Last night, over 50 people logged on to Zoom to engage in a discussion on diversity, equity and inclusion, and how these concepts can improve the campus environment.
Bloomsburg University hosted an “Evening Conversation on Equity, Inclusion and Becoming a Better BU” at 6:30 p.m. A cross-section of the university joined the dialogue, as BU students, staff, alumni and administration alike attended. The virtual event featured Dr. Bashar Hanna, university president, and Chad Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Dr. Shavonne Shorter, assistant professor of communication studies and Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, served as moderator.
Hanna and Lassiter offered their perspectives as a Syrian immigrant and a Black, North Philadelphia native, respectively. The conversation hit home for both.
“To me it’s really personal. It’s part of my DNA. It’s also the right thing to do,” said Hanna.
He told a story from his childhood, when he didn’t speak a word of English in the fifth grade, having just moved to Pennsylvania from his homeland of Syria. Schoolmates called him every derogatory name in the book.
Lassiter said he was inspired to engage in his work with PHRC because he “saw suffering in [his] own family.” His father served three tours in Vietnam and had resulting PTSD. His grandmother took care of a woman who had dementia in her later years; incidentally, the woman she cared for also happened to be the first African-American woman to receive a PhD. Lassiter learned a lot about Jewish culture too, from his neighbors. As a whole, Lassiter’s lived experience in the multicultural community of North Philly is an influence on his life’s work.
“Everything I am is a combination of those who have mentored me,” remarked Lassiter.
Lassiter cautions people from getting “seduced by the Black-white binary.” Recognize a binary does exist, but don’t get too caught up in it. Race is a complex issue.
Lassiter attended a historically Black college for his undergraduate degree. He mentioned the value of a HBCU experience, but also acknowledged the role white people had in creating these institutions to serve the community.
He believes we should ask ourselves, “How can we make society better for all people?” To answer simply, Lassiter says it’s “really about being a drum major for justice.”
How is PHRC uniquely aligned to help universities? What are the best practices we can benefit from at BU?
Lassiter says it is new for him to help universities in his role at PHRC.
Within PASSHE, “unless there’s a truly an egregious act, why are we expelling students from universities?” asks Lassiter. “Wouldn’t it be beneficial to educate them instead?”
That’s where PHRC comes in. Rather than expel students for committing racist, xenophobic, transphobic, [insert any other -ism or -phobic] acts, PHRC can work with the university to turn it into learning experience.
Lassiter says there are the two L’s central to this work: listen and learn. But there’s also a third L: love.
To elaborate, PHRC responded to an incident at St. Joseph’s University about two years ago after a racial slur was left on a student’s dorm room letter board.
“In these [predominantly white institutions], Black and Brown students feel as though there’s no recourse” in such circumstances, said Lassiter. They might fear retaliation for reporting acts of bigotry.
PHRC listened to students. “It was a safe space, but also a brave space, where students talked about these issues,” shared Lassiter.
The process in which PHRC can help universities is not a top-down but bottom-up approach. “The students are the prime stakeholders,” said Lassiter.
In Nov. 2019, BUnow reported on a video depicting BU students holding a pretend “slave auction” that surfaced on social media. Last night, Hanna shared his reflections on how the university handled the situation.
Hanna said two white men, in particular, on the Council of Trustees wanted the students involved in the video to be immediately expelled. It was actually a Black trustee who said, in essence, “Let’s not overreact. Let’s educate these men and make sure they understand the pain they are causing.”
Hearing that was “like a cold shower,” according to Hanna. He and others were ready to forgo due process and wanted to make an example out of the students. Hanna says the ones willing to transform it into a learning experience, instead of a punishment, were “far better educators” for it.
He believes, “We should not give up on anybody because some of us have been given up on for centuries.”
How has the vision for diversity, equity and inclusion at BU evolved over time?
As president of the university, Hanna says his goal from day one was to first simply listen to people. He met with stakeholders at every level, the most important ones being the students. Hanna listened to their experiences and listened to their pain.
One of the most impactful projects to come out of it was the work of then-CGA President Joar Dahn. Dahn, a Black student, brought to light student challenges occurring mainly off-campus. Whereas most white or white-passing students could walk into the depths of town — where the true “townies” are found — and not question their belonging for a moment, non-white BU students have long known the unspoken code not to go “beyond the fountain” in town.
Most people outside of the multicultural student community had been blind to that experience, that was so commonly known to those inside of it. Bloomsburg townspeople in those neighborhoods would make Black students know they are not welcome there.
To raise greater awareness and improve town-gown relations, Dahn planned and implemented what is now an annual event called “Beyond the Fountain.” It is a night of dialogue, open to any member of the campus or town community, centered around race. Hanna praised Dahn for organizing the event.
One community story from the very first “Beyond the Fountain” has stuck with Hanna. A local mailman had faced discrimination on the job. A man of color, residents called the police on him while delivering packages; they assumed, because of his race, that he was a thief.
But the mailman “forgave and gave in spades,” says an inspired Hanna. Even after the trauma and pain the residents — his fellow neighbors — caused, he never stopped being a good man. He cleared their snow in the winter and retrieved their mail when they couldn’t walk out to it, being elderly.
The mailman’s story is “absolutely a scar I carry with me everyday when I talk to people about how this world can be better place,” shared Hanna.
Last academic year, when multicultural students planned a protest in response to the slave auction video, Hanna asked how he could help. One of the students asked, “Why don’t you march with us?” and Hanna did just that, locking arms in solidarity.
As far as further progress goes, Hanna says we should celebrate Blackness “not just in the month of February, but everyday. Shame on us if we let that happen.”
Becoming better humans than the ones before us
Lassiter knows there’s a struggle multicultural people face everyday. Though it may be hard to confront, he warns students not to silence themselves.
“Find joy in trying to dismantle it,” encouraged Lassiter.
He shared an assignment he gave students about diversity when he worked in higher education. He provided questions for the students to ask the oldest member of their families: hypothetical questions like, “How would you feel if I brought home a partner of another race?” and “What would you think if I came out as transgender?”
In doing so, he says, “[The students] might find out grandma is a racist…still eat her cobbler!”
“It’s your job to break the chain,” not condemn older family for their outdated views.
Dr. Gregory Seaton, an attendee, shared the “candle and key” concept in regards to minority students. The candle represents illuminating and celebrating what students bring to the table; the key symbolizes teaching them how to access the existing power structure to navigate through society.
The event was a powerful and engaging talk. In closing, Hanna said we are not going to change Bloomsburg or the ZIP code overnight. Still, “Let’s embrace the opportunity we’ve been given to become a better place.”
Lassiter said going forward, we are called “to a moment of growth and introspection.”
The evening conversation was an emotional one for him.
With tears down his face, he shared that he was a “North Philadelphia kid, who has come to age as a man, and [now] has the whole state on his shoulders.”
It’s amazing how far we can come.
Check out BU’s Black History Month page for more events and resources this month and year-round.
Featured image: LYUBOV IVANOVA / ISTOCK