Unfinished Conversations on Race: Education is key in combating racism
June 6, 2020
Four years ago, 3.8 percent of first-year students who enrolled at Virginia Tech were Black. This fall, the number is higher. The newest class of Hokies will include 8 percent Black students.
This is noteworthy progress toward the university’s goal to increase the diversity of its student body.
But Virginia Tech must do more, said Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, in a Friday afternoon online discussion with the campus community about understanding and combating racism in America.
“There’s very little grace right now,” she said, referring to the unjust deaths of Black men and women in the past few weeks. “It is as if many feel that America has had 400 years to care, to get it right. Yet I know, as many of us do know, that we must struggle together to get there.”
Both Pratt-Clarke and Michelle Deramo, assistant provost for Diversity Education, led the 90-minute discussion, Unfinished Conversations on Race, which was broadcast live on YouTube and on the university’s website. Virginia Tech President Tim Sands also joined the discussion.
An online audience submitted at least 300 questions for the event.
Pratt-Clarke and Deramo each reflected on current events and shared their own unique backgrounds — Pratt-Clarke is African American and Deramo is Italian American. They recapped the struggles of Black Americans throughout history, and they offered advice to faculty, staff, and students about how to be advocates and take action to transform the national and university culture.
Though many in the Black community have lost hope in America, Pratt-Clarke said she remains confident that through systemic changes in policies, procedures, and philosophy, the country can become better. Education is a necessary vehicle, she said.
“Education, formal and informal, enables us to learn and unlearn ways of being,” she said.
Deramo outlined ways that Hokies can learn more about how to support diversity at the university. She encouraged each college and unit to use recent statements about current events, made by leaders and deans, to make an anti-racist action plan.
Also, the Office for Inclusion and Diversity offers a variety of workshops and short online modules, covering such topics as diversity in job search and selection committees and safe zone training.
“We are a university community and what we do best is education,” Deramo said. “We educate ourselves. That’s part of our job, to always keep on top of our game to always be reading and learning.”
Individual divisions and departments also should evaluate their structure and ensure that they are incorporating elements that support diversity. This may involve adjusting bylaws, creating a diversity committee, and reevaluating the make-up of hiring committees, said Pratt-Clarke. She is encouraging all areas of the university to host discussions about race on June 19, which is Juneteenth, the annual U.S. celebration of emancipation from slavery.
Also, Pratt-Clarke said she would like to form an InclusiveVT advisory board of students across campus to gather advice and ideas.
Already, there have been several steps in recent years to educate incoming Virginia Tech students about diversity principles, including a diversity 101 online training that all new Hokies must take before they can enroll for courses.
“I hope that as Hokies we can aggressively move forward to make the world a better place,” Pratt-Clarke said.
Watch a recording of the Unfinished Conversations on Race discussion below.
— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone