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President’s Forum on Social Justice draws hundreds to discussions

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Photos by Julia Rendleman/University Marketing

More than 100 chairs were pulled close to tables and the volume of conversation pitched upward as the Virginia Commonwealth University community delved into the first of several challenging conversations at the President’s Forum on Social Justice.

Three sessions attracting approximately 500 students, faculty and staff were held in the Commonwealth Ballrooms in the University Student Commons on Thursday.

“We need to continue to hold ourselves accountable and be responsible for ensuring that VCU is everything we say that we want it to be,” President Michael Rao told the group. “Climate is really about all of us, how we all take a step forward and lead. All of you have significant input.”

At each table, members shared their thoughts with help from a facilitator and a scribe, who logged the comments and recommendations. A slide distilling the top topics from each round of questions was flashed on screen and reviewed by Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior assistant to the president and interim vice president for inclusive excellence.

“As an institution of higher education, how can we bring our assets and talents for this work?” Allison said. “There is great wisdom in our community, and the opportunity today will really build on and benefit from that wisdom.”

In one conversation, participants noted concern over gentrification, food deserts and distrust of law enforcement locally; health care funding nationally; and the refugee crisis and Islamophobia in the world.

Between rounds of questions and discussion, thought-provoking speakers offered insights on issues on campus and in the Richmond region. For instance, Rev. Ben Campbell discussed bolstering public transit in the Richmond metro area, which he noted is shaped by “350 years of overt and named structural racism.”

Not every piece of discrimination names itself.

“Not every piece of discrimination names itself. Slavery and segregation were about economic discrimination,” he said. “What is the difference between telling people who are black they can only hold certain jobs in the economy, and making it impossible for people who are black to get to certain jobs in the economy? It works the same way.”

He said transportation is important to VCU because the university stands at the central crossroads of metropolitan Richmond.

“This is about access that we’re talking about here, how to remove barriers to inequity in our community,” Campbell said.

VCU Ombudsperson William King got everyone on their feet to loosen up before discussing the role his office plays.

“I hear issues from this level to this level,” he said, indicating high to low. “My goal is to advocate for fair and ethical treatment. I’m also going to address them from an impartial standpoint and a neutral standpoint.”

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is an option that can be avoided, King said.

Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior assistant to the president and interim vice president for inclusive excellence, speaks.
Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior assistant to the president and interim vice president for inclusive excellence, speaks.

“You can’t change what’s going on around you until you change what’s going on within you. That’s my motto,” he said.

As the tables struck up conversation on the third and final round of questions, Allison said he was pleased by the community response.

“We’ve had good turnout and really impressive engagement. The conversations are going well, people are really sharing in terms of their perspectives,” Allison said. He thanked groups including the Black Educators Association, Black VCU Speaks, Equality VCU, the Faculty Senate, the Division of Student Affairs, the VCU Police Department and the Division of University Relations for assisting with the event and “creating an opportunity for democratic voice.”

Recommended actions will be submitted to the President’s Action Group on Diversity and Inclusion.

 

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