Black lives matter

President Sonya Stephens discusses the actions Mount Holyoke College will take to confront and address racism and to demonstrate that Black lives matter.

Content warning: Trauma

The Mount Holyoke College seal

June 2, 2020

Dear members of the Mount Holyoke community,

As many employees returned to work after last week’s campus-wide shutdown, we did so with protests raging across our divided nation and in deep sorrow and anger at the merciless killing of George Floyd, and that of too many others before him who lost their lives to anti-Black racism and injustice. Many in our community are suffering as Floyd’s murder evokes and prolongs the long and dark history of lynching and violence towards Black people. It is painfully evident to me, and to many in our community, that this repeated violence requires so much more than expressions of collective sorrow and solidarity. It requires a call to action. It requires that each of us do our part to demonstrate that Black lives matter at Mount Holyoke College and in our communities everywhere.

On May 15, I wrote to you after Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, just as the news was breaking of the March shooting of Breonna Taylor in her own home. Since then, we have also learned of the tragic killings of Monika Diamond, Nina Pop and Tony McDade, whose experiences as Black trans people are often erased from such conversations. On May 19, our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, in collaboration with the Division of Student Life,  held a virtual vigil—a memorial and healing circle—so that we could say the names of these and other victims of racial violence, honor their lives, and acknowledge the pain and fear in communities of color, and in our community—especially the pain of our Black faculty, staff, students and alums. The campus community has also heard directly from Mount Holyoke’s chief diversity officer and vice president for equity and inclusion, Kijua Sanders-McMurtry. Her letter on May 29 spoke to the continued trauma of the brutality we are witnessing and announced a second healing circle for Black community members, to be held on June 4. Kijua’s message also included a list of resources to console and heal, as well as readings for those of us who are committed to being allies to those who are suffering the most.

Episodes of racial violence are frequent and ubiquitous: On May 30, a video of yet another act of police violence has surfaced—a video that shows Spelman College student Teniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young, a recent graduate of Morehouse College, being stopped by Atlanta police officers, violently aggressed and tased. The officers have since been fired for excessive use of force. That this episode occurred as communities responded with protests to the violent murder of George Floyd is all the more distressing. In the days before these terrible acts of police violence, Christian Cooper, an African American birdwatcher in Central Park, captured on video his encounter with a white woman who, when asked to leash her dog as required, escalated a civil request by placing a calculated call to the police and making a false accusation against him. The videos of all of these incidents remind us that individuals still choose to abuse power and privilege in ways that threaten the lives and freedoms of people of color.

The current protests, like those of the past, are a clarion call for justice and for action, provoked by these incidents and many other individual tragedies, and fueled by long-standing racial inequity and persistent violence against Black and Brown bodies. Peaceful protest is one way to participate in democracy actively, to manifest the rejection of racism, hatred and violence, and to demonstrate the need and support for change.

Like many of you, I am taking stock of my own actions to challenge myself and to change how I support communities of color. I am doing my part to give to the causes that make a difference to the lives and freedom of those most at risk. And I am doing my own work to examine my privilege and biases, and consistently to engage in learning and other endeavors that support my understanding and my commitment to becoming anti-racist. I believe deeply in the principle discussed in our racial justice vigil May 19 that I must use my spheres of influence to impact change in all of my communities, as well as in my leadership of Mount Holyoke, and in all of our policies and practices. I trust that each of us, especially those of us who are white, will participate fully in all the ways that we can in dismantling the systems that sustain racism, inequality and oppression; that we will reflect on our own place in the world and engage in learning and professional development to confront the harm inflicted upon marginalized communities and to challenge our own biases; and that we will use our privilege and our voices to speak out, become anti-racist and to lend our ongoing support to people of color everywhere. You can be a part of this work at Mount Holyoke by registering for 10 Steps to End Racial Injustice and Violence on June 4.

Here are some immediate action steps that we are taking at the College:

  • We will offer intentional support efforts through more structured strategic actions for people of color, and for Black students, faculty and staff specifically. These efforts will include an examination of our history, and, through a comprehensive campus climate assessment launching this fall, focused attention on the recruitment, retention and treatment of Black community members and other marginalized groups. 
  • We will accelerate explorations of restorative and transformative justice in ways that, while not co-opting these practices, minimize the need for policing on our campus and promote community-based approaches to harmful incidents and issues.
  • We condemn individual actions that weaponize police departments. The long history of intentional targeting of the most vulnerable members of our community must end. Campus Police was intentionally moved to the Division of Student Life on January  1, 2020 and, as of July 1, the department’s support of multiple campuses ceases, allowing for a more intentional and intersectional community-building approach to campus safety at Mount Holyoke.  
  • All senior leaders will continue their professional development, participating this summer in further self-exploration and training on anti-racist practices. These efforts will extend to all faculty and staff members as well. 
  • A Bias Education Response Team (BERT) is being established  through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and will begin in the fall of 2020. BERT will exist to better respond to incidents of racial violence and to ensure that individuals receive immediate support and care if they experience incidents of bias.

Mount Holyoke exists to enable learning, to foster an engagement with the past, the present and with each other in a community that is enhanced by the diversity of identities, thought, and experience. Speaking out and working against bias and injustice, are, at their core, the very purpose of a liberal education: to pursue and refine ideas, to promote individual freedoms and the collective good—, and so to demand and enact justice for all. Mount Holyoke will continue to prioritize such learning in a community that is safe, supportive and inclusive. As I said in my last letter, we may be apart at the moment, but we are no less of a community for our separation.  It is in learning, in empathy and solidarity, in this struggle together, in hope and through determined action, that strong communities and friendships are forged, and that change is secured.

How each of us responds to this moment, and how we do so collectively, will shape the future at and through Mount Holyoke College.