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Jesuit Institute Spearheads Semester-Long Initiative On Race In Response To Student Protests

In response to last semester’s die-in protests and “Right on the Heights” rally, Rev. James Keenan, S.J., and the Jesuit Institute are spearheading a semester of events addressing race on BC’s campus.

In response to campus protests staged at the end of last semester—most notably a “Right on the Heights” rally and die-in in St. Mary’s Hall—the Jesuit Institute at Boston College plans to spearhead a semester long initiative to promote student discussions about matters of race and student experiences on campus, according to Rev. James Keenan, S.J., director of the institute. The project effectively began last week with a “Race in the USA” panel, which sought to put the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and respective non-indictment decisions for the police officers that killed them—in context with larger national trends as well as life at BC.

Keenan said that there are more panels and discussions currently being organized, beginning this week with “After Ferguson,” which is currently scheduled for Jan. 27.

Keenan said that while the general consensus was that the recent panel itself was a huge success, the student-led discussions in an overflowing Fulton 511 were sensational and has prompted him to continue to try to facilitate more discussions in the future.

“If I see some of the same students talking [at future panels], I want to invite them over to the Jesuit Institute to see how can we continue these discussions,” he said.

The Jesuit Institute is also working alongside the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life to potentially host a panel discussion about the concept of protests. Keenan said this was especially important to do because of the ways that students made themselves heard at the “Rights on the Heights” rally and the die-in at St. Mary’s, both in December. It is necessary for people to understand what protesting is really about and why it might be a good thing that people go out and block interstates or bridges, he said.

Keenan believes that while students may be very passionate about something, the faculty may not know that. He said that lack of understanding becomes apparent when only a handful of faculty members showed up to the “Rights on the Heights” rally.

“I think the students are having a fine conversation, but I’m not too sure that the faculty know about it,” Keenan said. “I think that that’s the more interesting question, because what this needs is more faculty involvement, and I think faculty are interested if they knew more about these things.”

At this point in time, Keenan said that while it is important for students to have positive, yet critical, discussions amongst themselves and the faculty, it is also important to bring in other voices.

“How can we develop appropriate space so that students can have good conversations with one another over this, and the level of discourse everyone said was so high, and we need to capitalize on that moment,” Keenan said. “At the same token we’re thinking of bringing in speakers who can talk about race and matters related to race here at BC.”

The Jesuit Institute hopes to bring a range of speakers to campus this semester, with the idea of bringing a senior member of the civil rights movement, as well as Michelle Alexander, a civil rights advocate and associate professor of law at Ohio State University. Keenan said that Alexander, the author of the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is a very desirable speaker since many people involved in the upcoming panels believe it is important to look at race in regards to incarceration rates.

Although Keenan did not give any personal indication as to how he felt about the protest at St. Mary’s that delayed the Jesuits’ move-in, he commented that it was a very important catalyst that ultimately led to the discussions that will be occurring this semester. It is less important to discuss the actual immediate effects of the protest and whether or not it was controversial, he said, when it can be looked at as an event that forced discussion between the students and faculty and administration.

“One of the things that we wanted to do is get us on the right track, to have the right discussions, the right actions, the right reflections, the right alliances, to move things forward rather than a focus on something that happened that I think many people took notice of but why it happened and how it happened and who decided and what was decided,” Keenan said. “Nobody really knows that, and I think that people want to realize that it was a catalyst for what is hopefully going on now.”

While issues of race seem much more prominent now in light of the violence in Ferguson and Staten Island, this is not just a current issue, but one that has persisted since the end of segregation, according to Keenan. He cited a chapter on race in his upcoming book, and said that there was a belief at the ending of segregation that if white, black, Latino, and Asian college students were all thrown together at the age of 18, there would be no problems with alienation or separation. So far, he said, that belief has not been realized.

“Universities know that they were told years ago that they needed to engage people from different racial backgrounds together to talk about neuralgic issues, and therein they would realize that there was a lot more in common than the differences that they were appearing to believe in,” Keenan said.

Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor

January 26, 2015

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