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A Reflection on Change

The message below was sent to Hendrix College faculty and staff on June 5, 2020, from Kesha Baoua, Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer for Hendrix College.

Dear colleagues,  

I know many of you have been seeking ways to help during these difficult times. This message is intended to provide just a little guidance in that area. If you are expecting to read an eloquent, carefully crafted statement from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion (ODI), I’m sorry to inform you that this is not that. Yes, ODI is an official Hendrix office with a mission statement and all the other official components of an office. But ODI is not experiencing what’s happening in this country and around the world. ODI hasn’t been staying up late and waking up early to follow protests, relieved every minute that goes by when no additional death has been reported. ODI hasn’t tried hard to not read comments on articles and social media because they reveal things about people that she never wanted to know. ODI hasn’t lived with the devastating reality that Covid-19 disproportionately affects black people and other people of color, only to see thousands of those same people compelled to emerge from quarantine to fight another deadly virus that has attacked black people for centuries in this country. ODI hasn’t had to console a teenaged family member who “just can’t stop crying all day”, or who doesn’t understand how the white family friend for whom she’s babysat could make a statement that she would have “ran over every single one of those little punks and it would have been worth every day in the jail cell” had she been driving the 18-wheeler that plowed into the crowd of protesters in Minnesota. ODI hasn’t had to have the conversation about how the police are good people who exist to protect us when her 4-year-old unfortunately understands through his limited lens what happened to George Floyd. ODI is not tired- no- exhausted. But Kesha Baoua is. 

I want to be clear- what’s going on now is not new. That’s the problem. Violence against black Americans and protests against that violence have occurred throughout our history. Even if you have not seen the near constant stream of new hashtags of unarmed black people killed by the police and private citizens in an unjust way, your black students, colleagues, neighbors, and friends have seen them. They’ve seen them, talked about them, screamed over them, cried over them, and then walked into your classroom, office, or other work space, smiled and said “Good morning!” and responded “fine” when you asked how they were doing. They’ve lived with the reality of the effects of systemic racism as manifested through economic struggles, mass incarceration, educational divides, and health and healthcare disparities. Of course not all black people have a uniform, shared experience. But if you think that educational attainment, social or financial status serves as a shield, I encourage you to look up the arrest of CNN journalist Omar Jimenez while literally doing his job, or the treatment of New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie while peacefully protesting.

Why does any of this information matter? Because it reminds us that we all have individual experiences and beliefs that affect our daily interactions with each other. And more often than not the black people in your life are dealing with all the stresses and issues that all Americans face while also dealing with the effects of what it means to be black in America. Allow me to pause to say that my comments in this message are focused on black people in America because that is the focus of the current state of unrest and that’s my lived experience. People of color and other historically marginalized groups face challenges both unique to their group and similar to those of black people in America. It’s only through this recognition that diversity, equity, and inclusion can be accomplished on our campus. It’s not enough to have a collage of people who look and believe differently if there’s no space for those differences to be recognized and valued. It’s counterproductive to have policies and practices that make sure “everyone is treated equally” if the result of those measures lead to different results because of a person’s background. How can a campus be inclusive if the measuring stick of who “is a good fit for Hendrix” is the type of people who are already present on campus? We can’t change what’s been done in the past, but we certainly can discontinue replicating the pattern that led us to a place where we struggle to reach the type of diversity we all want in our community.

So what can be done? First, we can choose to listen and see what’s going on around us. When I first watched the George Floyd video I had no idea what I would see. After viewing it my initial reaction was, “I wish I hadn’t watched that.” But then I realized that as difficult as it was for me to watch, that was a fraction of the pain his loved ones felt. So whether I chose to watch it or not, the same reality existed. It’s a luxury to turn my head away from something I don’t want to feel, to avoid things that are difficult. But that’s a luxury that I can no longer continue to enjoy. I argue it’s a luxury none of us can continue to enjoy if we’re going to be part of the solution to healing our community.  

White silence is a concept that has gained much attention lately. Now is the time to act from your heart. For some, that means making public statements on social media or otherwise. It may also mean protesting, reaching out to others, etc. Any and all of these efforts are great- but they carry a weight of responsibility. People are not looking for lofty statements right now- we’re looking for action. We’re looking for white people to step into spaces where only they can have an influence. We’re asking white people to speak up when something inappropriate, dangerous, or even ill-informed is spoken in rooms where we are not present. To speak up when comment sections become littered by statements that you wouldn’t want to read if they were geared towards you or those who look or believe like you. To do your best to educate your family members and friends who are not so “diversity-friendly”. To understand that the very idea that you can choose whether or not to engage in conversations about race with your children and other family members is a privilege that millions in this country do not enjoy. To know that every peaceful act of solidarity is appreciated, and that hate for injustice and racism does not equate to hate for white people. To know that we recognize the pain you feel and express.

Next, it’s time to do some deep self-reflection. I mean really deep. It’s time to think about the role we played individually in our country getting to this place of civil unrest. This exercise is not for white people, it’s for all people. Our actions have consequences. Period. Every action we’ve taken towards a student, their parent, a colleague, an alum- they matter. We are all interconnected in a small community, so it’s naïve to believe that the way we treat Person A has nothing to do with how Person B may perceive us. If you want proof of this, then just think about the last time a student came to you with a question because a friend or another employee suggested they do so. As a one-person office this summer, I literally represent ODI, so it’s easy for me to express the sentiments and commitment of the office. But most other departments and divisions are represented by several individuals whose actions influence the way the collective is perceived. Consider how four officers in Minnesota have placed thousands of officers across the world in tense situations while policing protests. Yet, even within that context the actions of law enforcement officers who express support for protesters is also going viral. No individual or department is perfect, but we all have the responsibility to do our best to create a community that’s as safe and inclusive as possible. 

When reflecting on our own actions I believe it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to be all things to all people, or to have individuals happy with every decision we make. Instead the focus should be on how we allocate the valuable resources of our time, energy, abilities, and influence. In what ways have we allocated those resources in a way that led towards meeting the ideals outlined in our Statement on Diversity? How often have we allocated those resources in a way that was counter to the statement? What personal beliefs and outside influences led to the allocation choices? When doing this self-reflection it’s important to address the “buts” that will inevitably arise. “I did this thing I’m proud of, but it could have been better...” When this happens I exchange the “but” for “and” and focus on how a situation can be improved if given another opportunity while acknowledging the positive. “I didn’t do this, but my reason is…” Again, we are all limited in our resources. Yet, even if there is a legitimate reason for not having done something, it’s important to deeply reflect on whether the constraints identified at the time were as insurmountable as first believed. If I had the opportunity to do that positive thing again, would I reallocate my resources to make it work? The answer may remain the same, but now is the time to challenge our assumptions. 

As we work on the exercise of self-reflection, it will be important to make notes about how those findings relate to the work we do in our departments and divisions. When I think about my current state of mind regarding all that’s going on, I liken it to being in the hospital. Right now it’s too painful for me to think much about the future. While I’m stuck in the hospital bed I’m thinking about everything that led up to me getting here. But more than anything I’m looking forward to getting discharged and being in the safety and comfort of home. If you’ve ever been hospitalized you know you get discharge instructions upon release. The notes we take now are to be compiled for the discharge instructions. Once tensions are reduced and a time of reflection has occurred, it will be time to put together a plan for avoiding getting back into this condition. On campus that will mean continuing diversity discussions that were abruptly ended publicly due to Covid-19, but that have continued privately. I hope it also means starting new conversations and quickly implementing the changes that can occur within that timeframe and earnestly working towards those changes that will require additional time. 

I just heard George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter say, “Daddy changed the world.” Yeah, he did. Now it’s up to each of us to change the tiny corners of the world we affect. As has been said countless times before, the work of diversity, inclusion, and equity at Hendrix is the responsibility of every community member. Seriously.

The response to want to “do something” is a wonderful first step for us all. I began this message by relaying all the things ODI has not experienced over the past few weeks. But I want to end by highlighting a few things I have experienced. I have received messages from students and employees who want to know what they can do to help. I have received messages from alums and employees who are concerned about actions from members of the Hendrix community that they are concerned do not reflect the values of diversity that Hendrix promotes. I had the opportunity to participate in protest (while still social distancing) with three generations of my family. And I witnessed my four-year-old yell “No Justice” of his own volition to receive an enthusiastic “No Peace!” from protesters. I experienced these things, and many more positive efforts over my 14 years at Hendrix that have already brought about some change, and that I have optimism will bring about much more.

The student body has been demanding required diversity training for all Hendrix employees and students. Consider this message Module I. There’s additional work to be done, including increased education. But none of it will be effective if we don’t first examine ourselves. Feel free to send me ideas and questions even now, but just know that I may not be able to respond in this moment. But the office will be ready to continue to work with the Hendrix community to bring about the change that our community needs and deserves when this open wound begins to close. I’m encouraged that Hendrix already has a foundation through our Statement on Diversity and other statements and, more importantly through actions over the years. We have a community that genuinely cares and wants to be better. I’m looking forward to the day when we look back on this dark time in history as the pivotal moment that led to the diverse, equitable, and inclusive place where all members of the Hendrix community feel safe and valued at their Homedrix.

Kesha Baoua