Saint Michael’s embraces racial equity ‘Challenge’

Over 21 days in July, faculty and staff purposefully educate themselves and one another through readings, videos and discussions

July 30, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

CHallenge graphicNearly 130 Saint Michael’s College faculty and staff members in July answered the “Challenge” to build purposeful habits surrounding racial equity through education, conversation and awareness over a 21-day stretch from July 1 through July 21.

“The 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge” is an online resource that has national popularity, created by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., who has pursued and achieved success in academia, business, diversity, leadership and community service. In 1996, he started America & MOORE, LLC to provide comprehensive diversity, privilege and leadership trainings and workshops.

Kathy Butts, head of counseling for the Bergeron Wellness Center at Saint Michael’s, suggested the exercise for the wider community to Margaret Bass, appointed at summer’s start as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion. Bass already is familiar to the community, most recently as Interim Director of the Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services and before that working in Academic Support Services.

Margaret Bass

Margaret Bass

Bass took the ball and ran with it once she heard of the idea, elegantly putting forth and organizing the Challenge among faculty and staff with near-daily insightful commentaries and reflections that imparted a true sense of community, while also encouraging participants to fearlessly dig deeper.

A feature of these activities were three largescale Zoom sessions, a week apart, where more than 100 participants would break into smaller discussion groups to process material they had read or watched or experienced from the website or elsewhere on racial equity. The idea is to read or view one item daily and/or take an action to advance racial equity and awareness. Feedback received by Bass, a longtime English professor at St. Lawrence University before coming to Vermont, was immensely positive.

“I feel so good about the St. Mike’s community in terms of its openness to these discussion and to talking about how we do diversity in the future, and I’ve had no discouragement after hearing and seeing people’s response to the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge,” Bass said at the end of the 21 days.

Similarly, faculty and staff participants expressed gratitude for the experience. Tom VanDzura of the College’s Business and Accounting faculty, said, “The 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge and related reflective journey was, for me, heartbreaking, moving, educational, and inspiring all at once and throughout.”

Tom VanDzura

Tom VanDzura

“In fact,” VanDzura said, ” it is a journey I wish to keep taking, so that I may make my small contribution each day, but in meaningful ways, to ensure a habitat/environment centered upon inclusion, support, care, and compassion, as well as to more proactively speak out and stand up against racism.  I am deeply grateful to my colleagues who participated in the related conversations, and profoundly grateful to Margaret Bass for her leadership, spirit, and sharing throughout the journey.”

Bass said VanDzura and other will have a chance to do just that, through book and discussion groups that are set to begin soon online. “I have had long conversations with many faculty members about what happens in the classroom and ways to approach the sensitive topics, particularly those that have arisen in 2020, and faculty have been very positive in responding to the concerns of students of color on campus, wondering what they can do and how they can move us to a better place,” Bass said.

Of the Challenge’s appeal for her, Bass said, “I think given what I believe my mission to be at St. Mike’s, this was a way to involve the community in conversation and action, and I thought it gave people an opportunity to do those things, based on their interests and time commitments with the limited time period that we participated – so it appealed to me for all of those reasons.”

A staff participant in the Challenge, Michelle Jordan of the Marketing & Communications office, had this to say of her experience: “I can’t say enough about the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. It pushed to me read, reflect, listen and learn. The lens with which I view the world and my ability to move through the world is very different than our Black community, just because of the color of my skin.”

Michelle Jordan

Michelle Jordan

Jordan spoke of her three sons. “One came to be a part of our family through the Fresh Air Fund  As a mom, it pains me to think that simply because of the color of his skin, he is treated differently, can be the target of hate crimes, has less opportunity, and the list goes on. Racism is – unfortunately – present everywhere. And to be a part of this Challenge, including discussions with an educated, caring and articulate community like Saint Michael’s, gives me hope that our world can change for the better. Empathy and understanding is a great place to start.”

Bass said such responses are typical of what she is hearing so far. “What I have heard primarily from folks who were involved were expressions of gratitude for what they’ve learned, gratitude for the beginning in many cases of conversations between and among colleagues that have never occurred before, and then a desire to continue the conversations in other ways.”


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