Cultivating a Sustained Conversation on Race, Justice, and History

A Q&A with Brian Norman, Ph.D., associate professor of English and faculty development fellow

By Loyola magazine staff  |  Photo by Nick Alexopulos, '03

Loyola students lead a "Hands Up for Justice" demonstration on campus in December 2010.

Loyola magazine invited Brian Norman, Ph.D., faculty development fellow and associate professor of English, to answer a few questions about the conversations on race that have been happening at Loyola, while also sharing why you won’t want to miss Loyola’s 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation.

What do you hope to accomplish for Loyola in your current role?

I am currently serving as the faculty development fellow on the academic leadership team led by Amy R. Wolfson, Ph.D., vice president for academic affairs. In this role, I foster faculty development, coordinate some diversity and inclusion initiatives, and serve as a resource for best practices in faculty searches. One of my goals is to strengthen intellectual community across campus around serious, sustained inquiry into key social justice issues affecting both Loyola and the world. There are many people across campus doing important work in this area. I try to foster connections among them and create opportunities for us to come together as a campus and community. In the long run, it’s about building institutional capacity more so than an individual position or office.

Could you reflect on the academic year so far? Particularly with Ferguson and other events around the nation, what has the conversation been like on campus?

The events of Ferguson and Staten Island became a focal point for pressing national issues around police brutality and also broader experiences of race and legacies of history. This is a longstanding and ongoing conversation, of course, dating back to the nation’s founding. But fall 2014 became one of those hinge moments in history when people across the political spectrum recognized a need to reflect seriously on matters of race, racism, and our basic democratic ideals.

Loyola coordinated an institutional response that we called “After Ferguson: A Community Reflection.” This was a collaboration among many offices: academic affairs, ALANA Services, Campus Ministry, the Center for Community Service and Justice, the Counseling Center, the Peace and Justice Studies Initiative, and the office of student life. Many dedicated people worked quickly and thoughtfully to create a forum for honest dialogue across experiences, perspectives, and beliefs. The turnout was amazing—upwards of 200 people crowded into the 4th Floor Program Room, including many campus leaders—and everyone seemed to work hard to listen to one another. Nothing was solved in that 90 minutes, of course, but what I saw was a shared commitment that this is a conversation that we can and should have at a Jesuit, Catholic institution.

The next week students led a peaceful protest in the Quad and through the Student Center. This was so inspiring and such an important moment in Loyola’s history. Social change in America has almost always been driven by young people. That day the campus witnessed the emergence of some terrific, thoughtful, impassioned student leaders. I think many people in attendance were able to imagine new possibilities for Loyola. And those who might have experienced isolation or silence in the immediate aftermath of the Ferguson decision could see there is a community here at Loyola for them to build, to join, and to lead.

Following the student protest was a candlelight vigil sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Center for Community Service and Justice. This illustrated for me the connections between faith and social justice that are central to many people’s experiences of a Loyola education.

How do Loyola’s Diversity Reading Groups contribute to the overall discussion of the need for racial justice?

The Diversity Reading Groups are a great tradition because they offer a time to come together as students, staff, faculty, and administrators for shared conversation about big issues that affect us personally, as a campus, and as a nation.

This year, we focused on readings that have set the national conversation around race, gender, sexuality, and economic inequality. We also focused on action-oriented responses, so that the lessons might live beyond the group’s meetings three weeks in October.

That fits into one of my larger aims: create the conditions for sustained conversation and an enriched intellectual community. Loyola, like all universities, struggles to go beyond single events and sustain momentum. I’ve been working with many folks on campus to create resonance between the different events we’re planning. This year’s conversation around racial justice is the best example. The most obvious connection between events is that Coates’ piece on reparations was featured in one of the Diversity Reading Groups, and he will be on campus in January for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation. The 50-some people in that reading group are prepared to engage Coates, in larger part thanks to the moderators, Professor Michael Runnels, Ph.D., associate professor of law and social responsibility, and Candra Healy, executive assistant to the dean in the School of Education.

Beyond that, many groups hosted high-profile events on racial justice in the fall, not to mention all the great courses offered by deeply committed and knowledgeable faculty. No one at Loyola can go to every event or take every course—but with enough coordination, we create opportunities for people to trace threads between events, ideas, and courses. The hope is to deepen the understanding at any given event, create a shared sense of intellectual community, and elevate the informal conversations that happen in hallways, residence halls, and at lunch tables.

This year the Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation will be held on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Can you explain the thought process behind moving it to that day, as well as the hopes for what that might mean to the community?

Loyola joins many universities, African American communities, national organizations, and Baltimore City by hosting the annual convocation on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. This is an opportunity for imagining a new tradition for what to do during the day itself. I consulted various people around campus and determined that the most meaningful one-time opportunity may be simply to be in and with the Baltimore community to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, and reflect on what it means to be a part of this city and its rich history. So, Messina and the Student Government Association are teaming up to offer shuttles to Baltimore City’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade, which happens earlier in the day. This is a neat vision of reciprocity: members of Loyola going out into the city during the day in celebration, followed by Loyola welcoming members of the community to campus for intellectual inquiry into ongoing matters of racial justice.

Who should attend the Martin Luther King lecture—and why?

Everyone! Matters of racial justice, equality, and American history affect us all. And the model of inquiry in the Jesuit and liberal arts traditions is one of inclusion: a commitment to serious reflection on big ideas so that we can have difficult dialogues across differences of identity, ideology, and experience.

If you’re not there, you’re missing out on one of the defining conversations of our day!

That said, if someone can’t make it, the conversation is certainly ongoing. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation is simply a high point in a yearlong commitment to such matters. Many organizations at Loyola and in Baltimore have long been committed to addressing racial injustice. I’d encourage folks to seek them out and attend some events or participate in some justice work, regardless of whether they attend the lecture that day.

Are there ways a person planning to attend the lecture could prepare for that event?

Absolutely. In addition to all the fall events on racial justice that I mentioned, we’ve created a page on Loyola’s website with reflection resources that would be helpful both before and after the event.

What can the audience expect to learn from the speaker?

Don’t expect easy answers or inspiring messages from Ta-Nehisi Coates. These are big, difficult questions of race and inequality that are built into the very structures of our nation and institutions. Coates is masterful at bringing a level of depth and sophistication to questions of race and identity, while still speaking plainly. I know that I myself have been inspired and challenged by much of his writing.

The topic of reparations requires that kind of talent to get us beyond assumptions and bumper stickers. Coates conceives of reparations as so much more than a monetary exchange. “And so we must imagine a new country,” he writes in his essay. “Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely… What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

This is no small task! But I think a place like Loyola, with its Jesuit tradition of reflection and commitment to social justice, is up for the challenge. It is up to each individual to accept it.

Why is having a conversation about racial justice so important for a university community—and particularly a Jesuit university?

We are a university committed to social justice, care and concern for others, and intellectual engagement with the world. Our mission compels us to participate in these national conversations. I think the grand Jesuit traditions of reflection and discernment equip us particularly well for the challenges of the contemporary world.

I very much agree with what our university president, Father Brian Linnane, said in his letter to the campus in December in the aftermath of Ferguson: “This moment serves as a poignant reminder that each of us is called to work toward social justice, to give voice to the voiceless, and to be open to building community and finding common ground.”

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