A Community of Trust: The Racial Justice Initiative at Skidmore
The Racial Justice Initiative is a year-long series of projects that seek to address
the realities of racial injustice locally, nationally and globally, from the Skidmore
campus to Saratoga Springs and beyond. Our goal is to build upon the work that has
been done in the past, to pursue new avenues and address today’s concerns, and to
channel our energies toward building an inclusive and welcoming future at Skidmore.
To create the community of trust that is the real goal of diversity, equity and inclusion work, we are all tasked to listen and respond to one another with kindness, honesty and respect. The most valuable part of Skidmore is our people, and this initiative belongs to all of us.
This is Skidmore’s highest institutional priority, and every member of the community is invited to join and support this effort.
September 1, 2020
Dear Skidmore Community:
On July 1, my first day as Skidmore’s eighth president, I announced a presidential initiative focused on race and justice. I write to announce the specific projects and activities that will constitute the first year of this initiative. As I stated on July 1, the United States is engaged in a time of reckoning and a warrant for taking decisive action toward actively combating racism and proudly asserting the indisputable value of Black lives. Skidmore College will embrace this opportunity to confront elements of our past and present where we have fallen short of our ideals, and to chart a course for the future that will see us continue to build the structures, skills and experiences that forge and sustain a community of trust, which is the real goal of all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work.
For the past eight weeks, I have met and conversed with students, staff, faculty and community members about this initiative, seeking to hear and understand the most effective and meaningful steps the College can take toward these important goals. I have sought to understand and affirm the valuable work many have undertaken over the years; to learn about missteps and conflicts in our past that continue to trouble us today; and to share the aspirations and goals that hold the most promise for our future. I recognize that there are many voices yet to be heard, reports to be dusted off and perused, and challenging moments to be revisited, all of which will be part of our shared ongoing work. A primary consideration for us is, what steps are particularly appropriate for Skidmore as an institution of higher education, as a great liberal arts college, in this effort? What are we especially poised to undertake and achieve, and what can be our unique contributions to this centuries-old demand of establishing justice for all in this nation?
We take on this work in the context of a global pandemic that has altered every part of our social fabric and that presents enormous challenges to all the ways a college functions. And yet, this presents a unique opportunity for entering into this work. Our connectivity and mutual dependence on each other have never been more apparent, nor have the terrible disparity in the U.S. for people of color and the stark inequities faced by many at this time. We — Skidmore, Saratoga Springs, indeed the entire country — face a time of trial, and it is up to us how we will respond.
This initiative is not a mere list of action items. The following 12 projects are grouped into three main sections, and all of them are intended to be accomplished in the coming academic year. The initiative hardly ends there — the final step at year’s end will be to review and renew our efforts for the following year, as this work is always ongoing. Progress in the efforts of race and justice — like progress in our own hearts and souls — will always remain as an aspiration and effort. The initiative also provides significant additional resources for this work. I am committing funding from the Presidential Discretionary Fund for these projects for the coming year. In addition, we have just received a significant gift from a generous friend of the College specifically to support the Racial Justice Initiative and DEI work more generally, which includes a challenge and matching grant for the same purpose. This is a substantial institutional commitment during a time of significant financial pressure for the College, indicating our top prioritizing of this strategic initiative.
It is important to note that the work of a Racial Justice Initiative clearly overlaps with the larger work of diversity, equity and inclusion. This initiative is hardly a substitute for all the other projects, goals, aspirations and commitments we have to DEI work more generally. We can and will sustain our work in all these areas, and this is not a zero-sum game: progress and achievement in one area of DEI means progress in all areas, and we advance the causes of our entire community when we commit to the specific project of race and justice. And the more this initiative can overlap with and learn from our other efforts in DEI, the stronger and more trusting our entire community can become. (For example, we remain especially committed to recruiting individuals from historically underrepresented communities to join our staff, faculty and student body, and to doing all we can to help everyone in our community thrive and make their long-term home at Skidmore.)
In closing, let me say once again how honored and humbled I am to be entering into
this work with all of you, the entire Skidmore community. Yes, there are challenges
in our community and in our history, and yes, we will face challenges in the future
as we strive and err and learn and improve. But there is so much to love and celebrate
about Skidmore. Our founding and mission are noble — to provide a great liberal education
for those who did not have such opportunities before — and that mission has never
been more relevant than in 2020. And many hands have been dedicated to making our
college a more diverse, inclusive and just place for years. Today we commit ourselves
anew to that work, in a spirit of communication, dialogue, community and trust. I
am all-in for this work, and I invite and challenge all of us to join in the work
wholeheartedly — for this is, after all, our Skidmore.
- Institutional Commitments for Race and Justice Progress
- College and Community Partnerships and Projects
- Curricular, Co-curricular, and Educational Projects
- We have approved and begun the search process for two key positions in DEI work and leadership at the College: the director of the Office of Student Diversity Programs (OSDP) and the director of The Center/deputy chief diversity officer. These are two seminal positions for our ongoing efforts in overarching DEI work as well as the specific initiatives detailed here. They will be key in supporting multiple student and staff/faculty projects, as well as the ongoing work on The Center. Phase 1 of the Center project is nearing completion and phase 2 is on track to be finished as we begin the spring semester. Both of these positions were already budgeted, and they originated through consolidation of other positions. Our inclusive search and hiring process will commence immediately. We hope to fill these positions quickly and may pursue short-term support during the interim for our many projects in DEI work.
- The Skidmore Board of Trustees creates a new committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Effective immediately, the Skidmore Board has established a new Board committee on DEI, with a liaison to Vice President Joshua Woodfork. The committee will meet regularly and report to the full Board at each meeting. A Board committee means that action and reports on DEI work will occur regularly at every Board meeting and will inform the work of the other Board committees. Such an act signals our commitment to this work at the highest level of the College’s governing structure.
- Skidmore commits to a reconciliation and engagement process. A major challenge at Skidmore — as at most colleges — is finding ways to engage
and address racialized tensions and actions that don’t fall obviously into clear differential
treatment categories encompassing hate, discrimination or harassment but are damaging
and difficult, especially for our students of color or other marginalized people.
Consequently, a key project this year will be to share and discuss widely the findings
from our administration of the 2019 HEDS Diversity and Equity Campus Climate Survey,
to help us see where and how these tensions exist on our campus. We will re-examine
our bias reporting mechanism and protocols. We will grapple with past events and situations
that continue to divide us as we seek racial understanding and healing. And we will propose new educational processes and protocols to gather and hear student
concerns about classroom climate and practice, in an effort to help both faculty and
students foster an ever-increasingly inclusive, supportive and effective classroom
learning experience for all.
- Skidmore joins the USC Race and Equity Center: Liberal Arts College Racial Equity Alliance as a founding participant. The University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, whose “mission is to illuminate, disrupt and dismantle racism in all its forms,” is the foremost research and consulting organ for racial equity work in the nation. This alliance enlists Skidmore with other leading liberal arts colleges in full participation in the Center’s key projects: the “eConvening series” on dozens of key topics in racial equity; the Equity Resource Portal (rubrics, readings, case studies and much more, constituting a best-practices resource center for the entire College); and involvement in the Center’s “Campus Climate Surveys,” as well as the opportunity to partner and collaborate with other peer schools in this work, thereby benefiting from a national alliance that is consonant with the goals and challenges particular to Skidmore.
- We will undertake outreach and collaboration with our Alumni of Color, in an effort to engage, learn from and be informed by their experiences, perspectives and guidance. We will begin with an Alumni of Color town hall/forum in the fall, to bring together multiple perspectives and experiences with our own current campus community in dialogue and mutual support.
- In response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order, the city of Saratoga Springs has been among the first in the state to organize a task force focused on “Police Reform and Reinvention.” A Skidmore faculty member and retiree are serving on this task force along with a dozen local citizens. This important group will be a part of our ongoing efforts to partner with the city on policing practices and safety for our students, as well as on overarching College-city issues and efforts. We will invite Skidmore students, faculty and staff to meet and confer with this group in an effort to foster alliance, trust and common cause.
- We have initiated a series of ongoing dialogues with the Saratoga Springs community in an effort to help the city understand the concerns of the College, and the College to understand the practices and concerns of the city, aiming for mutual understanding and partnership. These dialogues, which began in our mutual efforts to encourage safe practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, will include Skidmore students, staff and faculty as well as the citizenry and leadership of Saratoga Springs. The goal is to ensure a safe and welcoming community for all of us, in which trust and collaboration are the guiding principles.
- We will launch a fall-term program in partnership with the Skidmore Campus Safety staff, focused on how Campus Safety protects, serves and supports each member of the Skidmore community. We will engage recent data to help us understand any concerns with Campus Safety and put in place processes to ensure the best outcomes for Campus Safety staff and for the Skidmore community they serve.
- Every unit, department and program in the College will participate in some form of antiracism training, facilitated by trained professionals in antiracism in the context of higher education and particularly classroom interactions. This is complicated and nuanced work, and its specific manifestations may vary from unit to unit and across divisions to respect the differences among various elements of the College. The ideal would be for each unit to take on the challenge of antiracism training itself, in consultation with leadership in diversity work. A range of tools, programs, opportunities and supports will be provided to assist each unit in taking on the challenge of antiracism training.
- To help our communities learn, engage and educate one another on the major issues and histories of antiracism,
unconscious bias and racial justice (especially at institutions of higher education), we will support the following efforts
(all in careful observation of the safe health practices of the College during COVID-19):
- A speaker series on antiracism work now in America and on college campuses. (There are many superb speakers we can reach out to, depending on identified interests and needs on our campus and in our community. This can also be an event that includes Saratoga Springs.)
- Common reading: As an entire campus, and in smaller reading communities, we can engage with a key book or articles, as well as stand-alone essays and films, to read and engage with supporting programming, as well as other books to be used in affinity spaces. Attention will be paid to best practices in facilitating such programs and encouraging safe dialogue.
- Trainers, coaches and experts in these areas to meet and speak with our communities.
- We will provide funding and support for speakers, projects and symposia organized by the Black Studies program, focused on issues of race and justice, including student and faculty research projects and collaborations with other liberal arts colleges.
- There are many possibilities for other groups, departments, units and areas to create projects and programs that would be supportive of this initiative. This initiative will act as an incubator space to grow creative, thoughtful projects that show promise for supporting the inquiries and engagements with race and justice outlined here. Proposals are welcome from students, staff, retirees and faculty. Projects and programs that demonstrate collaboration will be prioritized, including collaboration with the Saratoga Springs community. The Committee on Intercultural and Global Understanding (CIGU) will advise the president on the best proposals to support.
This information and ongoing updates about the initiative will be posted on the Racial Justice Initiative website and linked to from the College's Office of the President, Diversity, and Strategic Planning webpages. Every month we will issue progress reports on each of the 12 elements of the initiative. As stakeholders and leaders emerge for each element, the specific outcomes and assessment metrics will be added as appropriate. Additional suggestions and new project proposals may be submitted electronically here.
Marc C. Conner