Benedictine Social Justice Teach-In brings identity, racial issues to forefront

March 9, 2017

Prominent speakers lead discussions on race, social justice and immigration

Lisle, Illinois ~ The world in which we live requires more than ever that diverse people engage with one another in meaningful ways.

Confronting uncomfortable and painful but important issues through dialogue can help unearth greater understanding of people and issues affecting local, national and global communities.

In pursuit of these efforts, Benedictine University held an all-day "Teach-In on Social Justice and Race.” The goal was to put into action one of the University’s core values which is to engage in dialogue with others.

“'The Rule of St. Benedict' calls us to listen, to speak honestly but humbly so that our dialogue may be fruitful to build our community,” said Christine Fletcher, Ph.D., associate professor of Theology at Benedictine.

Tricia Rose, Ph.D., Chancellor's Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and Rose Brewer, Ph.D., Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota

During the event (which included presentations and Q&As with national experts on race, gender and ethnicity), students, faculty and staff discussed issues of structural racism, inequality, social justice and immigration.

More than 1,200 participants registered for the University event, which administrators devised in response to growing concerns nationally involving immigration and racial inequality.

“So many of us agree that racial equality should be the norm,” said Tricia Rose, Ph.D., Chancellor’s Professor of Africana Studies and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. “The end of Jim Crow is not the end of structural racism. It is one iteration of it. While it’s a great victory, it is not the end of the story.”

In Rose’s lecture, “How Structural Racism Works,” she outlined the impact of structural racism and its manifestations today in the criminal justice system, segregation and discrimination in housing, and in the media’s portrayal of minorities and their communities.

“I’m not suggesting that structural racism is the only form of institutional discrimination and oppression, but it is a critically important one in this society in the way that it shapes almost everything else,” said Rose.

Rose said there is a cyclical effect of structural racism. It severely impacts access to wealth, education, housing, media and enforcement patterns within the criminal justice system. She cited several studies that found that black men with no criminal record were equal to or less likely to be hired than white men with felony convictions. 

Rose Brewer, Ph.D., the Morse Alumni Distinguished Professor of African-American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, affirmed that BenU’s teach-in was well-timed given the current political landscape.

Brewer discussed the history of race, identity and discrimination, and the making of a racial order in her presentation “Race Today.”

“All of us have a story to tell. Unfortunately in a society that has been historically racialized, it is a race-based story,” she said. “And it’s one that no matter seemingly how hard we try to run from it, it encapsulates us simply because it’s a trope that is deeply institutionalized, structural and identity-based.”

In breakout sessions, students, staff and faculty members probed issues of racism and shared their perspectives in an open and respectful dialogue.

“I feel social justice is being aware of inequality and being active in speaking out. It’s being aware of what’s normal and what’s wrong,” said one student.

“As a privileged white student, I shouldn’t expect black people and other minorities to tell me how to fix the problem,” another student shared. “As part of the class that has helped create this issue, it’s up to me to help fix it.”

During small group sessions, students, faculty and staff participated in an activity aimed at putting some at a disadvantage, then discussing thoughts and feelings on the exercise in an effort to demonstrate real-life disadvantages of institutionalized racism and fallout still present today through ghettos, employment and immigration discrimination, and other intangibles that lessen opportunities or promote inequality.

“It wasn’t until I came to Benedictine that I became aware of these issues,” said another student. “I went to a predominately white high school. Now, I want to stand up for minorities who may not have the opportunities that a white male like me may have.”

In the afternoon, participants had the opportunity to attend “‘Just’ Art,” which featured performers in spoken word, poetry and an exhibit of artwork on social justice.

Tisha Rajendra, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, and Mark Lewis Taylor, Ph.D., the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary

The presentation, “Faith Traditions and Racial Justice,” was moderated by Tisha Rajendra, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, and Mark Lewis Taylor, Ph.D., the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Rajendra spoke about the principles of Catholic social teaching and immigration while Taylor examined the eight base points of white racism.

“Catholic social teaching says in addition to human dignity, states have a right to control their immigration policy, maintain public order, control its borders and maintain its national identity,” Rajendra said, referencing President Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration, which expanded the criteria for deportation and suspended immigration into the United States from certain countries.

However, a nation’s need to protect its borders should not lead to the persecution of the poor and vulnerable, she added.

Taylor encouraged participants to develop a deeper understanding of race and its impact on society. Doing so, he said, is crucial to improving human rights and social justice work.

“This construct of race is a lie about human differences, but it is a political, often lethal, power,” he said.

In the panel, "BenU Perspectives," (organized by the University’s Black Student Union) black students, an alumnus, and faculty and staff members shared their personal racialized experiences and the impact on the construction of their identity.

“When I showed up here (at BenU), I came with the same mentality I had growing up on the South Side,” said Hakeem Hawkins, a 1996 Benedictine alumnus. “I quickly had to change that. I was confronted with racism and injustice. You quickly have to grow up and address the social injustices you’re going through.”

Students addressed their frustrations over being confronted with stereotypes even among their peer groups.

“I am not what you see on TV,” said Taylor Lumpkin, a senior Elementary Education major from Summit, Ill. “I am just as intelligent as the next person. I always wonder, ‘Why are you categorizing me?’”

BenU Perspectives panel organized by the University's Black Student Union

In the workshop, “Latina voces de BenU: Latino Students Speak,” BenU’s Latino students shared their experiences and struggles with their identity as both American and Latino.

“I am not Mexican enough for some of my Mexican friends and not white enough for Americans,” one student said.

But by the end of the session a universal camaraderie had developed between the students, many who had met for the first time.

“I used to be embarrassed of my Mexican heritage. Now I embrace it. You have to embrace that diversity. It is a privilege to be a part of both cultures,” the student said.

Students and faculty would like to see more diversity among the faculty, which can create more opportunities for understanding cultural differences.

“I deal with a lot of tokenism around here,” said Desmond Washington, a senior Mathematics major from South Holland, Ill. “Do you want me around because I’m the ‘good’ black, or because you like the real me? I sort of have to assimilate. What challenges me here is I have to always assess tokenism.”

Nicholas Manalo, a junior Health Science major from Bolingbrook, Ill., said he gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for social justice issues.

“I learned more about what you don’t really hear in the mainstream media and that there’s always another side to it,” he said. “Different people experience their identity in different ways.”

Rana Aquil, a senior Political Science major from Roselle, Ill., said she felt the information presented at the teach-in and the opportunities for open dialogue were enlightening.

“The best thing I gained was to listen to others and to truly grasp how people are feeling and what they’re going through,” she said. “I learned that change isn’t made just by talking but by actively being involved.”

More than 1,200 participants registered for the University event

Faculty encouraged students to attend the teach-in during scheduled class sessions if possible. Some faculty members devoted class time to topics pertaining to social justice and racism. 

Many students attended in between classes. Additionally, some faculty assigned student attendees writing assignments to help them reflect on what they learned throughout the day.

Afternoon breakout sessions gave attendees the chance to discuss specific social justice issues that interested them. Workplace rights and public health were discussed in “Race and Racism: A Public Health Perspective,” and “Your Rights in the Workplace from Violations to Micro-Aggressions.”

The detrimental effects of racism were examined in “Racism and Poverty,” “What is Anti-Muslim Racism?” and “Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System.” Participants also debated the international and political inequalities in gatherings on “Racism: An International Person’s Perspective,” “The Global Dimension: Race, Ethnicity, Power and Conflict” and “Workshop on Political Activism.”

Students agreed that the teach-in fostered meaningful dialogue but cautioned against a one-day event finding solutions to America’s racial problems, stating that although today’s generation needs to be actively engaged in change, measureable change doesn’t happen overnight.

“After slavery was abolished, race relations weren’t immediately perfect or even better,” one student said. “You can’t go from owning someone to being best friends the next day.”

The day ended with a free screening of director Ava DuVernay’s film “13th,” an American documentary exploring race, justice and mass incarceration of blacks in the United States.

The commitment to a daylong engagement on social issues relevant to all communities is reflective of the University’s mission to engage its community on important topics that can help shape the lives of students as future leaders who are globally responsible citizens.

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 9,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the sixth consecutive year in 2016. A 2016 PayScale Inc. report ranked BenU one of the top 10 colleges in Illinois for return on investment and in the top 20 percent nationally. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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