Pitt’s 2021 Diversity Forum spanned more than 80 workshops and featured events over four days this week covering everything from ableism and anti-racism in academia to transgender issues and empowering change.
In welcoming those attending the morning session on July 28, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said: “The Pitt community knows that achieving a more just and inclusive environment won’t just happen because we want it to happen, it takes intention and personal reflection, and it takes work.
“My hope is that the discussions we engage in … generate concrete actual ideas for making the spaces where we live and work more equitable, where everyone is welcome and everyone has an opportunity to thrive.”
Below find short synopses of several of the featured events at the forum. For more information, go to the Pitt Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website. Videos of many of the events can be found on the Pitt Diversity YouTube page.
Structures of Inequity: A Conversation on Social Justice
Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime for he didn’t commit.
Candi Castleberry Singleton, vice president of Diversity Partnership Strategy & Engagement at Twitter
ReNika Moore, director of the ACLU Racial Justice Project
Sheila Velez Martinez, director of the Immigration Law Clinic, co-director of the Center for Civil Rights and Racial Justice at Pitt.
Tomar Pierson-Brown, moderator of the session and the associate dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence at the School of Law.
Hinton kicked off the 2021 Diversity Forum by sharing his story about how he became one of the longest-serving death row prisoners in Alabama and how he gained his freedom.
“You don’t know how bad I want to say that the state made an honest mistake,” Hinton said. “But the state of Alabama didn’t make no mistake. The state of Alabama knew from day one, I was not the person who had committed the crime.”
Hinton spent 30 years in solitary confinement until he was exonerated in 2015. Bryan Stevenson, attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, reviewed his case and secured his release
“And I never will forget,” Hinton said. “The judge proudly stood up that day and said ‘Anthony Ray Hinton, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. And it is the order of this court that I sentence you to death.’ That judge had the audacity to say, ‘May God have mercy on your soul.’ The prosecution that prosecuted me could be overheard saying ‘we didn’t get the right n***er today, but at least we got a n***er off the street.’ That is your justice.”
Since his release, Hinton has been advocating for the abolition of the death penalty and working to end mass incarceration in the U.S. as a community educator with the Equal Justice Initiative.
“I hear people often say that we are dealing with mass incarceration. But I’m here this evening to tell you, we’re not dealing with mass incarceration, we’re dealing with a new form of slavery. And we must call it what it is.”
Hinton still hasn’t received an apology or any form of compensation from the state of Alabama.
— Donovan Harrell
Building a Just Educational System
Valerie Kinloch, (moderator) dean of the Pitt School of Education
Charlene Dukes, principal of The Dukes Group LLC and interim president of Montgomery College
Jason Irizarry, dean of the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut
Tyrone Howard, professor of education in the School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA
Erika Gold Kestenberg, a diversity, inclusion, equity and justice consultant and former associate director of educator development and practice and community engagement at the Center for Urban Education
Christy McGuire, doctoral student and graduate research assistant at the Center for Urban Education.
Shallegra Moye, director of the Center for Urban Education
In her opening statements, Dukes said the work of building a just education system depends on collaboration between businesses and industries, community-based organizations, local and state governments.
Howard added that higher education must play a leading role in building a more equitable and just education system by collaborating with community stakeholders to create “loving systems that see the best in young people.” “We have to make sure we are very intentional and making sure that our most vulnerable and historically harmed groups are always going to be prioritized,” Howard said. “If we can create systems that are just in caring and loving and affirming that prioritizes those populations, I think we’re on track.”
Irizarry commented on the current wave of conservative criticism against teaching critical race theory, calling it a “catch-all for any justice-oriented work that addresses race or other marginalized identities.” This criticism mirrors similar criticism following the Civil Rights Movement, he said.
Moore said that the dismantling of oppressive systems cannot happen without people recognizing that the systems exist in the first place. And this work should’ve been done a long time ago. “We have got to dismantle oppression and get these equitable systems and just communities built like yesterday because there’s no more time,” Moore said.
Dukes said the key to ensuring that efforts towards improving the state of education in the U.S. are more than just symbolic is not “looking for symbolic people,” and for University leaders to openly acknowledge the psychological harm caused by placement and standardized tests.
Howard said the work of creating a just education system can be done, but don’t expect the work to come without conflict and backlash. “The bottom line is, I mean, we can’t do this work in a way that is nice,” Howard said. “We can’t do this work in a way that’s always going to sort of cater to the status quo. We can’t do this work in a way that’s going to continue to reinforce the existing systems that we have.”
— Donovan Harrell
Combating Environmental Racism and Injustice
Jacqueline Patterson, founder and head of The Chisholm Legacy Project
Kyle Whyte, an indigenous philosopher and faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability
Allison Acevedo, director of the state’s Office of Environmental Justice
Ali Aslam, an undergraduate member of Fossil-Free Pitt
Jamil Bey, founder and president of Pittsburgh’s UrbanKind Institute
Aurora Sharrard (moderator), Pitt’s director of sustainability
If the world is ever to move away from energy extraction and exploitation, and address the degradation these efforts have caused the planet and its most vulnerable people, we’re going to need more than a “tweak to the system,” Jacqueline Patterson said at the “Combating Environmental Racism and Injustice” session of Pitt’s Diversity Forum on July 29.
“It’s not that the system is broken, it’s that the system is really doing exactly what it was designed to do,” she said. “The solutions are going to have to go beyond the kinds of solutions that are considered progressive now.”
Patterson outlined how BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) communities face environmental injustices: from polluting industrial plants, which “are disproportionately located in BIPOC neighborhoods,” to living “near roadway-area pollution,” which affects BIPOC people disproportionately as well; from not having access to healthier food at grocery stores (as opposed to corner stores) to being cut off from energy’s benefits — literally, in the case of disproportionate threats of utility shut offs.
“The disasters themselves don’t discriminate,” she said, “but the vulnerabilities” do, and they are larger for those in minority and poorer communities.
“The cumulative impacts of policies, bad policies, for decades, for centuries, got us to this place,” noted panelist Jamil Bey, founder and president of Pittsburgh’s UrbanKind Institute. “Where do we put the highway, the plants, the incinerator? Let’s put them where property values are lowest” — where BIPOC and poorer people are living. “How do we think of policies that reverse those policies?”
One difficulty in Pennsylvania, said Allison Acevedo, director of the state’s Office of Environmental Justice, is that “environmental justice is a policy in Pennsylvania. It’s not a law. What can we do? First we have to be prepared as an agency to respond to community concerns.”
Kyle Whyte, an indigenous philosopher and faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, noted that indigenous peoples “have been left behind from every infrastructure investment in the U.S.” To bring sustainable energy’s benefits to indigenous communities, this country would first need to supply these places with the basics, such as better roads and clean water.
The industries causing climate change, he said, “were able to take root because of the disposition of indigenous lands.”
Ali Aslam, an undergraduate member of Fossil-Free Pitt, which is pushing the University to divest its endowment funds from fossil fuels, noted that too often the responsibility for the climate crisis is pushed onto individuals. “We are told we must get rid of plastic straws, for instance, when much more environmental damage is being done by world-destroying industries like fast fashion, fracking or fossil fuels,” he said.
The solution? “Keep putting pressure on elected officials to make decisions,” Bey said, “and reject the idea that it is either/or — that it is these workers versus those workers.”
“We all need to be thinking about campaign finance reform,” Patterson said. “Too much of our system is being controlled by these well-monied puppeteers” in traditional power industries.
— Marty Levine
In a Just Community: To Be Oneself
Julie Beaulieu (moderator), lecturer for the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program.
Jules Gill-Peterson, associate professor of English at Pitt who is leaving for Johns Hopkins University
Darren L Whitfield, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and former faculty member at Pitt’s School of Social Work
Miracle Jones, director of policy and advocacy at 1Hood Media
Ari Rubinson, a registered nurse and transgender man who helps to educate healthcare providers on LGBTQ competent healthcare
Max Reiver, a recent Pitt graduate who worked on numerous initiatives to improve the experiences of Pitt LGBTQIA+ community members
Dena Stanley, founder and executive director of TransYOUniting
The main message delivered during this session focused on transgender equality is that it’s time to move beyond workshops and events like this and start taking action.
“I think we have to just say time is up on universities in failing to protect gender diverse communities,” Whitfield said, “for being silent and passive and oftentimes active participants of oppression and neglect of gender diverse communities.
“We have to stop talking and we have to act,” he said. “I challenge the University to think about action, and that does start with education and it does start with this panel, because I think training and education is important, but that training just can’t be for faculty and staff and students. It also has to be of administrators and board of trustees and board of directors.”
One area that need attention, Gill-Peterson said is “the unprecedented avalanche of anti-trans legislative proposals in over 30 states in the U.S., … directly targeting trans people under 18. In particular, bills impeding their equal access to education by preventing them from participating in sports, but also bills banning or outright criminalizing trans health care for young people.”
Gill-Peterson, a trans woman of color, said, “There’s no secret here. There’s nothing that we need to tell all of you today to raise your awareness or there’s no light bulb moment. It’s actually just, are you committed to ending forms of racial and gender discrimination and oppression or are you not.” She said this applies to Pitt and other higher education institutions who either “want more faculty of color or more trans faculty, or they don’t.”
Miracle Jones said universities also need to look at what they’re funding, researching and teaching. “We don’t want education to reinforce stereotyping and negative perceptions of people as well, because what’s the point of bringing trans students to a classroom and all they get to hear and learn and teach about themselves is stereotypes and negative perceptions of portrayals.”
Dena Stanley said her focus is on trans women on color. “When you uplift the most oppressed and the most vulnerable people in a community, you uplift the whole community. And right now, black trans women of color are those folks,” she said.
— Susan Jones