Conversations centered on racism, public health and education

Following the Finding Answers Together teach-in series on identifying and eradicating systemic racism, the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion encouraged the UVM community to actively and authentically engage with racial justice issues at a recent webinar series, Beyond Brave Spaces: Conversations to Inform and Move to Action Together.

On August 5, Vice President Wanda Heading-Grant opened Not Just COVID: Examining the Centuries of Health Care Inequities and Racial Trauma, the first of two webinars, by reflecting on the life and legacy of civil rights activist Congressman John Lewis, who recently died. “‘Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.’ His words have always resonated with me, but now they’re amplified for everyone to hear. Despite the challenges we face and the fear we may feel, we must redouble our efforts and insist on systemic reform,” Heading-Grant said.

She was joined by Dr. Marissa Coleman, clinical psychologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center; C. Brandon Ogbunu, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University; and Dr. Jan Carney, professor of medicine and associate dean for public health and health policy at the Larner College of Medicine. Heading-Grant and the panelists discussed and presented on socio-economic and traumatic historical determinates of health. Following their presentations, they answered viewers’ questions about the links between race and COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities.

“The current manifestations of race and racism aren’t easy to understand—it’s hard to detect generations of structural violence—but it’s not that hard, we have a lot of data to back this up. I implore my scientist colleagues, in particular my quantitative colleagues, to continue to pursue manifestations of structural violence as a scientific frontier of modern medicine and molecular science,” Ogbunu said.

Racism: a public health and educational crisis

The second day of the teach-in explored how racism is both a public health and educational crisis, focusing on students and schools from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade. An overarching message of the session: racism is not simply a matter of what a person believes; it’s baked into our history and economy—and schooling.

“Systemic inequities have been built into our national education,” noted the session’s moderator, Dr. Tiffanie Spencer, Director for Diversity and Community Engagement in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

The first speaker, Cynthia Reyes, a professor in the College of Education and Social Services, reviewed a few key Supreme Court cases and protest actions, including the remarkable 1963 “Children’s Crusade” in Alabama where more than a thousand schoolchildren skipped class to march in Birmingham, that served as a foundation for today’s moment of social agitation and protests against racism. Reyes touched on the complex intersection of current national reform efforts (including the Black Lives Matter protests) with the systemic racism in our school systems and educational policies and funding, now all over-layered with the COVID-19 pandemic. “What should be the purpose of public school education today amidst this crisis?” she asked, “And what is our moral obligation, as a nation, to invest—rather than disinvest—in public schools, which certainly has been happening for the last few decades?”

Lance Smith, also a professor in the College of Education and Social Services, extended the exploration, asking: “How do nice white people, like myself, perpetuate white supremacy in education?” He wasn’t talking about overt hate groups, like the KKK, but rather “the predictive, disproportional white dominance throughout every aspect of education in our society,” he said, ranging from smaller classroom sizes, to disproportional graduation rates, to higher rates of suspension for Black and Brown children. These educational problems are built on a financial and legal history, like the “racial coding,” Smith said, of the GI Bill and decades of neighborhood red-lining intended to “deny wealth and economic mobility and security for Black and brown families.” A racist funding model for education emerged from this wider racist history. Left unexamined, this history and pattern of funding constitute tacit participation in white supremacy, Smith said. Additionally, many schools today broadly accept white cultural capital as their foundations and grading schemes, including overvaluing of perfectionism (got a 100 on your spelling test?) and individualism, for example, while devaluing the strengths of children from minority communities, including their “resistance capital.” These values, left unchallenged in this time of a pandemic, Smith said, will only going to “exacerbate inequities in education.”

Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon, a staff person in the UVM Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, completed the presentations by examining the difficult reality, “between a rock and hard place,” he said, that many families now face in the COVID-19 pandemic: choices that can pit securing a quality education for children against health and employment. He spoke to the broad struggle we now face to both meet the educational needs of all children and to protect the health and well-being of everyone—and how racial inequities deepen this challenge. “Public education, as an institution, was intended to help level the playing field,” Yoon said, “but, sadly, for much of our nation’s history, that has not been true,” and the pandemic has only increased the disparities between affluent students and historically marginalized students, he said. “Make no mistake: the impacts of this pandemic will be generational,” Yoon said, “unless we act together as anti-racists.”

Paul Yoon’s closing call summarized the spirit of the whole teach-in: there is no mythical “in-between safe space of ‘not racist,’” he said, “You’re either actively anti-racist, or racist.”


Writing for this story contributed by Kaitie Catania and Josh Brown