‘The time is now’: Faculty and students discuss race, community at Juneteenth panel

Dana+Thompson+Dorsey+and+Sherdina+Harper+moderated+the+Juneteenth+panel+featuring+Pitt+students%2C+staff+and+alumni.

Dana Thompson Dorsey and Sherdina Harper moderated the Juneteenth panel featuring Pitt students, staff and alumni.

By Benjamin Nigrosh, News Editor

When Shenay Jeffrey began her staff position at Pitt in 2016, she said she felt a weight of not knowing how her identity would be received in the community.

“Alton Sterling, Philando Castille and countless others died that summer. I showed up to a new job not knowing how my Blackness was going to be received,” Jeffrey, the assistant director of PittServes, said. “We need to know, and figure out a way how us as Black students, staff and alum, as well as an administration, how do we really think about our own students, our Black students’ liberation.”

Jeffrey and other members of the Pitt community spoke at Friday afternoon’s “Juneteenth: A Prelude to True Social Justice and Equity at Pitt” event hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Equipoise. Dana Thompson Dorsey, the associate director for research and development in the Center for Urban Education, and Sherdina Harper, the cross cultural programming coordinator and Black Action Society adviser, moderated the event.

Harper said many students she works with feel “bamboozled” by the disparity between the University’s claims of diversity and the reality on campus.

“‘I was told that when I came to Pitt I was going to see all of this culture and this Blackness. Then I got here and it was just a sea of whiteness,’” Harper said.

Destiny Mann, the vice president of Black Action Society, echoed this sentiment and said she felt the University’s commitment to diversity was reflected more in rhetoric than practice. While Black students have spaces, such as the BAS office on the sixth floor of the William Pitt Union, she said, all cultural organizations share limited space in the WPU.

“While there are Black students on campus, you don’t see them,” Mann, a rising junior political science and Africana Studies double major, said. “You really have to search at this point, and that’s not something that they tell you. They say, ‘We’re diverse,’ but they don’t tell you that they spread it out.”

Valerie Njie, the president-elect of the Pitt Alumni Association and one of the original members of BAS, implored Mann that she and other Black student leaders should flex their power when making demands of the administration.

“You guys have more power than you think you have,” Njie said. “The blueprint is already there. It’s not just BAS, it’s all of the organizations, it’s every person of color and it is the community.”

But creating a strong support network for Black students becomes difficult, Mann said, when the University continues to advertise a commitment to diversity without providing additional staff resources for students.

“I have to do all of the work, I’m making sure Black students are staying at Pitt, I’m making sure that people are still okay,” Mann said. “At that point I have to be a student, I have to be a mentor, I have to be providing resources and it weighs heavily on the leaders of Black Pitt.”

This strategy can only work for so long, Mann said. But she added the current BAS leadership is committed to fostering a strong, supportive Black community at Pitt.

“We want that community, we want to be connected with faculty, we want to be connected with students, we want to learn and be there for each other,” Mann said. “In the past it hasn’t been there, but I’m telling you now that the leadership, currently, that is our goal. Our goal is a family. We all want to be there for each other.”

According to Njie, these circumstances are similar to what BAS encountered when it first formed. 

“There was power in the beginning when there was just a handful of students and the administration back in ‘68,” Njie said. “You guys have the power. You just need to decide how you’re going to come together and execute.”

Dante Watson, a senior communications and Africana Studies double major, said he has rarely seen Black educators on Pitt’s faculty outside of the Africana Studies department. One way for the University to invest in the strength of its Black community is to have more Black educators in its classrooms, he said.

“If we see more Black representation within the classrooms, people who are helping to educate us,” Watson, a track and field athlete, said. “We will definitely see a better turnout in terms of Black recruitment and Black retainment.”

According to Curtiss Porter, a founder of BAS and one of the leaders of the group’s famous 1969 sit-in, universities must invest in “ladders of success” to see the change they have spoken of for so long.

“You [must] understand the social ramifications that surround your institutions and the factors external to the institution that push you and require you to do something about the social factors that indeed surround it,” Porter said.

Jeffrey agreed, imploring that greater representation of Black educators is needed. But she said a seat at the table is only the minimum — the real work begins when the administration recognizes the Black voices in its community and highlights them.

“For us to really grapple with recruitment, we have to grapple with this system of bureaucracy,” Jeffrey said. “There’s a real understanding that has to be deeper about ‘Okay, these people are in a room, but whose voices are not being elevated? Who are we dismissing?’ That has to come from the people in the room that have the leverage to say those things.”

In order for this to happen, Dorsey said, the language we use to speak about these issues needs to change.

“What we want is equity, because that is what we need, because of this opportunity gap that has existed far too long in our policies and practices,” Dorsey said. “The language we use, the history of stories we tell, we have to make sure that language is incorporated.”

The community has the power to create the change, Porter said. It is by protesting and demanding justice that Black citizens across Pittsburgh and the nation will receive the equity they have so long deserved.

“These uprisings in our nation will definitely have an impact on institutions of higher education,” Porter said. “These things will eventually be codified into new laws, new policies, new directions for the nation, new impacts upon institutions of all stripes, including higher education. Smart institutions will get ahead of the curve.”

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