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Race, Racism & Racial Equity Symposium

On Dec. 9, the final Race, Racism & Racial Equity Symposium of the Fall 2021 semester was held. During the session, researchers and faculty from the School of Government, the School of Education and the School of Public Health – and community partners – shared their research into racial equity interventions that are used to dismantle systems of oppression.

“We are encouraged that colleagues are doing critical work to help us understand how to address injustices that affect our entire community,” noted Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Leah Cox, as she welcomed the virtual audience. Over 500 participants attended the event, hosted by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the School of Social Work Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Jordan Institute for Families.

Moderated by Dr. Travis Albritton, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Social Work, the symposium’s presentations showed that by thinking and acting collectively and building coalitions across systems and institutions, we can challenge the existing power within to create greater racial equity.

Ayesha Hashim, assistant professor of Educational Policy and Leadership, presented her research (based on a paper co-authored with Katharine O. Strunk and Tasminda K. Dhaliwal) on suspension bans and restorative justice programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Suspensions are a social justice issue in K-12 and could be one of the most critical justice issues,” she stated. “In L.A., zero-tolerance policies pushed students out of the classroom. This led to a decline in student achievement, increase in substance abuse, incarceration and propensity to drop out of school.”

Zero tolerance meant that something as simple as rolling one’s eyes or talking back to a teacher – labeled “willful defiance” – would have been sufficient cause for suspension. With Black, Latin and male students are disciplined at substantially higher rates, the impact on those communities is profound. In essence, schools were systematically pushing out marginalized students of color into incarceration and worse.

Efforts by the LAUSD in 2006 to introduce intervention strategies that promote positive student behavior that would avoid suspensions didn’t address inequities or disproportionalities. By 2011, suspensions for willful defiance were banned and all decisions had to be reported to a central office to ensure compliance. In 2014, the Restorative Justice program – a school climate bill of rights passed by the Board of Education – was introduced. Comprised of a $4.9 million budget for restorative justice training for schools, with districts targeting high-infraction schools first and hiring restorative justice specialists and counselors to work across the district. This allowed for trends to be better tracked and schools to be accountable.

By creating centralization of student discipline procedures, an environment where dramatic declines in suspension rates and disproportionalities could be felt and systemic consequences were reached, with implications for the current K-12 context. “The notion of restorative justice and the need to understand the philosophy of the program changes the power dynamics in the classrooms. Everyone becomes accountable.”

Emily Coward, member of the School of Government’s Public Defense Education group and director and project attorney for the NC Racial Equity Network, and Yolanda Fair, an assistant public defender with the Office of the Public Defender (28th Judicial District), an alumna from UNC School of Government’s and a member of the NC Racial Equity Network (NC REN), focused their presentation on issues of race in North Carolina criminal cases. NC REN is comprised of defenders who are institutionally positioned to seek racial justice.

“We have an obligation to understand the racist history of our legal system, acknowledge our own privilege and power, and be able to address uncomfortable issues surrounding race,” said Emily. “A lawyer needs to be able to raise these issues early in a case to address bias and racism [because] social science research shows that there is juror bias.”

NC REN’s transformative strategy is to practice and develop with people who will encourage and support each other in ensuring that racial justice is met. As one of the few Black attorneys in her Asheville office, Yolanda appreciated the sense of community a brain trust created to work with another attorney in Mecklenburg County to support each other in their cases and to brainstorm with groups of attorneys to address jury selection and design cross-examination questions for witnesses.

“NC REN attorneys share a group text for a case about a [racially targeted] traffic stop, and they all show up so they can exercise agency collectively to try and shift the culture,” said Emily. “Once you get these conversations started, what is unsaid in the courtroom can still shift what’s happening. It also builds a strong rapport with the client because you have their back and can speak to their experience where it matters most.”

“Knowing that you are the only person who will raise the issue and knowing how to use the right language for a judge or witness is helpful,” added Yolanda. “Work can be slow because these are systems that have existed for hundreds of years, but the incremental change of advocating for my clients every day to the same judges means I no longer have to say as much now.”

One of the most highly regarded racial trainings is provided by the Racial Equity Institute (REI), co-founded by Managing Director Deena Hayes-Greene. She and Dane Emmerling, a PhD candidate in the Department of Health Behavior at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, spoke about the importance of educating people about structural racism. “It is a fundamental cause of health and health disparities, impacting every aspect of health,” said Deena. “An estimated $8 billion a year is spent on diversity trainings, which can impact attitudes, but there is disagreement about how trainings shift behaviors and organizational outcomes.”

The purpose of their community partnership is to provide robust answers by conducting long interviews with community organizers and trainers, conducting a survey that is completed by participants both before and after their training (3,500 people have already taken the survey, thus creating robust data) and changing people’s attitudes – especially leaders who can now view disparities through a different lens.

“This is movement work, not response,” said Deena. “You have to find a community in your area that is building this coalition so you can think strategically. It’s very tactical, nuanced work. Every time you use the word ‘race,’ people feel attacked because they’re white. It’s not about taking stuff out on each other. Telling white people ‘Your silence is violence and you’re taking up too much space’ is conflicting. We don’t want to beat people down who want to be at the table. There will always be [uncomfortable] dynamics, and we work hard to notice things and know the obstacles and boundaries of this work. We don’t have to question ‘What’s the angle here?’ [Ultimately, you have to ask yourself] Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?”


Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity and Inclusion

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