An overflow crowd of students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community gathered at the University of Vermont and via Twitter on September 22 to hear Dr. Omid Safi talk entitled Racism, Islamophobia, and Empire. An internationally recognized scholar on Islam, Dr. Safi is a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University. In light of events over the past year, Professor of Social Work Dr. Susan Comerford and Amna Baloch MSW '16 invited Dr. Safi to UVM to engage in dialogue with faculty, students, staff, and the community around Islam and the current political climate.
“Last year our graduate students in social work began having conversations about the need for an event like this,” said Comerford. “Dr. Safi’s visit was designed to provoke thoughts and ideas matched with the social justice mission of the university, and as a carry and call to what is happening in our world today,” she said.
Baloch was the catalyst who inspired Dr. Safi to make the trip to UVM. During her undergraduate studies she got to know Professor Safi at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they built an enduring connection and profound mutual respect for one another. “I could see us being able to come together to connect experiences of oppression from several different marginalized communities,” said Baloch, “while introducing a perspective that was rooted in faith, religion, and social justice.”
“Amna is a very courageous and deeply principled person who will stand up and advocate strongly for her beliefs,” said Comerford. “This is a very important skill that our students learn in the social work program.”
In a series of events leading up to the public lecture, Dr. Safi visited with UVM leaders, faculty, staff, students and community members. He engaged in conversations with graduate students in the social work program, and with undergraduate students in a variety of classes, including Comerford’s Racism and Contemporary Society class. “Students had an opportunity to learn firsthand about the struggles of a Muslim man,” said Comerford, “and that makes it real.”
Following this, Dr. Safi spoke with students in Professor Cynthia Reyes’ Language Policy Issues, Race, and Schooling class. “Students were deeply moved by Professor Safi’s personal story,” said Reyes. “I learned that as a teacher you can really have a huge impact, positive or negative, on your students,” commented Ben Vachereau, a senior in the middle level education program.
In Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s Religion and Empire class, Dr. Safi had a conversation with students about global and historical patterns of racism, racialization, and categorization as a mechanism of power. “The students were incredibly engaged—even more so than usual,” said Morgenstein Fuerst.
Continuing with a very busy schedule, Dr. Safi also met with the UVM Muslim Student Association, and with Vermont Refugee Service Providers.
In the culminating event, Dr. Safi delivered a memorable talk with one of the largest crowds to ever attend a Burack Lecture at UVM. The audience extended beyond the main venue, as it was broadcast to a second location on campus due to the overflow crowd. The event was also live-streamed on Twitter. In an especially poignant moment, Dr. Safi reflected on a universal truth he has witnessed throughout the world. “We all love our babies,” he said, reflecting on how the world could be if we all loved each other this way, regardless of race, religion, location, or any other differences.
Dr. Safi’s visit brought a number of different groups and demographics together, including various religious, educational and refugee communities. This is an important dimension moving forward, according to Professor Comerford. “In social work we prefer to talk about ‘people with commonalities and socially significant differences’, rather than categorizing people or groups as being ‘diverse’,” she said.
Baloch was thrilled to see the vision become reality. “The turnout for the event alone made it all worth it,” she said. “Even though I had made so many friends and contacts in my time in Burlington, there were so many new faces in the room…my true gratitude goes out to everyone who came out and supported our efforts in whatever way they could.”
“We are so very grateful for the Buracks' generosity that enables UVM to provide this intellectual gift to our community,” said Comerford. “Moving forward, we hope to continue with this meaningful dialogue, including future guest speakers and events in an effort to bring people together:”
A recorded video of Dr. Safi’s lecture is available on the UVM web site here.