Scholars agree that the emotional, mental, and physical toll students of color experience within predominantly white institutions coupled with the lack of a culturally responsive curriculum in the courses they complete can negatively impact the lives of marginalized students. “Weathering is a phenomenon characterized by the long-term physical, mental, emotional and psychological effects of racism and navigating within a society that maintains white dominance and privilege,” according to Mcgee & Stovall (2015). But, one does not need to look far to find students who bear the scars of the trauma they have endured.
Understanding that students of color and other underrepresented groups at Illinois State University have dealt with traumatic accounts of micro-aggressions, and both veiled and covert confrontations with deficit-based assumptions, Illinois State University’s Office of the Provost supported the development of a Task Force on Culturally Responsive Campus Community (CRCC) to tackle how the University community could work to be more inclusive.
The work of this cross-campus participatory effort led to a conference last October that among other speakers featured a diverse student panel, facilitated by the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline’s Valentina Gamboa-Turner. Selected panel members represented African American, Latino/a, Asian, and LGBQT communities on campus. Each came forward to boldly and unapologetically testify their lived experiences in front of over 100 faculty, students, and staff. Their testimonies echoed themes of isolation, invisibility, marginalization, and a sense of needing to change themselves in an effort to make their white peers feel more comfortable. Panelists also expressed how they lacked a safe space in their courses with any opportunities to grapple with these concerns given the lack of affirmation from their respective professors.
In response, a black student in the audience reaffirmed the panelists as she described her experience in a literature class, in which they were reading a novel that contained the “N” word. She listened to her white classmates say the word again and again and again as they read aloud, without any forewarning or acknowledgement from her professor about the history of the word, why it was being used in this particular literary context, or the derogatory meanings behind its use today.
Other student panelists bemoaned the content of most classes as not featuring or even including a single contribution by a scholar of color. This debate continued among faculty members in another session, “Out of the Shadows: Promoting Critical Thought and Inclusive Perspectives in the Classroom.” There, School of Social Work faculty members reflected on a student’s course feedback statement in which she described “drowning in a sea of whiteness.”
A white male professor in the debate held the position that the dominant theories are paramount as they are the foundation of the discipline. He didn’t dismiss the need to include distinct perspectives from minority scholars, but insisted that in introductory classes the “fundamentals” must be taught, and time restraints in a course limit the number of “alternative” works that can be shared. He likened the dominant theories as the mainstream of sociology and the minority theories as tributaries. A black female professor countered his argument, advocating for a reframing of the discipline, which values marginalized peoples’ contributions equally to the dominant ones. This debate exhibits the complex challenges we face in the academe regarding incorporating historically silenced voices. How do we encourage faculty to view these ignored perspectives as essential and part of the canon? How do we help them question their own training, understanding, and positionality?
In an era where the president of the United States has executed an executive order that bans immigrants and refugees from entering our country on the basis of religion, and where undocumented residents and DREAMers are being threatened with mass deportation, we must stand in solidarity, lest the very fabric of our country’s democracy be dismantled. At Illinois State University, and as stated in the College of Education’s Realizing the Democratic Ideal, “The more voices we call into thoughtful dialogue, the truer our convictions and conclusions will be. This is a demonstrable necessity of a democratic society, and it is why Illinois State University graduates aspire to teach and serve everyone, including those on the margins, those who have been or are in danger of being excluded.”
While the CRCC conference was a step in the right direction to call all voices into thoughtful dialogue, we can do more. One way that the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline has responded to work alongside Illinois State professors and staff is to lead by example and become more “woke” and responsive to students of color.
Through the Course Development Grant, we require all professors to read texts defining and explaining white fragility and white supremacy, and their pervasiveness in our American culture as a part of their course redesign process. Last year, faculty read Transforming Teacher Education for Social Justice and Unequal City and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education to provide an urban-focused, culturally responsive framework to understand the urban youth experience. If you are not already involved, we encourage you to join this campuswide movement and apply to redesign your own course to prepare urban teachers and build a culturally responsive campus community at Illinois State.
As Illinois State President Larry Dietz has said many times before, “The biggest room is the room for improvement.” We hold critical hope that Illinois State as a community can think of and act in ways that develop safe spaces for all learners to grow, develop, and enact the mission to “aspire to teach and serve everyone, including those on the margins, those who have been or are in danger of being excluded.”
For more information on the 2017 Course Development Grant request for proposal, visit teacherpipeline.IllinoisState.edu/Programs/Courses.