This is an insight written by Molly Rogers on the recent Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Symposium, Pursuing Equity in Prince George’s County, co-sponsored with The Critical Race Initiative, on February 12, 2019.
Prince George’s Rising
Steve Brigham, the author of Prince George’s Rising: Strategies for Equitable Development and Prosperity, introduced the topic of racial equity by quoting Aspen Institute’s definition of the concept. According to the Aspen Institute, racial equity is “when people in society have equal chances to reach their full potential and are no more likely to encounter life’s burdens or benefits just because of the color of their skin.”
Brigham and later speakers including Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the School of Public Health discussed how the University of Maryland is failing to implement racial equity on campus. As Mr. Brigham stated, the African American student population at UMD has dropped nearly in half over the past two years. Similarly, Dr. Wilson established that only five percent of the faculty has been African American at UMD over the last twenty years.
As a tour guide for this university, one of our tour stops is at Hornbake Plaza, right in front of the statue of Frederick Douglass. We are trained to discuss Douglass’s legacy as an abolitionist and as a fighter for equal rights for all people. We are trained to explain that placing Frederick Douglass’s statue in such a central location on campus represents the accepting and progressive environment we strive to instill at Maryland.
After hearing the statistics presented by Mr. Brigham and Dr. Wilson, I honestly feel like a fraud. How am I supposed to discuss equal opportunities on this campus when we are clearly failing? How am I, a typical female, white college student, supposed to address equality? As Amy Kincaid suggested, how can I be hyper-aware of my positioning when approaching such topics?
Hearing the panel made me reflect on how I can supply the information that the University has requested of the tour guides, while still being truthful to the prospective students and to myself. I think the best way to approach this conflict is to state what I know. Although I feel inclined to omit the low statistics regarding the African American student population, I think I can focus my speaking more on the clubs and organizations we have on campus, like 17 for Peace and Justice that Dr. Wilson praised, that work to improve racial equity on campus, as well as in the greater community.
Furthermore, the last discussion about access to resources being not only equitable but also reparative was very pertinent to me. Although I agree with Brittney Drakeford that the history of communities is relevant in this discussion, I was particularly interested in the education system and how students in lower-income areas, which are generally inhabited by African American families more than white families, are affected by the unequal access to resources.
For example, I volunteered for a few hours a week at an aftercare facility in inner-city Memphis, TN when I was in high school. I found myself teaching fifth graders how to write the simple alphabet and how to read short words. When I was in fifth grade, I was reading full books and understanding math problems. The schism in education leads to a vicious and interminable cycle. When students lag behind in elementary school, they are undoubtedly going to lag in high school. They probably will not go to college. They will have to get minimum wage jobs and live in lower-income neighborhoods where there is pollution from industrialization and a lack of green space and parks. When these individuals who suffered in elementary school eventually grow up and have families, the cycle is bound to continue with their children and generations to come.
Although racial equity efforts require far more than the contribution of a single person, the effort of anchor institutions, students on college campuses, and citizens of an entire county might just be able to spur the transformation.
About the Author: Molly Rogers is a sophomore Neurobiology and Physiology major at UMD. Growing up in Memphis, TN and being minutes away from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Molly has always been interested in children’s medicine and research. Her goal after graduation from UMD is to pursue medical school and make her dreams of working with children come true.