By DONOVAN HARRELL
Across the University, schools, offices and administrators are taking concrete steps to help address the issues of equity and justice on campus and in surrounding communities to make Pitt a more inclusive environment for Black people.
Groups throughout Pitt have been holding events throughout the summer focusing on racial justice and inequality. Here are some of the upcoming events:
2020 Diversity Forum “Advancing Social Justice: A Call To Action”: July 28 to 30. Ibram X. Kendi, historian and author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” will be the keynote speaker for the event with Dean Valerie Kinloch moderating the discussion. The forum also will feature several other activists, professors and more. For more information and registration, visit the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s website.
“Racialized Police Violence in Global Perspective: 5 Key Concepts”: This series from the Pitt Global Hub and Global Studies Center started on July 1 and continues July 15, 22 and 29, focusing on Racial Capitalism, Transnationalism and Policing in the USA, respectively. Register here for the Zoom sessions.
Race, Injustice, and Seeking Change with W. Kamau Bell: 8 p.m. July 16. The Pitt Program Council and the Black Action Society will lead a discussion with the sociopolitical comedian and “United Shades of America” host W. Kamau Bell, with a focus on the Black Lives Matter Movement, racism in America, and the impact all college students can have on the movements in our communities and in our country. Register here for the event.
Shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers spurred nationwide protests in early June, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher announced that the University’s five-year strategic plan would be put on hold so Pitt could figure out how to better address systemic issues affecting Black people.
Over the summer, various members of the Pitt community have begun strategizing, creating new initiatives, hosting talks, book clubs and more to help spur conversations and actions that would make the Pitt community more inclusive. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has held a series of town halls throughout the summer titled “This is Not Normal: Allyship and Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.” After the Floyd’s death, a special session was added, “I Can’t Breathe: From Agony to Activism.” All the town halls can be viewed here.
Here are some recent actions that have been taken to help address these and other related topics.
PittEd Justice Collective
The School of Education launched the PittEd Justice Collective at the beginning of June following the death of George Floyd.
But years before Floyd’s death, School of Education Dean Valerie Kinloch had been brainstorming ways to form a type of collective that would address the issues of justice, equity and community engagement. Floyd’s death solidified her decision to create the collective, she said.
"Everything just came to a head in terms of, we talk about justice and we talk about equity, but what structures do we need to have in place where we’re not just talking about, but trying to bring people together to respond to these systems of inequality that continue to impact Black and Latinx and other indigenous peoples in this world," Kinloch said.
The PittEd Justice Collective will focus on designing and creating interdisciplinary studies on equity, justice and anti-racism; work with Pitt Education Faculty and school districts to examine new teaching practices; create a Justice Fellows program for faculty, staff, and students in the Pitt School of Education and many other initiatives.
Another key part of the initiative is the creation of white Co-Conspirators Groups. These groups will be led by white colleagues in the School of Education, beginning with professors Amanda Godley and Linda DeAngelo and staff member Courtney Ross and serve as spaces for white people to learn more about equity, justice and antiracism.
"I came out with that because white folks are always asking me what they could do, and there’s not so much I can say except for the same thing: How do you advocate, how do you stand up for and with Black people?” Kinloch said. “I realized that they need to be in conversation with themselves and each other about racism, and I cannot facilitate those conversations for them as a Black woman because then it puts me in a situation where I’m always having to teach and educate.”
Kinloch said it’s important for these and the other reading groups through the collective to move beyond conversation to concrete action against systemic injustices.
Rapid Response Team in School of Medicine
Earlier this month, a group of Black students sent a list of demands to Pitt administrators that covered several University-wide issues, such as oversight of police and addressing specific mental health issues Black students face. But there was an emphasis on issues within the School of Medicine.
Anantha Shekhar, the new dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, met with students and has already taken action on some of their objectives.
“Some of those were very straightforward things, like increased counseling services and creation of an ombudsman’s office,” Shekhar said. “There’s some what I would call good practices for educational institutions that we’ve already instituted or said we’re going to go ahead. I think the bigger need is understanding the culture, learning more about what the history is and what the current data say about racial equity and justice.”
A Rapid Response Team with several minority faculty and students as members has been put in place to deal with issues of racism quickly as they arise.
Shekhar also agreed to two fully paid scholarships for Black medical students every year and two scholarships for high school students applying to college, according to The Pitt News. There also will be a new senior award in memory of Antwon Rose II, a local teenager killed in 2018 by an East Pittsburgh police officer who formerly worked at Pitt.
In an interview, Shekhar also said there are “some practices that were clearly not helping the students that we can just eliminate. The whole idea of coaching was to help students but if that has become more of a surveillance coach type of program, then we just need to change that.”
He’s also working with Provost Ann Cudd to start a hiring initiative to attract more Black and LatinX faculty and staff.
In June, doctors and others from UPMC and Pitt Health Sciences staged a “White Coats 4 Black Lives” protest on the lawn of UPMC Presbyterian Hospital.
New diversity hires
Gallagher and Cudd have said in the past that they are committed making Pitt more welcoming to Black faculty and staff, especially in leadership positions, and Black students.
This summer has seen several administrative hires:
Clyde Wilson Pickett was hired as the new vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion. Pickett earned his doctor of education degree at the School of Education and has headed diversity programs at the Community College of Allegheny County and, most recently, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, which has 54 campuses.
John Wallace, the David E. Epperson endowed chair of the School of Social Work, started as vice provost for Faculty Diversity and Development on July 1. The position is part of the role recently held by Laurie Kirsch, who left at the end of June.
Adriana Modesto-Vieira has been named to a newly created position as the School of Dental Medicine’s assistant dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice. In announcing the appointment, Dean Bernard Costello said, “It is well past the time in our history for us to acknowledge our failures and commit to taking actions to improve our culture and to rectify the social injustices that continue even to this day.” Modesto-Vieira will be stepping down as chair of Pediatric Dentistry to focus on the new job.
Chancellor’s advisory committee
Chancellor Gallagher announced on June 11 that more Black students will be added to the Chancellor’s Public Safety Advisory Committee before the beginning of the fall semester.
The committee, chaired by Pitt Law Professor David Harris, who specializes in race and law enforcement, will work with the Pitt Police Department to evaluate how Pitt Police interact with Pitt’s Black communities.
Harris also will focus the committee on the issue of building trust between Pitt Police and students of color, said Pitt spokesman Pat McMahon.
Other schools take action
School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: In a statement, the school said “We have reached the point where we must overcome barriers and ongoing challenges to combat inequality in both higher education and health care. We are pleased to announce that SHRS has adopted a Framework for School-Wide Action Addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” The plan includes steps to create an action-forward organizational structure including a steering committee, advisory council and working groups; and a preliminary list of barriers and challenges that must be expanded and addressed further.
Swanson School of Engineering: Dean Jimmy Martin put out two powerful messages last month in response to the violence against Black people and the growing protests. In a June 5 post, he recounted his own encounters with racism and stereotyping, and said the role of the school now is “to be a source of healing and empowerment. We are engineers — we solve problems that improve the human condition. It is important to remember solutions are not limited to technological devices and apps, or supply chains and nanomaterials. They are also new ways of thinking, of spirit, of innovation.” Martin also marked the Juneteenth celebration on June 19 with a video message.
Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences: The school started a new look its diversity last year when it invited an external review team to evaluate where the school stands on diversity, equity and inclusion issues. The goal of the review was to find concrete ways to move forward to improve diversity among faculty, staff, students and curriculum. Just before the start of the pandemic, Dietrich School officials talked to the University Times about what comes next.
School of Law: The school’s faculty issued a unanimous resolution on June 8 that “repudiates racism in all its forms. We acknowledge our responsibility, individually and collectively, to identify, challenge, and condemn structural inequity however it may manifest. We hold ourselves accountable for engaging in both the inward-focused and outward-facing work of dismantling the systems of oppression that perpetuate racial inequities in our society and in our community.” See the full statement here. The school also has set up an “Action Plan in Response to Pitt Black Law Students Association Request for Initiatives,” which includes an Ad Hoc Committee on Racial Justice initiatives and efforts to change the approach to vetting law student applicants and increase the number of students of color at the law school through the development of more relationships with HCBUs.
School of Social Work: James Huguley, interim director of Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work, in an opinion piece in The Pitt News exhorted the white community to “commit to educating yourself on the history of racial injustice in the United States, and not just slavery. … Next, vigorously pursue anti-racist perspectives. … Finally, know that this fight takes sacrifice.” The center regularly hosts speakers on race issues, including a very well attended Zoom discussion on June 10 with David Harris on “Race, Police and Unarmed Civilian Deaths: What Can Be Done?” View the talk here.
Department of Medicine: A letter from the department’s chair and vice chair of Diversity and Inclusion said they remain committed to the Bias Reduction in Internal Medicine program that had been scheduled for this summer but was delayed because of the pandemic. The department also has a regular Diversity Book Club, which will next read “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.