Annie Deitz, Campus Carrier managing editor
On Monday, the Berry Center for Integrity in Leadership (BCIL) hosted activist, professor and author Ibram X. Kendi as a part of the department’s Cecil B. Wright III Integrity in Leadership lecture series. During the lecture, Kendi discussed antiracism as well as actionable steps anyone can take to make the United States, and the Berry community, a more just and equitable society.
Kendi is one of the country’s most renowned racial justice scholars and authors. According to his website, Kendi is a professor at Boston University and the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracism Research. Kendi is a multiple New York Times bestselling author, with several published books and academic articles. Among his works is the book “How to be an Antiracist,” as well as his most recently published book “400 Souls,” which was released in early February of 2021. In 2020, Kendi was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the Year.
BCIL began planning this event last February. Nate Pearson, director of BCIL explained, as the Black Lives Matter movement began ramping up in the late spring and early summer in response to the rampant physical and structural violence against Black people in America, Pearson was convinced that BCIL should get involved in this conversation at Berry in a meaningful way. As he explained, when planning for upcoming BCIL lectures, he recognized that a more profound educational experience regarding leadership would delve into relevant issues, rather than just showcasing the work of people society traditional views as “leaders.”
“I had come across Dr. Kendi’s book and saw some talks he had given online and that got me started on thinking about our BCIL lecture series, and how important it is to me that leadership is something that really fits where we are in real life today,” Pearson said. “Sometimes leadership learning becomes more about bringing in successful business people, or people we see as monetarily or socially successful in one way or another. But there’s so much more to think about with leadership and influence. We had already started thinking about this, and we realized we really needed to think about bringing a leader that connects to where we are as a nation today.”
Initially, Pearson hoped to have Kendi come on campus last fall to give a traditional lecture. However, as 2020 progressed and the risks associated with travel in the COVID-19 pandemic continued, they changed plans to host the lecture virtually. Because of this, working with Kendi’s publishing and press group Penguin Books, BCIL adopted a question and answer style format for the event.
Provost Mary Boyd and junior Noah Miller moderated the lecture. As Miller explained, her role as a student and student activist allowed her to be a knowledgeable and relevant figure for the discussion.
Throughout the planning process, Pearson believed it important that Berry community members were able to gather to watch and process the lecture together. However, social distancing restrictions and the virtual nature of the program made this difficult.
“With the topic matter, and with us recognizing that this topic is something that is really important to us here at Berry, we wanted to know how to figure out how we could create a community feel and space to say we’re all in this together,” Pearson said. “I just didn’t feel like it would be nearly as impactful if everybody was just watching it from their computer in their dorm room.”
To counteract that isolation, BCIL, Student Diversity Initiatives (SDI) and other campus groups had a number of watch parties in various places across campus. Students and others were encouraged to gather in a socially distant way.
The event began with Kendi defining some key terms related to his work and discussion, including terms like “racism” and “structural racism,” as well as distinguishing between the terms “antiracist,” in which a person is actively working to dismantle racism, and “not racist.” He then moved on to further discuss how discussions about racism can be generally uncomfortable. He compared talking about racism to going to the doctor, explaining that both are incredibly necessary, regardless of however much discomfort they have.
“There’s an expectation that people can have these conversations without pain or without feeling uncomfortable,” Kendi said in his lecture. “My wife is a physician, in the medical field, there’s an understanding that you’re going to have to talk about uncomfortable things. When you go to a doctor’s appointment, you know you might get some bad news, that you’re sick, that something’s wrong. You might not want to go, you might avoid going, but you know that you need to go to the doctor. The same thing should be true with conversations about racism. These discussions don’t have to be comfortable, because they’re important, and they should still happen.”
He went on to talk more about how inherent racism is in our society. As he explained, we are all “consumers” of racist ideas, even critiquing himself of being such a consumer. He explained that it is incumbent on all people to not only counter these notions in themselves, but also with their loved ones and those close to them. Kendi compared racism to an addiction, and delineated that despite the fact that talking about racism with those closest to us can be the most uncomfortable, it is still necessary.
“Many Americans are addicted to racism,” Kendi said. “To overcome an addiction, someone needs someone that they’re comfortable with to work through the problem and fully understand it.”
Kendi’s lecture came admist what Pearson referred to as a series of ongoing conversations on Berry’s campus related to diversity, equity and inclusion. As he explained, Kendi’s lecture on antiracism was able to cohesively fit within the Berry campus environment as student activists are continuing to speak out about their experiences at the college.
“We had some events over the summer, and the fall, where we heard from students and others that there were things at Berry that they wanted to see more of, that they were lacking,” Pearson said. “The college community is now working to pay more attention to how students of color feel and creating a sense of belonging. There was some work to do, and there still is more work to do, so this lecture definitely fits into that in an important way and we wanted to recognize that.”
Last fall, student activists began a series of demonstrations and conversations within the Berry community regarding the college’s culture, and how it affects students of color. Miller, one of those student activists involved, described that to her, Kendi’s lecture affirmed the validity and necessity of the actions they have been taking.
“It was justifying,” Miller said. “It justified that we’re doing what needs to be done. That this is the only way that we can move forward and make Berry a better and more comfortable space for us.”
In Kendi’s lecture, he outlined three benchmarks that a college, university or other institution should try to reach related to antiracist work and diversity, equity and inclusion. These include high levels of community outreach, diversity in faculty and hiring and support of on-campus social justice groups and efforts. To Miller, Berry has a lot more work to do before meeting these benchmarks.
“I would say we’re low, we don’t measure up very high,” Miller said. “There is work being done, but for the most part, it’s all being done by students. Efforts to make Berry and to make the broader community better are pretty much student driven, without much support from the college, whether that be funding, resources. A lot of work has been done and is being done by students, but it’s not our jobs to do all of that work. There are administrators, professors, all of whom have the ability, and the intellectual knowledge, to do this stuff, and they’re salaried employees. There’s a lot more work to do, and we need to start taking action.”
According to Pearson, 1,188 people registered to watch the event, while even more students, staff and even alumni also watched, making this the largest event of this type in Berry’s history. Pearson expressed his hope that this lecture would only be one small stepping stone in Berry’s path towards improvement, specifically in making the college a more comfortable place for students of color.
“Let’s go in from a place of trust, saying, together, we want students, people to feel like this is home for them,” Pearson said. “Like they belong here. Like they’re welcome here. It might not always feel easy to learn more about how students have felt marginalized, but I think that that was something really important that Dr. Kendi talked about going out of our own comfort zones to improve the situation.”
At the end of the lecture, Kendi included a call to action for antiracist change, imploring leaders to take the time to listen and enact change.
“First and foremost, it is important for leaders to figure out ways to systematically listen,” Kendi said. “Ways to make sure that students of color’s voices are being heard, that they are being seen. Don’t stop there. Take that and ensure change.”