[Following is the text of a letter sent via email to the Gillings School community on Friday, September 23.]
Dear Gillings students, staff and faculty,
I want to encourage us all to reflect on the difficult time in which we are living and what each of us can do, in our own way, to help each other deal with the pain and sadness about events in the country – and now, in North Carolina – and to feel welcome in this community. We are a community. As a community focused on reducing health inequities as a fundamental part of our mission, we also want to effect change in this state that will make it fairer and more equitable. We will return to that issue in follow-up communications.
I came of age at a time in the history of this country when we saw some of our most beloved leaders shot down, almost before our eyes, and we experienced collective pain that felt intensely personal. We saw parts of U.S. cities in flames, as rioting and looting overtook them. Yet we also saw hundreds and thousands of people of different ages, races and backgrounds join hands and march together on Washington for civil rights, women’s rights and against the war in Vietnam. I was one of them.
In contrast, today, we are experiencing the killing of black men by police in one city after another. Each time, our emotions are raw as we watch and experience local reactions, and as social media send messages at the speed of light. However, there has not been a national, collective reaction. Perhaps that is why people seem to feel more lonely, isolated and vulnerable. The presidential campaign seems to be causing huge splinters and fragmenting us further. Our students are hurting, but our staff and faculty are anguished too. The proximity of the tragedy in Charlotte – which is the home city for some in the Gillings School – makes it feel so much worse.
This week, students came together to share, grieve, express their unhappiness and sadness and other emotions – and to be together, to give and receive support. I am deeply appreciative of Charletta Sims Evans and Jeffrey Simms for putting everything else on hold to participate and offer support. To have these leaders at the Gillings School makes me feel both humble and grateful. Shekinah Fashaw, a master’s student in health policy and management, and Sam Baxter, co-president of the Minority Student Caucus, were among the conveners, and I heard they were masterful. Thank you Shekinah, Sam and others who helped.
A number of us from the Gillings School’s central units had a regular meeting yesterday, and it gave us a chance to talk about the events in Charlotte and elsewhere and what we can do to help our students and staff, especially. Among the most important messages Charletta gave us is to ask people how they are feeling. If some among us are so upset that they need to miss class or a day in the office, I’d want us to respond as some in one department did – with understanding, empathy and compassion. Giving some class time to discuss unfolding events would be another. Being alert to students who might be distressed is also important. There is no formulaic, perfect answer. Those of us who are white can never know truly what it feels like to be black, but we can own that while also reaching out to the people around us to let them know that we, too, feel pain even if we cannot feel their pain. Remind colleagues that a welcoming school is one where black students and others should feel comfortable wearing dreadlocks, head scarves and whatever clothing makes them feel right. That applies to every one of us. If I hadn’t given my Black Lives Matter tee shirt to a student who wanted it, I’d be wearing it now.
Starting today, there will be a message board in the atrium so people can share thoughts and feelings. We’ll have more reflections sessions – smaller and at different times of the day. We’re talking about other ways we can communicate. In our own ways, we each will reach out to people around us – and that’s not enough or all we will do. We’ll keep trying to find the right things, knowing there is no one right thing. We have a small-group meeting to discuss how to express, and act on, inclusive excellence. A job announcement for a full-time assistant dean for inclusive excellence will be posted soon. In our state system, getting senior leadership positions such as this filled can easily take six months or more, but know that we have committed to this, and we will not wait to act.
Other resources also may help. Here are some:
- Links.Charletta Sims Evans shared this link to a blog that many have found helpful.
- CAPS. Students, if you are feeling overwhelmed, draw on the services available through UNC’s CAPS program. That’s why they’re here!
- Employee Assistance Program. Faculty and staff, you may be feeling overwhelmed, too. You can draw on resources through the Employee Assistance Program.
- Reflection board. Please stop by the reflection board in the atrium to share positive thoughts, affirmations and messages that tell each other our doors are open to everyone.
- Campus event TODAY! The Office of the Dean of Students, MADO (Multicultural Affairs & Diversity Outreach Committee of Student Government), and Student Life and Leadership are collaborating to offer an open space for discussion, processing and reflection. These are scheduled for today at noon at Upendo SASB North; and another session today at the Student Union at 2 p.m.
- Gillings Reflection Sessions – coming soon. As I mentioned above, we will be having smaller reflection sessions on different days and times. We’ll post on the LCD screens and in weekly news. Please join us.
- Student forum – coming soon. Student Government and Minority Student Caucus are planning a student forum.
Each of us is a part of this community. Each has a responsibility to act in caring ways – but more than that, to think about, suggest and then begin to act on how we, as a collective community, can be better…together. We want to hear about and be part of your organic solutions even as we put additional formal structures into place to support our community more effectively. Please share your thoughts, ideas and efforts with us and with each other about ways in which our School can be the deeply welcoming and inclusive place we all want it to be. In the coming days, we will provide additional avenues so you can do just that. In the meantime, send an email to email@example.com. Thank you.