Shared meaning in a diverse society – Albright College

Shared meaning in a diverse society

by Carey Manzolillo

Launched in 2021 to build shared meaning within a diverse society, Empowering Albright Voices day grows with each semester.

It’s 7 p.m., on a beautiful day in October, and Klein Hall is filled to the gills with Albright students, faculty and staff. When no chairs remain, some Albrightians opt to sit on the floor. Still others are tuned in virtually to listen as a multigenerational panel of Black alumni — organized by the college’s highly engaged Society of Black Alumni — share their stories of empowerment on Albright’s campus as part of the fall 2022 Empowering Albright Voices (EAV) day.

The panel was the last event on a Friday filled with back-to-back, cerebral, cultural empowerment events, beginning early with a community breakfast. Large crowds of students moved from one EAV event to the next — from sessions in which students heard personal stories from Albright trustees to a discussion with the Gable Health Center’s on-campus physician about an underserved Alaskan population and a global fashion show. In order to accommodate an over capacity crowd of more than 300 Albrightians, a panel of interdisciplinary perspectives on the recent Roe vs. Wade decision quickly pivoted to larger location.

But, says Brenda Ingram-Wallace, Ph.D., the success of Albright’s Empowering Voices day was born out of struggle. And as a member of the Albright community for 33 years who was named the college’s associate vice president for advocacy and full participation last year, Ingram-Wallace would know.

As the EAV alumni panel members described, that struggle started long ago. But two fairly recent campus events stand out. In the fall of 2016, a pair of Albright students were suspended after creating and distributing a blackface video that mocked the Black Lives Matter movement. Seeking change, Ingram-Wallace and faculty colleagues Teressa Gilliams and Trudy Obazee collaborated on a letter and met with President Lex Millan.

A year later — just as President Jacque Fetrow returned to her alma mater — three players were cut from the football team when they chose not to stand during the playing of the national anthem — in support of a movement protesting police mistreatment of Black males. All three were offered reinstatement; only two accepted.

Considering it a learning opportunity, Fetrow remembers that the experience sparked important discussions about the need to understand and respect differing opinions. Jumping in with both feet, she immediately began forming action groups and implementing programs to foster greater understanding and communication among Albrightians.

Soon, the President’s Student Advisory Council, the Council for an Inclusive, Thriving and Equitable Community, and the Faculty and Staff of African Descent were formed.

“It all came out of struggle, both here on campus through the blackface and kneeling incident, and nationally through the atrocities that were happening to Black people throughout the nation that spurred the on-campus sentiment,” says Ingram-Wallace. “In more than 30 years, I saw almost no movement. Momentum came with the formation of the campus-wide councils, followed by invitations by President Fetrow to hear from these newly formed groups, and actions that were born from those discussions.”

Within two years time, Albright’s faculty and trustees had approved new inclusivity and equity statements, along with an affirmation that “because the vitality of Albright College flows from its diverse membership, we are dedicated to cultivating mutual respect for all community members and maintaining an environment free of discrimination and intimidation.”

But on campus and across the nation, as COVID-19 spread across the globe in the spring of 2020, several tragedies — some accompanied by video footage shared virally on social media — brought forth renewed anger.

Feb 23 Georgia. Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man jogging near his home is followed by three white men and shot to death in what they believed was an act of vigilante justice.

Mar 13 Kentucky. A Black couple, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, are asleep in their apartment when three plainclothes police officers force their way inside under a “no-knock” search warrant for a man who does not live there. Thinking their home is being broken into, Walker, a licensed gun owner, shoots an officer in the leg. Police then fire 20 times into the apartment, killing Taylor.

May 25 Minnesota. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, dies during an arrest after a police officer kneels on his neck for several minutes while he is lying face down and handcuffed. Floyd is filmed as he repeatedly tells the officer that he cannot breathe before going motionless.

“Recent tragic events in our country have left our hearts heavy and our minds reeling with questions about how such unspeakable acts of systemic discrimination, ignorance and intolerance continue to occur in the world today,” wrote Albright Provost Karen Campbell in a letter to all Albrightians just weeks after George Floyd died. “At Albright, our first institutional priority is to create a thriving, inclusive and fully participating community. As such, we must be better prepared to speak out and take action in the face of these atrocities. Indifference, and even confused silence, allow hatred and intolerance to grow.”

“It is our responsibility as a college, as a community, and as people, to stand together in the face of hatred and bias, to fight ignorance and intolerance, to say no to apathy and indifference, to speak out, and to offer profound compassion for all who live in fear that the color of their skin, gender identity, ethnicity or religion makes them a target of hate. It is simply not enough to do no harm; we must be anti-racist,” wrote Campbell.

Like Campbell, who was serving as acting president while President Fetrow endured cancer treatments, many from the Albright community spoke out, from chaplains to administers and faculty members.

But by September, a study published by the NIH showed that although there was initially a sharp decline in negative Black sentiment, and increased public awareness of structural racism and desire for long-lasting social change in the weeks following George Floyd’s death, the shift was not long lasting. The study’s findings suggest that negative attitudes toward Black people remained deeply entrenched.

Throughout summer and the following semesters, amid a health pandemic that continued to keep people physically apart — social justice, racial healing and reconciliation discussions continued to be regularly led by students and Albright chaplains. But here too, a gulf was noticeable between those who were engaged in discussions and those who closed their eyes to issues affecting their Black classmates and colleagues. Black students, making up about a quarter of the college’s student population (and far eclipsing the percentage of Black Albright faculty and staff members) felt the slide.

An idea was formed to hold a day full of events, all aimed at bringing together a wider crowd for deeper discussions and help to empower marginalized campus voices.

The first Empowering Albright Voices day was held April 7, 2021. The day-long “Wholly Earth: Black Feminist Ecologies and Sustainable Futures” virtual symposium was hosted by faculty members Kami Fletcher and Mark Lomanno on a day free of classes and filled with workshops and panels designed to help Albrightians listen, celebrate diversity and be empowered.

Following the symposium, organizers solicited feedback, made programmatic changes and looked for ways to grow attendance for future Empowering Albright Voices days.

Each individual Empowering Albright Voices day workshop, roundtable and presentation — in areas from the arts to humanities to natural and social sciences — in some way explored the idea of “intersectionality,” how similar and dissimilar ideas and people can interact to create something novel and powerful.

Participants listened to performances by amazing Black vocalists, encountered accessibility barriers through a race across campus, met Black inventors of popular kids’ games and toys, learned from women about different religious reasons for wearing head coverings, and listened to panelists discuss diversity, equity and inclusion in the sciences. A Pride+ drag show was also heavily attended.

Over each of the next three consecutive semesters, Empowering Albright Voices days have gained momentum, growing both in crowd size and the diversity of attendees. Athletes and coaches have embraced the day, and trustees, alumni, students, faculty and staff alike are taking active roles in planning and attending events.

In the fall of 2022, after more than 50% of the Albright student body chose to take part in Empowering Albright Voices events, Albright faculty voted to officially include EAV day on the college’s calendar as a Friday with no classes, moving forward.

“Last year, we added campus community building meals at the beginning and middle of the day to give people a chance to process and discuss what they’re learning,” says Ingram-Wallace. “One thing we found was that marginalized students really connected to the pause [in the class schedule], and felt more connected to the community.”

And speaking of community, Empowering Albright Voices planners are inviting Reading community members to attend, and possibly lead, upcoming events.

Headlining the spring 2023 EAV day is Buffie Longmire-Avital, Ph.D., discussing microaggression, a byproduct of latent bias (conscious or unconscious) which is often difficult to comprehend or even identify.

“At Albright College, we understand that our differences make us stronger. But it’s important for us to not only keep these discussions on the front burner, but to also engage wider audiences — if we are to continue building shared meaning within our diverse society,” says Ingram-Wallace.