Diverse alums gather for conversations on race, justice

Already scheduled to take part in Reunion weekend, Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10, was particularly pleased to join in the conversation on diversity and inclusion given the events of recent weeks.

“I’m glad we’re choosing to open our conversation with the outrage and heartbreak we’re feeling right now,” said Davids, who in 2018 became the first LGBT Native American elected to Congress.

“One thing we can be doing,” she said, “is to make sure to keep this [topic] and our action steps at the top of all of our conversations moving forward, until we see the changes we need.”

In the days leading up to Reunion weekend, June 5-6, leaders of alumni groups representing diverse communities, along with staff from Diversity Alumni Programs, collaborated to revise the Virtual Reunion schedule to create more opportunities for members of diverse communities to gather.

Two people in a screen shot
Dean Eduardo Penalver ’94 in conversation with Democratic representative from Kansas Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10, during their Reunion weekend “Mosaic Forum” fireside chat.

“The new programming was added in direct response to the recent murders of black Americans and the need to create space for alumni to come together to better understand racial injustice and engage in dialogue,” said Matt Carcella, director of Diversity Alumni Programs.

Mosaic community members and alumni from all class years were invited to participate in a series of online events, including the previously scheduled “Mosaic Forum: Fireside Chat with Congresswoman Sharice Davids, J.D. ’10.” Events added late included a “Racial Justice Teach-in” and “Reflections on Ahmaud, Breonna, George and Others: A Community Conversation.”

Eduardo M. Peñalver ’94, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of Cornell Law School, opened the interview with Davids, a Democrat from Kansas, by asking how the nation can heal and move forward.

“The most helpful thing all of us can do is to be supportive of our black communities,” Davids said, urging everyone to take some time to grapple with the history of this country, to better understand the root issues that pervade our society.

Davids said our nation needs leaders who take time to listen to people and try to understand their issues and proposed solutions. “This applies to all of us – as individuals in our personal lives – and to our local, state and national leaders,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of listening “for the sake of listening, rather than for the sake of answering,” noting that she consciously practices techniques for talking with people who have different points of view. She said she also tries to be mindful when engaging in difficult conversations.

“Think about the small ways that we inadvertently do and say things that are dehumanizing,” she said.

John Rawlins III ’06, president of the Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA), kicked off the “Racial Justice Teach-in,” aimed at providing historical context on racism in America. Kamillah Knight ’13, MPA ’15, vice president of programming for CBAA, moderated.

“I’ve been talking about ‘space’ not just for the past week, but for the past 14 years,” Rawlins said. He urged listeners to give the black community space to “share how we feel and to express what we want.”

Rawlins said the role of allies is to follow the lead of the black community and “echo” its messages.

Noliwe Rooks, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature in the College of Arts and Sciences, thinks the current moment is different from other instances of racial protest and calls for redress. “When lasting change takes place,” she said, “you have multiracial groups who take to the streets. People coalesce around very specific asks, and intersectional alliances are formed.”

Rooks said this happened during abolition and during the civil rights movement, and she believes it’s happening again now. She cited the June 5 apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for “not listening” to players’ concerns about racism, and the June 6 march in New York City focused on removing the police from schools.

Over the last 50 or 60 years, Rooks said, Cornell has conducted a number of studies looking at inclusion. “Let’s actually read and consider the recommendations of these reports,” she said, rather than commissioning a new study. “We need to pay some serious mind to what’s been said before.”

LaToya Brackett ’06, recounted her experience as a student of Africana studies at Cornell and as an assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Puget Sound.

“I teach to correct history and alter the outlook of youth,” she said, noting that 60% of the students in her classes never had a black K-12 teacher and 50% have never had a black professor. “I teach them that their black lives matter in a white space.”

Jolene Rickard, associate professor in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell, said, “I speak in solidarity with Black people.”

“My ancestors were captured and enslaved, but our enslavement was not profitable because we died,” she said. This is what instigated the colonists’ search for slaves in Africa, Rickard explained.

Jolene Rickard
Jolene Rickard, associate professor in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell

More than 860 viewers tuned in to the Racial Justice Teach-in livestream. The recording includes several additional speakers.

Rawlins also moderated “Reflections on Ahmaud, Breonna, George, and Others: A Community Conversation.”

“It feels like a door is opening,” Rawlins said. “The black community has always had to deal with this, but our white counterparts are now seeing this for what it is.”

Learn more about how to support diversity and inclusion at Cornell.

Read the story in Ezra magazine. A version of this story is on the Alumni Affairs and Development website.

Linda Copman is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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