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New task force prioritizes racial equity, and speed

More than 1,000 protesters, led by UVA students, marched to the Rotunda from downtown Charlottesville on June 7.

Andrew Shurtleff

Amid the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) gave a newly created Racial Equity Task Force just weeks to give him prioritized recommendations for action by early August.

“Racial equity is an urgent issue right now—for our country in general, and specifically for the University of Virginia. We should welcome this opportunity and not shy away from it,” Ryan wrote in June. “Black lives matter, and it is time to redress the negative impact that systemic racism has had on the experience of many students, faculty, staff, and community members here.”

And while this task force marks renewed urgency in this work, the grievances before it are not new. The group is charged to round up all the demands students and others in the University community have made, both new ones and those decades old.

Racial Equity Task Force
From left: Kevin McDonald, Barbara Brown Wilson, Ian Solomon Sanjay Suchak and Dan Addison

Frank Batten School of Public Policy Dean Ian Solomon, a member of the three-person task force, says progress now can come only with acknowledgement of that long struggle. “We know that we build upon the work of decades of students, faculty, staff and alumni who cared about these issues. This is not a new project,” he says.

In looking back over the past half-century, task force member Kevin McDonald, vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, says he has seen the same themes repeating, involving “everything from the four P’s of people and processes, practices and policies, to the recruitment and retention of those people and their success, to the curriculum, to places and spaces.”

Those themes appeared again in early June, after President Ryan made a statement on social media that drew some criticism for not condemning racism more explicitly. More than 2,000 students, alumni and representatives of student groups signed a statement urging him and UVA “not to be complacent when it comes to fighting against systemic racism and inequality, which the University regularly fails to do.” Its list of equity demands included banning neo-Nazis and white supremacists from Grounds; paying workers a living wage; hiring more faculty and professors of color; required programming at orientation about UVA’s history of slavery; and requiring students to learn about race relations in America.

In a statement to the Cavalier Daily, Zyahna Bryant (Col ’23), a second-year student who is a racial justice activist, called for anti-racist training and for the University to make Grounds inclusive and safe by funding organizations for Black students, renaming buildings and removing statues that honor racists, and expanding enrollment and support for Black students.

Zyahna Bryant (Col ’23) speaks during the protest on June 7. Andrew Shurtleff

Three days after his initial statement, Ryan apologized in a new statement announcing the task force and a recognition of Juneteenth—the commemoration of the end of American slavery—as a paid holiday. In a June interview with Virginia Magazine, he said of his apology, “I thought it was really important to acknowledge the pain and burden on our Black students, faculty and staff, and I didn’t do that sufficiently in the first [message].”

The do-over articulated a push toward action, rather than further study, with Ryan purposely keeping the new working group small—architecture Associate Professor Barbara Brown Wilson, a leader in UVA’s community outreach efforts, rounds out the group of three—and giving it the quick deadline to get him a set of recommendations.

Ryan acknowledged some of the ongoing issues to address. “I think more work needs to be done, including increasing faculty diversity, increasing student diversity,” he said. “It takes work and time, but … an awful lot of people are working on these topics.”

He added, “There’s widespread recognition … that we could do better.”

In recent years, UVA has made some efforts to recognize more facets of the foundation on which it was built. In 2013, then-President Teresa A. Sullivan empaneled a commission to study UVA’s relationship with slavery. The group released a report in 2018 uncovering a brutal history, and through its work UVA has founded a consortium of universities studying slavery and has renamed two dorms after enslaved laborers.

In 2017, after neo-Nazis marched on Grounds and led the deadly Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville, a committee urged the University to reconsider its harmful symbols, celebrate agents of change and contextualize unofficial historically significant spaces, such as the Black Bus Stop.

In 2018, President Sullivan created a commission to study UVA’s role in the racial segregation of the 19th and 20th centuries. In March of this year, the group recommended that the University undertake a comprehensive evaluation of all its problematic building names, monuments and memorials, as well as promising not to create future memorials for those who represent racist ideologies.

And in the spring, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a decadelong effort to remember the 4,000 to 5,000 enslaved laborers who worked and lived at UVA, opened down the hill from the Rotunda, though the pandemic forced postponement of its public dedication.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers honors the thousands who toiled at the University with neither their freedom nor history’s due. Sanjay Suchak

Students are also looking for their own ways to make change. Says Bryant: “I really hope to be a part of a pipeline that should be created from local Black and brown students to UVA. Admissions offices have created relationships to help them with applying, but there needs to be a more formalized process. I want to help more Black students get to UVA and tools to get them through UVA.”

In August, Bryant announced $10,000 in scholarships for local first-generation Black college students.

Nik Popli (Col ’21), editor of the Cavalier Daily, says journalists undergo bias and empathy training before joining the staff. As one of few people of color who has served as editor-in-chief, he says he makes it a point to put certain processes in place to prevent discriminatory pieces from being published.

“In the past, the Cavalier Daily has not been immune to those types of mistakes. That’s why there needs to be more people of color in the newsroom,” Popli says. “Across all newsrooms, there’s a need for more diversity, and the Cavalier Daily is no exception.”

Other groups, such as the University Judiciary Committee and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, are answering calls for more inclusivity.

“Diversity is a hallmark of excellence,” says Alexander Gregorio (Col ’15, Batten ’16, Darden and Law ’21), the president of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. “The society hasn’t been as diverse as it should have been.

“We’re going to focus primarily on racial justice and equity,” Gregorio adds.

In the wake of protests, the University Judiciary Committee presented a letter to the UVA community, saying, “As one of the primary disciplinary organizations at UVA—which operates on a foundation of safety, freedom, and respect—we cannot be complicit in institutional and systemic racism.”

“We need to restructure the way the organization is,” says the group’s chair, Gabriella Cox (Batten ’21). “When you’re in a judicial setting, you have to address that discrimination may have been a part of the setting.”

Students and administrators alike agree that this is a time for action.

“We don’t want to just look at the surface manifestations of inequity, but really try to dive under and uncover the root causes,” Solomon says. “And that means boldly and courageously interrogating structural and systemic issues of inequality at UVA.”

Michael Mason (Educ ’06), associate dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, explains that Ryan meets with the Black Presidents Council, a group of Black student “elders,” to gain insights, a tradition Sullivan started.

“I do have trust in the University’s desire to improve itself,” Mason says. “It’s important for Black students to have the support of the University. And in the case of the racial task force, I do feel like the University is listening. Listening is step one. That’s where it begins. After that, there’s action required.”

Brooke Leigh Howard is a writer based in New York City.