ABRI at Arcadia: An Essential, Complex, United Effort

By Multiple Authors | January 1, 2022
Artistic montage of monochrome images including two people, one with a backpack and the other in goggles with a beaker

Part I in a series.

“How will we mobilize around these issues even more profoundly than  we already are on a local, national, and global scale? How will we  live up to our mission and vision  as an institution that strives  to be socially just?” In June 2020, President Ajay Nair challenged the Arcadia community to reimagine with him the University in six domains: academics; training, learning, and development; campus climate and culture; justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion; local, national, and global impact; and policies and procedures. Nearly two years later, the fruits  of these endeavors are becoming more apparent each day. 

The Importance of These Initiatives

The dozens of anti-Black Racism Initiatives, with nearly 200 established milestones, represent an essential and complex mix of efforts that will require sustained focus, collaboration, and courage. They impact all members of our University community — from prospective and current students, to faculty and staff, alumni to leadership, and to donors, friends, and neighbors. Along with the vision laid out by the JEDI Commission, the ABRI work is anchored in the vision and aspirations embodied in the Arcadia 2025 Adaptive Strategy. Faculty and staff shared their perspectives on how far we have come, how far we still need to go, how they see their role, and why this work remains so important to all of us. 

Of the utmost importance now 

Jessie Guinn, PhD, Assistant Academic Dean of STEM, The College of Global Studies:

Jessie Guinn portrait at stone wall

“ABRI work is significant in the continued efforts of making Arcadia not just a welcoming but also an inclusive place for students, faculty, staff, and visitors. It is of the utmost importance now due to the current local, national, and international adversities that affect members of the Arcadia community that are from marginalized groups. Technology has served to keep us more connected and has also allowed us to be aware of the ongoing issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and belonging.” 

Not passive players 

Alison LaLond Wyant, EdD, Executive Director of Civic and Global Engagement:

Alison LaLond Wyant

“Many students form their social consciousness in their college years. The groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 didn’t just affect young people. They weren’t passive players. Young people took on leadership in a renewed commitment to ending anti-Black racism. It was inspiring to watch on the news, but it was even more inspiring to witness right here at work. Arcadia students and young alumni amplified messages for Arcadia’s Black community with courage and vigor.” 

Curricula infusion

Rebecca Kohn, PhD, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences: 

Rebecca Kohn

“The work related to the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff members of color will be ongoing, as there are many opportunities for change. While we can address specific milestones and create change in the short term, we should maintain work in this space into the future so that we fully explore what is needed to create an environment that is inviting to faculty and staff members and that supports their inclusion and professional growth so that they remain at Arcadia. I’ve been working with the chairs of departments in the College of Arts and Sciences on infusing anti-Black racism into their curricula. Each department is starting at a different place and will likely take different paths during this process. I expect that curricular infusion will be ongoing and that we will be adjusting content, pedagogy, and creation of inclusive environments in important ways into the future.”

A rising tide

Dr. Angela McNeil, Assistant Vice President of Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion:

Angela McNeil portrait

“The significance of ABRI is the collaborative approach to ensuring that policies, practices, and procedures are inclusive to create an environment of belonging where everyone can thrive. The project-management structure and strategic approach will ensure systemic change that will enhance the experience and meet the needs of Black and other marginalized students while enhancing the educational experiences of all students. The hiring of the first full-time African American therapist in the counseling center, assistant director of Counseling/Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives, more diverse vendors, the embedding of anti-racism pedagogy in the curriculum, as well as the establishment of the OAEDI. It is my hope that we continue to advance equity and antiracism strategies at Arcadia in creating the world in which we want to live.” 

We owe it to the students

Brian Granata, Director, Arcadia Athletics and Recreation: 

Brian Granata portrait

“Athletics has developed staff and student athletes on key topics centered around JEDI, hazing prevention, sexual harassment education, and overall leadership development. No matter how many quality programs, educational trainings, or active work we did this year, Arcadia Athletics must continue to focus on the importance of ABRI and JEDI in the years to come. We owe it to the faculty, staff, and students at Arcadia to renew and refocus our work, and to challenge ourselves to go deeper each year to make a lasting impact on the generations to come.” 

Representation and Responsibility

ABRI in the Transformative Vision for Arcadia

By Dr. Christopher Allen Varlack, assistant professor of English

Christopher Allen Varlack portrait

Much of my formative education in English studies and creative writing, as far as I can remember, offered very little exposure to the literature of the African diaspora. As a result, the classroom was largely shaped by stories whose characters never looked or sounded exactly like me and who participated in histories removed from the world I had come to understand as the son of Caribbean-born parents with cocoa colored skin and a culture defined by calypso, sugar cane, and steaming hot pots of callaloo. Like Chimamanda Adichie, in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” “I had become convinced that books, by their very nature, had to be about things with which I could not personally identify,” even if I did not have the tools or the words then to articulate the dilemma I faced. 

Of course, there would be small glimmers of Blackness from time to time in readings my teachers would assign like images of the enslaved, beaten and bruised, in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave or the heartrending stories of African warriors trying to preserve their cultural traditions in the face of colonial intrusion depicted in Chinua Achebe’s 1958 Things Fall Apart. And yet, these images of Blackness— often steeped in stories of struggle and oppression—were only part of my history, so while others I felt could look into books like mirrors and see themselves represented, I was offered only fragments until I entered my doctoral studies at an HBCU and was exposed to a more ethnically diverse literary world. 

Coming to Arcadia University in Fall 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of English was then an opportunity to change that dynamic for students under my care, elevating the voices of BIPOC writers and increasing access to the diversity of literature reflective of this constantly evolving world. After all, the Department offered African-American literature courses each year—a reflection of its commitment to promoting Black voices, histories, and tales that even preceded the anti-Black racism initiatives (ABRI) first vocalized by President Nair with the resurgent  anti-Blackness and the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. For me, however, Arcadia’s ABRI still represented a significant milestone in the history of the University, for it shed a much needed spotlight on the reality that efforts university-wide toward diversity and inclusion may not be nearly enough. 

For instance, in the field of English studies, ABRI, at least on the surface, declared that a small handful of courses on BIPOC literature and culture within a curriculum predominantly comprised of the study of white authors was far from representative, that the curriculum may have failed to create the kinds of opportunities our students of color needed to be both heard and seen,  and that the fragmentation continued. ABRI therefore signaled the need to revisit our curriculum and the concept  of the canon with an eye toward  diversity and social justice if we were truly interested in creating an educational climate that could “cultivate intellectual and social responsibility” and “bring our individual and collective resources to bear to seek positive transformation in our community and the world,” as Arcadia’s lived values demanded. 

And so we gathered and got to work, revising our programs amidst conversations quite reminiscent of the canon wars of the 1980s and 90s: debating and debating and debating still the value of historical coverage versus the importance of including more intentional study of marginalized and underrepresented communities—all while considering both individually and collectively how far we were willing to go to decenter traditional areas of study to meet the goal of a truly transformative education. We created new courses, participated in a host of summer workshops on inclusive excellence and decolonizing the curriculum, developed new committees and task forces with faculty from diverse backgrounds and fields, and constructed a framework for ABRI curricular infusion to guide faculty and community efforts in combating anti-Black racism and providing students the tools to understand both its historic nature and its prevalence in the modern day. And we began delving deeper into dialogues about our pedagogy and our values, actively reconsidering not just what an Arcadia education would entail (as evidenced by ongoing conversations about transforming the undergraduate general education curriculum) but also about what it means to be an Arcadia educator today and in the coming years.

But our ABRI was not just about curricular infusion. The collegiate experience is defined in large part by the sense of community and culture that we create. Therefore, in our desire to construct that welcoming and inclusive learning community where future leaders could thrive, we needed to reflect openly and intentionally on the practices and policies at the University that might perpetuate inequity. Were we creating opportunities to elevate BIPOC student voices and to listen to their concerns? Were there programs in place to recruit and support Black and Brown students, staff, and faculty and to make the campus more ethnically/culturally diverse? Were we connecting our understandings of anti-Black racism in the United States to traditions of anti-Blackness prominent around the world? And what mechanisms for evaluation were we envisioning to ensure that the steps we were taking and planning to take were not performative but rather the stepping stones for what President Nair called “radical change”? 

Some of these questions remain unanswered, and perhaps there are other questions too with which we should be concerned—all of which we will hopefully grapple as long as Arcadia’s commitment to ABRI does not waver, as efforts toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion so often do. After all, what we have accomplished thus far is just a starting place in this lifelong journey of curricular and institutional reform as we work to meet new challenges, reevaluate our approach, and apply the wisdom of future Arcadia visionaries who strive to blaze new trails in progressive education. What, then, is my hope for Arcadia fueled by our ABRI efforts? I would like to one day walk onto Haber Green and see a campus teeming with multicultural life—a campus where diversity is not just part of the mission but a reality among our students, staff, faculty, and administrators, bringing voices historically marginalized to the table to co-construct models of continued change. I would like to walk into those classrooms that have traditionally privileged white authors and thinkers but now create space for students to actively engage with Black writers and practitioners, histories and stories not defined by the white gaze. I would  like to see myself in Arcadia like a  mirror—a space where I can be my authentic, unapologetic, and unfragmented Black self, where Black and Brown peoples can, in the words of Langston Hughes, “build our temples for [today and] tomorrow, strong as we know how, and…stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”  

The Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action at Arcadia

In November 2021, the ABRI Project Team and the Provost’s Office announced the establishment of the Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action (CASAA). The Center has three core goals that it aims to achieve in its efforts to become a leading advocate of antiracist thought and to act toward ensuring racial justice and equity. In spring 2022, CASAA’s founding director and associate director, Dr. Doreen Loury and Dr. Varlack, respectively, shared their thoughts about the importance of CASAA, how the Center plans to engage with the community, and how it plans to shape the thinking and mindset about racism across the globe. 

Why is the establishment of CASAA important at Arcadia?

Dr. Doreen Loury: For me, as a 30-year veteran of Arcadia, CASAA has been both a professional and personal dream for more than 15 years that has finally been realized. To finally have some type of formalized Center that addresses and researches the need for equity and the ills of racism shows me the progress that Arcadia is working toward in the world of DEI. It has been difficult throughout the years as a faculty/staff person to deal with the injustices that so many of our Black and brown students and faculty of color have had to endure at a place where they should have felt safe and secure and able to focus on building a sense of intellectual prowess but instead had to manage or survive so many imposed indignities.

I have watched Arcadia grow and was genuinely impressed when President Nair did not mince words or play verbal gymnastics or a game of intellectual jeopardy with the initiation of our ABRI. For me this meant that we were going beyond playing at diversity and were willing to confront the elephant in the room — white supremacy. We were actually getting down to the weeds of the problem and tackling the real meaning, intent, and impact behind the concepts with a committed Arcadia team. This team worked to develop real time strategies that not only assisted our Arcadia community (to go beyond awareness) but to provide a formalized research structure that would intentionally reach out locally, nationally, and globally. CASAA’s vision and mission clearly provides the roadmap for us to facilitate this work with a focus of developing promising practices that will bring about “societal reform.” 

How do you plan to engage with community at Arcadia and beyond?

CV: Community engagement has always been a core part of the Center’s mission to support existing and future scholarship from members of the Arcadia community and to engage with the broader public on grassroots initiatives aimed at racial justice and systemic change. Much of the work over the first few years in the Center will be devoted to providing that network of support for faculty, staff, and students. This includes securing funding for microgrants for research projects, offering publication workshops and  peer-review sessions as our scholars prepare to share their research with the wider world, arranging an annual research symposium centered on antiracism, and more. At the same time, we plan to strengthen existing partnerships with community leaders and to foster new relationships with community members whose voices can offer much-needed guidance to support our advocacy efforts. As we continue to develop a multi-year plan in alignment with the Center’s vision, we invite community feedback (reach out to us at casaa@arcadia.edu) and will keep the community abreast of our work via the Center website and follow us at @globalcasaa on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

What are some key initiatives that you envision for CASAA?

CASAA members sitting at a table

DL: In keeping with the Center’s goals of collaboration and partnership, we have established various groups that will assist the Center in fulfilling its mission/vision: 

  • The CASAA-Arcadia Advisory Council will focus on stimulating research, programming, and promotion of faculty of scholarship and will help shape the CASAA Scholars Program (at all three levels: faculty, community, and students). 
  • The Programs and Initiatives Committee will focus on collaborative partnerships between programs and initiatives on Arcadia’s campus, as consistent with CASAA’s mission, so that we can co-organize events, pool resources, and be better informed about ongoing work. 
  • The CASAA-Community Advisory Council will focus on establishing community partnerships, developing outreach initiatives, and connecting CASAA to external funding opportunities and donors. 

Part of the stated goal of CASAA is to “shape the thinking and mindset about racism across the globe.” How do CASAA members plan to meet this ambitious goal?

DL: We will encourage the creation of curricula for understanding racism and antiracism and begin to develop, implement, and evaluate best practices for antiracist advocacy and action. This is the agenda for CASAA as we change our conversations and paradigms from being focused on supporting and celebrating diversity to one focused on dismantling the systems that dehumanize others. We intend to answer the charge set by President Nair by illustrating how we can reimagine our University and inspire radical change. As an institution, Arcadia has a responsibility to develop and advance an antiracism agenda that is pertinent to all of us individually and the University broadly; CASAA will play a major role in designing transformative, meaningful, and measurable ways toward meeting those responsibilities.