‘Black and Educated’ calls for change

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TONI FORTMANN

ELIZABETH KELSEY, News Editor

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 18, Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a “Black and Educated” panel in the Maucker Union Ballroom. Five UNI faculty of color shared their educational journeys and answered audience questions about the struggles of being a Black educator, calling for change and concrete action both at UNI and throughout the entire field of academia.

Panelists included Ieshia Brown, academic advisor for Student Support Services; Dr. Mickye Johnson, director of the Upward Bound program; Dr. Irenea Walker, assistant professor of elementary education, Dr. Shuaib Meacham, associate professor of literacy, and Dr. Robert Welch, director of academic advising in the College of Education.

After each panelist introduced himself or herself, the floor was opened to audience questions. Shannon Jones, a senior choral music education major, asked panelists about a challenge they had faced as Black educators and how they had navigated that challenge. Panelists mentioned the struggle of overcoming stereotypes and preconceived notions about their race.

“One of the roadblocks for me has been being a Black man — being a 6’6’’ black man,” said Welch. “I can walk into a room and be the most knowledgeable person in the room, [but] nobody sees that. They see my size, they see my stature and they hear my voice. The word I hear a lot is ‘intimidation.’ I intimidate white people. Why? I don’t know. I’ve had to learn how to circumvent that.”

Walker said that in her role as an elementary teacher, she had to work to convince parents of her qualifications for the job.

“One of the challenges that I encountered as a new teacher was […] my white parents not taking me seriously, [not] understanding that I was placed in this position, I am competent and I can teach your child,” she said.

Brown and Johnson addressed the challenge of not only convincing others to believe in Black teachers and students, but also convincing the Black students themselves of their own potential.

“I limited myself,” Brown said. “I didn’t apply for things that I could’ve. Don’t settle for less; push and pursue.”

“The hardest thing is to get somebody that don’t believe that they’re intelligent, don’t believe that they can achieve, to believe that and then to achieve it,” Johnson added.

The panelists also discussed the concept of “colorblindness,” the view that educators should “not see” color. All the panelists agreed that the idea, though it may sound positive, is detrimental to minority students, since not seeing the color of a student is equivalent to not valuing their culture, their background and their struggles.

“If I don’t see color, it is a disservice to my students, because then I don’t understand how they’re navigating through the process or how other people view them or treat them on campus,” said Brown. “Denying any part of a person discredits who they are as a human being.”

“Color does matter,” Welch said. “You can’t treat a black problem with a white cure.”

The conversation turned serious as Ryan Frank, senior Spanish and sociology major, asked panelists to describe their perspective on being a Black professor at UNI and whether they felt welcomed.

“Every non-Black person in this room, I’m going to ask you a question,” said Welch in response. “Before me sitting up here this evening, if you were to walk past me on campus, would you go out of your way to speak to me? Raise your hand.”

The room was silent. Slowly, two hands were raised.

“Does that answer your ‘welcoming’ question?” Welch asked Frank. “I can count the number of times on one hand where students look me in the eye and speak and I can count on the other hand the number of times where faculty and staff do. Do I feel welcome at UNI? Absolutely not. But do I let that get in the way of what I have to do? Absolutely not.”

Johnson offered a clear condemnation of the university’s lack of diversity.

“Since we’re in academia, giving [UNI] a grade, I would give it an F,” he said. “Tell me that it’s all right to have a department that’s all white [faculty] and we’re in 2020. Tell me that things have gotten better. It hasn’t. We have fewer Black people on campus now than we had back in 1970. How is that progress?”

As the panel concluded, the speakers offered concrete ways that UNI students, especially white students, can contribute to a positive shift on campus.

“Speak. Change. Intentionally be different,” Welch said, encouraging white students to go out of their way to include their Black peers in group assignments and acknowledge them on campus.

Brown agreed, describing her experiences as one of the few Black staff members in a previous job, where her white co-workers rarely spoke to her unless she addressed them.

“[People of color] shouldn’t have to talk to you first,” Brown said. “The person of color in your office shouldn’t have to be the one who’s always being welcoming.”

Panelists also emphasized the importance of self-education and expanding one’s cultural horizons. Johnson encouraged attendees to read materials outside their discipline, and Walker called for future educators to introduce students to Black advocates beyond the well-known Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Educate yourself. If you don’t know, how can you teach?” Welch asked.

Students who attended the panel appreciated the educational opportunities it offered. Sydney Foster, a junior biology education major, and Patten Tody, a junior communications and family services major, were both inspired by the stories of the panelists. As students of color, they emphasized the power of representation that the panel showed.

“It’s good to hear and see other people of color on campus who have been successful, who have navigated the field of academia and they made it,” Foster said. “It was encouraging to see that.”

“I didn’t know that we have people like that on campus — I didn’t know any of those people,” Tody added. “It’s amazing to see that we have people like that that we can reach out to.”