Tuesday, August 25, 2020

This summer at the Obermann Center, the other staff members and I have been listening compassionately and carefully to the outpouring of pain, anger, accusation, exhaustion, and hope at the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID. We have been learning from artists, scholars, and activists who expose how institutions—including universities, disciplines, and research centers—are embedded in the forces of White supremacy that structure not only our country's economic system, but also our educational and cultural institutions.

In response, we are reflecting on how and where we—individually and institutionally—are entangled in racism’s coils. Are we doing all we can to be sure Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American, and international artists and scholars find the Obermann Center a welcoming, supportive space? Do our programs speak to the interests and concerns of the many communities that make up the University and the area? If not, why not?

We have also recalled with gratitude the artists and scholars of color who have worked with us over the years. We have had the privilege of working with Black faculty, staff, and graduate students—alongside Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American members of the UI community—who have consistently engaged in astonishing, discipline-transforming, life-changing work in the classroom, the studio, the lab, in print, in collaboration, and in public. We honor their accomplishments—achieved despite the crushing effects of racism and the burden of providing extraordinary service and mentoring for the students and colleagues who need them.

In reviewing our history, we were especially struck by two insights that require action.

First, we fully endorse calls for White faculty, staff, and students to extricate themselves from White privilege and to embrace anti-racist, abolitionist, and equitable practices. But to focus all of a campus’ resources and energies on educating White people would be a mistake. Justice and equity also require seeing, celebrating, and actively supporting the work of artists and intellectuals whose perspectives as people of color, among other lenses, enrich their knowledge, creativity, and vision. These successes strengthen the entire University.

Second, a stunning number of the Black and Latinx faculty members with whom we’ve worked have left the UI. Yes, there are many reasons to move on. But we call on faculty members, deans, the provost, the president, and members of the larger Iowa City community to join us in honest, tough listening and conversations about the reasons why so many faculty and staff of color leave the University. As a predominately White institution, we need to acknowledge past failures, a crucial step in the process of turning the UI into a welcoming professional home for faculty and staff of color. Then, how might we use that problematic and all too common status as a majority White university as a catalyst for rather than an obstacle to change? What, concretely, can the members of majority White universities who are serious about being genuinely inclusive, anti-racist, equitable communities of learning do differently? What would it mean to take on that challenge as a collective effort of this University?

As we’ve seen in the tectonic shifts that suddenly seemed possible this spring and summer, we can accomplish a great deal in fairly short order. For starters, radical transformation requires that White students, staff, and faculty listen to and act upon the hard truths so often repeated by Black and Brown students, staff, and faculty. The real experts—campus student groups, Diversity Councils, and DEI leaders—are already doing this work and need our support. How can we encourage Black, Brown, and White faculty to serve on DEI committees and Diversity Councils? How will we reward them for that emotional as well as administrative labor? When our colleagues do take on this service for the greater good, we can’t let their recommendations land on an administrative back burner. This time, we simply must honor the past and current work of these groups by collectively insisting that their recommendations be adopted.

Revising courses and curricula to include the abundant but often ignored work by artists, researchers, and scholars of color requires effort. But for passionate teachers, that process will be inspiring and energizing.

Even if we dedicate ourselves to these efforts, we will only progress toward equity if White members of the UI join faculty, staff, and students of color in demanding that everyone be treated justly and respectfully by police and local government and local businesses.

Of course, it’s far easier to say what we (or they) should do than what I will do. So, I’ll conclude by focusing specifically on what those of us at the Obermann Center will try to do.

Our ongoing commitment is to learn where we have failed and how we can improve as we go forward. We invite your suggestions and we’ll do our best to address them. We will listen, learn, and strive to be co-conspirators in dismantling White supremacy. One way we will do that is by challenging ourselves and those who participate in the Center to engage in ongoing self-examination and efforts to create a socially just university. Absorbing the lessons of these last months, we will think intentionally with Obermann participants—from our Advisory Board to the many people in our Working Groups to those we fund through our programs—about ways to design projects and collaborations that treat inclusion, equity, anti-racism, and social justice as integral, not ancillary. In addition to hosting our own events to encourage hard dialogues, we welcome you to invite us to be co-sponsors of yours. That can involve small amounts of funding, but also publicity.

Finally, we will do our best to keep the joy of learning, sharing, collaborating, upending, engaging, and creating at the heart of our practice and our responses to the truly amazing people who come through the actual or virtual door of the Obermann Center with a dream, a desire, or a good idea.  

With warmest good wishes for the strange semester that awaits us,

Teresa Mangum
Professor, Departments of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and English

Director, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies