Social Justice Teach-in Sessions Shine Light on Doing the Right Thing
Bystanders to racism and other unacceptable behaviors have a choice to make: Stand up and say something or do something or drive on by looking the other way, said Brianna Reeves and Laurel Poltilla of Behavioral Health Services North.
The pair discussed “Upstander Communication” Monday as part of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Social Justice Teach-In, held in recognition of Black Solidarity Day. Theirs was one of dozens of sessions held concurrently throughout the day across campus highlighting racial justice, anti-racism and social justice and facilitated by students, staff, faculty and community members.
Students and staff, encouraged to attend as many sessions as they were able, were welcomed prior to break-out sessions by Dr. Alexander Enyedi, president of the college, and Dr. Ray Carman, president, Faculty Senate, acting as emcee, as well as Dr. Allison Heard, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, City of Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest, and Peculiar Joseph, Student Association DEI representative.
“I am very pleased to be part of this gathering, as we prepare to engage in a day of learning, teaching, and community-building events in honor of Black Solidarity Day,” Enyedi said in welcome. “As a campus that prioritizes diversity and a campus that values the essential contributions of all voices, all cultures and all experiences, SUNY Plattsburgh celebrates Black Solidarity Day as an opportunity to illuminate how Black voices are integral to all aspects of American life.
“Throughout today, students, faculty and staff will unite across campus to better understand and truly appreciate the critical role of communities of color in our world,” he said.
“More importantly, we will dedicate this day to an examination of the historical and systemic oppressions of racial injustices, and the societal inequities committed against countless human beings whose lives and livelihoods we value. And we will consider how oppression continues to exist in our present-day world.”
‘You Can Stand Up and Do Something’
For their part, Reeves and Poltilla, speaking to a group of nearly 100 in the Alumni Conference Room in the Angell College Center, explained how being an upstander is standing and saying or doing what’s right and good. That’s the choice, they said. You can either walk or drive on by or you can stand up and do something or say something.
They asked the group what they would do and how they would react in a number of scenarios, from the ignorant and offensive — “someone calls you gay” — to the potentially violent — “you drive past a couple that looks like they’re arguing; one person looks scared.”
“What do you do?” Reeves asked. “What do you say?”
Audience members offered suggestions and personal testimonials from their own lives, offering up how they would or did handle the situation.
Supporting Person Being Offended
As part of the session, the pair gave tips, discussing what you could say in different cases, stressing that the first concern is always your own safety; from tone — how you respond and say something — to body language, the main goal of being an upstander is supporting the person being maligned, bullied or offended.
In another session called, “I Just Want to Help People (Be More Like Me): Examining Ableism in Helping Professions,” Dr. Ashley Gambino, associate professor and chair, communication sciences and disorders, and Rachel Flemming, director of the speech and hearing center, discussed the concept of ableism and how, as helping professionals, it’s difficult to separate wanting to fix a problem from doing what the client wants.
“Oftentimes, the behavior is about an able person trying to do the right thing, Flemming said. “They might hold a door open or hit the elevator button. A stutterer may try to order a drink at Starbucks and the barista may try to guess what the next letter or word is.
“They may start asking questions that aren’t relevant to the conversation. The barista may ask the stutterer if they’ve gone to speech therapy. There are people who are under the impression that they have to fix a person, or the person hasn’t done enough to fix themselves,” she said.
Gambino, who is herself hearing impaired, said ableism often equates an impairment to being disabled, and the care “becomes caregiver- or clinician-driven rather than client driven,” she said.
And while a clinician isn’t necessarily going into the session with an ableist mindset, “it is the foundation of our professions,” she said. Ultimately, the key is finding out “What does the client want?”
Other sessions touched on counteracting anti-black racism in classroom communities, police legitimacy and race, racism through the lens of mass media, civic engagement, and cultivating empathy through fiction.
The day-long event wrapped up with a keynote talk, activism workshop and Q&A with Dr. Nicky Hylton-Patterson, who discussed, “Community DEI: Lessons from the Field.”
The Nov. 7 program marked the first year Black Solidarity Day has been made part of the college’s academic calendar. It will be held annually on the first Monday of November.
“SUNY Plattsburgh is a place of constant growth and transformation,” Enyedi said. “While our campus population changes each semester, as new students arrive and others graduate, our campus culture remains committed to embracing and celebrating our diversity. Together, we will continue to ensure that all who study, live, and work here have equitable access that honors their lived experience, their needs, their perspectives and their dreams.”
— Story, Photos by Associate Director of Communications Gerianne Downs