral part of the scaffolding of white supremacy, a system that includes the constant creation of rhetorical strategies to construct black inferiority and white superiority. Blackface employs racist stereotypes that evoke for me graphic and painful images of the demeaning and the derogation of African characteristics by a predominantly white society. Blackface has been paraded in the United States and across the Americas promoting its agenda of ridiculing blackness. I never experience Blackface as innocence or even as an annoyance. It is always a painful affront to me and to those before me whose lives were spent challenging such images as an undertaking to recover their dignity and in actuality save their lives. (letter, 2003, p. 3)

Students of color were devastated.  Many wept openly. Several called home; they called their communities and threatened to leave the university.  Some did. All organized successfully to mobilize the campus, including the president and members of upper administration, faculty, staff, and their peers to act in solidarity and to register their displeasure by demonstrating, speaking out, and providing special teaching sessions. The developments highlighted here, while not unique on a US college campus, are significant for a liberal arts institution with a small representation of faculty, staff, and students of color, with staff of color clustered at the lower end of the salary scale.

Building Collaborative Practices Across Campus and Community

In order to seize the moment as a critical one for framing the possibilities of growing an enactment of epistemology and pedagogy at the intersection of race, we engaged in pedagogical experiments and in creative forms of collaboration across faculty and staff of differing interests and identities, departments, and academic centers on the campus.  An early collaboration with the Center for Writing Learning and Teaching (CWLT) has been sustained.  As a cross-disciplinary site on the campus, the CWLT is a place where students encounter the learning and teaching values of the liberal arts and its disciplinary worlds and is therefore a pivotal location for seeing the ways in which they process these values in relation to knowledge about society and self.  Through collaborations with the Center, Communication Studies, and the Office of the Dean of Students we launched “brown bag” lunchtime sessions on matters of race and pedagogy with faculty and staff, with students added later. Thus through this enactment, the term race and pedagogy was formed. By 2003, the pedagogic site of the Center became the place for the regular meetings of what emerged as the first Race and Pedagogy programming and planning team, the forerunner of our present Leadership Team that now guides the Institute. The current leadership team members are Dexter Gordon, Grace Livingston, Nancy Bristow, Carolyn Weisz, LaToya Brackett, Renee Simms, and Jonathan Stockdale. Former leadership team members include Michael Benitez and Elise Richman. Other key leaders in the early development of the collaborative effort that included both African American Studies and RPI were Kris Bartanen, Kim Bobby, Derek Beuscher, Doug Cannon, Julie Christoph, Bill Haltom, Fred Hamel, Renee Houston, Jim Jasinski, Judith Kay, Chris Klein, Jeff Matthews, Juli McGruder, Julie Neff-Lipman, Steven Neshyba, Hans Ostrom, Susan Owen, Geoff Proehl, Jac Royce, Amy Ryken, David Scott, and Carrie Washburn.

 

Vision and Strategic Priorities of RPI

Out of these early collaborations came the idea for a conference and the formation of a Community Partners Forum. In its strategic priorities, community engagement is one of the specific areas of critical race education:

Vision:

We envision a society where the systemic causes of racism have been uprooted and in which we are energized to reimagine a world oriented toward the shared experience of liberation.

Strategic Priorities:

RPI seeks to eliminate racism through critical race education in three specific dimensions:  1) Curriculum Practice, 2) Community Engagement, and 3) Diversity Initiatives.  One example of RPI work in the curricular arena was the passage of the KNOW curriculum at Puget Sound, brought about through a broad coalition of faculty, administrators, and students on the campus.  One example of community engagement is the collaboration with the Tacoma Public Schools to provide Youth Summits concurrently with the RPI national conferences. One example of diversity initiatives include RPI’s efforts to extend Puget Sound’s classrooms to the life and work of Puget Sound’s staff, through Lunch & Learn: Race Matters, a series of courageous conversations held among staff the last Wednesday of each month.  These three examples represent merely a fraction of the substantial and varied catalogue that RPI has brought to Puget Sound.

 

African American Studies and RPI

It is not a coincidence that African American Studies is the academic program on campus led by Black faculty, a program that has successfully recruited, mentored, and retained junior Black faculty, and that provides transformative educational experiences for students of all backgrounds but particularly students of color.  This includes students like the diverse group featured in the current Arches Magazine who went on the university’s first study abroad trip to Ghana, and students like Ayanna Drakos, a History and AFAM graduate in 2011 who recently completed her preliminary exams for a PhD in History at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Chloe Hunt, an Honors English and AFAM graduate in 2013 who recently completed a PhD in Africana Studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

AFAM Studies is able to cultivate faculty and students of color to be successful change agents in society because the intellectual tradition of African American Studies is rooted in understanding the relationship between equity and education, with its dual commitments to intellectual practice and responsible community engagement.  That is why the Race and Pedagogy Institute comes out of the discipline of African American Studies. RPI is an enactment of that scholarly expertise.  It is also why RPI and AFAM have been at the center of repairing, building, and strengthening the University’s relationship with communities of color in our local region, including Black alumni and Puyallup Tribal members. This work of repair and relationship-building is part of dismantling racism by making historically white institutions accountable and the resources available to them more accessible.  

RPI programs have contributed to social change locally and more broadly in K-12 systems, criminal justice systems, and institutions which address homelessness.  Puget Sound graduates who have worked with AFAM faculty have addressed racism in these systems and other areas - - including, for example, Keith Blocker (Deputy Mayor of Tacoma), T’wina Franklin-Nobles (President of the Tacoma/Pierce County Urban League), and Bernadette Ray (Principal at Wilson High School). Supporting the professional work of AFAM and RPI is a concrete, specific way to promote equity and reduce racism on campus and beyond.

Of additional note is how African American Studies faculty have moved intentionally and collaboratively to transform the curriculum and pedagogies at Puget Sound in the service of inclusive excellence. Among the more visible contributions of AF AM faculty are:

  • Faculty development programs;
  • Collaborative initiatives such as those with:
    • CWLT
    •  Theatre
    • School of Education
    • Biology
    • Chemistry
    •  School of Music
    • Athletics
  • Collaboration with others to develop and implement the KNOW proposal;
  • Community-engaged learning with a range of partners across the Puget Sound region;
  • Coordination of the Race & Pedagogy National Conferences in 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018;
  • and more;

African American faculty have shifted and broadened understandings of what counts as the locations, modes, and impact of learning and teaching in the service of preparing our students to understand, act, and lead with sophistication about the complexities of race and identity in the modern world, and to create an institution where people of color, long excluded from the academy, can find communities of struggle, meaning, and purpose.  RPI has also intentionally built collaborative relationships with staff including those in the library and those involved in intercultural, civic, spiritual/religious, and social justice leadership in order to work synergistically to serve the University’s educational mission and diversity objectives.

While we do not detail here the full history of the development of AFAM and RPI at Puget Sound, it is critical to mark that the imagining, building, and success of these programs was led by African American faculty members. Our training as educators and African American Studies’ scholars is to create such programs and transform institutions such as Puget Sound.  Less visible are the obstacles present at each stage of this work. This is grounded in part in a clear lack of preparation on campuses like Puget Sound for new faculty of color. Black Studies confronts this scenario with the recognition that our pasts, interests, and our futures are bound up with those of our communities of color and our several communities long excluded from the project of exploring, remaking, producing, and applying knowledge in educational institutions. The emergence of the Race and Pedagogy Institute is a manifestation of the requirements of the traditions of African American Studies—critical orientation, rigorous scholarship, responsible community engagement.

Notes

Language drawn from Dexter Gordon, October 2003, "An Open Letter to the UPS Community."

Essay -- "Race, Pedagogy, and Community and Our Critical Moment: Impertinent Relations in the Liberal Arts" -- Grace Livingston, Dexter Gordon 2012

Race & Pedagogy Institute documents

 

 


 

Justice for All, Injustice for None – Let Me Breathe
Dexter Gordon
June 3, 2020
African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Institute

PREAMBLE

You have seen my work and you have heard my voice in spaces across the Puget Sound campus, the city of Tacoma, and across the regions of the Salish Sea for almost 20 years.

You have heard me appeal to our entire campus –students, faculty and staff colleagues, the Board, and our partners in community.

I have written several letters, most of which I have kept to myself and my closest friends. Shared not even with my family.

Eighteen years ago, I started the work of Race and Pedagogy and the building of the African American Studies program with a public letter.

In response to crass racism on campus, I wrote to my faculty colleagues with the simple question – “What does race have to do with the development and delivery of your curriculum?” Alongside colleagues on campus and across our community, I have not stopped probing that question since.

Today, in the name of those who like me had their ancestors stolen from Africa and brutalized across the Americas, and to find my breath because George Floyd could not find his, I feel compelled to share another public letter.



I have started and revised this letter many times.

I have had sleepless nights haunted by the image of another Black man laid out in the streets of America, dead.

I am worried for my family. I am worried for my friends and communities. I am worried for my students. I am worried for my colleagues. I am worried for myself, for my life.

I have to speak. I have to write.

Should I begin with my outrage that no one should die the way 46-year-old George Floyd died, his body as one more spectacle and a mark of disdain for the humanity of Black people?

Protests have erupted and spread across the country. The police have responded harshly in some instances, but in some cases they have worked to diffuse tensions, most notably in Flint, Michigan. In Seattle, authorities are trying to find their way as they seek to affirm the efficacy of recent reforms in policing pressed for by local communities. The fact that some protests have spiraled into looting and violence, at times in the face of harsh police responses, has pushed the question of the role of violence expressions amidst civil disobedience in the search for justice to the forefront of our consideration. My life and that of my colleagues, committed to education and to social activism, is the testimony of my commitment to collaborative, cooperative, peaceful engagement as the best way to build strong, sustaining, inclusive societies.

But what if I start and stay here, for a while, and like Rev. William J. Barber II acknowledge that “No one wants to see their community burn. But the fires burning in Minneapolis, just like the fire burning in the spirits of so many marginalized Americans today, are a natural response to the trauma black communities have experienced, generation after generation.” This is human grappling, Black humanity grappling.

Perhaps, I should start instead with the long history of the ways in which the handcuffs on George Floyd’s wrists remind me of the chains of enslavement and exploitation of Black bodies, 12-15 million of us stolen from Africa. Or, I could go with the ways in which police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd's neck, in Minneapolis, on May 25, 2020, reminds me of the ropes used to lynch Black bodies, a practice that was at its heights one hundred years ago in America.

Maybe, I should reach back no longer than 69 years and begin with Langston Hughes’ cry.

   “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

 

Or maybe, I should pair Hughes with Jayne Cortez’s searing lament from just eleven summers ago.

“There it is.”

 

My friend

they don't care

if you're an individualist

a leftist  a rightist

a shithead or a snake

They will try to exploit you

absorb you confine you

disconnect you isolate you

or kill you…

 

Or should I go back to the militant Claude McKay, in the incendiary summer of 1919, “If We Must Die,”

with its forecast of 1921 and 1923, Tulsa, Rosewood, and before them Atlanta, Georgia; Elaine, Arkansas, and Colefax, Louisiana.

 

If we must die, O let us nobly die….

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 

I am encouraged that many across the nation and in our own community are joining the incessant call for

equal rights and justice, the call to get up, to stand up.

 

I have to find words in this moment -- for this moment -- because as Jayne Cortez warns,

 

And if we don't fight

if we don't resist

if we don't organize and unify and

get the power to control our own lives

Then we will wear

the exaggerated look of captivity

the stylized look of submission

the bizarre look of suicide

the dehumanized look of fear

and the decomposed look of repression

forever and ever and ever

And there it is

But, still searching, I wonder if I might turn to any of my children’s generation of lyrical expressionists Sa Roc, J. Cole, Jidenna, or one from this new generation. But here comes Nick Cannon, May 31, a bridge voice, who like the lyrical Black voices before and around him testify.

I can’t breathe again.

God damn, I can’t breathe.

Our voices are being quarantined.

Covid-1960s to 1619.

Jamestown choked me sold me.

Shackles hold me tightly by my neck.

And I can’t breathe again.

Still, the words, the words! The anguish. The pain. Will it stay or will it go away.

Probably I should stay with today and begin with the observation that trauma piled upon pain and suffering results in grief, anger, and explosive outrage. Since, over the last three months we have lived in horror and fear as COVID-19 rampaged through our communities and our world leaving in its wake death and destruction especially of the lives and livelihoods of Black and Brown people. The pandemic laid bare, long histories of neglect for Black and Brown communities. And then one more public lynching.

I am haunted by the image of George Floyd pleading for life. So I consider starting with the ways in which George Floyd’s plea for a single breath, reminds me of 44-year-old Eric Garner gasping in the grip of a police choke-hold. Black people all across the world feel the pain and across America we feel suffocated –criminal justice, economics, health, education. I too feel like “I Can’t breathe.” I too feel the pain, the pain.  This is one that connects directly to my own pain and sense of suffocation at University of Puget Sound. This is a subject I have not addressed publicly before.

My pain is born of the sense of disdain directed towards our work and the disrespect I experience from being passed over for opportunities to be appointed to lead in the work of equity on campus, repeatedly, for years, and again in this moment. This is a moment in which the University has decided it needs a Vice President for Equity Diversity and Inclusion, a position I have advocated for since 2007. There would not even be a question in any context of fairness that my expertise, experience, and my record of achievements make me the best candidate for such a role. In a world where equity and inclusion are valued, I would be urged to take on this assignment. Not so at Puget Sound. So even with the strongest recommendations from my peers and senior faculty in the work of equity, the University finds a way to pass me over without even meaningful consultation. Even as I write to survive this moment and continue to teach my classes, I have to be thinking about how to respond to this latest dissing and this continuing act of harm and erasure. As I watch, appointment after appointment, year after year, I wonder! Is there any fairness? Is there any justice?

This is my experience as the senior tenured Black faculty member at Puget Sound. I have provided almost twenty years of leadership on the campus on issues of equity and inclusion. Beginning in 2002, my work with colleagues has included inviting our campus to address the critical issues of race in our pedagogy. Since then, and including six years of significant work with Dr. Michael Benitez, who the university did not encourage to stay, despite his desire to, we have been in the forefront of addressing racism and all forms of inequities on our campus including in 2018 when we invited our campus and hundreds of participants from across the nation and beyond to join us for our National Conference on Race and Pedagogy, seeking to engage deep thoughtful reflection and practical impactful action on “Radically Reimagining the Project of Justice.” Re-imagining campus life. Re-imagining life.

Yet, the connection between the spectacle of another Black person killed while pleading for life, and the record of recent similar events, makes me want to begin with a statement against the killing of Black people by the police, including Black women, gender non-conforming and trans people. I want to declare solidarity with Black families and express sorrow at their loss, at our loss. I also wish to honor the memory of the many victims. The list is too long. The practice of killing is too serial.

George Floyd is only the most recent killing made public. In fact, the very next day, Wednesday, May 26,  in Tallahassee, Florida, a Black trans man Tony McDade was shot and killed by the police. As Laura Thompson of Mother Jones points out, it is worth noting that in 2019, the American Medical Association deemed a surge in the murder of transgender people an “epidemic.” The vast majority of victims are transgender women of color. We honor their memories, alongside the memories of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, shot and killed, by two white men, while he was jogging in Georgia; Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old essential health care worker and aspiring nurse, shot eight times in her home by police. Strikingly, as campus leaders from UC Berkeley note “According to Rutgers University Sociologist Frank Edwards, one out of every 1,000 Black men in America will be killed by a police officer. This makes them two and half times more likely than white men to die during encounters with officers.”

So what does all this mean for us at the University of Puget Sound and the educational enterprise of which we are a part?

To begin, we must acknowledge that we are witnesses to this moment. We must take a position. Neutrality is not an option. We cannot avoid being implicated in this moment. President Crawford, in his May 30 statement, invites us to “make the world a better place, day by day, through our actions, our choices, and our care for one another.” There are also numerous other profound statements available from which to find inspiration. One way or another, to use the words of indigenous and environmental rights advocate, former Green Party vice presidential candidate, and 2014 RPI National Conference keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, “Find your voice. Find your courage.” We must find the will and the fortitude to act in ways that prevent a recurrence of this moment. This is a moment that in a literal sense represents the end of the rope for the many victims of ongoing systemic racism. Some victims are hidden in plain sight on our campus.

Another step then is to examine our own home and our own practices. An expression of solidarity with members of Puget Sound’s Black community is a meaningful step. We might then act with Black and Brown voices as leaders. Continually and consistently -- not only when it serves as a symbolic gesture of inclusion -- we should acknowledge them and their leadership in their areas of expertise and lived experiences. Difficult though it is, we should choose justice over comfort, resistance and rights over reputation. We may then begin to listen, really deeply listen to Black voices. Then believe what we say. We might act to redress historical harms caused to Black and Brown people by our University’s decisions and practices, past and present. We might go further and make sure that institutional actions do not perpetrate ongoing racist practices against Black and Brown people.

Finally, we might truly honor Puget Sound values and commit to the making and remaking of Puget Sound into an institution that acts intentionally to distance itself from the dastardly practices of white supremacy with its deadly surveillance and suffocation of Black and Brown bodies, and instead treat all people equitably and embrace respect as part of our new educational enterprise.

In African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Institute, this is our commitment. So this is where I’ll start.

To our beloved students, to faculty and staff colleagues, and to our partners in community, you matter.

We stand in solidarity with our and all Black communities and we are committed to treating each of you our Puget Sound students, colleagues, and partners with the respect and honor you deserve as part of our practice of education in partnership with you.

But for now

 

With appreciation for each of you and for every breath I am able to take.

Dexter Gordon

 

 

 

 

 

 


REFLECTION ON NATIONAL TRAGEDIES

November 2018

We at the Race & Pedagogy Institute along with our Community Partners Forum share the sense of horror, outrage, grief, and anguish at the brutal killing of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, two Black victims who were killed at a grocery store in Louisville, Kentucky on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 and Jewish worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania Saturday October 27, 2018.

We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families in Louisville and in Pittsburg and join in mourning the loss of their loved ones. We also offer as a mark of our solidarity with our Jewish communities and as a recognition of the devastating continuum of violence, hatred, and terrorism against Black communities, our renewed commitment to expanding our continued, deliberately collaborative work with all people of goodwill to advance our common cause of justice for all.

Together we can and we must confront and confound the direct actions and structures of evil and hate, and intimidation.

Let us unite to demonstrate that we are better than both these more recent expressions of evil and hate and the violent histories which foreshadow them. These hateful acts are assaults on our shared humanity. We reject these actions. We stand together to reaffirm our common bonds, resilience, and commitment to radically re-imagining our sense of justice and vision of liberation.

In partnership,

Dexter Gordon, PhD

Director, Race & Pedagogy Institute

Distinguished Professor, African American Studies and Communication Studies