Updated 9:06 a.m. 12/2/2011
College President Donald P. Christian and Student Association President Terrell Coakley addressed the recent postings of racially offensive material on the New Paltz campus with a forum called “Can We Talk About It?: A Discussion about Race and Racial Equity” that took place on Wednesday, Nov. 30 in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Student Union Building.
Attended by a cross-section of more than 400 students, faculty and staff, this forum was designed to give students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to speak candidly and listen to each other about the ways these recent incidents have affected our community individually and collectively, and the ways race and racism are a part of everyone’s daily lives and permeate our inner beliefs about each other and ourselves.
The forum’s objective was to bring to the fore of our collective consciousness that which can be the most elusive element for interracial understanding as well as the primary catalyst for its evolution: the personal life stories of our campus community members.
President Christian outlined his previous work at another university on a project called Dismantling Racism for which he collaborated with experts, community leaders and colleagues on best practices for this kind of process. In Christian’s own application for the position of New Paltz President, he identified building an equitable and inclusive campus climate as among his premier objectives.
“Terrell and I are both committed to a productive and forward-looking event that may at least begin to heal the wounds opened by the recent posting of racially offensive material on the campus,” said Christian. “Acts such as these hurt members of our community. And if actions such as these hurt one of us because of our group identity, they should hurt all of us as members of a community that values equity, diversity, inclusiveness, and respect. Understanding that hurt and taking the first steps toward becoming the community we want to be are the primary focus of tonight’s forum. ”
“I love to see a room filled with people who are here for a cause that is rarely talked about. Can we talk about race? Yes, the point is that we don’t,” said Coakley. “Race affects everyone and people do not talk about it. You can’t understand what I’m going through as a black American male and I can’t understand what a white male goes through or a white female or an Asian or Latino male. So, I thank everyone for coming out tonight and having respect for these kinds of conversations.”
After opening remarks, the group was divided into smaller discussion groups identified by the color of stickers given to each attendee at the beginning of the forum. Coakley said the smaller groups would facilitate a sense of comfort so “people could share their life stories and not feel shame.” He asked that people pay close attention when each person shares his or her story.
“If you find that someone says something offensive or a person uses incorrect wording don’t chastise each other–we’re a community. Instead of chastising, focus on educating one another and listening. We want to encourage positive feedback. Everyone has equal say, people should feel free to say what they have to say here,” said Coakley.
In tandem with New Paltz’s core mission and true character, President Christian espoused that “our sense of community must guide our responses” to these actions which must be “owned by the entire community.” It is President Christian’s and College administration’s vision that these conversations be the beginning of a multifaceted infrastructure for interracial education and a conduit through which we will become a better, more inclusive community.
While some Americans harbor illusions of a post-racial society, the lives and experiences of many people of all races speak otherwise. Recent postings of racially offensive material on the New Paltz campus have reinforced this reality for our campus community. These incidents create an opportunity if not an imperative for us to discuss issues of race and racism. In this forum, students, faculty, and staff will speak and listen to each other about the ways these recent incidents have affected us individually and collectively, and how we can become better as a community.
The forum, sponsored by College President Donald P. Christian and Student Association President Terrell Coakley, will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 30, from 6 – 8 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Student Union Building.
Both of these campus leaders quickly condemned these racially offensive actions as directly counter to SUNY New Paltz’s core values of equality, diversity, human dignity and the individual freedom of each student to reach his or her highest potential. With a diverse student body, New Paltz has been committed to providing high-quality education to all New York citizens, and has long espoused that diversity, in all its forms, enriches the educational experience for all students.
“We condemn such acts as contrary to our community values, hopes, and aspirations,” said President Christian. “Such acts hurt members of our community. And if actions such as these hurt one of us because of our group identity, they should hurt all of us. That is the fundamental basis for my hope and belief that incidents such as these – if we process them together in the right way–can draw us into closer community.”
“These actions provide the community with an opportunity to address race and racism by discussing and listening to each other’s life experiences. They are a doorway to growth, and we welcome this chance to join together and learn from each other,” Christian said.