Tufts Observes Juneteenth with Day of Reflection, Commitment, and Action

The university announces initiatives to address racism and increase support of diversity

A Zoom screen with a grid of 12 people. Tufts observes Juneteenth with day of reflection, commitment, and action, and announces initiatives to address racism and give greater support for diversity

In solidarity with the Black community and the pursuit for racial justice, Tufts hosted a Day of Reflection, Commitment, and Action on Friday, June 19, the national observance of Juneteenth. The event focused on making significant and lasting institutional changes that dismantle structural and systemic racism and introduced recommendations for areas such as faculty and staff recruitment.

It also introduced a critical analysis of campus safety systems and approaches to public art and community spaces, and an institutional audit to root out structural racism.

“In looking ahead, we need to develop action steps to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion at Tufts to ensure an anti-racist community,” said President Anthony Monaco, as the event concluded. “We will incorporate all that we heard today.”

Monaco also reiterated his own commitment to a successful and transformational change. “I promise you that I will focus on the challenge of systemic, structural racism within our institution with the same passion, inclusive approach, and leadership skills that you have come to expect of me and my senior colleagues in all the challenges we have faced together over the past decade,” he said.

Monaco announced three university-level initiatives to get under way immediately:

An institutional audit of structural racism. This initiative will identify where structural racism is embedded in the university at all levels. Building upon and learning from the anti-racism work many departments are already engaging in, this will encompass an investigation of structures, procedures, educational content, “and the many ways the history of white supremacy is relevant to our institution,” said Monaco.

An extension of the university’s review of public art and community spaces. “We need to think critically about whose history and images are displayed,” said Monaco, stressing the important role of the recently established Public Art Committee.

The committee will take a hard look at the Coolidge Room and other places public art is displayed, as well as “how these environments make people feel about themselves and their role in an institution whose history is not immune to structural racism.”

A review of the structure and functions of emergency management and policing. According to Monaco, the initiative will ask critical questions about the power dynamics of policing at Tufts, including how the police are perceived by Black community members, and consider “what we require to keep us safe and secure.”

Executive Vice President Mike Howard expanded on what will be included within this review. “It’s clear the status quo is not the right model for Tufts going forward,” he said. A “thoughtful and serious review” of the structure of campus policing function will also put on hold a search for a permanent police chief. A university-wide working group will be established to lead this effort.

Provost and Senior Vice President Nadine Aubry also outlined major commitments in academic affairs being worked on across the university and involving the newly formed, university-wide Cabinet on Diversity and Inclusion with representatives from all the schools. These include:

Strengthening efforts to recruit and support diverse and minority students. This effort encompasses continuing to bolster financial aid for both undergraduate and graduate/professional minority students, and ensuring the academic and financial support needed for such students to succeed. The university will also expand efforts to develop the pipeline for diverse and minority students.

Diversifying faculty and staff across all schools and units. Through active recruitment and support, Tufts will build, support, and expand a diverse workplace culture throughout all its schools. Critical steps include involving the new directors of Education and Training in Diversity and Inclusion to train faculty, administrators, and staff in academic affairs on anti-bias and diversity, equity and inclusion issues, enhancing schools’ staff development and faculty mentoring programs toward the success of a diverse faculty and staff, and reviewing the tenure and other assessment processes.

Evaluating faculty scholarship and research. To make significant strides toward diversity, equity, and inclusion with respect to faculty and scholarship/research, Tufts will review existing processes, and ensure more equitable ones, for evaluating scholarship and research, a step with heightened relevance especially in light of the pandemic.

In addition to these actions, and others identified in breakout sessions held throughout the morning, the Faculty Senate recently passed a resolution that reflected their collective outrage and “intent to act on the problem of pervasive and systemic racism in our country and its reverberations, even within our own university,” said Melissa Mazan, V93, outgoing president of the university-wide Faculty Senate and Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine professor.

“At the time, we almost failed to act,” she said, “not because of a failure to care or a lack of recognition of shared responsibility, but because of the simple fear of stepping where we had no right to step and of getting it wrong. We nonetheless felt that that failure to act would be a much worse transgression than striking a wrong note.”

Mazan credited colleagues and fellow Faculty Senate members for their guidance in crafting the resolution: School of Arts and Sciences professors Ellen Pinderhughes and Pearl Robinson, School of Engineering professor Chris Swan, and Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy professor Norbert Wilson.

“First Step in a Long and Arduous Journey”

Historically, June 19 has been known within the Black community as Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

This year, in the context of global protests and national attention on racial injustice, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, and Chief Diversity Officers Robert Mack and Joyce Sackey designated June 19, 2020 as a Day of Reflection, Commitment, and Action for Racial Justice. Classes were canceled and administrative offices closed.

The program offered an array of opportunities to reflect on how the university’s higher education mission “aligns with the lived experiences of students, faculty, and staff,” wrote President Monaco in a community memo earlier in the week.

The event responds to unprecedented global protests that resist “the brutality of U.S. law enforcement, and the enduring harm these systems visit upon Black individuals, families, and communities,” wrote Mack and Joyce Sackey, who is also the Dr. Jane Murphy Gaughan Professor and dean for multicultural affairs and global health at the School of Medicine, in a community message.

The opening plenary session, “Reflection: Where Are We as an Institution? A Reflection on Juneteenth,” was a springboard for the larger ideas and values informing the special event, beginning with Land Acknowledgement by Jade Rhoads, F20, a member of the Tuscarora Nation.

She called upon attendees to acknowledge and honor the indigenous people of the Nipmuck, Massachusetts, and Wampanoag tribal nations “who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial” on what is now the main Tufts campus in Somerville and Medford.

“We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory, and we honor and respect the many diverse indigenous people still connected to this land today,” she said. To signal the start of the event, Rhoads then shared a traditional blessing. “When we have meetings,” she said, “we give thanks to the Creator before we start them, and this brings our minds together as one.”

Sackey framed the morning’s discussions by noting that Juneteenth served as a response to both past and current events—and a platform for conversations about the future and actions that will carry far beyond the day.

“The deaths that we’ve seen recently are only part of a 400-year history of oppression and injustices, particularly against Black people,” Sackey said. “We will honor this day by taking the time as a community to learn about the history and context of this date. We will make sure that we center community voices, especially Black voices. We must acknowledge white privilege in the following ways: engage in your own self-reflection and self-education about structural racism and acknowledge the legacy of structural racism that has shaped not only our country, but also our institution. And while reflection on where we’ve been as an institution is a necessary step toward change, we are expecting that the outcome of this day has to be a plan of action and a commitment that all of us work together to dismantle structural racism.”

She called the event the first step in the “long and arduous journey of becoming an anti-racist institution. So the conversation must go on beyond Juneteenth. . . . We must engage our entire university community in this transformational work.”

Monaco also welcomed attendees, underscoring that it was important to the university to reflect on national events and to provide a forum for Black voices. Tufts started that listening, he said, on June 8 with a university-wide gathering that drew 1,600 participants to protest the murder of George Floyd and other Black individuals who have been victims of racial injustice.

“Today is a day of reflection, commitment, and action,” he said. While Juneteenth has historically been a celebration marking the end of slavery, it is also “an important opportunity to acknowledge the critical work still to be done.”

Provost Aubry reiterated the importance of this critical moment. On the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, she said, “and in the wake of the recent tragedies, which reminded us that racism, discrimination, and inequities continue to find their way in our own community, we need to reflect, listen to one another, as well as make and implement plans on taking new and concrete action that will lead to meaningful and lasting change. I know that Tufts is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I also know that we have much to do.”

Choosing the “Less-Traveled Road of Conviction”

The urgency of the day’s purpose was eloquently illustrated in a plenary talk by trustee emerita The Reverend Gloria Elaine White-Hammond, M76, H06. (Read her speech and see video excerpts here.) Her perspective, drawing on decades of the national fight for civil rights, provided an uplifting message for facilitators and participants in fourteen working groups for the day.

White-Hammond, a pediatrician who also devoted more than a decade to helping victims of modern-day slavery in Sudan, opened her remarks with her own personal reflection. Just as the freedom song “We Shall Overcome” played an inspirational role in the Civil Rights movement, she noted, so it did again after a recent funeral procession that accompanied three hearses around Boston’s neighborhoods.

“Our church hosted a memorial service to honor the lives of three victims of police and vigilante brutality. From their graves, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery remind us that this nation will not be post-racial until it is post-racist.”

She said it is “altogether fitting” that the Tufts community gather on Juneteenth for racial justice, and while she regretted the pandemic’s social distancing mandate, she expressed gratitude for “the technology that enables me to speak to you—you personally, in the privacy of your personal space. Because I’ve learned that racial justice work is long and arduous, and it begins at the level of the personal. Personal reflection fuels personal commitment, which determines personal action.”

That self-reflection, White-Hammond granted, is not easy. Recalling the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. “sat at the kitchen table and had to decide which path to pursue—the well-trodden path of convenience, or the narrow, less-traveled road of conviction,” she urged the community to rise above self-doubt.

“In this work, you will have your kitchen-table moments,” she said. “And you will wonder whether or not you have the capacity to endure. You will remember the heroes and sheroes who endured. You will remember the Harriet Tubmans . . . and the little girls who died in 16th Street Baptist Church [bombing]. . . . And you’ll remember George Floyd. And you’ll remember Trayvon Martin. . . . And you’ll make the personal commitment, and you’ll do the work.”

Working Groups Identify Action Steps

Between the opening plenary session, which also included a presentation on the history of Juneteenth by Rebecca Morin, head of research and instruction at Hirsh Health Sciences Library, and the closing session, which offered an initial set of university-level action items, members of the Tufts community had the option to participate in a series of breakout sessions across a range of topics.

Some of the structural changes that were proposed during these working sessions included improving faculty recruitment and retention and implementing curricula that represent diverse voices, as well as more systemic shifts that challenge embedded attitudes, assumptions, and perceptions.

Damian Archer, assistant dean for multicultural affairs and associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the School of Medicine, articulated the importance of context that goes beyond the academic enterprise itself when he reported on “COVID-19: A Pandemic Within a Pandemic: Racial Injustice, Structural Racism, and Health Inequities” as “a starting point for the medical school to move toward becoming an anti-racist institution.”

“It was widely acknowledged in the chat, as well as in the discussion, that there is a lot of work to be done to become an anti-racist school,” he said. “And as stated before, it’s extremely important for us to create inclusive spaces for those that we recruit to the school . . . to have a critical mass of Black people, indigenous people, and people of color, who can form a support network in order to retain [them] and also to ensure that we all benefit from diversity of thought and interaction.”

Reporting on a session he facilitated entitled “Where Do We Go from Here? Engineering’s Potential as a Positive Influence in Just and Equitable Societies,” Chris Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, dean of undergraduate education, and associate director for diversity and inclusion at the School of Engineering, said he was encouraged by a conversation that explored how engineering can be a “steward of a more just and equitable society.”

He noted that the working group brought together “people of all different races and diverse backgrounds to talk about [what’s next], and that’s a conversation that I have personally never heard in engineering before. I look forward to continuing these conversations and, hopefully, the biggest outcome that I see is that we create the change because we want that change.”

A complete list of the breakout sessions follows. More information, including links to anti-racism resources, can be found on the Diversity and Inclusion website.

  • Office of the Vice Provost for Research Juneteenth Forum
  • COVID-19, A Pandemic Within a Pandemic: Racial Injustice, Structural Racism, and Health Inequities
  • Racial Inequities in Veterinary Medicine
  • New Data on Police Discrimination and Race
  • Racial Justice and Sustainability
  • “Hear Our Voices” Members of the TUSDM Community Share Stories and Reflect on Personal Experiences of Being Black
  • Where Do We Go from Here? Engineering’s Potential as a Positive Influence in Just and Equitable Societies
  • White Responsibility in Anti-Racism Work: Sustaining Commitment to Listening and Unlearning
  • Digital Justice: Digital Disparities across the U.S. and How it Disproportionately Hurts the Black Community
  • Moving Towards a Racially Just and Equitable Health Research Enterprise
  • Knowledge is Power: Information Privilege and Access in Research with Underrepresented Populations
  • Roundtable: Identifying Structural Racism in our Professional Spaces as Faculty
  • Race and Education
  • Open Forum: Public Health & Community Medicine/Public Health & Professional Degree Programs.

 Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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