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Thinking Nationally, Acting Locally: Duke Community Speaks Out About Racism in Society and at Home

aerial of Duke west campus

The university flag was lowered Thursday to honor George Floyd. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis police, it was a week in which many Duke faculty, staff and students went into their communities to raise voices and seek solutions to deep issues of institutional racism in this country.

In addition, even as many people continue to work and study remotely, members of the university community also came together to work on what can be done on those same issues at Duke.

The activity came with the encouragement of President Vincent E. Price, who at the beginning of the week sent a message acknowledging the pain many felt in the aftermath of Floyd's death. In a message to the Duke community, Price encouraged the community to help Duke "continue the work of addressing generations of racism and injustice, of seeking ways to approach one another with respect, and of building communities that are truly safe, supportive and inclusive for all."

Likewise, A. Eugene Washington, M.D., chancellor for health affairs, shared how the killing felt personal to him. "Like many of you, I am feeling vulnerable and afraid for my community, my colleagues, my friends, and my family. As a black man, these events hit particularly close to home."

From virtual town halls and other online forums to reaching out in support of co-workers to development of anti-bias programs for the campus, individuals across the university looked to go beyond statements and find specific ways to enact change.

Nadine Barrett, an assistant professor of community and family medicine, contacted university officials about lowering the flag to honor George Floyd and to arrange a virtual campus gathering to participate in the NAACP’s national moment of silence in Floyd’s honor.

More than 650 faculty, staff and students from both the campus and the health system participated in the moment of silence. (All flags will be lowered again on Saturday at the request of Gov. Roy Cooper to honor Floyd, who was a North Carolina native.)

Student groups also got involved: The Black Student Association posted in the Chronicle a comprehensive statement referencing both national and campus issues and telling black students at Duke that there was a welcoming community for them on campus. “You are cherished greatly, and our community would be nothing without each and every one of you,” the statement said.

A selection of statements made by university units and leaders can be found on Duke Today.

Several schools held or planned open forums to discuss issues of race and bias:

  • Sanford held a series of community conversations this week led by three faculty of its Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Fuqua will hold on June 9 a Thought Leader Lunch on Now What Can We Do? (Race)
  • Nursing had a large turnout for its monthly community diversity meeting. Dean Marion Broome described the conversation as “difficult, challenging, raw and so sad” and added that she would not be able to capture in words “the tears, frustration, questioning, angst and pain shared on Friday.” But she also said the meeting offered hope that it was “the beginning of renewed attention to how we live in community.”
  • Law and other units have similar events scheduled in the coming weeks.

Other efforts looked to provide support to African-American members of the university community and others who were deeply affected by Floyd’s killing. Using the expertise of their public policy faculty, the Sanford School posted a website of educational resources for discussions about race and bias.

Likewise, Vice Provosts Mary Pat McMahon and Gary Bennett wrote students to share wellness and support resources and outlined further actions to address racism on campus.

These new steps include revising the student harassment policy with more concrete response protocols that address incidents of hate and bias by the Fall 2020 semester; developing anti-racist and anti-bias programs and resources for faculty and their academic units; and adding new anti-bias programming for orientation.

And the Office of Institutional Equity posted a list of resources addressing different facets and dimensions of structural racism and inequities. The website takes resources both from Duke and from across the country that explore historical, economic, legal and social issues of racism and other biases.

In a prelude to the resources, OIE Vice President Kim Hewitt and Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Abbas Benmamoun wrote that as a university, Duke has a responsibility to share the knowledge that can help society move forward, even on long-standing systematic issues such as racism.

They added that the most difficult times also sometimes provide the energy to work toward a solution: “As a Duke community with its own difficult history of racism and discrimination, particularly towards black people, the path towards racial equity is one that has included progress and challenges, but we are hopeful that the galvanizing spirit of this tragic moment and our collective community's talents and energy will merge to create a trajectory towards a better tomorrow.”