Living Our Values: A Call to Do Better
Below is the letter sent to the Converse community from President Krista L. Newkirk on June 2, 2020.
That each of us “may be enabled to see clearly, decide wisely, and to act justly.”
We often quote the Founder’s Ideal at Converse, but this week it feels especially crucial.
As the President of Converse, I am careful about what topics I engage in. My role is to lead Converse as it strives to provide the best education possible for its students. I have decided, however, that I cannot in good conscience lead and remain silent when the very values we hold dear are on trial in this great democracy.
Like many of you, I watched the video of George Floyd’s death and the actions of the police officer who remained deliberately stoic and detached as if the life ebbing out beneath that very knee meant too little to bother to move. This wasn’t the first unjust death perpetrated against a black man by those who are there to protect and to serve. We’ve seen so many others: Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Walter Scott in South Carolina, just to name a few examples of unjustified levels of police violence against black men. This is not just an issue of law enforcement and a few bad actors in that profession. There are many wonderful police officers who also loathe these horrific acts because they see them as a direct violation of the creed and purpose to which they have devoted their lives. The deaths of these men, and the many others we have heard about in the last few years merely highlight the impact of a system of racism.
We’ve watched how systemic racist policies have economic impacts that directly influence lives. We’ve seen these statistics for far too long, but it took a pandemic to put the stories of the effects of such racism before us. Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate that is three times that of white Americans. In some states, the death rate for blacks is seven times that of whites. We have seen blacks and Hispanics face much higher rates of unemployment due to the pandemic. We know that black women are two to six times more likely to die due to pregnancy complications than white women. We know from the American Academy of Family Physicians that “blacks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are more likely to live with or die from conditions that typically occur at older ages in whites, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. That’s because risk factors for some of these conditions, such as high blood pressure, aren’t being detected and treated in younger blacks.” We have had the data and information to see clearly for a very long time. It took this pandemic and another cruel and senseless death on camera to highlight the injustices in our own backyards.
To you, my Converse family, I say this. I am so sorry for the pain, trauma, and frustration that so many of you are feeling. These events have made a powerful and personal impact on all of us. If you need support during this time, counseling services are available to faculty and staff through the Employee Assistance Program and to students through the Wellness Center.
It is our responsibility as Americans and members of this society to do better to uphold the fundamental principles of this great nation, and it is our responsibility as educators and scholars to help others understand these principles. Martin Luther King, Jr., told us: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” No person is born a racist. We know that racism is taught. As a community of scholars, we must address our own biases and teach our students how to do the same. We must strive to teach a comprehensive view of history where the story of all is told. We must provide a thorough education on the impacts of social policy. We must show the fallacies of those policies and philosophies that embed so deeply the racism that allow many to live in the comfort of privilege. Converse, we must raise our voices to condemn the racist actions around us. We must model respect for diversity and the power of love and community. We cannot be silent or apathetic. By doing so, we allow hatred, racism, and violence to grow in our midst. In short, we must do better.
As Toni Morrison reminded us, “The function of freedom is to free somebody else.” So, I implore you to search your soul and to ask yourself: what can I do better; what can Converse do better; what can we as educators and scholars do better? Now that we can see more clearly, how do we decide more wisely and act more justly? We know that change takes time, but it will take much longer if each of us fails to do what we can to create a community where each life is equally valued and protected. I urge you to use your voices now to stand up for the values we hold so dear, the truths we hold to be self-evident: that all are created equal.