In light of February being Black History Month, Kris Sealey, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Black Studies program here at Fairfield University, sat down with The Mirror this week to talk racial justice and equity on campus and beyond. Her main goal, she said, is to get students more involved in understanding racial inequalities and to help them become educated on these issues.
While Fairfield offers a number of courses dedicated to the Black experience, both in the United States and abroad, Sealy is especially enthusiastic about the Black Lives Matter course and curriculum now offered on campus.
“The Black Lives Matter course is something the University should be really proud of because it’s a course that grew out of students coming together and making clear demands for such a course. They organized, reached out across campus strategically to faculty and administration, and that’s really how the course came into existence,” Sealy said.
The key idea here is that students joined forces to form this course, and Sealy believes that it’s essential for Stags to start “using [their] available platforms to foreground these conversations.”
The course has inspired students to begin to change the views on race on campus and Sealy says this is thanks to the course’s activism requirement.
“Part of the charge of the Black Lives Matter course is that it has a lasting impact on the campus climate around race and racial justice,” she said. “Students are asked to design activism projects that extend the knowledge they gain in the course beyond the classroom walls. This course has contributed to improving the racial literacy of our student body. So at the very least, students leave the course knowing how to talk about race, how to name racial injustice and forms of anti-Black violence (in its historical and contemporary forms) and how to better understand the political stakes involved in fighting for a more racially just world.”
Further student understanding and compassion can easily be found in the work that organizations like the Black Student Union do. BSU provides a space for Black students and allies to work together to promote racial justice on campus while giving a voice to those students who are not often represented.
Students also rallied en masse in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 due to the tragic murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. On June 1, President Mark Nemec released a statement regarding the murders, where he detailed Fairfield’s commitment to promoting justice of all sorts. However, unlike other Jesuit colleges and universities like Georgetown University and the College of the Holy Cross, Nemec omitted the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” from his message. He instead opted for a more generalized statement of support saying that Fairfield must continue to have an open dialogue with people from all backgrounds.
The message, and omission of the Black Lives Matter movement from it, sparked outrage throughout the student body, with student and alumni groups, including affinity groups on campus like BSU and the Gender-Sexuality Alliance and larger Fairfield organizations like FUSA, releasing statements and petitions against Nemec’s message, pleading with him and the larger administration to say that Black lives do, in fact, matter.
The Fairfield Alumni Response Team released a petition directly following Nemec’s statement to call for administrators and the President himself to release a more encompassing statement to solidify Fairfield’s commitment to fighting racial injustices both on campus and elsewhere. Their open letter to President Nemec stated, “The statement you sent on behalf of Fairfield University—while well-intended—used coded language, offered little support, and failed to acknowledge the University’s continued shortcomings regarding inclusion, diversity, and equity. This leaves us—a diverse group of alumni representing intersectional identities, graduating classes, and lived experiences—wondering: Will Fairfield accept its role as an institution for change? Will it prove this statement is more than just lip service? Will it commit to becoming an anti-racist institution? Does the University agree that Black lives matter?”
The petition reached over 8,000 signatures, but the University has yet to release a statement in response.
Sealey acknowledged that the fight for racial justice and equity cannot continue unless there are a number of diverse voices in positions of power, especially when considering that Fairfield’s student and faculty population is predominantly white. According to a study on datausa.io, Fairfield University’s student population has remained at around 80 percent white for the past five years, while the Black population is at three percent. As a result, representation is a must.
“In order to think creatively about how to bring about more just structures and institutions, it’s always vital to have a diversity of experiences, voices and expertise in the room. As a predominantly white institution (at all levels: students, faculty/staff, administration), we’re very much stymied in that way,” Sealy said. “To be sure, white folks can be advocates of racial justice, and allies in the work toward more just structures. And we do have those folks at Fairfield University. But it’s tough to overstate the importance of a diverse representation of experiences, who are not only part of the conversation, but who participate as equal and fully-belonging members of our University body.”
However, Sealey also stressed the importance of Fairfield’s existing institutions that aim to promote racial justice, especially within each individual college.
“The University now has a group of faculty, staff and administrators dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion across multiple areas of the institution (academic, administrative and student life). Though this group has no real power to implement policies, they do report directly to the President on the various challenges Fairfield faces around diversity, equity and inclusion. There is also work happening at the level of the schools across the University,” she said.
Sealey specifically referenced the College of Arts and Sciences Diversity, Equity and Inclusion taskforce which aims to assess the needs for diversity and equity within CAS.
She also encourages all students to get involved with the BLM movement, as she believes that it’s “something that will benefit all humans, of all races. So those so-called white allies (or people of color allies) need to join the movement for Black Lives not simply to be allies for Black people, but rather for themselves too.”
Even with student involvement and increased awareness of the racial inequalities that permeate campus life, Sealey believes that the fight for racial justice is never really done.
“There’s always more we need to do, and we should always be trying to ‘fail better’ than we did the last time,” she said. “As an institution we need to simply normalize this orientation, make it a part and parcel of, well, what we do as a University. Some of that involves making room for difficult conversations around how we’re failing and how we might ‘fail better’. And then some of that also involves investing real, material resources in ways that might position us to ‘fail better.’”