By Blake Ursch, Office of Communications and Marketing at Creighton University
Amid renewed public attention to calls for racial justice following this summer’s killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, individuals and institutions across the country are working to understand their own part in perpetuating systemic racism, and are actively pursuing ways to dismantle it, eliminating a hierarchy of human value and establishing equity for all.
Because doing nothing isn’t enough.
This is the idea behind the concept of anti-racism, a word that’s come into common usage in recent years, particularly following the publication of Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist. According to Kendi, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”
Building on the social justice work of its faculty, staff, students and administrators, Creighton University is investing more energy and resources than ever to the anti-racism cause, says Christopher Whitt, Ph.D., Vice Provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Creighton, and a new addition to the President’s Cabinet. Creighton also recently named Catherine Hughes, founder and chairwoman of Urban One, the nation’s largest distributor of radio, television and digital programming for Black audiences, to its Board of Trustees.
Whitt says, “I think we’re coming to a realization. People talk about the broken economic system. The reality is, the system is not broken. The system is in need of transformation.”
With the help of Whitt’s office and other organizations on and off campus, Creighton is working toward that transformation in a broad array of disciplines, both on campus and in the wider community.
“Creighton University is called to do more, as an institution of higher learning, and as Jesuit and Catholic, to create healing and wholeness,” says Creighton President, Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, S.J., “and we will continue to reflect on and discern ways we can best achieve that directive.”
Even before this summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, two faculty members in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences were working on a tool to help their colleagues address issues of racial justice in the classroom.
Erika Dakin Kirby, Ph.D., the A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication Studies, and Guy McHendry, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, published “Teaching Anti-Racism,” a collection of articles, books, videos, podcasts and other resources aimed at helping their fellow faculty understand the current conversation around race.
Kirby and McHendry’s guide highlights Kendi’s book, as well as other nonfiction works including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But the professors also recommend more literary works, including W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as well as movies, podcasts and documentaries.
How to Be an Antiracist is also the selection for a new University-wide reading group led by Creighton’s Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ) and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Interest in the group has been high, says Kelly Tadeo Orbik, BA’06, MS’08, associate director at the SCSJ. In its first session, which began in May, the group maxed out with 46 participants. The second round, which began in mid-July, numbered more than 50. A third round is planned for the Fall.
Anti-Racism in Public Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened Americans’ eyes to the interconnected web of public health in ways that few events have done before, says LaShaune Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Master of Public Health program in Creighton’s Graduate School.
“When we think about the ways in which racism is systemic and baked into our institutions, and we see the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on communities of color, we can now also see that racism is embedded in public health,” Johnson explains.
As of June 2020, 80% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Douglas County, Nebraska (in which Creighton is located) were non-White. This in a county in which 69% of the population is White. In addition, some ZIP codes in predominately-Black North Omaha report an average life expectancy ten years below that in mostly-White West Omaha.
In her role with the University, Johnson serves as assistant director of the Creighton University at Highlander team. With the Highlander, a community enrichment center that is part of a North Omaha revitalization effort, Johnson organizes public health and education events for the community. In doing so, Johnson says, she and her team work to amplify Black voices, giving Black people a platform to share their experiences in the health care system.
Anti-Racism in Housing and Law
Creighton School of Law Dean Joshua Fershée, J.D., says he’s been meeting with students, faculty and staff in the School of Law to hear their stories for how to increase awareness and combat structural and institutional racism. In addition, he says, each semester, students have the opportunity to work with the School of Law’s Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance on civil matters for low-income people in Douglas County.
In the wake of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, Fershée says that the legal clinic has been handling an above-average amount of eviction cases. According to the work of another Creighton expert, eviction disproportionately affects Omaha’s communities of color.
Pierce Greenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, recently co-authored “Understanding Evictions in Omaha,” with local attorney and Creighton alumnus, Gary Fischer, BA’75, J.D.’79. The study features a heat map that illustrates a stark reality: Most of the city’s evictions occur in areas that were historically segregated, particularly the traditionally-Black North Omaha.
“We just wanted to start the conversation,” Greenberg says, “and start it grounded with the evidence that these racial disparities do exist. And we hope that this leads to more conversation and that it becomes the basis for action and policy change that can help reduce this problem.”
Anti-Racism in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
While the conversation around anti-racism largely deals with transforming the racist structures that inflict harm, the Creighton Graduate School’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program also teaches skills to address individual conflicts that are triggered by racist attitudes.
To dismantle racist structures, says Jacqueline Font-Guzmán, J.D., Ph.D., director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program, people must be willing to engage with conflict in a productive way. This means having uncomfortable conversations and directly confronting conflict in a way that either productively escalates conflict to raise awareness and change policies, or de-escalates the situation to foster dialogue. Coursework teaches students how to name conflict, and, if it can’t be resolved, how to stay with it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.
“Creighton is in a good position to highlight and promote inclusiveness and belongingness, not only for African-Americans, but for all underrepresented groups,” Font-Guzmán says.
“We have these conversations so the invisible becomes visible,” she adds. “It’s not to make immediate change. It’s to raise awareness so that the change can follow. It’s about conversation that leads to action.”
All photos courtesy of the Office of Communications and Marketing at Creighton University.