Throughout the fall semester, nearly 250 Niagara University students and members of the Niagara Falls community learned more about race, equity, and social justice, and how they affect the community in which they live, learn, and work.
The 14-Week Equity Challenge, offered in collaboration with the United Way of Greater Niagara and modeled after a similar program sponsored by the United Way of Wisconsin, was an opportunity for participants to increase their awareness of the issues, especially as they relate to the Western New York region; reflect and discuss what they’ve learned within a diverse group of participants; and, ideally, share ways to take action and commit to improve equity and inclusion in their community.
“We hoped participants would gain a deeper understanding about the impact that systemic racism and inequity have on our region and how these greatly impact our campus and our community,” said Dr. David Taylor, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, who developed the program. “Our goal is to deepen awareness of and willingness to confront racism, bias, and other social inequities, as we work to become champions of equity in our personal and professional lives.”
In its pilot year, the program was offered to Niagara’s first-year students as a three-credit course, as well as to members of the community. While students were required to complete all readings and assignments, other individuals were asked to commit to just 20 minutes a week.
In order to expand the course beyond the campus, Dr. Taylor contacted Connie Brown, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Niagara. Brown agreed to host the content on the organization’s website and make it available to its partner organizations and agencies, as well as to the broader community.
“United Way was very pleased that Niagara University reached out to us,” Brown said. “We felt that this is a very timely issue, and United Way takes every opportunity to help educate the community. We are always willing to partner with Niagara University, and we hope we can continue to do so in the future.”
Dr. Taylor modified the challenge to correspond with a university semester and, working with William Briggs, the United Way’s marketing/business development associate and Niagara University graduate from the Class of 2021, curated content that would be relevant both in the classroom and in the workplace. Each of the weekly lessons included links to articles, videos, and other information on topics such as race, racial identity and intersectionality; understanding privilege; health and healthcare; how to have difficult conversations; and tools for equity and allyship.
Content was also selected to highlight issues that would relate to participants’ lives in some way, such as the national holidays in October and November, Dr. Taylor added.
“We knew NU students would be going home or at least somehow engaging with the two holidays,” he said, “so we asked them to think about their meanings and histories.”
Each week, ideas for reflection on the issues and additional resources were also offered, with an intentional focus on things that were available, or originated, locally.
“We worked hard to find content that was uniquely Western New York, whether it be authors, speakers, organizations, or stories,” Dr. Taylor said. “This alerted participants, hopefully, to people and resources in our own community whom they might be able to follow or connect with down the road.”
In addition to the weekly assignments, participants were invited to attend a conference in November that aligned with that week’s focus on public education and its adverse academic outcomes for students of color. The conference, which was co-sponsored by Niagara University’s Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko Center for Race, Equity and Mission, its College of Education and its Vincentian Center for Justice, the United Way of Greater Niagara, and MENTOR New York, featured keynote speaker Dr. Shaun Nelms, superintendent of East Upper and Lower Schools (formerly East High School) in Rochester and an adjunct instructor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.
The week highlighting education also included a discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline, an issue Elise Spence, a biochemistry major from Pefferlaw, Ontario, was unaware of before taking the course.
“I think that this is because police are not as prevalent and do not have such a strong presence within Canadian schools as in American schools, and the work to eliminate any possibility of racism within the classroom is a high priority,” she said.
She also learned that “so much more needs to be done in order to fix the world we live in. People are fighting for equality for all, and yet, enough still remains to be done, and the efforts made are not sufficient. We, individually, must do all we can to tear down systematic racism whenever we recognize its presence, as well as to be aware of our own actions in an effort to not offend others.”
Anjali Verma, a psychology major from North Tonawanda, N.Y., enjoyed the interactive aspects of the course and gained a new understanding of diversity and inclusion and how they affect all aspects of society, including healthcare. This information will be important for her in her career “as it brings on more perspective to the world around me and the issues” others may be facing, she said.
The opportunity to discuss the issues with “other members of the community who are in different stages of life” was one of the things freshman Lauren Sercu from Fredonia, N.Y., enjoyed most about the challenge. “Being able to listen and understand both sides of an argument is extremely important,” she said.
Professor Mitch Alegre included the challenge in his Diverse Leadership course, a course he was piloting this fall, as well. He noted that his students said the challenge assignments helped them to learn about various aspects of diversity they had never considered before, such as the fact that some common phrases can be considered offensive by different groups of people.
As this first-time challenge wraps up, Dr. Taylor is already looking to the next one. In order to counter the unconscious biases and limitations that may have come into play, he hopes to put together a small, diverse team to help curate content for the next challenge. He also plans to put a greater emphasis on action in the weekly assignments, “things that people can do now that they have all of this knowledge,” he said. “Now that we have a good foundation of resources to work with, we can focus more on action next fall.”