UNH increases efforts to address racism in its curriculum, culture

DURHAM — The University of New Hampshire has begun to evaluate its curriculum and culture to address institutional racism in response to renewed international calls for change.

Black, indigenous and other people of color involved in these efforts emphasize the predominantly white college will struggle with this complex, centuries-old issue unless everyone more fully and actively participates in the process.

“We — all of us, every single Wildcat — has not only a right but a duty to participate in this conversation to, at campus, holding folks accountable,” said Tito Jackson, Class of 1999, who spurred UNH to make several landmark changes involving race during his time as a history major there. “At the University of New Hampshire, we have potential but we are absolutely not where we need to be — and that affects the value of our degree. I would submit to you there’s a financial component here. Getting to know folks who are from diverse backgrounds, challenging each other in classrooms and also in social and school leadership settings makes not for only better students, but the product that we’re putting out to the public means that our young people who are going out and competing are going to be able to represent, are going to be able to lead and be able to move things forward in ways that are culturally competent, that actually think about these things and take us to the next level.”

The university announced a new action plan on racism in June following a student-organized Black Lives Matter rally in Durham that coincided with similar events and protests across the country and world.

UNH President Jim Dean has said the university is now in the “listening and learning” phase. “This is something we can’t do enough of when it comes to race in America,” said Dean.

Dean has said UNH will use the knowledge of its subject matter experts and stakeholders, along with various information, studies and other work, to take formal action in six weeks.

Part of the listening and learning has included various UNH-hosted community discussions on race, including a panel that included Jackson last Wednesday. Listening and self-education were big themes of that webinar. So was the idea that staying silent, preaching colorblindness or using other language that obfuscates racial injustice — such as the way “All Lives Matter” is used in relation to “Black Lives Matter” — fuels racism and harms people of color.

“I think a lot of times we think moving forward means pretending that race doesn’t exist, that moving forward is living in a race-blind society. That’s not moving forward,” Julian Maduro, a UNH senior and one of the organizers of the recent Black Lives Matter rally on campus, said during the webinar. “You see, when we take our race out of the conversation — (when) we pretend it doesn’t exist — we take ourselves out of the conversation and you leave room for somebody who believes race is a problem. And let me tell you, people who believe race is a problem have no issue talking about race. You don’t want the people of color in your life, in your community, to only have those voices bringing the topic of race into conversation. It’s never been enough to be not racist. We must be actively anti-racist. And to do that we have to educate and celebrate both sides. I want to see that done at UNH.”

Maduro, a Greenland resident, said she’s experienced this firsthand, both growing up as one of only five Black people in Naperville, Illinois, and later when her family moved to the Seacoast and she attended Portsmouth High School.

Maduro said growing up she didn’t realize she was Black until her elementary school peers started saying things like, “Julian, you don’t talk like you’re Black,” and another child in her neighborhood asked her “What’s it like growing up in the ghetto?” She said the discomfort and pain grew as she was excluded from slavery conversations in her classrooms, as middle school peers commented they didn’t want to date a person because they were Black, and as she felt she had to stay silent as PHS peers said racially insensitive things.

Maduro said it made her pretend away or ignore her blackness, up until she found some of UNH’s inclusive student groups and university offices specifically designed to support and advocate for Black students, Black queer and transgender students, and other marginalized populations.

“The thing is, even when you try to ignore it, race is still there. Me pretending I wasn’t Black doesn’t mean other people didn’t see me as a Black woman,” said Maduro. “All that ignoring race did was make it feel difficult to feel like I had anybody to talk to about it, difficult to start a conversation. Even in the community that I lived in, those conversations weren’t being had anyway. We kind of ignored race as a whole because we didn’t want anybody to be uncomfortable. We didn’t want to be accidentally racist, so we’d rather just not talk about it in general. But all that meant was that I didn’t have anyone to go to when I felt uncomfortable.”

So, what can UNH do to address these things at a systemic level?

Kabria Baumgartner, an assistant professor of American studies at UNH, said the university “at the very minimum” needs a mandatory course that introduces all UNH students to the history of race, racism and antiracism.

“I have suggested establishing an innovative Center for Race and Ethnic Studies to centralize and coordinate programming and course offerings as well as related initiatives across the university,” said Baumgartner, whose courses include one on narratives of freedom that features the writings of enslaved people. “A student majoring in the life sciences may think that race doesn’t fit into their field of study, but I would press upon them to learn about Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and the expansion of medical science. This knowledge is critical.”

She said she hopes UNH can at the same time address the hiring processes.

“Similar to other colleges and universities, structural racism at the University of New Hampshire is especially problematic in hiring, recruiting and retaining BIPOC staff, students and faculty,” said Baumgartner, who last week led an institutional racism discussion for faculty in the College of Liberal Arts.

Baumgartner pointed out UNH appears to have “very limited longitudinal data on the number of faculty and staff of color at the university” — she said there were only six Black faculty members in 2016 — and that UNH cannot create detailed plans to address structural racism in recruiting if there are no metrics.

UNH Provost Wayne Jones stressed during Wednesday’s seminar UNH cannot over-rely on its Black faculty and students to effectively make changes within its curriculum and classrooms.

“Right now, every college around the university is doing their own approach to, ‘How do we engage in a dialogue?’” said Jones. “I think it’s the responsibility of every faculty member to be involved in that conversation.”

In terms of culture, Jackson said UNH has made significant progress since the 1990s, when racially charged campus incidents and his experience as one of only 54 Black UNH students inspired him to advocate for change.

Jackson, the CEO of Verdant Medical and a former Boston city councilor, spearheaded the creation of UNH’s Black Student Union while he was a student at the university. He helped spur UNH to create the multicultural affairs office that the university recently renamed the Beauregard Center to honor an influential student. He and fellow students also demanded administrators increase recruitment of female and non-athlete people of color, as the majority of UNH’s Black students were male athletic recruits at the time.

However, Jackson and Maduro each pointed out that there are Black student groups on campus that still don’t receive funding through the university’s student activity fee because their leadership structures are closed. Those groups include QTPOC, which stands for Queer and Trans People of Color, and NALA, a group for women of Color.

Maduro said these organizations are closed to help protect students who might not have any other support in their lives.

“They’re doing really great work,” Maduro said. “Groups like QTPOC cannot open. It is a group… (where) some of (its members) are not out. Some of them don’t want to be out. It cannot be open to people.”

Jackson called on Dean and other university leaders to change that and/or to fund these organizations using directed alumni fundraising campaigns and support from national foundations.

A key piece of any race-focused changes in curriculum or campus culture will be student buy-in, Maduro said.

To Jackson and Maduro, it will also require finding ways to inspire all students, particularly white students, to seek information about race issues and Black culture from reliable sources in the same ways they seek information about everything else.

“By the way, Julian and I had to learn these things on our own because just like you… we didn’t learn about our own history. A lot of this was additional stuff we had to learn,” Jackson said.

“I think that’s so important,” Maduro said. “I think there’s this idea that Black people are born with this knowledge of their history… You have to go and figure that out by yourself. … You don’t need a Black person in the room, necessarily, to learn about Black culture. … Take that burden off of somebody else to have to educate yourself about who they are and learn for yourself because people of color in America have had to learn about how to be white in America.”

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