In the summer of 1919, white supremacists unleashed terror across the nation, attacking and killing African Americans in and outside their home communities. Just over 100 years later, our nation’s fraught racial climate remains, and nothing exemplifies it more than the public murder of George Floyd and the senseless killings of multiple innocent African Americans at the hands of police over the last few months. This, combined with three years of white nationalists emboldened by a president with racist rhetoric and actions, has communities of color on the front line again protesting for racial justice and an end to police violence.
The collective activism we have seen over the past weeks, and the despair expressed by Americans across the nation, will shape our campus communities now and over the coming years. The need for healing, community action and significant change by capable leaders who are informed allies and are willing to fight antiblack narratives could not be more evident.
Yet too many colleges and universities have not meaningfully addressed their own histories of exclusion, which has deepened racial tensions and hindered efforts to cultivate an inclusive campus climate. Given the current social and political context, campuses must work even harder to engage in racial healing.
The question we pose to institutional leaders is: How are you preparing yourself and your senior team, personally and professionally, for the coming months in terms of supporting communities of color and confronting antiblackness? For the return to campus, whatever form that takes? No matter what comes next, we can be certain that faculty members, administrators and students will be emotionally exhausted and unwilling to accept the continual denial of racial discrimination and injustice present on many college campuses or in their surrounding communities.
In two reports authored with the American Council on Education (“Speaking Truth and Acting with Integrity: Confronting Challenges of Campus Racial Climate” and the forthcoming “Leading After a Racial Crisis: Weaving a Campus Tapestry of Diversity and Inclusion”), we describe the leadership needed to steward campuses through a racial crisis and provide support and healing -- including the role of college presidents.
Our research draws from the experience of the University of Missouri, which courageously allowed us to explore its journey of recovery from the 2015 racial crisis that followed multiple racist incidents on its campus and in the local and regional communities. George Floyd’s death reopens the wound of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man killed by police, an event that served as a final catalyst for the crisis at Missouri. That crisis was front-page news across the country, driven by sustained student protests and resulting in the removal of the system president and chancellor. The lessons from our study could not be more relevant to today’s circumstances five years later.
A clear finding from our research is that racial crises, on or off campuses, create significant emotional trauma, and typical leadership responses are woefully inadequate to address the emotions that ensue. Early on in our work, we documented the emotions that campus leaders can expect to process in the coming months: anger, distrust, fear and fatigue, especially from people who are from the African American and Latinx communities. In such moments, communities look to their leadership, which is why we present a Collective Trauma Recovery Model to address the immediate emotions and to create space for the community to process painful incidents.
Our model focuses on three key tools: active listening, speaking from the heart and “acting with” by ensuring input from all relevant stakeholders and moving to the ground to be with their community following racial incidents. At this time, being with the community is a challenge. But just as we have scaled up for COVID-19 -- sending updates and messages, asking how we can support the work of the community, hosting town hall meetings to check in and learn how folks are surviving -- ask yourself, what is different this time?
Too often, leaders’ first impulse after a tragedy is to have prepared comments drafted so they do not say anything “wrong” that might further offend people. While seemingly risky, when leaders speak from the heart, they build the trust needed to overcome fear and fatigue. In this latest racial crisis, campus leaders should acknowledge what is happening and clearly state their commitment to fight injustice and move forward by directly engaging with community and particularly the community members most affected by the traumatic events to make concrete actions to improve climate.
Leaders will also face divided communities, with people expressing different perspectives on what has happened and how to move forward. Our forthcoming report showcases the Weaver leader framework that helps leaders move a divided community forward. Weavers’ work is one of identifying different fragments, connecting them and helping to integrate ideas, beliefs, activities and feelings.
Weavers are important to sense making, building relationships and creating coherent communications. Take, for example, incidents of campus murder or hate crimes that are racially motivated. Weaver leaders don’t look for appeasing language. They name and identify these incidents accurately, as this is an important step to truth telling. If a black student is murdered on a campus because of his race, it is not sufficient to talk in terms of a tragic loss of life. This may be easier for the campus to digest, but it doesn’t recognize a deeper set of issues that must be addressed.
Weavers help the campus make sense of the socioeconomic, political and historical context that shape and influence hate crimes and what this means for their campus. They bring the community together to discuss divergent views and perspectives to ultimately educate the campus and build relationships. They are not seeking universal agreement -- rather, they are opening the space for listening, learning and expansion of understanding of the lived experience of all.
Our research shows that leaders should be working now to build their capacity on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); waiting until we all return to campus will be too late. Campus leaders should be checking with their DEI staff and asking how they can support them at this time and bolster their work and impact. Capacity building is necessary: investing in the learning process, recognizing the emotional labor necessary to do DEI work, assessing progress and identifying and dismantling oppressive campus systems. With a strong DEI infrastructure, campuses are able to stretch to meet the demands of a crisis even as we are socially distanced.
Racial crises continue to represent a common terrain in the American landscape. Campuses need to continually build capacity and avoid standard responses, and instead focus on the trauma that is caused by racist incidents. The alternative is not worth investing in: years of painstaking emotions and debilitating dysfunction.