The killing of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police sparked renewed awareness and urgency about racial equity in the U.S. The shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer echoed the frustrations and emotions about racism and policing in America.
In this seminal moment, communities are evaluating how their own systems may impede social and racial equity. Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard believes the College must play a role in this conversation.
“Community colleges are a place to advance not only intellectual growth for students who come to us, but also to create safe spaces for curiosity and difficult conversations,” Dr. Pollard says. “We can be a convener, we can be an educator, and we can have the ability to provide diverse programming. And if we do our job really well, we also create spaces where people feel they can be vulnerable, where they can learn, and, most importantly, where they can share.”
Marcus Peanort, associate dean of student affairs at MC, says his division has sponsored events focused on the lived experience of black students, as well as faculty and staff, not only at the College, but also in the greater community.
Community colleges are a place to advance not only intellectual growth for students who come to us, but also to create safe spaces for curiosity and difficult conversations
“Despite our various differences, there were common experiences centered around our race that have—and continue to—impact us,” Peanort adds. “The murder of George Floyd is one of too many moments that amplify our own traumatic experiences, but it allows us to live our institutional mission to empower and enrich our community through reactive conversations about race, injustice, and structural oppression.”
Dr. Pollard and the leadership team at the College have been promoting these much-needed conversations long before George Floyd’s, Rayshard Brooks’, and Breonna Taylor’s names made headlines. In February, the Office of Equity and Inclusion at MC led the Spring 2020 Equity and Inclusion Dialogues this past February. The event dove into the concept of white fragility through the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. That and many more titles exploring systemic racism have sold out as much of the country has collectively joined this exploration.
“Because we are so diverse and we revel in diversity as a brand but also as an intentional way in which we do our work, I think we have been so far ahead of other places and communities when it comes to these types of issues,” Dr. Pollard said.
The issue of systemic racism affects Dr. Pollard as a community college president, but moreover, as a mom. She and her teenage son, Myles, have had what she calls “The Talk,” a conversation between parents and their black and brown kids about how to stay safe in a world that perceives them as a threat.
“It’s not, George Floyd has been murdered, let’s have this conversation,” she says. “It’s because George Floyd was murdered, we are going to have this conversation—again. I’ve had the same conversations about Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.”
Dr. Pollard says her conversations with her son are always very simple: “I want him to understand that his number one job is to come home safe every day. To understand why some people may see him as a threat even though this goofy, funny, 13-year-old boy is not in any way threatening to anyone but his body now is betraying him. He no longer has an angelic face, he is all angles and muscles and taller than me, and filling out. All this stuff happens that at some point you realize he is making this transition and he is having to do it publicly, out loud, and not only dealing with his issues of self-confidence, and understanding how his body works, but also grappling with the public perceptions of who he is and how that plays itself out. So I tell him “‘come home safe, be aware of how the people may perceive you, but you are a glorious little boy.’”
Dr. Pollard believes the United States is dealing with two viruses. “First, we have the deep-seeded, under-examined, and almost insurmountable virus of racism and white supremacy. And we have grappled with this since the founding of this nation.”
Racism is magnifying and compounding the second virus attacking the country, COVID-19. The global pandemic exposed disparities in access to health care in black and brown communities. “Because of the first [racism], people don’t necessarily know how to have conversations about what is happening to them and their families,” says Pollard. “And because of the second [COVID-19], they are grappling with this in isolation. When you think about traditional college-aged students, this might be the defining moment of their generation.”
Dr. Pollard is concerned about the mental health of students and employees, especially of those in black and brown communities. “Where are they having spaces and places to process what is happening? How are they making sense of this oftentimes when it is physically, emotionally, psychologically draining? I am very grateful for the services we provide through the SHaW [Student Health and Wellness] Center for Success. They offer programming in ways that are very powerful, talking about mental, social, emotional awareness,” she says.
The College hosted BREATHE, a discussion about race, social inequality, and the black male experience. In addition, the College is hosting a series of Courageous Conversations through the Peer2Peer program. They provide a platform and space for students to discuss various topics relative to inclusion, power, privilege, and diversity. This initiative intends to raise awareness of racism and radical inclusive issues in the daily personal, professional, and institutional interactions and practices. The College is also offering online mental health support groups, identity-related trauma workshops, and an online diversity and inclusion course. “Black lives do matter at MC,” says Dr. Monica Brown, senior vice president for student affairs.
“I worry for us as a nation,” Dr. Pollard says. “But I am grateful for what we—as a college—do.”
Sharon Bland, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at MC
“It’s wonderful to be at an institution of higher education when I can be authentically myself – a vanguard, iconoclast and even renegade in advancing the work of equity and inclusion.
We have just completed an Equity and Inclusion Roadmap for Success which highlights infusion of racial equity and radical inclusion lens in every aspect of the work we do at the college from teaching and learning to demonstrating care for our employees and students. We held the first of our Let’s Talk series last week with over 240 participants in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd with a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement and the American subjugation of the black community, creating healing spaces for our community and students of color and spaces for action and engagement at Montgomery College.
We are holding part two of the series focusing on the white women deemed “Karens” who exercise their supremacy and privilege against people of color showing how overt vs. covert white supremacy is demonstrated, why the call to ‘defund the police’ is really a call to reimagine police systems and redirect resources needed by people of color, and in low-income communities. Part three will be held on June 30, when Dr. Pollard and I are having a conversation entitled ‘Say HER Name.’”
Banner photo: Black Lives Matter protest near Montgomery College’s Germantown Campus. Photo Credit: Caitlynn Peetz, Bethesda Magazine.