Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring (and countless other Black Americans before and since), and the larger national reckoning with anti-Black racism in the United States that began to unfold over the summer, a group of students in our department put their concerns about our practices, our culture, and our pedagogy into writing, in August. The letter, which echoed and anticipated the concerns of many students, faculty, and alums, asked the department to commit to anti-racism, and raised important questions about hiring, recruitment, classroom dynamics, and pedagogy. In the context of the global Movement for Black Lives, student concerns, and with the advice of other faculty in leadership roles in the department, department chair Prof. Joseph Viteritti convened a Racial Justice Working Group, chaired by Prof. John Chin, in September. This group, which currently includes five faculty, two students, and two alums, has met nine times to set an agenda to address community concerns.
The working group’s first actions were a survey and a town hall, held on November 20, on the topic of “What Does an Anti-Racist Department Look Like?” The goal was to open up the conversation initiated by the students over the summer, and to hear the concerns of the entire community. Approximately 85 people attended the November event: students, faculty, alums, and staff. The dialog reaffirmed the concerns expressed in the summertime letter. It was gratifying to see so many of our community participate, and to have the chance to broaden our understanding of the issues at stake. The event made clear the depth and breadth of challenges in the department.
Because we have not yet had time to publish the results of the pre-event survey (see below for more on our plans to circulate them) — and because the responses received were so rich — the Working Group has decided to re-open it, and invites feedback from anyone who did not previously respond, but who wishes to share thoughts or questions with the working group. Please find it at this link. It will remain open until January 4.
The working group — like the faculty — remains committed to helping build an anti-racist department in the aftermath of the event (more below). The sense of marginalization and exclusion that was expressed by students and alums in that forum is real, and the group takes responsibility for acting in response, while recognizing that this may require time and that there are some changes that lie outside of the department’s power to make. But we commit to helping the department to assess current conditions in a clear-eyed way, strategize about reparative measures, introduce new courses, and communicate those measures to students.
The working group met the week before last for the first time since the November 20 event to sketch out a course of action for the coming months. While we still have much planning to do, we are working towards the following:
- helping the department run a facilitated faculty workshop on anti-racist classroom practices in the spring
- synthesizing responses to the community survey, including responses received until January 4, as well as notes from the November 20 event, and comments in the Zoom chat from the event, into a draft written report by mid-January to be made available to the whole community
- building a webpage for the working group on the department’s site to post updates, links (to the summertime letter, the report, and other resources), and announcements.
- planning a second community-wide event for spring term, with the specific topic and format to be determined after the January preliminary report
In the meantime, the working group is pleased that the faculty, in addition to agreeing to participate in a facilitated workshop mentioned above, is planning to:
- workshop their syllabi
- increase ongoing efforts to recruit BIPOC students
- offer a new course this summer called BlackSpace: Planning, Policy, and Black Community in NYC, taught by planner and BlackSpace collective member Daphne Lundi
As we all know, these conversations are difficult. Thank you to the students and alums who drafted and signed the summertime letter, revealing the deep commitment to an anti-racist community. Thank you to everyone who attended the November 20 event and shared thoughts, observations, and suggestions. Thank you to the whole Urban Policy and Planning community for remaining committed to teaching, learning, listening, and sharing as we navigate towards a stronger and more inclusive department.
We look forward to reconnecting in the spring semester. Until then, we wish everyone a peaceful, happy, and safe holiday season.
— Racial Justice Working Group