Scholar Strike unites campuses in a stand against racial injustice

By Ashley A. Williams and Robert C. Jones Jr.

Scholar Strike unites campuses in a stand against racial injustice

By Ashley A. Williams and Robert C. Jones Jr.
Held at colleges and universities across the country, the two-day event featured direct action and teach-in activities to amplify Black voices and explore ways to dismantle racism.

Following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes who have taken a stand against racial injustice, Roxanne Pickens was among several University of Miami faculty, staff, and graduate students who took time from their usual business on Sept. 8 and 9 to create space for Black voices to be amplified.  

Pickens, a member of the Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC)-Social Justice Group in the University of Miami American Association of University Professors (AAUP) alliance, took on a coordinator role, organizing the “Virtual Gathering for Black Lives at UM,” open to the University community.

"The Virtual Gathering for Black Lives at UM was collaboratively conceived by our group to give space to our students and others who would like to connect and celebrate Black life," said Pickens, who is also director of the American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences and librarian assistant professor.

For two weeks, she and others contacted people across all University of Miami campuses to find those interested in participating.  

“I thought it was important to participate because it was a novel collective opportunity to be intentional about dismantling racism and defeating white supremacy,” said Pickens, who also spearheaded a virtual event Wednesday evening to celebrate Black life. “I wanted to show solidarity with the many, many other education professionals, nationally and globally, who are working toward racial justice on our campuses and in our communities.” 

Some 155 students, faculty, and staff registered for the online session, which featured 87 attendees and 17 presentations of artwork, poetry, prose, music, and other video performances, all highlighting the moving power of Black expressive culture. Participants shared their personal stories and drawings; recited their favorite readings by Black scholars and writers, such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; and shared music videos and screenplays that depict the reality of police brutality against Black Americans.

"In addition to presenting the works of Black scholars, authors, and artists, we were also gifted with the original creative expressions of several current UM students. I believe this event contributed significantly to recognizing and reinforcing not only the Black community on campus, but the wider UM community and its connection to the Black experience," Pickens said. “Making space to center Black expression is a critical part of racial justice work—these communal engagements have the power to be instructive as well as sustaining.” 

A driving force behind the University’s participation in the nationwide antiracist movement, Pickens enlisted 14 departments—including interactive media, Africana studies, and kinesiology and sport sciences—to plan course-specific sessions over the two-day event. 

For Guerda Nicolas, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development, participation included hosting a webinar, showing a presentation on racial injustice in higher education, conducting discussion groups with specific actions toward advancing the movement, and hosting a conversation with her counseling doctoral students on critical race theory and the lack of representation in our behavioral science research.  

“As the only tenured Black faculty in [Educational and Psychological Studies], I know that the issues occurring outside of the walls of the academy also occur at the institution and have a significant impact on my work and the work of many faculty, staff, and students,” said Nicolas. “We must take the steps needed to shift the systemic racial issues that permeate our teaching, admission process, and research. Enough is enough.”  

In lecturer of English composition Brian Breed’s English 105 courses, he and his students read aloud Brent Staples’s “Black Men and Public Spaces,” an essay that details how strangers read Staples’s blackness as a threat to them. “The experiences of our BIPOC neighbors—whether they are students or staff, faculty, or friends—must be centered if we are to truly understand the world,” Breed said. “I asked my students to read ‘Black Men and Public Spaces’ with me because the essay illustrates how many Black Americans are read as threats simply because they exist and because white Americans are afraid of them. 

“We white Americans must stop burdening our BIPOC neighbors with the weight of our own fears, and we can break that habit only by listening to them,” Breed continued. Then and only then can we build a better world together.”

Sumita Chatterjee, a faculty member in the Department of History and in the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, devoted all of her classes over two days to issues of race, showing her students a portion of the HBO documentary “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” which detailed the work of the acclaimed public interest attorney and his Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

“We reflected on issues raised in the documentary, and students, through written and oral critical reflection exercises, not only highlighted key historical, legal, and social issues raised in the documentary, but also applied it to other problems in contemporary society, both in the U.S. and globally,” Chatterjee said. “India and Brazil came up in the discussions, as did the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Osamudia James, dean’s distinguished scholar and professor of law and the newly appointed associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, moderated the panel “Unequal Treatment: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Miami-Dade Criminal Justice,” in which Nick Petersen, assistant professor of sociology, presented his research on how Blacks and Black Hispanics are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their white non-Hispanic counterparts.

More than 5,000 people signed up on the Scholar Strike website to participate in the event, which was created by Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kevin Gannon, professor of history at Grand View University.

“It is important to be intentional about making room for sharing and connecting; our collective survival depends on these kinds of activities. Every intentional, communal step toward racial justice counts,” said Pickens.