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Holy Cross Continues Community-Wide Effort Against Racism

Inspired by its Jesuit roots, the College examines its past as it works toward an anti-racist future
October 30th, 2020 by 
Campus scenic. Photo by Avanell Brock

People and institutions from every corner of the country — and beyond — are embracing the call to become an anti-racist society and Holy Cross is no exception.

The first step in the process is admitting culpability, says Marybeth Kearns-Barrett ’84, director of the Office of the College Chaplains. “We have to talk about the fact that Holy Cross is not immune to racism. We operate within the context of a larger, racist society,” she says.

Writer and theologian Jim Wallis has referred to racism as America’s original sin, Kearns-Barrett continues. It is embedded in all our institutions, including higher education and the Church. “I think the racial reckoning of this moment is calling on white people and majority white institutions like Holy Cross to courageously, and without blinking, examine the ways in which racism in our world, in our Church and on our campus has privileged white people at the expense of our Black and Brown sisters and brothers,” she says.

Dialogue offers a way forward. The word appears in the Holy Cross mission statement three times and speaks to a long-held institutional aspiration. “We’re always talking about the quality of our community, both on campus and in our alumni body, and while I realize that we don’t want to think of our College or ourselves as racist, the experience of our Black and Brown faculty, students and alumni indicates otherwise,” she notes.

As an alumna and a Holy Cross chaplain for three decades, Kearns-Barrett admits that conversations around race make her extremely uncomfortable. Still, she is committed to confronting the issue. “Since first arriving on campus in 1980, I’ve come to realize that Black and Brown students have faced discrimination here, and I feel a sense of shame about the situation,” she concedes. “But in order to move forward, I believe it’s important to examine one’s attitudes and role in perpetuating racism in this community.”

A Time for Hard Conversations

The Ignatian Examen, a reflective prayer found at the bedrock of Jesuit spirituality, can serve as a powerful tool in these efforts, Kearns-Barrett says. “The Examen reminds us that God loves us and will be with us as we wrestle with the challenges of overcoming racism,” she notes. “It offers us a method of reflecting on the call to be anti-racist, steadied by a God who loves us and gives us courage.”

Buoyed by her convictions, Kearns-Barrett offered the campus community the chance to participate in an Examen on Racism and White Privilege over the summer. Sixty people, including faculty, staff and students, responded. Meeting on Zoom June 8-29, participants were asked “Where is God?” in the reality of racism and white privilege, recalled their own history of racism and white privilege, named their feelings and desires on the issue, and committed to change in their quest to move forward as a community. Each week, four to five people shared their experiences with the question at hand. Sessions closed with musical passages from Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” and the final utterances of African Americans who lost their lives at the hands of police.

“It was a very powerful experience,” Kearns-Barrett says. “I was heartened by the number of people who showed up and indicated a willingness to address the issue of racism head-on. It’s difficult to hear our community described as racist, but we need to learn how to have these hard conversations.”

Having hard conversations is a critical part of moving forward, agrees Amit Taneja, associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), and it’s a skill that must become an integral part of a Holy Cross education. “Wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Black Lives Matter’ sends a message of inclusion, but that alone doesn’t fix deep-seated racial prejudices,” he says. “We need to fortify long-term, ally-building practices and equip our students with the skills needed to engage in discussions on human differences for the rest of their lives.”

Discussions on race and racism are particularly difficult, Taneja concedes, but the ability to engage in dialogue is an essential element for a healthy, inclusive community. “We inherit students who come from backgrounds, experiences and histories that are pretty segregated, and individuals differ widely in their ability to engage one another in deep dialogue on racism, so we end up relying on stereotypes, which creates an environment that’s ripe for micro-aggressions,” he explains. For example, he says students of color are sometimes asked what athletic team they’re on, revealing an underlying, misguided assumption that they weren’t admitted to the College due to academic prowess.

Adding Actions to Words

Students of color at Holy Cross often receive the message that they don’t belong, agrees Michelle Rosa Martins, director of the College’s Office of Multicultural Education. For example, she says, when the campus space known as The Hub was designated as a space for intersectional dialogue and programming, some white students pushed back and asked, “Why should Black students have this space? What about us?”

“This distressed our Black students because they feel like the entire campus belongs to the white students,” she explains. “Acts of discrimination, bias and racism may not be overt — they frequently happen in private moments — but, nevertheless, students of color often feel excluded and marginalized. We need to ensure that we’re advocating for all students.”

In February 2019, the College acknowledged the importance of creating a more welcoming community with the formulation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Planning Group. In April 2019, the group released a strategic plan for improving the cultural climate on campus, and in June 2020, the College unveiled a 40-point Anti-Racism Action Plan. “We’re committed to going beyond conversation,” Taneja says, “thinking about policies, personnel and procedures, we can create long-term structural changes within the institution.”

And while she concedes much work remains, Rosa Martins is encouraged by the changes she is witnessing. “I’m grateful to see my colleagues asking not only, ‘What is anti-racism?’, but also, ‘How can we challenge ourselves to be anti-racist?’ The sheer fact that there’s an action plan gives me hope because students, alumni, faculty and staff can look at the goals and say, ‘How are we doing?'”

Taneja says creating reflective practices and setting goals are two essential steps in achieving deep, systemic change, and this happens in many ways. “We have to make sure we have the right strategies in place to recruit and retain diverse faculty and students. We need to underscore the importance of DEI in the evaluation process for faculty and staff. We need to infuse content and conversation about race across the curriculum to encourage students to engage in active discussions on the topic.”

This summer, for example, the provost’s office provided $43,000 to fund 10 course and curricular grants for faculty seeking to enhance knowledge and content on race, racism and anti-racism. “We have faculty members, both white and of color, with expertise on race, racism and anti-racism, but we need more range of course offerings on these topics,” Taneja adds.

We’re Not Done

Yet the work is not confined to faculty and staff; students and alumni are actively engaged, as well. “Our first-year students are beginning their Holy Cross education as part of this wave of activism and advocacy, and all of our students are coming back to campus asking more of Holy Cross,” Rosa Martins says. “While they may not be here physically, they’re still finding ways to show up, ask hard questions, and make faculty and staff show up, work harder and pay attention.”

In fact, the necessity for remote learning brought about by the pandemic has in some ways heightened students’ awareness of racism, she argues. “They’re not in their campus bubble, they’re in their own homes and dealing with the issues that confront them in their own communities.” These are challenging times, for Holy Cross and the nation, she admits, but is hopeful that the efforts being made now will have long-lasting impact: “Let’s not return to normal; instead, let’s create a new normal that embraces diversity and the perspective of communities of color. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not done.”

Alumni Involvement on the Rise

As students, faculty and staff rise to the challenge of creating a “new normal,” so, too, do alumni. Alex Bonano ’17, co-chair of the Alumni Association’s Bishop Healy Committee, is among those working to effect change. When the College released its 40-Point Anti-Racism Action Plan this summer, Bonano and fellow committee members reviewed the document to determine what opportunities for reform and growth might have been overlooked and brainstormed ways they could help.

The committee has also hosted several virtual events in recent months, including a June networking event and a July discussion of “Race to the Start,” a documentary about the 50-year anniversary of the College’s Black Student Union. “We talked about what it was like to be a student of color then versus now and the changes we believe are still needed.”

The committee is also planning to increase in its own programming and press for greater interactions with other constituencies on campus to reach a larger alumni demographic. “Our committee’s sole focus is supporting Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American students and alumni, but we can’t do this work alone,” he says. “We need the support of the entire alumni body.”

Happily, he continues, many are stepping forward to lend a hand: “In the past year, we’ve had a lot of alumni of color express interest in supporting anti-racism efforts, and we’ve heard from many white alumni, as well.” Over the past year, the committee has seen a 67% increase in donors from an array of constituencies, Bonano says, and when the committee announced it was looking to add an additional seven members, it received 40 nominations.

As a recent graduate, Bonano is especially heartened to see other young alumni of color stepping forward to do their part. “I joined the Bishop Healy Committee right after graduating and there weren’t many other young alums involved, but that’s rapidly changing,” he says. “In the past 12 months, I’ve seen an increasing number of younger graduates digging in and saying, ‘Yes, I want to help Holy Cross become an anti-racist institution.'”

Making a Community-Wide Commitment

Becoming an anti-racist institution will take time and community-wide commitment, Taneja cautions: “Racism is a problem that’s owned by everyone and all of us have a role in dismantling it.” Social media has made it possible for vast numbers of people across the country to see the lived realities of communities of color across the United States, he continues, and with knowledge comes responsibility: “Allies feel called and compelled to put their values into action. We cannot view injustices and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ Instead, we must ask ourselves, ‘What role do I have to play in dismantling racism in our society?'”

While Taneja admits the undertaking won’t be easy, he also insists this line of inquiry fills him with hope. “Walking with those on the margins is a global priority for Jesuits, and we’re witnessing more people owning up to that responsibility,” he says. “Alumni of color have been reinvigorated to ask the College, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘How can we help?’, and white alumni have been moved to accept accountability and help this institution they love.”

Kearns-Barrett is also optimistic: “As an institution, we have the tools in place to do this work in a relational way, and I’m hopeful that progress will take place through the conversations that move people to go forward and seek change.” After all, a Holy Cross education is rooted in its Jesuit identity and the Ignatian understanding that every person is sacred and created by God. “We are fundamentally called to love one another as God has loved us,” Kearns-Barrett says. “Every person should have the opportunity to flourish, and we can’t really say we are living our mission until we take up the call to overcome racism.”

Written by Lori Ferguson for the Fall 2020 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine
Holy Cross Magazine (HCM) is the quarterly alumni publication of the College of the Holy Cross. The award-winning publication is mailed to alumni and friends of the College and includes intriguing profiles, make-you-think features, alumni news, exclusive photos and more. Visit magazine.holycross.edu/about to contact HCM, submit alumni class notes, milestones, or letters to the editor.


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