Working together on racial justice

Shaya Gregory PokuShaya Gregory Poku encourages collaborative community-building to accomplish goals

As the new academic year begins and the college continues its ongoing racial justice work, Wheaton College’s Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity and Belonging Shaya Gregory Poku discusses the need for collaboration among all community members to continue to make progress. This is part two of a three-part conversation with Wheaton magazine editor Sandy Coleman.

Why is this the work of everyone and not just those who are part of historically marginalized groups?

“I will harken back to Judge Laban Wheaton. He decided to support women’s rights even though he didn’t personally identify as a woman. Now, each person who has ever been a student at Wheaton, worked at Wheaton, or has loved a person with ties to Wheaton, is still benefiting from his decision more than 180 years later. That is powerful. That is the impact of pursuing equity, even when it is controversial.

“There are also business implications. If we want Wheaton to be the best that it can be as an institution, it is imperative that we recognize that the best ideas come from the collective wisdom of a pluralistic body.

“There are studies that clearly show how companies that are diverse in terms of race and gender outperform their competitors. This is a consistent theme around the world. When we work to undermine structural racism and injustice, we create more space to amplify the value of the talent that exists in our community and maximize it. For Wheaton to attract and retain the top-notch staff and faculty to support and educate our students well, we must focus on these matters.”

How can the members of the Wheaton community contribute to building equity?

“We need everyone actively engaged. Partnering with others to support efforts to address racial injustice is critical. Many people think that the only way to advance equity is to make social media posts or protest, but there are other ways that call us to commit to anti-racism. We need people looking at sourcing and supply chains; writing newspaper exposés; working to change local policies when needed; curating thought-provoking art installations; collecting data about disparities; and adding to the body of research about the multilayered manifestations of racism.

“However, it is critically important to do this work in informed ways that capture the nuances of the issues, value the expertise of those most impacted by the issues, and bring clarity about our own orientation and socialization around these issues. We must engage in reflection about what we have been taught and how we were raised and how it relates to the subtleties of racism no matter how we identify.

“In whatever we do, it is also critical that we are motivated by the desire to correct injustice and not by the desire to collect pats on the back. The Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning and the Wallace library at Wheaton have put together a great repository of resources on anti-racism and equity that I would encourage everyone to review.”

What do you say to those who don’t believe that this work is necessary here?

“Learn about racism and anti-racist practices. Knowledge is central to the thrust of a liberal arts mode of inquiry that values critical thinking. We must ask expansive questions and let students grapple with them.

“I have found that people say they don’t think this work is needed for two main reasons. One, they have not personally experienced or seen any troubling racist acts; but that does not mean they are not happening or that racism does not exist. The second reason, I believe, comes out of fear that anti-racism work is intended to only benefit ‘certain’ members of our community or is a form of indoctrination, which is not the case.

“Also, it can be tempting to point to how much work has already happened and wonder when we’re going to be ‘finished.’ The answer is that the work of justice and equity is never done. Addressing anti-racism is about institutions assuming responsibility for their educational climates and approaches that could have an adverse impact on students. The mission of Wheaton College is to prepare students for the world and to give them tools to be successful in it. Anti-racism work is an evolving part of that mission.”

What hurdles can be expected in trying to achieve the goals?

“Wheaton has the robust 10 action steps toward racial justice put forth by the Diversity, Equity and Access Leadership [DEAL] team. Plans always help the process. However, the challenge remains in helping everyone understand racism as it is internalized and operates institutionally, and not just interpersonally.

“There also is a need for capacity-building to improve our practice. What makes racism so tricky is there is a heavy psychological toll inflicted. The harm of racism is exacerbated when people have a lot of desire to address the issues but lack the tools or training to do it.

“There is the need to continue to improve the work culture for retention of a diverse staff and faculty. There is a need to continue to refine the curriculum so that students see themselves adequately represented in the discourse; and to make sure we’re graduating students who have a grasp of structural inequality. There is also a need to help make sure that the return on investment from the Wheaton experience is comparable across the student body.

“Equity is not just about our high graduation rates, but ensuring there is universal access to the enriching and high impact opportunities that create the transformational liberal arts education that Wheaton delivers. And the list continues from there.”

When incidents occur on campus does that mean the efforts are not working?

“Bias incidents matter tremendously, because they are demoralizing and dehumanizing. They destroy campus climate and erode trust in the community—our faith in each other. That said, focusing only on the number of  racist incidents is not necessarily an accurate barometer of our progress.

“When we solely ascribe racism to overtly racist interpersonal gaffes, we ignore the most pernicious manifestations of racism at the institutional, cultural and systemic levels. What is critical here is to pay attention to Wheaton’s responses and its proactive efforts to prevent  institutional harm and systemic barriers.

“This is where we should measure our progress. Can we increasingly see how Wheaton has invested in new personnel to support these efforts? Has the institution created new policies and approaches to respond more effectively when issues occur? Is it obvious that Wheaton has amended previous policies and practices that were having a negative and disparate impact? Are there more trainings, resources and tools, and mechanisms of accountability to be sure every member of the community is equipped to be anti-racist in their professional and educational practice and held accountable when they are not? These are the equity questions, and if we get these right, we ultimately improve people’s sense of belonging.”