Message to the Neag School Community

June 1, 2020

Sent on behalf of Dean Kersaint:

Dear Colleagues,

As an African American woman and as the dean of the Neag School, I’ve been thinking about what I might say to the Neag School community at this time. I am struggling, so I decided to follow the advice that I often give to those with whom I work closely: Take care of yourself first, then family, then all else. I took some time for self-care. I needed time to catch my breath.

Last week, I shared a recent article — “Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not” — with UConn’s other School/College deans, as well as with members of the Neag School leadership team because I believe it captured the sentiments of many Blacks. The email I sent was accompanied with the following passage: “It is not my intent to start a conversation as I want to provide each of you an option of reflecting on this independently and privately, if that is your preference. Also, I do not expect to receive any responses.” When I wrote this, I truly believed that I was doing this for the benefit of the recipients. Reflecting on this now, I recognize that it was actually a protective armor — I was not prepared to, and didn’t want to, process this with anyone else. I was not (and am not yet) prepared to help others feel better about this. I think we all need to sit with this for a while.

Despite this, I continued to think about my role as the dean of the Neag School. What can I say about the Amy Cooper video, which impacted me in ways that the George Floyd video did not? Don’t get me wrong, I did (and continue to) react viscerally to the unnecessary murder of Black men. To me, as a Black woman, he is one more in a long list of senseless deaths, among them Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Terrance Crutcher, Stephon Clark, Bothan Jean, Atiatan Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor. In addition, I know of similar situations from my personal experiences as well as from experiences recounted by family members and Black individuals within my friendship and professional circles. Many of these encounters did not benefit from a recording. The reason the Amy Cooper video impacted me is because it demonstrates clearly how race can be intentionally weaponized. It showed clearly the calculation behind as well as the tacit understanding of what the phrase “American Americans” engenders in others. This may be the first video that confirms what many people of color have had difficulty explaining to others. This happens in public and professional spaces. I encourage each of you to view that video, which does not involve death or violence. Reflect on and consider the ways in which such assumptions may have manifested in your own personal or professional experiences.

I admit that when I learned the Provost was to write a message for the UConn community about the recent incidences, I thought to myself: “Great, I am off the hook.” His statement is powerful and does, in fact, capture my sentiments. But I am not “off the hook.” Neither are you. Such statements do not address these ills. They change very little. If we, in the Neag School, are committed to our mission, “to improve educational and social systems to be more effective, equitable, and just for all,” then we must take actions to demonstrate this in all that we do. The words are meaningless if we do nothing. This is also true for the value and principle statements we are in the process of adopting. We must hold ourselves and one another accountable. Moreover, we must consider how we are instilling these ideals in the students we prepare.

Given all of this, I ask the following of you:

  • Acknowledge the impact of inequities on people of color and consider how your actions (or lack thereof) may reproduce them. Then, commit to do and be different. If you see something, say something. Do not wait for or rely on those who are the most vulnerable and most affected to also be the ones to address the inequities that you observe.
  • If you are not familiar with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, please commit to learning more. UConn has recently hired a Chief Diversity Officer and we (the Neag School) are developing a Diversity and Inclusion Plan. Become familiar with the Neag School plan and actively contribute to its success once it is formally adopted.
  • Think about your courses/programs; do they prepare students to recognize, acknowledge, and address inequities as professionals? If not, are students provided such opportunities elsewhere? You need not be a diversity scholar. I am not a diversity scholar. However, we can all learn. If this cannot be embedded as part of the curriculum or program, encourage students to engage in extracurricular learning opportunities about diversity and inclusion so that they are better prepared “to improve educational and social systems to be more effective, equitable, and just for all.”
  • If you haven’t done so, please read the draft proposal of the Socially and Educational Transformative Engagement and Research (SETER) Alliance, a research/practice partnership we have proposed with the Connecticut State Department of Education and the state’s Alliance School districts. Alliance School districts represent the 33 lowest-performing school districts in Connecticut and 42% of Connecticut’s public school student population, including 63% of students of color, 65% of low-income students, and 76% of English Learners. This joint effort is one avenue through which we hope to challenge educational issues collaboratively and systematically.
  • Given the additional health and educational disparities that disproportionately affect people of color as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, I encourage you as scholars to collaboratively generate and make accessible a list of research questions related to educational and other outcomes borne out of the pandemic as a resource for other scholars, including graduate students. The availability of such of a list will permit them to consider and potentially initiate new lines of inquiry to address them. It is only when interdisciplinary group of scholars examine consequential issues from a multiplicity of perspectives that we provide the insights needed to address them.

In sum, I encourage all members of the Neag School to take an active role in combatting inequities. Your heartfelt support is appreciated, but your active engagement is preferred.

Respectfully shared,