November 22, 2019  

    Dear Cornelia,

    When I learned that you were attending Syracuse University for graduate school, I was excited for you. Syracuse is not only where I earned my graduate degrees, it was where I learned to translate ideas into action.

    Nearly 50 years ago, Syracuse was the place where a group of Black students and a Black faculty member joined together to create a community folk art gallery. At the time, it was no more than a storefront on South Salinas Street. Over time, the university completely embraced this center for the art of the African diaspora and, under the university’s leadership, became the Community Folk Art Center. It comes as a shock, then, to see that same university the site of such vicious racial assaults and expressions of hate.

    You asked if, as president of Spelman College, I could write a public note of solidarity with the protesters who are standing up against hate filled expressions. I write this open letter to you as an act of solidarity with you and with all of the other protesters who joined in taking action against the threatening atmosphere created by the verbal and digital taunts directed against so many in the Syracuse community. I write, now, not only on my behalf but on behalf of the entire Spelman community. We have had an incident of hate speech in the past here on the Spelman campus. Voices raised in protest are a powerful and necessary response.

    Rising up in protest is a first step, however, and though my memories of Syracuse from 50 years ago include the Folk Art Center, they also include memories of protests that were gripping most American campuses at the time. Fifty years ago, we were asking for more faculty of color and a curriculum in the disciplines we studied that accurately reflected the contributions to knowledge creation of men and women of color, whose work had been omitted from most American campuses. My work as a graduate student at Syracuse provided the opportunity to make one such contribution.

    Moments of disruption can be terrifying, especially in a case like this, where there have been threats and verbal assaults. I can only imagine the environment of fear that casts a shadow over campus life. Disruptions are unsettling, but disruption also stops us in our tracks. If we are wise, we use the pause to take stock, reflect and consider what we need to do differently.

    Protests disrupt and they often demand immediate change. Some things can change right away; other aspects of change require time. The challenge in the days ahead will be for the university community to find ways to have the conversations that bring lasting and meaningful change. If you choose to make part of your graduate school experience your participation in those conversations, I guarantee that you will have added measurably to your post-baccalaureate education. Choices to change the world are rarely easy, but always rewarding.

    Stay strong. Be well.

    Your Sister President,

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.
President, Spelman College

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