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Vassar Summer Institute Examines Race, Power, and Resources

A commitment to collaboration and the willingness of leaders to cede some of their power are the keys to fostering racial justice and equitable economic progress. That was the message from academicians, philanthropists, and community activists at a two-day conference hosted by the Vassar Summer Institute for the Liberal Arts.  

The conference, presented virtually, was titled “From Protest to Progress: Higher Education, Cities, and Racial Justice.” But as she summed up the discussions following the final session on August 18, Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley said it was clear that the journey from protest to progress required another element: “You don’t make progress until you develop a process to tackle power,” Bradley said.

Participants in “From Protest to Progress: Higher Education, Cities, and Racial Justice,” hosted by the Vassar Summer Institute for the Liberal Arts: Top row (left to right): Jennifer Ching, Executive Director of the North Star Fund; David Berg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine; Ashleigh Gardere, director of the All-In Cities Project at PolicyLink. Bottom row (left to right): Associate Professor of English Tyrone Simpson and Jerry Maldonado, Director of Cities and States for the Ford Foundation.

The President said the Institute was established to enable Vassar to play a key role in fostering dialogue about higher education and contemporary challenges, globally, nationally, and locally. In its inaugural session in 2018, Vassar faculty, alumnae/i, and policy experts from Eastern Europe examined “grand strategies” on global issues. Last summer, the Institute hosted local leaders and education policymakers to discuss the role of the liberal arts in addressing issues affecting nearby communities. “This year,” Bradley said, “the topic for the Institute was obvious. As we got together and began our planning, we really wanted to talk about how higher education institutions can play a part in reducing racial injustice and promoting inclusive economic development.”

Planning and implementation for this year's Summer Institute for the Liberal Arts was led by Wesley Dixon, Secretary of the Board of Trustees; Professor of Film Mia Mask; Associate Professor of German Elliot Schreiber; and Tom Pacio, Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator.

The conference’s first speaker, Ashleigh Gardere, director of the All-In Cities Project at PolicyLink, a national research institute dedicated to social justice, said she witnessed the importance of collaboration when she was a city official in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “When Katrina hit, $120 billion was invested by the federal government and things got worse,” Gardere said.

It was only after the city created a broad coalition of business and community-based groups that the unemployment rate for African American men began to decline. Progress wasn’t made until groups that had not previously worked together engaged in meaningful dialog about differing points of view and engaged in difficult conversations. “You don’t have everybody at the table if you’re comfortable with everybody at the table,” Gardere said.

In his presentation on group dynamics, David Berg, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, said success in many endeavors, including race relations, hinges in part on the willingness of those in power to relinquish some of it. But Berg said leaders will only agree to do so if they are convinced that it will lead to success in achieving shared goals. And he added that such an outcome is often hindered by a reluctance to talk frankly about race. “In race relations, the biggest hurdle to making progress is the tacit agreement not to talk about it,” he said.

Berg said building coalitions among those with radically different histories is especially challenging. “It took a long time for us to get where we are, so it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “But (those in power) must have a sustained willingness to get attacked because of the distrust between community groups and government and academics.”

Associate Professor of English Tyrone Simpson asked a panel of Vassar faculty members to discuss how they have expanded their classrooms to include people and organizations in the community. “The boundary between the College and the community seems to be breaking down,” Simpson said.

Professor of Hispanic Studies Eva Woods Peiró said her scholarly research on immigration issues on the Spain-Morocco border had prompted her to engage her students in issues involving immigrants in Poughkeepsie who had come from Mexico. She has since expanded her teaching to include visits to the local community and guest appearances by representatives of two grassroots organizations, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson and the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN).  She said the work was critical. “Many of our faculty, students, and administrators are involved,” Woods Peiró said.” This is a pivotal moment, and we realize that higher education has a role to play in changing minds and policies.”

The second day of the conference featured a dialog between two philanthropists who have worked with organizations in the Hudson Valley. Jerry Maldonado, Director of Cities and States for the Ford Foundation, described the events of the last six months as a “gut-wrenching rollercoaster.”

Maldonado said the economic issues triggered by the COVID-19 virus and high-profile incidents of police violence had heightened many people’s awareness of racial inequity. “The incredible activism we have seen gives us a powerful vision of what can be—we are indeed in a privileged position,” he said. “The question is: How can we unleash this radical imagination and use our resources—not just dollars but also relationships and enlightened leadership?” 

Jennifer Ching, Executive Director of the North Star Fund, a philanthropic organization dedicated to social justice, said her organization’s prime mission was empowering the people and organizations it supports. “We’ve witnessed 25 years of growing investments and the flow of capital (in the nation’s economy) and we are still seeing inequity across the board,” Ching said. “At North Star, I am challenging myself to dismantle white supremacy by finding ways to transfer the power to the people most proximate to justice.”

She said North Star’s Let Us Breathe Fund, established in 2015, supports black activists focused on eradicating state violence in New York City and the Hudson Valley.

The final speaker at the conference, Scot Spencer, Associate Director of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, said the city’s largest employer, Johns Hopkins Hospital, had found creative ways to support local minority-owned businesses buy modifying its bidding procedures. Spencer said Johns Hopkins University also had launched a scholarship program for qualified local students who otherwise could not afford to attend. 

In her closing remarks, President Bradley thanked all of the participants for their observations on promoting racial justice and equitable economic development. And she said she was confident that the College and the Institute would continue to spur more dialog on these issues. “Vassar can play a role as an educator and a convener, and the Institute can be a vehicle for this kind of work,” Bradley said. “We are invested in continuing this conversation.