The calls for removing the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and my experiences as vice president for student affairs at Clemson University might not seem to have much in common. But in the world of real-life leadership and teachable moments, the two are curiously intertwined.
Although I’ve lived and worked in the South for almost 20 years, I was not born a Southerner. I grew up in Delaware. While I learned about the Civil War in history class, I didn’t realize how powerfully symbolic the Confederacy is to many in the South. It wasn’t until I became dean of students at Georgia Institute of Technology and was on a retreat with a group of students and faculty members one night in the north Georgia mountains that it hit home. On our first evening in the woods, adjacent to our retreat site, men and women were staging a Civil War re-enactment. I saw Confederate soldiers and antebellum ladies moving earnestly about the area, taking great pains to faithfully recreate the carnage and romanticism of that time.
I was surprised and intrigued, as were many on the retreat, and we discussed how seeing such a spectacle made us all feel. In the spirit of candor and trust -- two traits that I hoped to sustain in our student leaders -- I admitted my discomfort with some aspects of the Southern culture, especially the glorifying of antebellum and Confederate culture and all of its attendant emotions. For me, this re-enactment epitomized one of the most horrific periods in U.S. history and also reinforced some of my own negative perceptions of the South. It was a risky admission for a new dean at a university in Atlanta. But my camping companions appreciated the candor and my opening volley in the discussion set the framework for ongoing dialogue, on a wide range of challenging issues, throughout my tenure at Tech. I was relieved and enlivened by the experience. It was an important lesson in leadership and trust and it served as a guidepost for me for years to come.
More than a decade later, I continued my southern sojourn to become vice president of student affairs at Clemson University. My experience there was appreciably different and it taught me that each university, each town, each state and each region has its own identity. I knew before I arrived that the Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. While I loathed the display, I thought I could -- in my own small way -- use this symbolism as a teaching opportunity and engage students and the Clemson community in open dialogue on topics like region, race and collegiality.
I did not come to Clemson to change the world. But as I do with every professional challenge, I came to change it a bit for the better by educating the future leaders of our world. After all, isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that our ultimate purpose in life, to leave this place a just a bit better than before we arrived?
Early in my role at Clemson, I experienced something sadly unexpected -- students made up in blackface for an off-campus party and the inevitable pictures that emerged on Facebook -- the social mirror of world culture. I was appalled and discouraged. But I had a job to do and a mission to accomplish. Working with student leaders, faculty and staff members, I helped initiate a dialogue on race and encouraged students to stretch themselves by having these discussions across racial lines.
It was not an easy task for any of us. Some expressed hurt feelings, others sheepishly acknowledged their own cultural ignorance. But ultimately, we came to a place of understanding and forgiveness. I was deeply proud of what they experienced and achieved.
Yet that pride diminished over time. I learned that the important conversations of race, privilege, gender neutrality and social justice were not to occur in an open forum. While some small conversations were promoted during new student orientation and a new chief diversity officer was hired, the courage of those students who addressed the blackface issue had passed and complacency re-emerged. It is easy to say that no overt demonstrations of unrest equal happy students and a supportive climate for everyone. But we know better in our hearts, if not in our university’s brand.
In short, while some colleges and universities take bold steps to air those issues and engage students in addressing them, many others prefer to avoid the painful discussions that accompany them. Unfortunately, unless diverse perspectives are openly expressed, a truly inclusive learning environment cannot exist.
Which brings us back to the Confederate flag, an emotional touch point in the South. On one side are people like my own staff members at Clemson who asked me to move the location of our annual retreat because it would have required them to drive through an area heavily laden with Confederate flags. I did so. But theirs were not the loudest voices on campus and I found few who lent a sympathetic ear to my concerns about the symbolic importance of flying a flag of slavery and secession over the very heart of our state government in Columbia. The conversation that I had hoped to promote was simply not happening. It was as if the only real change that many wanted to see would be for me to change my perspective.
I felt hopeless … until now.
Tragedy rarely produces hope, and it gives me great anguish to think that the terror inflicted on those poor souls that horrible Wednesday evening at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is what gave me, and many others, the freedom to speak openly about race, class, heritage and commonality.
Some argue with understandable logic that now is not the time. We should remain quiet and allow the families of the slaughtered nine to bury their loved ones and grieve for their deeply personal losses. But in my mind, it would be unconscionable to not have this discussion now, out of deference and honor to those who lost their lives, as they shared their faith and their love with the coward who killed them.
I am an outsider to South Carolina and have felt the disapproval of many who feel that my ideas and perspective are not appropriate here. But to me, and many in education, that disapproval flies in the face of reason, learning, knowledge and mutual respect. I also believe that it does not dignify the memory of these nine martyrs. Now is the time for all us in South Carolina -- and around the world -- to model the love of those men and women, and be open to a change.
The floodgates have opened and people at the highest levels from across the political spectrum are acknowledging the divisive pain of this symbol and demanding that it be relegated to the museums of history and not glorified by the discussions of the present. I join with my academic colleagues here in calling for its removal.
We are not alone in urging change. At the same time I was moving to Georgia, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat had the courage to ban Confederate flags and related Confederate symbols from Ole Miss football games. He received death threats and opprobrium from the powerful and the powerless. But he persisted, and two decades later, the University of Mississippi is a different, more inclusive academic institution as a result of his leadership.
I also hope that our actions go beyond flagpoles and license plates to the real dialogue and hard work necessary to abridge our racial gap. None of us are blameless. But now is a unique time for South Carolina to state unequivocally that all our lives and all our voices matter and South Carolina is an integral part of the United States of America. It is your land; it is our land.
I applaud and encourage Governor Nikki Haley to not only continue her leadership on the flag but to begin taking the next steps. I urge her to appoint a task force to conduct a comprehensive audit of the state to identify other areas in which South Carolina can become more progressive, especially with regards to race, privilege, educational access and economic opportunity. That task force should include people from higher education and from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. The goal is not to sanitize our history, but to understand it, learn from it and build upon it.
Actions such as these will further our collective desire to make this world a little bit better because of what we did when we could. It’s a teaching moment. The Charleston nine sacrificed their lives in the name of love. The Charleston nine died because of hate that has gone unchallenged for too long. It’s the least we can do to take small, incremental steps to help improve the quality of all our lives.
Gail DiSabatino is a higher education consultant and a presidential fellow at Black Hills State University.
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