St. John’s University must fully embrace antiracism because “what else is there?”
Simon G. Møller, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, voiced the sentiment recently as he and other senior leaders at St. John’s University met virtually as a panel to address the challenge, “Where does the University go from here?”
The event marked the sixth virtual discussion for the “Racial Justice Conversations: Becoming Agents of Change” series.
“How are we going to live our mission? How are we to serve and educate our students, and have them go out into the world as citizens? How are we to foster scholarship? How are we to ensure that everyone at St. John’s—employees, students, and faculty—feel safe, valued, and respected, if we are not an antiracist institution?” Dr. Møller asked.
For this conversation, the final one for the fall 2020 semester and held November 18, discussants focused on how the University will follow through on its commitment to be an antiracist institution.
The Provost was joined on the panel by fellow St. John’s leaders Gina M. Florio, Ph.D., Interim Dean and Associate Professor, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Nada M. Llewellyn, Esq., Chief Diversity Officer, Associate Vice President, Office of Human Resources, and Deputy General Counsel; Joseph E. Oliva, Esq., ’91CBA, ’94L, Vice President for Administration, Secretary, and General Counsel; Anne Rocco Pacione, Chief Information Officer; and Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M. ’70C, Executive Vice President for Mission.
Opening and closing remarks were provided by Anita Gomez-Palacio ’65Ed, ’89PD, a member of the St. John’s University Board of Trustees and Retired Executive Director of Operations at the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.
Alina Camacho-Gingerich, Ph.D., Chair and Professor, Department of Languages and Literatures, and Director, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at St. John’s, served as moderator of the event.
The creation of the Racial Justice Conversations follows an Antiracism Statement released in June in which St. John’s senior leadership expressed their commitment “to doing the work necessary for St. John’s to become an antiracist institution.”
“We acknowledge it is not enough to be ‘not racist,’” the statement continued. “We must develop actions, policies, and practices that oppose racism, and work to dismantle those which empower racism to persist at St. John’s.”
The Racial Justice Conversations is a collaborative effort by the Office of Alumni Relations, Office of Equity and Inclusion, Office of University Events, Office of University Mission, and Division of Student Affairs.
When the series was introduced at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, organizers explained the conversations were created to provide a space for the St. John’s community to think about its role in the fight for racial justice. Rita Torsney-Sullivan ’20MBA, Associate Director of the Office of University Events at St. John’s and a series organizer, earlier noted the series was devised with three goals in mind: to normalize conversations about racial equity; to encourage people to explore concepts and issues of racial justice more deeply within their own lives; and to equip people with resources and tools to help them become better informed about racism and antiracism.
Throughout the sixth session, discussants responded to questions Dr. Camacho-Gingerich posed, including why the work of antiracism is important for the St. John’s community and the institution as a whole; why antiracism is important professionally and personally for each participant in the sixth session; and what steps need to be taken to make the University a truly antiracist institution.
“If we are going to really live our mission, if we are going to respect the rights and dignity of every person, I do not know how we can do that without developing racial literacy, without understanding how the structures within our institution create systems of oppression that disproportionately affects people of color, specifically Black people,” said Ms. Llewellyn. She also said antiracism work is important to her, personally, because she is a Black woman. “I have navigated my whole life in a black body. Racism is systemic, and it impacts every area of my life. I do this work because I'm deeply invested in the physical and psychological safety of Black people, and in our liberation.”
Mr. Oliva said the pathway to authentic antiracism needs to start with building trust within the University community, as well as encouraging collaboration that is guided by “strong and consistent” leadership. “The leaders need to be bold and courageous,” he said. “Change is not comfortable, and I think that this type of change is going to be uncomfortable for some people. Because of that, breaking down longstanding barriers will not be easy work.”
Dr. Møller and other discussants pointed to the need for the University leadership and community to issue a call for action to identify and set University-wide steps, goals, and metrics that can be assessed and measured, and to adjust as needed. They also determined that timelines and milestones must also be established to ensure the act of becoming an antiracist institution is taking place.
In response to the question of how St. John’s will assure that students of color feel welcomed and part of the University community, Dr. Florio said it is critical to listen. “We need to ask them what it is they need, and we must be part of a community with them and engage them in making changes that promote antiracism.”
During his remarks, Fr. Tracey alluded to the pandemic in stressing the importance of the University embracing antiracism.
“For the coronavirus, we need to wear our mask to prevent it from spreading. For the virus of racism, we need to take off the mask and admit who we are as a society, in our personal lives, and in our communal life as a University,” he said. “To do that, we need to acknowledge in a lot of different ways that one of the first steps we have to take is becoming an antiracist institution."