In the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, among others, an idea to hold a course on race relations was born. Next semester, Fairfield will be offering its first special topics interdisciplinary course called Black Lives Matter.
The idea for the class stemmed from a group of students in Dr. Kris Sealey’s Critical Race Theory class in the Fall of 2014, following the deaths of people of color across the country, specifically black men and women.
“This was right after the summer of Michael Brown and immediately after that there was Eric Garner on Staten Island. I was teaching this course on race theory and racism and police brutality and all this stuff was happening in real life. The students that I had in there were really moved and they were engaged and they had a lot invested in the course,” she said.
Specifically, a group of students in Sealey’s class used a group project component course to organize a demonstration at the Stag Statue on Dec. 5, 2014. The Stag Statue demonstration was followed by a die-in in the DiMenna–Nyselius Library on Dec. 10, 2014. Out of these peaceful demonstrations formed Racial Justice is Social Justice (RJSJ), an advocacy group for creating social change on Fairfield’s campus.
“There was a student call for a space where they can make sense of all these [incidents] in an academic or intellectual way,” Sealey said of RJSJ’s advocacy for a course to unpack racial justice issues.
According to Sealey, RJSJ students and faculty members, including Sealey, came together to form a committee to answer that call, which resulted in the Black Lives Matter course.
Sealey cites the collaborative efforts between faculty, staff and students with being able to put together the course.
“The demonstration seemed to give voice to sentiments that have already been there. This has been an issue and a challenge and a difficulty for students of color on campus for quite some time and I think that demonstration happening helped students find a wherewithal and a voice to say, ‘Hey, we need the help of faculty to help us move through this in a robust, intellectual way. We don’t want to talk about it. We want to understand it from a historical, philosophical, economic, sociological perspective,’” Sealey said, on the move to put together the interdisciplinary course.
Alum Alan Pelaez-Lopez ‘15, one of the four student organizers of the silent protest that occurred last year, is an active responder on behalf of student concerns raised during the demonstration.
“You know, after President Von Arx sent out the email, I was left short of next steps from the institution, so I really do feel that this course is a successful take away from some of our demands,” Pelaez-Lopez said.
Sophomore Joe Harding, who both helped organize the course and will be taking it next semester, believes that the interdisciplinary nature of the course is an important way to connect the campus to ongoing events in the rest of the country and worldwide.
“We wanted the course to model the Black Lives Matter course, which is at Dartmouth already, to be a seminar-based class that allows for healthy dialogue on issues of race and racial injustices in the country and how it related to our campus, here,” he said.
Harding, student leader of RJSJ and key organizer in the December 2014 die-in, sees the class as a way to put perspective on racism on Fairfield’s campus. Harding cites the overt racism displayed during and in the immediate aftermath of the two demonstrations last fall, as an example as to why a course like Black Lives Matter is important to have on campus.
“[The racism] really hit home for us because we felt like we weren’t safe on campus. We felt like our lives didn’t matter and weren’t validated,” he said.
Harding said that the committee wanted students to engage in the dialogue at Fairfield because many students believe that Fairfield’s affiliation with the Society of Jesus means that there aren’t race issues on campus, as the Jesuit mission is being practiced fully.
“However, many students of color on campus don’t feel like that ideal is being practiced on our campus and so this class will hopefully allow for students to engage in dialogue that brings up the idea that racism is pervasive in our community, even though we don’t see it explicitly,” Harding said.
Pelaez-Lopez agrees with Harding in that Fairfield needs the course, not only because it reflects the Jesuit values of the University, but because it addresses racism on Fairfield’s campus.
“I think that a similar course is needed at every university, but as a Jesuit university, it is especially important for Fairfield to carry through with the course to reflect Jesuit values. On a personal note, I think it’s needed because there’s a sense of silent racism on Fairfield. Students are very courteous, but the racism comes out in micro-aggressions,” Pelaez-Lopez said.
Senior Shernice Mitchell sees the course as a way to not only learn about race relations in general, but also students’ personal relationships with race.
“There are many reasons to take this course, from learning about your own view on race to what sparked the Black Lives Matter course itself. Furthermore, a lot of people don’t understand or have these discussions that shape our nation and this class would allow for that,” said Mitchell, who’s taking the course next semester.
Additionally, Mitchell hopes the course will enhance the dialogue on racism both on campus and in communities across the country.
“I hope it will allow people to think about the current situation. To learn about why our race is so discontent and to help seek a solution for a better environment in which being black doesn’t make one lesser than another,” Mitchell said.
However, Pelaez-Lopez is hoping that all students are attracted to the class, making it an inclusive learning community.
“My fear is that the course will actually only attract students of color. I hope that people take it as an invitation to learn about the complex relationship that the U.S. has with black communities. At it’s best, I hope that the course gets filled with a mix of students: white students, students of color, those that agree, and those that don’t. If this happens, it will only make it more fruitful,” Pelaez-Lopez said.
For the committee, making sure that the class acted as a safe space for students to learn about and engage with sensitive topics was important to their planning of the course.
“That’s why we set it up as a seminar class, so that students are really the focal point of the class, to engage, embrace questions and put in their own opinions, their own thoughts, their own experiences in a learning atmosphere but at the same time allow for it to be a safe space for people to engage,” Harding said
Sealey sees a bright future for the course.
“[The committee] gave it the engine that it needed to become part of the institution and it really does look like it’s going to be part of the institution. I really do expect this course to be something that’s offered if not every year, at least every other year or every two years,” Sealey said.
This course will be offered as part of the Black Studies program and will be taught by Dr. Johanna Garvey on Mondays/Thursdays at 2:00 p.m.