April 23, 2020
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Students, professors and staff members gathered Sunday night to talk about the damage of silence and the ways people can ally themselves with groups recently attacked in shocking events that made national news.
President Sean Decatur convened the forum in the wake of a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, two more videos of police officers shooting black men and a deadly attack on Dallas police officers during a public rally.
He said he wanted to help people deal with a sense of powerlessness in the face of events that “seem to be surreal and impossible events to happen but also somehow predictable.”
The gathering of about 35 people included professors who have been at Kenyon for decades, staff members who are new to the community and many of the first-year students getting early academic experience through the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP).
Professor of Religious Studies Ennis Edmonds said he sees a wide gap in the different conclusions Americans draw from watching the same videos of shootings and in the discussion of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“What has struck me in the last week is how far people are apart in how they react and how they understand what is going on. And that is a part of how impossible it is for some people to see that black lives matter,” he said to the group meeting in Peirce Pub.
Edmonds added, “I don’t know how we’re going to bridge that gap if we see the same thing and come to such different conclusions. I hear that millennials don’t have that problem, so maybe years from now it will be better?”
Brandonlee Cruz ’19 was president of the Council for Diversity and Social Issues last fall when he and about 100 students and staff staged a sit-in at Peirce Hall to promote discussions of racial intolerance and insensitivity. At the forum, he said even posting messages of support on social media is important.
“On issues like this, I don’t think there is a middle ground. There is love, but if you are loving but silent, then you are part of the oppression. If you are a white person who is silent, then you are contributing to the oppression,” he said.
Another student said she has white friends who are anxious about what to say in classroom discussions that touch on race. “It’s important for me to let them know they don’t have to be politically correct. Right off the bat I tell them just to be honest and say what you feel, and we’ll try to have a conversation and understand each other. Saying that Kenyon is a safe space goes both ways.”
Rachel Kessler ’04, chaplain and priest to Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church, said, “I’ve heard that an ally isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. And it’s not even a status you ever really attain. It’s something we are constantly working for.”
Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason P’10, also a professor of English, said that there is no script for these difficult conversations. “We need forgiveness before the fact, which comes from a deep empathy and a deep sympathy for each other,” he said.
Decatur talked about his sympathy for both the victims of police shootings and the police. He encouraged students to learn more about the issues and engage in the work to find solutions, whether on campus, in the local community, or at the national level.
The forum Sunday night joins other campuswide events focusing on discussion of race and identity. On Sept. 7, Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, will visit campus to give a talk. On Sept. 20, criminal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson will speak in Rosse Hall on “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity and Making a Difference.”
“This is something that, to me, is the very best of what we do at Kenyon: we face different challenges together,” Decatur said.