screenshot of virtual conversation with two interpreters, Bakari Sellers, Nell Irvin Painter and Ruth Watkins

ICYMI: The first Friday Forum

The first of the Friday Forums on Racism in Higher Education featured a conversation with University of Utah President Ruth Watkins and special guests, noted historian Nell Irvin Painter and political strategist and CNN commentator, Bakari Sellers. In case you missed it, view the full event below.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at the U is hosting these national conversations each month with the goal of helping attendees start on a journey to eradicate racism and share best practices for sustained growth and action.

The series showcases best practice models designed to disrupt complicit racism—regardless of discipline and professional field—with topics addressed at all levels of leadership. University of Utah staff and faculty members of all disciplines are encouraged to submit a proposal here.

Sept. 25 event transcript

Mary Ann Villarreal:

Good afternoon everyone. Welcome, and thank you for joining us for the launch of the Friday forum series. We’re thrilled to have over 500 registrants, from the university throughout the state and region joining us to address this most important subject. Before we get started today, I’d ask you to take a moment and pause with me to acknowledge the constant racist violence assault on our black communities, and the grief that is felt among them. I also want to acknowledge that this land which is named for the U tribe is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute and Goshute, Goshute and U tribes. The University of Utah recognizes and respects the enduring relationship that exists between many indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands.

We respect the sovereign relationship between tribes, states and the federal government, and we affirm the university of Utah’s commitment to a partnership with native nations and urban Indian communities through research, education and community outreach activities. Thank you. Friday forum, what is it? It’s a commitment by the University of Utah to the state and region in elevating national conversations and showcasing models of disrupting complicit racism. During each session, we will engage national thought leaders in discussions, and provide opportunities for participants to share on actionable items towards growing a diverse, equitable and inclusive campus. Today’s forum confronting our racism recognizes that the legacies of racism that constrain us are deep and long, and we are not going to solve our discomfort with training alone.

The work we must do is about rooting out the systemic racism that lives in the every day. We must recognize that racism pervades the structures that have raised us, and that we have in turn fostered. We cannot run from that system, but we can dig up its roots. We must unearth, uproot and plant a new. We hope that you will grow with us this year as we embark on this journey to becoming an anti-racist campus. Now just a few housekeeping things, items to keep us running smoothly today. This event has two parts: the general panel discussion and concurrent tracks. Let’s get started [inaudible 00:02:39] and moving the needle and a student only panel. When the general panel discussion comes to an end, please join the panel you selected at registration.

During today’s conversation use the Q & A area on the right side of the main stage to submit your questions for the general panel discussion. Finally, before I have the pleasure of introducing our special guests, I want to thank our partners: the office of the president, the university cabinet, university marketing communications, university human resources, university business auxiliary, the division of student affairs, DOMO the business cloud and Convene, our virtual meeting program platform. Now to introduce our guests. When people ask me why I returned to the University of Utah, or why I even thought of returning to the University of Utah, I always have one answer, the leadership and vision of President Ruth Watkins.

Dr. Watkins is the 16th president of the University of Utah, and is guiding the state’s flagship institution to unprecedented heights. President Watkin’s signature initiatives include degree completion, innovative student funding models, strong partnerships with community stakeholders, uniting the campus as one U to drive innovation and research education and operational efficiency, and addressing grand societal challenges such as mental health and interpersonal violence. President Watkins has guided the U as the University for Utah, cultivating broad and deep connections to communities, and being responsive to the state’s workforce needs. Our second guest today, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter. Dr. Painter is a distinguished and award-winning scholar and writer, a graduate of Harvard University, author of eight books and countless articles.

She retired as the Edwards professor emeritus of American history at Princeton University. Most currently her book Old In Art School is a departure from her earlier works on a history of the American South and her most recent book in that area, The History of White People guides us through more than 2000 years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race, but the frequent praise of whiteness. From 1997 to 2002, Dr. Painter also directed the program in African American studies at Princeton University. Our third guest today, Bakari Sellers. Bakari Sellers made history in 2006 when at just 22 years old he defeated a 26 year old incumbent, excuse me, a 26 year incumbent state representative to become the youngest member of the South Carolina state legislature, and the youngest African American elected official in the nation.

Earning his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and his law degree from the University of South Carolina, Sellers has a tireless commitment to championing progressive politics. His impressive list of accomplishments in addition to having served on President Barack Obama’s South Carolina steering committee during the 2008 election, includes being named to Time Magazine’s 40 under 40 in 2010, as well as 2014 and 2015 the Route 100 list of nation’s most influential African-Americans. Mr. Sellers released his debut New York Times bestseller book, My Vanishing Country on May 19th, 2019. President Watkins the floor is yours. Thank you.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you so much Vice President Villarreal for such a gracious introduction, and even more for the vision and energy that it has taken to create the Friday Forum, and to bring us the opportunity to have a dialogue with such distinguished guests. Thank you particularly Dr. Painter, Mr. Sellers Bakari. We so appreciate your time and your willingness to engage in a conversation. I understand we’re supposed to pretend as if we’re in a living room together, so we’re doing our best to do that in this virtual living room. I think we will have a lively dialogue thanks to the opportunity to bring such talent together today.

Here we are in this very difficult time, I would say really an unprecedented time. Even in this difficult time I think there is hope around us. Hope that perhaps we are at a transformative moment. As you reflect on this time, this moment, what about it feels different, and also what about it feels the same? I think as we reflect on where we are now, I would like to hear your thoughts on what might be transformative, and as we progress in the discussion how we can do our part to do our best to be sure that it is transformative. Maybe Dr. Painter if you’d like to go first that’d be great.

Nell Irvin Painter:

Well I have to say that I was feeling gut punched by the lack of any indictments in the Breonna Taylor case. I’m speaking here out of simply feeling, I understand all the legal issues around it, but it really just hurts. That’s coming at the end of a year in which we’ve just had a series of murders of black people, largely at the hands of the state. That is frightening, but it’s a long-term fright I’m afraid. What is new to me is the outpouring of passion of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Americans, and not simply black Americans as has been the case in the past, to protest the white supremacy, the murder of black bodies, black people, and to call for an end to white supremacy.

To see so many Americans and so many diverse Americans is encouraging. Now, I lived through the 1960s and 1970s when we had uprisings. I live in the city of Newark, which actually has gone through the traumas, but also come out the other side. If anybody wants to look at how to run a city in diverse times and in an anti-racist manner, Newark is the place to look actually. Looking back, I remember the backlash, I remember the difficulties that white Americans had. I don’t know if they even tried to understand the larger history of the United States. The promise withered in the 1970s, I hope that doesn’t happen now. I’m cautiously optimistic that it won’t happen now.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you. Mr. Sellers let’s hear from you.

Bakari Sellers:

I think that this is a unique time. It’s probably a time, I know we say history repeats itself, but it’s probably a time that we’ve had the weirdest convergence of historical moments in our country’s history. The reason being is I would like to compare it to the 1919 meets, 1928 meets, 1968, where you have a pandemic and you have a depression economically, and then you have this, I hate the term racial reckoning, but we’ll use it because that’s now a popular phrase. This is a unique time because the country’s dealing with all of these things at one particular moment. Now is it different? I would be intellectually dishonest if I were to tell you that this is the same old, same old, because it’s not. Anytime you have Taylor Swift, and by the way I’m a Swifty I think Red is still her best album of all time, but I’ll die on that hill all by myself.

When you have Taylor Swift and you have Carson Wentz and you have all of these athletes understanding their privilege and their platform, when you have all of these entertainers and just powerful voices. You know it took us about seven years just to get Mitt Romney to say black lives matter. You can’t say that we are not taking steps forward because we are. But I always ascribe to one of the great political tenets that I hope everyone watching Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. One of the greatest political tenets that I live by is trust but verify. I just take it one day at a time, to see where we’re going in this country. Because as far as we’ve come the even more difficult question to answer is where do we go from here? So have things changed? They have. Progress is always slow, justice is even slower. Trust but verify and take it one day at a time.

Nell Irvin Painter:

President Watkins may I add a little bit to what we both just said. Two big differences now as opposed to the 1970s, is that we have had a generation of African American studies. African American studies scholars, myself included, have been working away, applying our brains to the very issues that are at question right now. We have a strong body of recognized scholarship now, which we did not have in the 1970s. There was scholarship in the 1970s, but it was not recognized and it was not as abundant. The second thing is that we have people like Bakari Sellers who can reach national audiences, massive national audiences. Our public intellectuals reach more Americans by factors of 100 or 1,000 than they did a generation or two ago.

Ruth Watkins:

Building a little bit on that, and particularly on the history of African American studies and some of the work that’s happened in higher ed, I think a big picture question for our conversation today is, what will it take for higher ed to build on this moment, and to do what higher education can do, both in research and in education to really tap into the transformative potential of this moment? Maybe I’ll ask you each a little bit about that, and in different ways. Bakari I think you in some ways grew up in higher education, with a father an activist and also a college president. Any lessons from his life and his experience that empower you and us in this moment today?

Bakari Sellers:

My father was actually he helped found to Dr. Painter’s point, he helped found the African American studies department at the University of South Carolina. As we’re talking about this uptick in black intellectualism, especially in terms of higher education, it’s not as if it didn’t exist, it was just finally recognized. That is helping us have these bigger, bolder, more courageous conversations. My mother actually taught business communications on the campus of South Carolina State University. I did grow in this household where we were a part of not just higher education, but in particular the African American, the [inaudible 00:15:01] college and university experience. That’s where we nestled in. But I want to answer your question in a way that we can [inaudible 00:15:11] the rest of the conversation, so we understand what we’re talking about.

I think that the way that we tackle race is sometimes not directly and not head on, and people oftentimes don’t even understand the issue at hand. I want to be extremely clear, Stokely Carmichael defined racism as this, he said, “If you want to lynch me that’s your problem, but if you have the power to lynch me that’s my problem.” We have to understand racism as a power construct. Also, and one of the things that in higher education you come to understand is that racism is truly rooted in legality. The plain speak is that there’s never been a law in this country that’s discriminated against white folk. When you put these things together and you begin to understand what we’re tackling, I think it creates a very, very clear picture.

Because institutions of higher education, the one we’re at today, I spoke at the University of Johannesburg yesterday, having this same discussion about race, class, and gender and meeting these moments. You understand that you’re caught in this inescapable network of mutuality to quote King. You also have to understand that for many black folk, this is a intra or inter-diaspora conversation. Because we are all in this together, and it is a worldwide global phenomenon where you’re pushing back against some of the prejudices they confuse themselves as patriotism. You’re also pushing back on this wave of nationalism that’s coming forward.

I think that by giving young people particularly young people of color access to the resources on your institution of higher learning, giving them access to a guest lecturer like ourselves today, allowing them the space to understand the value and necessity of diversity, and giving them these growth opportunities and mixing them with the co-curricular opportunities that are necessary, not extracurricular but co-curricular opportunities that are necessary to facilitate growth and competitiveness. I think that the only way, and this drives a lot of people crazy, the only way that we will be able to progress forward by making sure that our institutions of higher learning are not a luxury, but are simply an opportunity.

Ruth Watkins:

Let me let you comment Dr. Painter if you’d like. I think I listened to a podcast where you spoke, and one of the lines that I noted from that was that hierarchy is in America’s DNA. Your own work about race as a social construct certainly relates to that. But I kind of building on Bakari’s points, I would say, we know that hierarchy is part of how a university works too, with some of it’s not so great things in a university’s DNA. I’d love to hear your comments on that.

Nell Irvin Painter:

Well, first let me thank Bakari for saying many of the things that I would have said, and he said them very, very clearly. In terms of how to change or to enlarge or educate institutions of higher learning, the crucial part is leadership. Mary Ann Villarreal mentioned some of the leadership aspects that you bring to the University of Utah that brought her to the University of Utah. That is absolutely crucial. I see also in my own Princeton University, the importance of leadership, of moral leadership, of intellectual leadership. But interestingly enough from what I understand at the University of Utah, you haven’t been pushed to the wall. You haven’t had big outburst of student activism to prompt you to move on to dealing with decolonizing education at your university. Certainly in other institutions that has been the case.

Student activism is an absolutely fundamental part of changing the status quo intellectually, or the intellectual status quo. Students have to stay on their toes and sometimes stay in the streets, and write their manifestos and their letters, and keep talking to the leadership of their institutions. Certainly that has made a big difference at Princeton. Beyond leadership, there’s also the issue that we discover that institutions that are racially and diverse in gender as well, are more efficient and more intelligent. Institutions stand to gain from having a more diverse student body and a more diverse faculty. That is a win for the institutions.

I think about my own background in art. I went to art school after I left Princeton. You mentioned my memoir Old In Art School. One of the things that I discovered was how narrow the arts institution that I received could be. I think about decolonizing art history and the pleasure it would give, say, studio teachers in painting which is my field, to be able to reach toward the techniques and the palette of painters like Robert Colescott. That’s just one name, Howardena Pindell is another. So that we stand to learn, we stand to add to our store of knowledge by decolonizing, by opening and by reaching out.

Ruth Watkins:

I wonder if the status quo can be changed without the negative side of sometimes what goes with activism. I want to support change in the status quo. I want to be a leader that does that every day without requiring that it only happens after people come and pound on the door in protest. Tell me about your experiences, both of you, either of you on change in the status quo through leadership and movement that isn’t only when it’s pressed to the wall.

Nell Irvin Painter:

It depends on the institution doesn’t it? It depends on what you call the negative aspects. I was thinking about the prickly young people who get up in arms over what seemed to me to be trivia. But I don’t think we can find a place where we’d get all the good without all the annoyance there would be.

Bakari Sellers:

I agree I would need to flesh out what the negative aspect is. Protest is inherently messy, it always has been. Protest is supposed to make you uncomfortable. It’s truly not a protest if you can live your day as normal. But I want to be extremely clear though, because I agree with you. One story and then one brief synopsis. I have a 15 year old daughter and 21 month old twins. Part of the reason I’m glad my lighting’s not the best is so you can’t see my bugs under my eyes from my 21 month old. I’m just happy to be in a hotel today. My wife called me all night because the twins were up, and I was just like I’m just trying to get some sleep since they’re not here. But my 15 year old daughter after George Floyd was murdered she put on her mask. Two of her girlfriends painted Black Lives Matter sign. They wore all black they went out and protested.

This is, we come from a protest family. My dad was in SNCC, I was in the State House. I run my mouth off then about what I believed to be truth. I was so proud, but I was so conflicted. Because here I am and my daughter is 15 years old, and I’m proud that she’s out just being active, protesting, but then I’m so disappointed that as a country my 15 year old daughter simply can’t be 15. She has to go out and carry a sign that reaffirms the basic levels of her humanity. That’s first. The second part, the not push back on the premise of your question, but to flesh it out even more and help people understand the conversation is that, for black folk in this country we’ve never had an ounce of change that did not require blood in the streets.

The 64/65 Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t see John Lewis and others beaten to a pulp on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The 1968 Fair Housing Act, the only reason LBJ passed it is because people were about to burn down cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4th of 68. The Confederate flag in South Carolina where I’m from, the Confederate flag would have never come down. In fact, when I was running for lieutenant governor it was actually one of the poorest political moves I’ve ever made although I feel really good about it, was asking for the Confederate flag to come down. It was really the death nail to my statewide campaign.

But a year later nine people get murdered in a church, including one of my good friends Clementa Pinckney and the Confederate flag comes down. For black people in this country, I don’t think there is a change to the status quo, or we have never seen one that was not compelled or was not, the genesis thereof was not the death and brutalization and lynching of a black body. I want what you want, I really want there to be able to be changes through the normal processes of democracy. However, for black and brown people in this country that is not a history we know to be true.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you both very much. I think I’m hearing you clearly. I’m listening to looking at some of our questions that are coming in, and I think we can pick off a couple of those now. I want people to feel that they can be part of this discussion, so questions welcome. There was a question from early in the conversation Bakari that I think related to your comment about your feelings on the term racial reckoning. Can you expand a little bit on that?

Bakari Sellers:

Racial reckoning for me it’s a phrase that we created in the media. I have on my America needs journalists shirt. I can also tell you that contributing to our hyperpolarization a lot of times is the 24 hour news cycle. That ain’t the healthiest thing in the world. I can readily admit that. You guys on campus I’m so excited for what’s about to happen at your campus. I’m not sure you know what’s about to happen on your campus, but I’m so excited. For the energy, for the life, for the fact that the entire world, the entire world for 90 minutes is going to pay attention to what’s happening on your campus and your students and your faculty. This is a moment to be extremely proud of who you are, and without your leadership that would have never happened.

The term racial reckoning it’s just a funny word to me because for 401 years black folk have been trying to have a reckoning with race for a long, I mean since we got here we been trying to have a racial reckoning. It’s a little intellectually dishonest for us to say oh my God, now in 2020, these are the adjectives we want to use. For me it just feels… In 1968 when my father was shot along with 28 others and Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton were killed in the Orangeburg massacre, like that was a racial reckoning. For him his racial reckoning was when Mamie Till decided to have an open casket, so that the world could see what racism and hate had done to her son Emmett.

For them it might’ve been Plessy V Ferguson and a court case where we were attempting to have some racial reckoning. It just seems like an intellectually dishonest word to give people who are participating something to be a part of. It’s not that I hate it I just feel like what happens, where are we now? It was a racial reckoning after George Floyd, what was it after Jacob Blake? What is it after Breonna Taylor? I can guarantee that in 90 days we’ll be having a similar conversation about something else.

Ruth Watkins:

Did you want to comment Dr. Painter?

Nell Irvin Painter:

Well let me just say amen to what Bakari just said. The term racial reckonings reminds me of a 20th century term which was race relations. I think of those, I hear those as convenient taglines for the complexities that Bakari mentioned, and the disproportionate concern that people who identify as black have, and people who don’t identify as black have.

Bakari Sellers:

That was a good question, I appreciate that question.

Ruth Watkins:

I think very eloquently answered I would say. I think there’s a question in the comments kind of picking up on the theme about protest as a true form of democracy. We of course believe very strongly in the importance of protest as a way for people’s voices to be heard. When we think about transformation and the call to action in higher education, for our efforts to dismantle systemic racism in the academy, what is that call to action in your eyes? Let’s spend a little time talking about how higher education can be anti-racist, and can be a more democratic place that really does allow all people to achieve their potential and to experience the benefits of higher education. I think for us to dig into that as higher educators, and many people participating today are in the university or in other universities. Probably the most important question for us to focus on is our own work, and what is the call to action for all of us?

Nell Irvin Painter:

If we’re talking to people who are on the faculty, who are administrators, as opposed to students, I think the most important thing to realize is that are called to democratizing is a call for more education. It’s a call for knowing more, which is actually our jobs. I think back to the struggles in the 20th century for African American studies, and those were real struggles they didn’t always win. It took forever for programs of African American studies, which were the first outcomes of the protest, took forever for those to become departments, to become full fledged parts of the university. A look back at the history of African American studies will become very revealing of the difficulties, but also of the rewards. The rewards of African American studies really are intellectual rewards. I think that’s what I want to stress. That democratizing our curricula, democratizing our institutions from students to administrators is really an intellectual undertaking whose rewards are basically intellectual.

Bakari Sellers:

I wholeheartedly agree with everything Dr. Painter said. I actually will look at it from a different lens in terms of what you can do systemically. I think that, so not only did I speak to the University of Johannesburg, but I also spoke to UPS and [inaudible 00:32:10] this week, and I had a decently confidential conversation with some people over at Wells Fargo, who were having a totally different conversation than the one we’re having right now. But systemically I would look at the makeup of your board and see, does your board have the representative democracy of a 21st century enterprise? I would look at your cabinet. I know that most places have a diversity officer, and they let that diversity officer be of some different ethnicity or gender, but is there more, and does that diversity officer get more than 15 minutes once a month with the leader of the institution?

Then I would say, are you recruiting from places where there are diverse groups, where there are individuals of Hispanic and Native American and African American backgrounds? This isn’t to chastise the university by any stretch, because I don’t know the answers to those questions. But what it is saying is that the same way that enterprises and businesses and corporations are looking at strategically and systemically their diversity, are the same way that institutions of higher ed should do it as well. I think that only then that representative culture is necessary because that allows it will trickle down and that also allows students to come in and have a very unique and diverse experience. The last thing that I will say is, I’m someone who believes that institutions of higher learning have to allow a wide array of voices.

I am a firm believer in the First Amendment. I’m somebody who tells you that you have the right to say absolutely anything you want to say. You do know that anything you want to say though does come with consequences. You don’t have the right to escape consequences, but you do have the right to say it. I just think that a wide diverse array of… I would have never guessed that I would be speaking at the University of Utah and I’m excited to be here today. For me this is like I’m the most excited person in the room to be here with you all, because this is an awesome experience. This is a part of my growth. This is a part of understanding that there are things outside of South Carolina and North Carolina and people who are having these discussions in all walks of life.

I think that it’s necessary that you bring in more people from different elements to have conversations. The best point I make is I don’t ascribe to anything Ben Shapiro says. There was a university was like, “We’re not bringing Ben Shapiro here.” I was like that’s crazy. What he says may be stupid, but still you have to bring him here, so that individuals have an opportunity to have that intellectual pushback. Everyone at the university is not going to agree with everything Dr. Painter and I say, but for far too long we’ve only retreated to our individual silos.

We only watch news that reinforces our own opinions, and we only have conversations with those people who are in our proverbial choir. I taught at the University of Chicago And I challenged my students one week to watch Fox & Friends in the morning, the next week to watch Morning Joe, and the next week to watch New Day on CNN. It was the best social experiment I’ve ever done in my life. They were healthier for it and were able to see other views and be able to articulate, be able to pushback and entertain. I just think that’s healthy for the experience and healthier for this conversation in a very divided country.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you both for really good calls to action, both in our representation and composition, but also in the dialogues we are willing to have like this Friday Forum and the beginnings of our efforts to confront racism. We have a question that’s come in that’s thanking you for your guidance, and also talking about the opportunities for allyship on a campus with a predominantly white faculty, a predominantly white institution. I think there are many people who want to be part of the dialogue who want to express allyship and be part of action and change. Suggestions, ideas, comments on that.

Nell Irvin Painter:

I’d like to start by tackling the other question about what advice would you give black people who you were trying to do this anti-racist work, their jobs in higher education and live in our black bodies. Because white allyship is really crucial, but I don’t think it’s going to cost you either your life, your sanity, or your tenure. Whereas black people who were trying to do all three of those things, it can cost you some of those things. Especially for people who have high moral standards and say they want to make change, either for their students, or for their children, or for their institution, while black, that can kill you.

My advice is to find a place, find some people, some given people, particular people whom you can mentor, whom you can guide, and whom you can pass on to others who may have professional competence that you say as a faculty person don’t have, so that you can see the difference you make. You can make a difference, but you don’t try to do once and for all to end all of it, because it’s all too big for one person or even a group of people. Do something, but do something that you can manage and still do your job as a faculty member or an administrator. As for white allies, I think one of the most important things is mentorship. You can be a mentor for someone who is new or for someone who is in a very small minority, and you can also speak up when things that are not right get said or done. It’s hard to do, but it must be done.

Bakari Sellers:

Dr. Painter just brought up a good point for white allies. I’ve learned this so I mention it as number one, the number one thing you can do now is push back against microaggressions. A lot of times you let those things go. You’re like, “I can’t believe that happened to you. I can’t believe.” At the time though you need to assert your privilege and stand up and educate. This is a good question. Because we’re not asking you to go out and be Andrew Goodman or Mickey Schwerner today. The times have changed. Those individuals, along with James Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi, they paid the ultimate price. They paid what Lincoln called the last full measure of devotion. But we are asking individuals to have those courageous conversations with themselves.

Now let me say something that hasn’t been said, and I want to be really clear about it. Because it’s not on black people to fix racism in this country. Both to your question and to Dr. Painter’s point about just maintaining your mental health and stability. What drives me crazy is I’m sitting there and I’m on TV and I’m talking about the fact my daughter’s 15. Now I’m having to have a conversation with her about how to interact with law enforcement because she’s driving. That’s like the first talk that you have with the black child, right? For anybody who wants to notice racism still exists I’m like white parents don’t have these conversations with white kids, but black parents, every single black parent I know has a conversation with their child when they learn how to drive or leave the house on how to interact with law enforcement. It’s just a must have. It never fails.

People are always like, “Tell me about that conversation. What is it like?” I’m like no. Tell me what you’re teaching your children in your household? What example are you setting at home? What example are you setting at work? How are you elevating the people of color around you into leadership positions? How are you teaching your young people to give my children the benefit of their humanity? I say all of that to say that it requires individuals and realize that everybody’s not going to be on board on this, but it requires individuals to have these very difficult courageous conversations amongst themselves even when Dr. Painter and I are not around.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you both, very powerful calls to action. I think there’s a question that’s come in about university leaders supporting people of color student activists in resistance efforts and in their own healing. Either one of you have thoughts about that? You’ve touched on some of those things but welcome additional comments.

Bakari Sellers:

I might jump in real quick I just want to say something that I meant to say on the last answer, so just give me a quick moment of privilege here. In my book My Vanishing Country, I talk about I have a chapter called anxiety, a black man’s superpower, and I talk about my anxiety. Because for far too long black folk, particularly black men don’t talk about mental health issues. The only person we think we can talk to is our barber. I wanted to throw that myth on it’s head. I think everyone has some ounce of anxiety as we’re going through this period of COVID. This is life-changing, life-altering, and so it’s okay to be anxious. But I do want all the students to know that if you’re not physically, mentally and emotionally healthy, then you’re no good to the movement. What Dr. Painter was talking about in terms of self-care is so necessary. You need to be willing to do what’s right to get yourself spiritually and mentally and emotionally there. Because we need more people on the front lines of this battle.

Nell Irvin Painter:

In terms of supporting students of color, I think the most important thing is to let the students know that they have allies outside the student body, and to support those allies. There’s a certain amount of tension that’s built in to student activism if President Watkins is always there with the student activists, that’s not student activism. There has to be some tension there. But student activists also need allies in the faculty in the administration or even in the town. They have to know they have allies beyond the student activists.

Ruth Watkins:

Very good thank you. I think one of the demands that has come from our university student body, our elected students in support of our black student union on this campus, it’s touched on a little bit in one of the questions that came up about requirements for certain kinds of coursework. Certainly what framed in the question here as anti-racist or anti-biased coursework. What are your experiences with that kind of coursework and recommendations that you might have for the University of Utah in that area?

Bakari Sellers:

I might be different. First of all I hope you use My Vanishing Country in your anti-racism coursework. But I’m not someone who believes that it should be a required or mandatory piece of reading. Because everybody don’t want to be anti-racist, like everybody doesn’t want to be a part of this journey that we’re on. I look at institutions of higher learning as a place where people have a smorgasbord of opportunity, and they’re exposed to so many different things, and there are people here who my goal today, I’m somebody who lives in 24 hour increments in life. But I hope that there is at least one or two students out there who may come from a diverse or different opinion than I, and look at the world differently than I do, but know that I come from a town where we have three stoplights and a blinking light, don’t have a hospital, live in a food desert, a very poor community.

Here I am, every night I get to talk to Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper on CNN. That’s a dream and a dream accomplished. But I’m also unapologetically black, and I also speak my truth, and I also make sure that I try to create opportunities for others. Although they might not see the world as I do, they want to go out and be willing to learn. I’m always saying that we have to showcase these opportunities to give people a chance to understand, and then maybe they’ll want to pick up how to be anti-racist or they want to pick up why do all the black kids sit on one side of the cafeteria, or they want to pick up Dr. Painter’s book. They’ll want to do those things. But I think compulsory and mandatory requirements sometimes put people in positions where they don’t absorb, or they don’t have the experiences that they need to. That’s my little weird nuance opinion about that. It may not be accurate, but that’s just kind of where I am.

Nell Irvin Painter:

I think what Bakari says makes a lot of sense. I remember the first round of anti-racist pedagogy in higher education, and foundered on whether or not this kind of instruction was going to be compulsory. I can’t imagine there would be less problems with that now. Compulsory probably takes us often in a nonintellectual way. But speaking of the intellectual way, I think more important in the sense that Bakari brings out, is making people know how many resources are there now. Bakari’s on CNN, and there’s a lot of resource material right there on CNN. But also just in the books and the podcast. There’s just tons of information that people need to know is there.

Ruth Watkins:

Yes thank you both for your perspectives on that. It is in our considerations now as a campus about how we can best go forward. There’s a question Bakari about your book, about My Vanishing Country, which is about the forgotten lives of African American working class people in I believe Denmark, South Carolina, correct?

Bakari Sellers:

Correct.

Ruth Watkins:

Tell listeners a little bit about Denmark and about your book.

Bakari Sellers:

The first thing is I’ll tell everyone who wants to write a book, don’t have your release date during the middle of a pandemic. That’s the first thing. My book came out May 19th, 2020 it was a unique experience. But I was trying to write a political book like many of my colleagues at CNN, and no one wanted to buy a book. This book was not the writing per se, but the book was, the journey was a lot like a wrinkle in time. I got turned down over 30 times, and finally Tracy Sherrod, she is a black female editor over a major publishing house Amistad an imprint of HarperCollins pulled me aside and said, “Tell me your story.” I told her. I talked to her about growing up the son of a civil rights hero, and the Orangeburg massacre. I talked to her about being the youngest black elected official in the country and running for lieutenant governor. I talked to her about the Charleston massacre, and living through that experience.

We just covered a wide array of topics. A very, very political book, but it was well received because it’s not a partisan book at all, which is unique for this time. It’s just my truth, and what I tell people is that and what I tell students is that as you’re writing, as you’re living get to a point where you feel extremely comfortable with yourself, and get to a point where you feel unashamed to tell your truth. One of the things that makes you such a successful administrator on campus, the same thing that made Dr. Painter and myself successful is that every single day we bring our entire self to our jobs, we bring our entire self to our careers. We understand the value in that, and I think that allows us the ability to lead better than most.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you. There was a question that popped by, I can’t see it right at the moment, but it was asking you both about the kind of advice you would have for a student who’s in a class where a faculty member maybe commits a microaggression, or makes an insensitive comment that is hurtful and causes harm. For a student sitting in that class, do you have suggestions for how they might handle it? Because I can’t see the question at the moment, I am not sure if the student was referencing their own race or not.

Nell Irvin Painter:

Yes, it’s a white student. I think what I would say would go to a white student or a non-white student. That is that in the classroom the student should convey disagreement. Not standing up and slapping the professor necessarily, but make it clear make dissent clear. Then in office hours actually speak to the professor. The professor may not have realized, and may become a much better instructor. If that doesn’t work go to the next level, which is the department chair, the dean and so on and so forth. But the thing to keep in mind is the power and balance between a student and a professor, but realize that a student does have some power in the classroom to show dissent.

Bakari Sellers:

I agree with that. But I’d also challenge the university to make sure that there are spaces on campus where individuals can go and relay these things. Everybody’s not as outgoing as Dr. Painter and I to stand up and say professor you’re full of it. But there has to be-

Nell Irvin Painter:

Bakari I’m not saying a student in a classroom should stand up and say professor you’re full of it, I’m talking about a dissent that is not in your face. Remember as a professor I’m a woman, so I’m very sensitive to the gender relationship between student and faculty as well. But to dissent, and then start by going through the levels of power that is to say the professor him or herself, the department chair, the dean, and keep a paper trail.

Bakari Sellers:

I definitely agree with all those things and the university just ensure that there is a space that higher level that those students can go to.

Nell Irvin Painter:

Yes.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you both. A question just popped in about how can we decolonize a predominantly white university with only white presidents? I am the 16th president and I am the 16th white president. I am the first female president however. But I do think maybe that question could better be framed as can we decolonize a predominantly white institution with white presidents?

Bakari Sellers:

I think so. I think it requires that you, what you do, you’re here. We’re having this discussion. You have to be intentional and purposeful, which we’ve checked off we know that. You have to be willing to listen, which is also a value added. It’s usually a value that is ascribed to successful leaders. I think that this is a new age and a new journey. I think it’s extremely possible. Can we, the answer is yes. There has to be willingness. I just think that it requires the student body across all sectors from athletics to student government, to those individuals who are just putting their head down in the library every day, to just do that much more and become a part of something larger than themselves.

Ruth Watkins:

Well said. Dr. Painter do you want to comment on that as we come to a close?

Nell Irvin Painter:

We have to decolonize with white presidents. Luckily we don’t have only white presidents, but we have to decolonize with white presidents. One thing we need to keep in mind is if we swept away all the white presidents, we would be putting into place people not necessarily with the kind of support they would need. I think we have to work with all the presidents we’ve got, when openings occur we have to know who the non-white candidates are and press for them as well. But we have to work with the people we have, and luckily we have some good people. Thank you Ruth Watkins.

Ruth Watkins:

Thank you both so much for the inspiration that you provide us, your wisdom, your guidance, your advice, and we take seriously the work to transform higher education and take on an anti-racist agenda. I think I’m passing back to you Vice President Villarreal for next steps.

Mary Ann Villarreal:

Well, thank you. Thank you again Dr. Painter, thank you Bakari Sellers. I wrote down trust but verify, and to dissent. The power to dissent and to ensure that we at the university understand our responsibility in the power structure to listen to and respond to. Thank you for highlighting those important points as so many others. To our audience today, I want to say thank you for joining us on the launch of the Friday Forums. We hope that you have found a nugget to take back to your unit, your departments, to your campus, to share to continue the conversations. We do hope to see you again on October 23rd, where our topic will be establishing anti-racist policies and practices, as well as implementing them not just establishing them.

For those of you who your feedback, not for those all of you your feedback is very important to us as we continue to develop the Friday Forums into a model of excellence in personal and professional development. You’ll receive a post-event survey that will be sent to you next week to provide your feedback and your suggestions. Please, if you take a few minutes and respond I’d greatly appreciate it. To learn more about the initiatives and equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Utah, please visit diversity.utah.edu. I’ll see you next month, thank you.