Dear Colby Community,
Like countless members of our community, I have struggled to find a way through the anger, distress, sadness, and other emotions caused by the heinous and prevalent acts of racial violence in the United States. The brutal and seemingly nonchalant killing of George Floyd by a police officer while other officers stood by is an excruciating but far too common occurrence in this country’s long and persistent history of devaluing the lives of black Americans.
As much as I have struggled with these issues, I know there are many in our community for whom these acts of violence are much more personal and deeply threatening. This weekend, Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae reflected on the disparate impact these events have on people of color. Her words and insights, which are part of a larger piece that will soon be published, are devastatingly honest and important. With her permission, I am sharing a short excerpt from that piece, which I have read dozens of times over the last few days as we have been discussing how Colby can respond in a substantive way to the need for lasting change. The power of her words and experiences affects me in new and more complex ways with each reading, and I know they will speak to many in our community who recognize the pain and anguish—and the incredible unfairness of it all—in ways that I can never completely understand from my own life experiences.
“I received a facetime call from my teenage daughter. Sobbing, she shared that she has been trying to keep up with both world events and occurrences in the Black community (something we have modeled for our children). And there it was—she had viewed the most recent video of a police officer’s barbaric and inhumane detainment of a black man. By herself, she witnessed George Floyd being murdered. As her sobs grew louder, she asked, “Why do they hate us?” Replaying in my head was the same question asked by my young son years earlier.
As I walked home, I wrestled with how I would soothe her pain, listen to her concerns and offer some insights that would compel her to never move to the dark side—to become hateful. As I collected myself, I began to feel my own pain and anguish turn to anger and frustration. Do white families think about the impact of these racist acts on our lives? Do they realize the toll on us and our families when we are left to witness and experience such brutality? Do they know or even care that from the time my son was born I began to worry about the moment people would stop thinking of him as sweet and loveable, but as a threat to society? Could they imagine that when my husband leaves the house, I worry that my goodbye to him, “I love you” but “be safe” could be my last—every single time?”
Racialized violence lays bare the remarkable inequities in our society. We have seen the manifestation of those inequities in other ways over these last several weeks, from the death toll from COVID-19 on communities of color and the most vulnerable amongst us to the historic loss of employment that has hit the lowest-wage earners—the individuals least likely to have a safety net—the hardest. It is essential to me that we not simply talk about these issues but that we act to address them.
Our mission at Colby is to bring light to critical issues from a scholarly perspective. Over the last few years faculty groups have deliberated about the possibility of creating a broad-based academic program on inequality. The concept has not been finalized, but the basic idea is to create an “Inequality Lab,” a multi-disciplinary approach to scholarship, teaching, learning, and community engagement. This would lead to many new courses focused on inequality, research that illuminates the causes and solutions to addressing societal challenges, and engaged work in communities designed to facilitate positive change.
The time to support this work is now. In consultation with Provost McFadden, I will allocate significant resources to launch a multi-year effort to establish this far-reaching program with the expectation of funding it in perpetuity in the coming years. Grounding this program in our academic mission and in our commitment to bettering communities will allow it to have the greatest influence. Dean Burrell-McRae, Provost McFadden, and I will appoint a working group of faculty, students, and staff to build on the thinking that has already been done for this program so we can move forward with initial programming and fuller development of the concept this fall.
We all need to find a way to end these cycles of violence and inequality, and I know that many are doing that hard work now and have been doing it throughout their lives. I am committed to that important effort and to having Colby be a place that will embed this work at the center of its mission.
David A. Greene