Racial Justice Teach-in Organizers Work Towards Dialogue about Race on Campus

Photo by Kevin Fuhrmann, The Quadrangle
Photo by Kevin Fuhrmann, The Quadrangle

This year’s racial justice teach-in organizers, David Witzling and Evelyn Scaramella, have a clear message for the college community: it’s time to talk about race.

Witzling, Ph.D. and associate professor of English, along with Scaramella, Ph.D. and assistant professor of Spanish, were among the key organizers of the racial justice teach-in held on campus last week. The four hour event was packed with lectures from faculty and activists, panel discussions and community dialogue.

While putting together the teach-in was no small feat, for Witzling and Scaramella, this is a passion—and one that began last year prior to the first campus teach-in.

News of cases of police violence against blacks, most famously those in Ferguson and New York City, swept the nation last year as many Americans began to take a new look at race relations.

“As all of the news coming out of Ferguson ….news about the Eric Garner case here and other cases…I started to feel like, like my hope that teaching people about African-American history and culture and about the history of racism in classrooms hadn’t been doing enough over the many years that I’ve been teaching that stuff,” Witzling said. “We actually had to take knowledge and ideas about race and racism out of the classroom.”

That idea prompted the first of a series of teach-ins and racial justice town halls dedicated to bringing a conversation to campus about race and ethnicity, on a campus that remained relatively quiet during a time when students other universities were organizing “Black Lives Matter” events, die-ins and protests to express both support and concern.

“I myself have noticed that this campus is not politically active in comparison to other campuses where I’ve studied or taught….and that bothers me,” Witzling said. “Students sometimes complain themselves to me. I know some students wish it were different.”

“One of our ongoing goals in organizing this event this week and future events is to foster an activist spirit amongst students, foster knowledge about how to get involved in political action among students,” he said.

The campus climate was a driving force behind why Witzling and Scaramella felt the first teach-in was necessary, and Scaramella said that this semester’s teach-in came as a result of the success of the first.

“The teach-in last semester confirmed my sense that not just me but many of our students want and need discussion about racial politics and racial justice,” Witzling said.

That discussion was continued last week when academic lectures blended with panel discussions for a second racial justice teach-in.

While awareness of racial and ethnic issues is certainly a goal of the teach-ins, Scaramella puts them in a broader context.

“I think, as an end goal [of the teach-ins is] to change not only…the cultural climate on campus towards students of color or faculty of color, but the ultimate goal being to make this community more diverse, which is strikingly not diverse given the New York City location,” Scaramella said. “I think the complacency goes with, some ways, we are too homogenous. We need to try to represent more accurately what New York City communities look like, what the Bronx looks like.”

She also calls on the Lasallian mission of the college as a way to look at racial justice in a new light.

“The relationship between what we say our Lasallian values are and what our mission is….and again, strengthening our commitment as a Lasallian catholic community to serve underrepresented populations,” she said. “I think we have a long ways to go in doing that.”

While they may have bold visions for the future of the college, Witzling and Scaramella’s work in organizing the teach-ins have come with support from both faculty and administration.

“There seems to be a pretty widespread belief among faculty in the School of Liberal Arts and among a lot of our administrators….that more needs to happen on campus to create understanding of these issues,” Witzling said.

By creating partnerships with staff from the multicultural center, student life administration and other faculty, Scaramella said she was able to craft these teach-ins.

But now that the teach-in is over, what’s next for these faculty?

For Witzling, he says there is more to be done from an academic perspective and proposes the creation of a center for the study of race and ethnicity at Manhattan College.

“Some of the faculty in the School of Arts are hoping that the college will support the creation of a permanent center for the study of race, ethnicity and cultural diversity,” he said. “We’ve thought this would be a good idea academically for a long time, and feedback from the teach-ins has convinced us that this is an absolute must and should happen soon.”

“We were pushing to try and awaken the community, not even just politically,” Scaramella said. “We need to be talking about race, ethnicity and racism as a part of that conversation.”