A Year Later: Reflections on Charlottesville

Last summer I watched events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, with an acute horror. As a “double Hoo” (lingo for those of us with two degrees from the University of Virginia), and as a former employee of the university, I am all too aware of the light and shadow side of U.Va.’s storied past and present. Admission tours and marketing materials laud U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson as a primary architect of the nation’s aspirations toward liberty, but it has only been in recent decades that we also talk about how Jefferson in his personal and professional life fell as woefully short of living those ideals as we have as a nation.

That white nationalists would choose Charlottesville and the U.Va. grounds for their gathering didn’t surprise me. The city and the university exist in a contested space of looking back and looking forward, privilege and oppression, civil rights and white supremacy, engagement and withdrawal. “Normal” in Charlottesville, as it is in many other places, is kind and cruel and complex. And one of the rally’s organizers is also a U.Va. graduate, a reminder for me that higher education is not a panacea for the challenges we face as a society. Depending on where and with whom they connect, the experiences students have on campuses expose them to entirely distinctive challenges, paradigms, worldviews, and networks. As a student affairs administrator for more than 20 years, my lodestar has always been the creation of spaces where students can learn safely and courageously about themselves and others and then apply that learning to build more just and sustainable communities.

NASPA and our members work in these contested spaces, and I do not equivocate in describing the work as taxing, heartbreaking, fraught, and at the same time, joyful, life giving, and powerful. Our campuses exist in a rapidly evolving landscape characterized by demographic shifts, disruptive innovations in the delivery of programs and services, attention to the value of higher education, and widening political polarization. We are educating students whose family members – or who themselves – are undocumented or refugees or out of work or the victims of police violence or caught in the school-to-prison pipeline or homeless or hungry or bullied or without health insurance. All students bring gifts and talents to colleges and universities, but many campuses are not designed to value and nurture a wide range of experiences and various forms of what Yosso (2006) describes as community cultural wealth. 

On college and university campuses, student affairs educators at all levels are helping to frame institutional approaches to inclusion and equity. Facilitating the success of students and student affairs professionals requires that NASPA anticipate and respond to issues of justice to ensure that we are able to live, work, and interact effectively in dynamic environments. In response to organizational needs and input from our members, this spring NASPA created a team and an assistant vice president position to align and energize our equity, inclusion, social justice, civic learning, and democratic engagement vision, programs, services, publications, and research. This is not new work for NASPA. Establishing this team signals our commitment to growth as an Association through acknowledging our shortcomings, investing in areas of success, and developing new initiatives that are guided by our principles of inclusion, integrity, innovation, and inquiry. 

The Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice (EISJ) team will partner with the Board of Directors, EISJ Division, NASPA staff, and Association members and partners to connect ongoing initiatives more effectively, understand and strengthen our impact, and establish priorities to deepen our work and to live into the values in our EISJ commitment statement. These important conversations and decisions come at a pivotal time when NASPA is developing our 2019-2022 strategic plan and when we are focused on all of the ways we promote a climate and culture that support the success of the Association, our members, and students. 

What took place in Charlottesville was the latest in a century of summer unrest in the U.S., from Chicago in 1919 to the long, hot summer of 1967, to Stonewall in 1969, to Ferguson in 2014. There is a heaviness about the summer that goes beyond the humidity and that serves as counterpoint to the rest-and-relaxation mindset often associated with this season. It’s important to pause and acknowledge that this time of year feels potent and poignant for many people. I urge us to listen for understanding and to avoid explaining away that which makes us uncomfortable. Reach out to members of your community, including your NASPA community, to offer and ask for support. On behalf of the EISJ team, we look forward to working with our members and campuses to continue building spaces in which each person’s safety and learning matter to all of us. Please reach out to share ideas and perspectives as we deepen NASPA’s important EISJ and CLDE work. 

Monica Nixon
Assistant Vice President for Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice
[email protected]