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SMSU moves to foster culture of anti-racism

February 11, 2011
By Jenny Kirk

MARSHALL - One step at a time.

That's how organizers plan to work toward combating racism at Southwest Minnesota State University. On Jan. 28, more than 40 people met to discuss the process involved in transforming SMSU's identity to one that prides itself on promoting an anti-racist atmosphere in its educational system.

BC Franson, SMSU justice administration professor, said the campus is just beginning to have conversations regarding anti-racism, but feels there is strong support for the issue.

"Marshall has done stuff regarding cultural diversity, but there's a huge jump from multi-culturalism to anti-racism," Franson said. "The concept of anti-racism is to move beyond the idea of cultural diversity and get to an actual identity change that no longer allows oppression, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism or other social oppressions against groups of people."

Franson explained that racism is more about what is under the surface.

"It's more about how people are feeling and how they feel they are being received," Franson said. "Once they have a certain position, how do they feel? Are there subtle hints of racism? Are we still dividing or are we embracing the perspective that certain people bring?"

The conference in January - called "Racism and Resistance: understanding and dismantling systemic racism" - was the first step in the process for SMSU. Leading the training session were James Addington, Minnesota Collaborative Anti-Racism Initiative (MCARI) training consultant, and Debra Leigh, Community Anti-Racism Education (CARE) Initiative organizer.

"It's a difficult issue to deal with," Addington said. "The first challenge is to help folks shift the perspective and see what it means to be a systemic issue. Debra and I have a good partnership and we do a lot of training together, most of which is with higher education, but we also work with government agencies, religious communities and non-profit organizations."

In a higher education system, like SMSU, some of the facets that are analyzed are the curriculum, administrative and hiring policies, teaching approach, and recruitment and retainment tactics, he said.

"It means looking carefully at the culture of the institution and ensuring that it's not just a friendly campus, but supportive as well," Addington said. "At our daylong training session, we hope to give them the planning tools to help them take on the challenge that systemic racism presents."

The process of combating racism takes time, however. As far as the next step, Addington said that the most effective strategy is to train an internal leadership team.

"You hope to get a broad cross-section of people, including faculty, staff, administration, students and community members," Addington said. "We'll consult with the institution to do planning to think through who needs to be on their team and what type of authorization they'll have. It can't be a stealth strategy."

Once a team is selected and authority is developed, more in-depth training would take place. An undetermined amount of follow-up support is also part of the strategic planning.

"We're constantly learning new things so we're sharing those things," Addington said. "There's no time limit. We're here to serve the needs of people of color and provide a support system. We're a foreseeable part of an ongoing life of an institution."



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