Collaborating on social justice, equity

Merrill Irving, Jr., president of Hennepin Technical College (Photo: Hennepin Tech)

In response to the murder of George Floyd, a predominantly white Southern community college is partnering with a diverse two-year college in a Minneapolis suburb to explore issues of racial justice and equity.

After Floyd was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes on a Minneapolis street, “many of our employees were just heartbroken,” says Vicki Karolewics, president of Wallace State Community College (WSCC) in Hanceville, Alabama.

“They couldn’t understand how this can happen again,” Karolewics says. “Our faculty and staff as a whole are seeking meaningful ways to have a dialogue around this.”

Karolewics reached out to Merrill Irving, Jr., president of Hennepin Technical College, to check in with her fellow American Association of Community Colleges board member and suggested they collaborate on a creative project highlighting students’ feelings about issues of racial justice and equity. Irving readily agreed.

Karolewics enlisted Susan Peek, a student success coach, and Adrian Scott, an art professor, both of whom are on the college’s diversity committee, to brainstorm some ideas.

As a result, Peek and Scott are collaborating with Jessica Lauritsen, vice president of student affairs at Hennepin Tech, to develop a joint online art gallery featuring student artwork focused on the theme of social justice.

“We want student voices to be heard,” Karolewics says.

Karolewics sent Irving a link to a song about Floyd called “Breathe Again,” written and performed by Brad Steele, a musician and WSCC graduate.

Both colleges are planning to develop and share a video and message. WSCC also drafted an institutional letter – to be signed by students, faculty and community members – “to express our love to the city of Minneapolis and to Hennepin Tech,” Karolewics says.

In addition, Hennepin Tech is working with the YWCA to organize virtual listening and speaking sessions for students on the murder of George Floyd and what it means to them, Irving says. The sessions will provide an opportunity for students to air their feelings about race, equity and the value of human life, he adds.

“We’re talking about people directly impacted by this,” Irving says. “This spiraled all over the area, including Hennepin’s Brooklyn Park campus. The unrest comes from the feelings of racism and inequity, of not feeling valued as a human being and seeing a black man murdered on TV.”

A new approach to police training

“There’s a history of systemic racism in Minneapolis,” Irving says, citing another high-profile incident in which Philandro Castile was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in 2016.

Most of the police officers in Minneapolis earned certificates at Hennepin Tech’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Education Center, Irving says.

“There’s a strong possibility that some of the officers involved in the George Floyd incident came through our program.”

The college is working on creating “a new associate degree in law enforcement embedded in equity and inclusion,” Irving says. It would be the first degree of its type in the nation.

But a brief training program isn’t going to change people’s attitudes overnight, Irving says.

“We have to be realistic. We are battling systems of racism,” he says.

The new program is about more than changing the curriculum, Irving notes; it’s a whole new approach to law enforcement. The ultimate goal is “to expand the pool of officers committed to diversity and inclusion,” he says.

Making a difference

WSCC is just north of Birmingham, where major conflicts took place during black Americans’ struggles for integration during the 1960s.

“What they’re experiencing in Minnesota, we experienced in the civil rights era,” Karolewics says. “We are very aware on this campus of the struggles that persons of color make even today in the 21st century.”

She has been trying to increase diversity at WSCC, which is a predominantly white college in a predominantly white county. Since she became president nine years ago, the percentage of students of color has gone from 4 percent to 12 percent.

“We acknowledge it’s time for us to do better,” she says. “Diversity, equity and inclusion are important to all us. This college is committed to social justice.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.