A series of deadly events culminated with Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead helping create a place at Loyola University Maryland where she wants positive conversations about race to exist and flourish.
For Whitehead, it started with the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a Black Florida teen, who was killed by George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic man. It hit closer to home in 2015 with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Then she watched thousands of people — of all races — take to the streets here and elsewhere after several Black people, including George Floyd, were killed earlier this year by police.
“I was at home watching those videos and looking at my own sons [ages 18 and 19] and feeling that I have not done enough,” said Whitehead, who is an associate professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola. “I couldn’t continue to hide away in the [university] archives.”
Whitehead’s idea became a reality in October with the launch of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice at the university.
“It provides a scholarly space for professors, students, social justice workers to come together to research, to discuss, to answer America’s questions about race,” said Whitehead, who leads the institute. “We intentionally use race and peace to work toward social justice.”
The institute was established as the university is going through a demographic change and is reaching out to the broader Baltimore community, according to Cheryl Moore-Thomas, chief equity and inclusion officer at Loyola.
“Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion have always been a part of Loyola’s mission. They are very integral parts of the Catholic Jesuit mission,” said Moore-Thomas, who is also on the six-person steering committee for the institute comprised of Loyola faculty members and community leaders.
Efforts like the institute will help students raise their voices whether through the formation of groups or supporting acts of protest, she said.
Seeking solutions to racism
Whitehead wants to bring students, teachers, community members and academics into the institute to train, discuss and devise solutions to combat racism.
That means offering a curriculum and diversity equity and inclusion training for K-12 teachers through the institute’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which will be offered starting summer 2022. Junior fellowships will be offered to college students around the country so they can participate in discussions and research focused on race through the institute’s Center for Research and Culture as soon as this spring.
The fellowships and other training opportunities through the institute will be free through grants.
Meanwhile, the Center for Public Engagement will hold virtual conversations each month led by Whitehead with experts from across the country such as Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top leading expert on infectious diseases including COVID-19.
The institute also will provide a place for students to share their views on race through submitted videos. Students enrolled in Whitehead’s course “Social Media for Social Justice” will record one-minute “talkbacks” highlighted on the institute’s website.
“It’s not just an intellectual exercise,” Whitehead said. “It’s about brainstorming, discussion and beginning to implement solutions. We have to settle the questions around race. We have to settle those things.”
Despite its values, Loyola itself still struggles to make students of color comfortable. Earlier his year, a student collected video from 20 unnamed students describing instances of racism they experienced on the campus and posted the compilation to Instagram, asking the school to work to fix its culture.
A university spokesperson acknowledged at the time that “we have a great deal of work to do to become a more welcoming, inclusive, anti-racist university.”
Christian McNeill, 21, who is a junior and a research assistant at the institute, welcomes the “comprehensive solutions” that he believes will result from the institute’s multifaceted approach where dialogue is encouraged.
“Our society has failed to address and truly eliminate racism from all parts of our everyday lives. Therefore, the Karson Institute is an invaluable resource to the university and beyond,” McNeill said.
Helping Loyola as it changes
Moore-Thomas envisions the institute also being instrumental as the university moves forward and makes needed change.
“It will help them [the university] better understand these [diversity and inclusion] issues and hopefully offer solutions that meet this particular moment in time,” she said.
Loyola University Maryland remains overwhelmingly white, according to 2019 statistics from the university. Black students represented 5% of the undergraduate student population, which is 76% white, 1% Hispanic and 3% Asian. The recent incoming class of freshman, however, was comprised of 30% people of color.
“It’s a reflection of changing demographics,” Moore-Thomas said. “We have been more intentional in our recruiting. Not only do we want to be an institution that recruits students, but also meets their needs.”
Other related initiatives at the university, include the formation of a diversity advisory board, a graduate board that looks at issues unique to the graduate student population such as inclusive curriculum; and an alumni board that specifically looks at diversity, equity and inclusion. These are largely in response to discussions that resulted from the civil unrest that spread across the country this year.
“Our students used their commitment and their understanding of our mission to write open letters and meet with administrators,” Moore-Thomas said. “It challenged us to be more authentic in what we were doing.”
Whitehead said the institute will address long-standing questions that still need answering today.
“At this moment, these questions that we are wrestling with are questions that we have been asking since the first 20 Black people arrived in Jamestown,” said Whitehead, referring to the first enslaved Africans believed to have been brought to America in 1619. “What are the issues that we are struggling with. We will develop solutions and implement them. It is a way of moving this country forward.”
More About Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead
One of The Baltimore Sun 25 Women to Watch 2019, Whitehead is a New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and an authority on race, class, gender and how they intersect. She is host of the award-winning radio show “Today with Dr. Kaye” on WEAA. She was chosen as one of four experts to participate in Barack Obama’s Black History Month Panel. Last year, she was named to Essence magazine’s 2019 list of “Woke 100″ women along with first lady Michelle Obama, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.