Working toward an antiracist future
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson April 14, 2021
Students from UD’s Honors College are raising social consciousness on campus and beyond
These days, it appears every multinational conglomerate, nonprofit organization, institute of higher education and corner deli is committing to a more inclusive future — or at least purporting to. With diversity the buzzword de rigueur (and diversity statements flooding inboxes across America), it can be difficult to separate the authentic from the performative. How can you tell when dedication to equity is a genuine value, versus an all-talk marketing ploy?
At the University of Delaware, one giveaway is the recent establishment of an action committee (key word: action) called The People of All Colors and Communities Together, or PACCT. An initiative spearheaded by students and supported by faculty in UD’s Honors College, the group develops strategies for nurturing an antiracist culture on campus and beyond. And it puts policy-shaping power — and, ultimately, future-shaping power — in the hands of one community most impacted by this future: undergraduates.
“When it is the students calling for certain changes, that lends a legitimacy and an urgency I don’t think such efforts would have otherwise,” said Chrysanthi Leon, associate professor of sociology, deputy dean of the Honors College and an informal advisor to PACCT. “It also adds accountability, which is really important. In a dialogic process where we are meeting frequently and they are saying: ‘What’s the update? What have you done lately?’ I think that’s very powerful. That keeps us on our toes and keeps us grounded in making sure we follow through.”
In June of 2020, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans, Leon and Michael Chajes, dean of the Honors College, reached out to their students for ideas on raising social consciousness on campus. About 25 Blue Hens from across disciplines expressed interest in the cause and, during weekly meetings throughout the summer, PACCT was born. Among the group’s goals? Informing strategic planning, improving admissions questions, volunteering to help recruit a more diverse student body and building collaborative relationships with other organizations on campus.
One member of this committee, sophomore Aniya Brown, knows firsthand the importance of this work toward a more equitable environment. As a Black and Native American woman, she has experienced microaggressions throughout her life.
“When people find out I am an Honors student, they sometimes react as though this is a unicorn situation — like I shouldn’t exist,” she said. “People will tell me they didn’t expect me to be so smart. Or I will hear exclamations of surprise at how well-spoken or hardworking I am — exclamations you don’t expect to hear if you are a white male.”
For Brown, an Honors pre-veterinary medicine major, serving on a PACCT subcommittee focused on increasing minority student retention has become an “empowering and uplifting” way to channel the frustration of these encounters.
“I really can’t stand it when I see proclamations about positive change with no action to back that up — there’s no putting your money where your mouth is,” she said. “But I don’t see that from the Honors College. What I see is the dean sitting in on our meetings, asking: ‘What can I do for you?’ As students, there are rooms where we just don’t have a seat, but we are being heard by faculty who do have this access, and that’s been very encouraging and appreciated.”
One successful project is the development of a workshop on issues of bias and privilege that members of PACCT delivered to their peers in First Year Seminar courses within the Honors College. These required classes typically provide an introduction to life on a college campus, covering issues from the dangers of binge drinking to the importance of academic honesty and, yes, social justice. But PACCT members recognized gaps in the latter topic and developed a comprehensive, research-backed lesson plan they conducted themselves. Integral to the workshop was a glossary of terms related to bias and privilege, so that all students are well equipped for future conversations about equity in and out of the classroom.
Recently, members of PACCT were selected in a competitive process to present on this work at two national conferences: the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' Council of Honors Education and the Eastern Sociological Society annual meeting. According to attendees, the PACCT presentation was the only one to incorporate student voices — in all the others, faculty and staff spoke on behalf of a student body. The response to this novel approach was so great, the impact of the workshop model could soon extend beyond the hallowed halls of UD.
“I’d say the future is really hopeful,” said George Class-Peters, a junior Honors psychology and sports health major and one of the student presenters. “I’m an optimist at heart, so just thinking of the fact that one day the world might be a better place because of something small that a few students in the Honors College sparked is really exciting to me. The work is difficult, and there is a long way to go, but we are blazing a trail that future students will walk.”
While the burden of educating the wider community on issues of racial bias often falls unfairly to oppressed groups who suffer most from this bias, PACCT represents an egalitarian mix of minority groups and allies. Consider Kristina Holsapple, a sophomore Honors computer science major.
“My father looks very Asian, and I know how he and his family have experienced racism, and how unfair and troubling that can be,” she said. “At the same time, I acknowledge my privilege as someone who is white-passing — I am in a position of power to communicate in a way people are receptive to, and I feel an obligation to use this privilege for positive change.”
This sense of commitment to bettering one’s community? It’s not limited to the members of PACCT — Holsapple believes it is built into the Blue Hen DNA.
“I felt it as soon as I stepped on campus,” she said. “Realizing UD values me as a student and values all of their students… I feel like I have a responsibility to care for my community, because I know they are taking care of me.”
Students interested in joining the PACCT committee or simply looking for more information should contact Catherine Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org.