Students honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a book discussion and panel

Sarah Kelin, Copy editor

In the spirit of the critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy, the past academic year has seen an increased effort to promote diversity, inclusion and anti-racism at Mercyhurst. As part of these efforts, there were several cam-pus-wide events during January to foster dialogue around the system-ic issue of racial inequality.

On Jan. 7 and Jan. 14, doz-ens of students, faculty and staff joined together virtually to discuss the book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, in facilitator-guided small groups. The idea for a campus-wide book discussion came from the “Mercy Mission Reading” OneBook series, which professor of English Christy Rieger, Ph.D., initiated and ran from 2008 to 2012.

Earlier this fall, a small group of faculty members strove to revisit the OneBook concept, focusing on dismantling institutional racism in order to become an anti-racist multicultural community. In conjunction with the Equity, Inclusion and Justice initiative, under the Mission Integration Of-fice, a central planning commit-tee organized the “So You Want to Talk About Race” OneBook event.

Drs. Laura Lewis, Christy Rieg-er, Christina Riley-Brown, Adrienne Riegle, Verna Ehret and Averill Earls, and Activities and Spirit Coordinator, Sam Beckas, Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator, Elle Simpson, and student representatives met several times from November to January to coordinate the details.

“I enjoyed being able to work alongside a diverse group of individuals. I thought the planning committee was skillfully organized, including those from all aspects of the Mercyhurst community. As a student, I was honored that I was given the opportunity to be a part of the committee and add a student perspective,” Mary Bauer, a junior Social Work major, said. Bauer was tasked with managing registration and was the main point of contact for participants.

Each participant was provided with a digital copy of the book, free of charge. During each of the January discussions, participants dealt with half of the book to allow for a more thorough conversation.

Facilitators led each Zoom breakout room, sparking conversations around ideas such as cultural appropriation, privilege, the school-to-prison pipeline, the racial wealth gap, intersectionality, and more.

Andrea Barnett, Associate Provost, was one of the many participants who walked away from the event with an increased drive to further educate the Mercyhurst community.

“I wanted to participate in the OneBook discussion because I’ve spent my life thinking I wasn’t racist because I didn’t engage in racist behaviors, but I’ve learned over the past couple of years that isn’t enough. It takes intentional ef-forts to educate oneself on the ex-perience of others,” Barnett said.

Knowing that these two sessions were merely the start of a lengthy process of opening up dialogue and making intentional efforts to increase equity on campus, the OneBook planning committee decided to complement it with a Zoom panel to honor Martin Lu-ther King Jr. Day. Filling out the panel were Mer-cyhurst graduate student Alexis Jones and Mercyhurst alumnae Dinorah Sanchez and Niken Astari Carpenter, the New American Liaison of the City of Erie. Joining them were moderator and recent Mercyhurst alumna, Brittany Warren, facilitator, Adrienne Riegle, Ph.D., and Sr. Natalie Rossi, who offered opening remarks. The event sought to focus on “Where Do We Go from Here?” as the Mercyhurst community continues the conversation about race.

The panelists discussed their lived experiences in Erie and be-yond and answered questions from participants. Following the panel presentation, event participants joined small groups to brainstorm concrete anti-racist actions for addressing racism both individually and collectively. These responses were collected by the planning committee and formally organized to be used to address issues on campus.“For years, many have honored MLK day as an observed ‘day off.’

However, this day is to be observed as a ‘day on’ for people of all races to commemorate and engage in activities to help receive answers to unanswered questions,” said Jones. “Encouraged racial dialogue should always be welcomed by a university whose hope is to bridge racial divides among administration, faculty, and students.”I was hoping that all those who participated would gain a sense of urgency and empowerment.

There is so much work to do when it comes to race and I hope through the readings and conversations that people were inspired to do their part to actively becoming more anti-racist,” Riegle said. As we continue into Black History Month, let us be reminded that dismantling deeply embedded societal issues cannot be solved all at once. OneBook participants will again meet on Feb. 15 to continue the conversation about encouraging actively anti-racist actions.

Additionally, the university will continue to strive for equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout all areas of campus.“One of my strongest hopes for this effort and others like it on campus is that students and employees recognize the need for ongoing, critical reflection and discussion about race and anti-racism. These discussions can-not be saved only for MLK Day or Black History Month,” said Greg Baker, vice president of Mission. “People often avoid difficult conversations about race over fears of feeling awkward or not knowing what might be seen as offensive.

These programs offered a great opportunity to begin the process of moving, with others, past these fears and finding proactive ways to become more anti-racist.”If you are given the opportunity to participate in a similar event this semester, consider joining the community effort to create lasting change at Mercyhurst and beyond.