Citing a dissatisfaction with the current conversation on race and lack of action, gender and women's studies and English professor Kyla Tompkins and history professor April Mayes led a teach-in at Pomona College on Dec. 3. The event was an effort by Pomona faculty to show solidarity with students of color, and the two were not alone in expressing this sentiment.
The teach-in served as the faculty's response to the list of demands for greater institutional and administrative support that students of color presented to President David Oxtoby Nov. 17. Students and faculty filled Hahn 101 to the brim, eager to participate in discussions and buzzing to take action.
“One of the things I was really moved by was that students of color had the imagination and generosity to understand that the issues that faculty of color face are linked to the issues that students of color face and we work in a kind of solidarity,” Tompkins said. “Our work is with them and their work is with us. It felt like an acknowledgement that we need each other.”
After reading the demands, Tompkins sent an email to Pomona faculty members of color and asked for people to come together to support students of color. Professor Mayes had already been organizing a teach-in in the history department, and it was subsequently expanded to all Pomona faculty.
“There’s been a lot of student organizing lately, so the teach-in was a really refreshing thing to see professors spearheading because students have their limits,” said Teofanny Saragi PO ’18, who created the Facebook event for the teach-in.
The event presented an opportunity for individual faculty members to create presentations on different key terms relating to equity. Each professor prepared five-minute speeches in which they spoke briefly on racial equality.
The first speaker, gender and women's studies professor Hentyle Yapp, clarified discussions of race, noting the differences of formal race, a neutral, apolitical treatment of race, as opposed to historical race, which addresses past and continuing racial subordination. Art history professor Phyllis Jackson spoke on examining the source of historically-interlocked suffering and domination—for example, capitalism's responsibility in the formation of social classes.
Speaking next, history professor Victor Silverman pointed out how activists have been fighting the same fight and conducting the same movements for decades, challenging listeners to break this trend and foster permanent change. The fourth and final speaker, English and Africana studies professor Val Thomas, highlighted two key words: apartheid and anti-blackness, a theoretical term.
While their speeches all linked back to race relations, they were all undoubtedly unique and thought-provoking in their own ways. The speeches set an important tone for the discussions that followed.
The teach-in focused on the following four questions: first, “What structural change do we want?”; second, “How do we track that change?”; third, “Whom do we ask for that change?”; and fourth, “How do we keep the energy for change going?”
After splitting into several smaller groups, students and faculty discussed these four questions in detail, discussing tangible plans of action and changes they would like to see. Each group was led by a faculty member and a student facilitator.
“A lot of the grievances that we presented dealt with how we, as students from marginalized groups, are constantly under the burden of educating. The teach-in is faculty’s way of showing solidarity and that they are ready and willing to help with teaching process,” Saragi said. “Unfortunately, many of these conversations don’t happen outside the realm of sociology, ethnic studies, and gender studies classrooms, so this is a great way to bring those conversations out into the real world.”
Saragi’s hope for the teach-in is to reach all who need to hear its message. While many faculty members already have dialogues on race in their classrooms, there is also contention among faculty over the teach-in. It is unclear as of yet whether the event will open new avenues in professors' classes where issues of racism are not currently discussed.
“The fact is, America is getting more brown and college students are getting more brown, and we need to catch up with that,” Tompkins said. “It’s really about sitting with those demands, supporting students in articulating those demands and strategizing about how to get action and change. We were once students of color. We were the ones doing many sit-ins, teach-ins, protests.”
This close collaboration between faculty and students demonstrated a willingness to work together in order to bring about change. Although the lasting effects of the teach-in remain to be seen, those involved are optimistic about the direction that conversations are heading.
“Personally, I hope that it will energize me. I really hope that people who haven’t thought about this much or thought about it differently,” Saragi said. “I really want people to come together and open up their minds and hearts … it’s not just a matter of intellectual debate and political contention but a matter of minds and hearts and lives where people are just trying to make it though and live and thrive and have a better quality of life.”
Tompkins shared this attitude.
“This is our opportunity to stand with students and tell them that their goals are our goals and that faculty of color, as laborers in an institution … are allied with students of color in our dreams of what a post secondary institution can and should be,” Tompkins said.
The teach-in emphasized even more that in this developing movement on racial equality, staff and students need each other.