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Racial and Social Justice Is the Work of College Student Educators

Since our founding in 1924 by six women employed as job placement officers who were dissatisfied there was no network for women working in colleges, the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) has represented student affairs professionals across higher education. Fast-forward to the Civil Rights Movement, student affairs and ACPA were again among the first to create community networks for employees of color. In the 1980s, student affairs leaders reinforced our value of inclusion through bold support of LGBT people, and again in the 1990s in advocating for transgender and gender non-binary individuals.

Chris MoodyChris Moody

Student affairs has always allowed the future to lead us and boldly transformed higher education. The work done by college student educators on a daily basis has, as its goal, the humanization of students through the liberative opportunity of education. Diversity, equity and inclusion work is not ancillary to, nor a goal of, student affairs work. Racial and social justice is the work of college student educators. 

Following decades of slow but meaningful progress, there is still much work to do at every college to remove the systemic barriers and oppressions that intentionally marginalize Black, Indigenous and other people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement is a call to action for student affairs educators to acknowledge, dismantle and re-create campus policies, practices and curricula that were not originally designed for Black student access or success. Institutional leaders, particularly White administrators and scholars, must acknowledge that the work of pursuing racial justice is intersectional and that forms of oppression based on identities are linked. 

Student affairs educators have often led transformations in higher education, but it is time that we not just lead. The Black Lives Matter Movement calls us to be BOLD in how we direct our energy, our time and our resources. We must use our privileges for voice, for action and for calling out racial injustice and harm every time we are in its presence. 

At ACPA, we recognize that the field looks to us for resources and guidance. So, what can student affairs and higher education do to press for racial justice on campus and in the world?

1) Work on ourselves first — None of us are ever done learning. We should always be reading, listening, engaging, dialoguing, showing up, and diving into places, topics, resources, and events where we feel uncomfortable and where we feel uneducated and unprepared. There are resources everywhere for how to be an advocate for justice, on understanding the devastating and subtle impacts of White supremacy, and on racial disparities in education and the world. From White colleagues, in particular, we often hear “I don’t know where to start,” and our message is “Just Do Something!” When we think we’ve learned enough, we haven’t. It’s easy to find a White ally book club, and it is important for White people to come together to discuss racial injustices, anti-Blackness, White fragility, White supremacy and the ongoing effects of colonialism and slavery. But joining a book club and reading articles are starting points in a journey with no finish line. The “working on oneself” part is lifelong if we’re serious about being part of solutions, or at least less a part of the problems. 

2) Name and address our group privileges — While perpetually in self-work, we must also engage the groups around us. That means we must be responsible for engaging in discussions and initiating action with our

Vernon WallVernon Wall

friends, family, co-workers, supervisors, neighbors and social communities on issues concerning our race, gender identity or expression, sexuality, faith, ability status and so on. This list of groups is not exhaustive, and you will know best where your opportunities are to connect and challenge. Our self-work must transform into action with others. This is the space where we will find both challenge and support for our own racism and/or worldview that leads to systemic change. 

3) Consider ways that you can already change the system — For those with little positional power, creating systemic change can feel out of reach, or like someone else’s responsibility. It is also natural to want systemic change to happen now, on our timeline when we can witness and experience it. In reality, higher education can be slow to change, as much as we like to posit our value on innovation. Changes on college campuses may take five or more years of constant effort, labor and advocacy before they actualize. With regard to racial justice and decolonization, it is usually easier and faster to problematize issues than to solve or resolve them. There are no quick fixes, and there are nearly always more questions than answers. However, systemic change is within each of our ability to initiate movement. 

There are many ways we can start today to effect systemic change in our world and work. One way to begin is to critically evaluate any decisions you make in your personal life or career where “majority rules” is your approach. Who is this majority and why is what most of the crowd believes the best solution? It is very likely those that already experience privilege and understand how to navigate campus processes because of cultural capital. You do not need positional power or a senior-level title to press for systemic change. Your actions will inspire others, and this is how systemic and sustainable change occurs. 

The recent activism for racial justice is likely to continue at colleges into the fall term and will be entangled with fears and tensions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and incidents of hate towards Asian and Asian American students, the U.S. presidential election, anti-Blackness and ongoing violence towards Black people and other people of color. 

As the fall term begins, we ask that racial justice be at the forefront of our daily work. We will likely experience situations where we feel values-related tension with institutional leaders or policies. In those moments, it is critical for us to have already had conversations with our division/department leadership, and perhaps legal counsel and human resources, about balancing our employee roles/duties with our life’s work of being an activist and ally to Black students and other marginalized or oppressed communities. 

We can be both an activist and an employee, but we should know how to best lend our voices and allyship by knowing our rights and responsibilities. Engage your leadership early and often in formal conversations to avoid surprises.  

Your associations should be assisting you in doing self-work, engaging in group work and initiating systemic change. Our knowledge of contemporary issues in higher education must be supplemented by ongoing learning and networking throughout our careers. In 2016, ACPA identified the Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization as our centralizing priority for higher education. Our events, scholarship, and member benefits have engaged higher education in doing the important work of racial justice, incorporating and honoring indigenous ways of knowing, and dismantling structures of White supremacy. We invite you to become familiar with our Strategic Imperative, including the resources for self and group work like the Bold Vision Forward framework and our Black Lives Matter Blog, featuring voices and perspectives across higher education.

During these challenges, we celebrate our Black students, faculty, staff, members, friends, colleagues and family. Period. We are in the work of racial justice with you because we know it is possible to dismantle and rebuild systems of oppression and we believe in the transformative power of education for liberation. Together, we will continue to boldly transform higher education. Racial and social justice is the work of college student educators.   

Chris Moody is the executive director of American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and Vernon Wall is president of ACPA.

This article originally appeared in the August 20, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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