A conversation on Monday about racism and systemic reform on campuses that included two community college presidents was only about 45 minutes, but it packed a punch.
During a session that was part of a broader, multi-day virtual conference on building a better future held by Jobs for the Future, the discussion on how to quash racism at colleges and in communities ranged from better use of student data and reviewing college policies and practices, to developing more leadership pathways for black Americans and providing more economic and career opportunities.
Speakers Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York, and Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College in Florida, noted that public two-year colleges can play key roles in leading reform efforts in communities across the country.
“We were built to serve in times like this,” Williams said. “We were built to be the catalyst for change and the voice for those who couldn’t be heard. We were built to help our minorities gain economic mobility.”
Both presidents noted that systemic reform in terms of equity and justice is often discussed, but it typically stops there. Baston added that, although he appreciates hearing support for reform efforts, he would like to hear about ideas for concrete next steps.
“We’ve had these discussions, we’ve had round tables, we’ve been in meetings upon meetings upon meetings, and nothing has been done, nothing substantial,” Williams said, which inspired her to write an open letter that her college is ready to serve as part of the solution.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a pause in the country, which has allowed more time for reflection on systemic injustice, said Baston, who is also a lawyer and pastor.
“This time is different. Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds are different,” he said, referring to the video of George Floyd being killed by a police officer. “If we allow this to just sort of be a moment of temporary outrage and then we move on to the next thing, then we will be making a very grave mistake.”
More than a ‘data-pulling warehouse’
One area that colleges can improve to better serve black students is making better use of data, the speakers said.
“We collect it; we don’t do anything with it,” William said. “We don’t use the data to change our actions.”
Until colleges use data to make changes, “we’ll just be a data-pulling warehouse that sits it on the shelf,” she added.
Colleges also have to examine their structures and be ready to dismantle them and create better policies and practices, Baston said. Williams added that includes making equity a part of every decision at a college, even if that means being disliked as a leader. She said last Friday she spoke with 61 black faculty, administrators and career service staff at her college to hear how they were doing.
“I need to give then a safe place to talk, to share their concerns, to share their ideas,” said Williams, who in 2017 became SPC’s first black and first female president.
The people factor
The panel agreed that overcoming systemic flaws will require frank discussions, which will hurt likely some feelings, Baston said. Many people who the panelists connect with as part of their jobs – from funders to faculty, trustees to business leaders – still don’t think that shocking brutality like the killing of George Floyd can happen in their communities. That’s a hard place from which to start a discussion, they said.
“Even our most-educated colleagues are just completely unaware the this was even happening,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America.
Another area to foster such discussions is with employers. Williams would like to hear from businesses what skills they will need in a post-pandemic workforce to help black Americans attain family-sustaining jobs that provide opportunities for advancement. In addition, companies can review their employees’ salaries to detect inequities, Spiva said.
The panel members also discussed developing leadership opportunities for black Americans. Too often, it is discussed but not acted on, they said. Williams noted that institutions must be “interested and intentional” about building new leaders. Spiva added there needs to be more diversity in middle management, too, not just at the top positions.