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Small College Students at the Epicenter of a Global Uprising

Civic Engagement Policy and Advocacy Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Small Colleges and Universities Division AVP or "Number Two" Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate VP for Student Affairs
June 14, 2020 Doug Thompson University of St Thomas

The eyes of the world watched the death of George Floyd by a police officer who held his knee on the back of George’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This incident hit closer to home because it happened where I reside in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I learned of Floyd’s death at the beginning of a virtual meeting when a colleague asked if I had seen the news headline. My reply was, “No, did something happen?” After receiving a news link in the chat, I became overwhelmed with negative thoughts of yet another painful reality of racial violence and police brutality in the black community.

As the news of the incident spread, I began thinking of our students at the Dougherty Family College, a small two-year college within the University of St. Thomas primarily serving students of color from around the Twin Cities. Being dean of students for this college is both an honor and privilege; I get to form incredible relationships and have an integral part in their development and student success. Therefore, I thought about the amount of trauma and anxiety this situation would bring as they witnessed a modern-day lynching in their own community. This painful consequence of racism left me mad, frustrated, numb, and confused. Not only does this incident remind us how fragile life is, but it also reinforces the need for diversity, equity, inclusion, and a dismantling of institutional racism.

Once again, in our society, we continue to see these atrocities over and over while nothing gets done, justice is not being served. I spoke with students, many expressed sadness, anger, and disappointment over a justice system that does not see their humanity. Some described the fear of being black in America, where they are thought of as threats instead of young people with potential to change the world. I remember one student saying, “I don’t know how I feel…I am mad and feel hopeless and alone.” Some talked about having lived through Philando Castile’s horrific death in this community and how exhausting it is to witness another killing of a black man by a police officer. Their stories reminded me of “racial battle fatigue,” a phrase used by William A. Smith to describe the psychophysiological symptoms that people of color experience such as depression, stress, shock, anger, and anxiety when they live and work in predominately white environments. While these stories broke my heart, I left feeling encouraged as some students talked about being change agents and taking a stand for justice and peace.

This seminal moment has become a unifying flashpoint in our local community and across the globe that injustice will not be tolerated. Thousands are protesting in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Tokyo, London and beyond. Not only did George Floyd’s killing highlight racial injustice, but it is also displaying a generation of young people who are ready for real change. They are protesting and demonstrating in a powerful fashion. In addition, they are rebuilding their communities that have been looted and destroyed and finding meaningful ways to give back. I am happy to share that many students of our Dougherty Family College have taken part in this positive change. My inbox is filled with pictures and stories of their experiences making a difference throughout the Twin Cities.  

It is this level of courage and compassion, for mankind, that gives me hope in the future. These young people’s bravery gives me hope that black and brown people can be treated with dignity and respect, hope that tomorrow will be better, and hope that we have reached a turning point – in society – where we no longer ignore racism. Black and brown people simply want a chance to live and breathe and to have access to better education, health care, lending practices, and opportunities that have been historically denied. The courageous outcry for justice across the world is finally raising awareness but much more work is needed, and it must be sustained. It reaffirms NASPA’s mission and commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality. It also denotes how essential this work is in raising high standards of excellence in our profession.