Tuesday, June 2, 2020
As educators, we cannot help but ask ourselves whether our teaching, mentoring, and guidance of students through the years has positively impacted our society. Is our society less racist, less classist, less sexist, less homophobic, less Islamophobic, less anti-Semitic than when we were growing up? To be a teacher, is to believe in the next generation to do the social justice work our generation left incomplete or undone.
Below is a moving message from Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, whose vision of public universities as anchor institutions inspires many of us to keep teaching, keep listening, keep writing and keep believing that our lifelong commitment to teaching and learning from our students is worthwhile and meaningful.
Dear Rutgers-Newark Community:
Over the last few days it has been admittedly hard to collect my thoughts and find a voice, in the face of the unspeakable death of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, all too similar to the fates and voices and circumstances of Eric Gardner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald—we can list so many—even the cries for help decades ago still fresh in my mind from Rodney King. What do we say when it all repeats itself, over and over again? What do we say when it happens right in the midst of a landscape of heartbreak over a pandemic that too has had a disparate laser focus on precisely the same communities—families and whole communities that for centuries have broken their backs to hold up an economy that gives them back so little of its riches or its power or its freedoms?
What do we say? We’ll each say something slightly different depending on our life stories and positionality. I’ll speak as a white woman, a mother who knows that her son is so less likely to feel that hand on his neck. I’ll speak as a social psychologist who knows the decades of research that says the obvious that must be said—racism is so deep and yet so quickly emergent in the psyche and the souls of white America. I’ll speak as one who has seen the architecture of segregation harden around the very neighborhoods in which I grew up in New York City, and now as a deeply proud but so shaken resident of my adopted city of Newark, where we can always point to remarkable resilience in the face of relentless structural racism and its generational sequelae, and then where we keep thinking on it, pushing at it, as we must—for we are the ones who have to make it change—really change—and the “we” has got to come at it from all those positions, with all those life stories—and, as I know those in the know will say, “Don’t just speak, listen—listen to us, listen when we say we can’t breathe.”
So, Rutgers-Newark, this is a moment, however inept our speaking may be, when what I can say most of all is let’s listen—listen hard—for some of us from a position of privilege that requires massive humility, accompanied by commitment to keep working on it, to keep cultivating the talent, right here at home, right here in our communities, that will do what we all thought we were doing before: thinking, collaborating, writing, drawing, and singing, pushing for change, shouting for justice, holding hands, and walking forward—yes, many steps that turn out as often to go backwards as they do inch forward. And, please, in this ever so scary time, let’s not be afraid to reach for help (and we have the most dedicated souls in our Counseling Center ready to listen—yes, to really listen—so let’s call them) because giving and getting collective help is at the core of the resilience that is Newark and Rutgers-Newark.
I want to say it will change—because it has to change—and I want to say that I truly believe that our Rutgers-Newark collective makes change happen—working, as scholars, staff and students, collaborators in community, interns for justice, families in Newark, to grow a new system of equity. I listen when some of you who will bear the real brunt of this work say how hard and sad and frustrating it feels to be the next generation who has to inherit this map of deep and wide inequity, has to see the brutal tragedies unfold on video, as yet others also disproportionately hit by another travesty lose their breath too, alone, on ventilators trying to keep them breathing, even as video cameras outside record the forces that take breath away.
Yet we need you, our dear next generation to continue teaming with the many scholars, staff, students, and community partners here to push forward, as many in the ranks of Rutgers-Newark have been doing, inch by inch despite the persistent pull backward of the legacy of pernicious racism and structural inequity. No one is ready to stop walking, crawling, running, on the road to justice. Let’s cherish our breath, and keep on going, together.
Chancellor, Rutgers University-Newark