Organizing and Acting for Justice

Andrew Konnerth ’17 & Taylor Gibson ’17
The last Monday of the 2014-2015 academic year seemed to be an ordinary sunny first day of finals week. The PC student body was migrating towards the classic IG photo spots to take pictures, and I was prepping my own camera for a community event on campus. I had been looking forward to this dialogue for some time; PC faculty and students had organized a peaceful rally in support for labor rights, specifically in the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Providence, as well as for racial equality here on campus. For some time, the hotel has violated the rights of their workers, spurring a series of boycotts to demand more humane working conditions. Within our own college community, there exists similar injustice in the form of racial profiling against persons of color. The hope of this rally was to continue the conversation on these issues and petition the college to act on a series of demands put forth by the key organizers.
Upon arrival to the iconic Harkins gate on River Ave, I realized very quickly that this was not something that I was going to photograph, export the pictures, and be done with it. One of the first things that I learned was that this rally is nothing new. In fact, just two short years ago, Providence students and faculty gathered in the same way to make very similar demands. The result of that petition came in the form of a new Anti-Racial Profiling statement issued by the college, along with some new training for PC Security.
However, these changes were not enough. Today, I heard the story of Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and the Department Head of Black Studies. This morning, Dr. JZ heard that she received tenure. Typically, this is a cause for celebration and relief for professors. For Dr. JZ—it was only bittersweet.
In the past eight years she has worked at Providence College, Dr. Jordan-Zachery has been profiled by PC Security no less than seven times. Some of her white, male colleagues spoke up saying that they have been teaching here for over ten years and have never been stopped—only being given the “white wave.” Dr. JZ spoke about how people explain Security’s actions in a variety of ways: it’s the way she dresses or the car she drives. Jokingly, she pointed out that with her level of intelligence, she knows how to dress. She drives a car that’s a dime a dozen here at PC. The only thing that’s left, she said, is the color of her skin; the one thing she cannot control.
Faculty members are not the only ones that experience the profiling described by Dr. JZ. Graduating senior Bini Tsegaye also spoke out through his own experiences here. “I am tired and weary, those who are behind me and will come after me will go through this.” He spoke not just about one but several instances where his membership was questioned, every time making him feel less and less a part of the “Friar family.” In an encounter with another student, his place in Providence College was summed up in terms of “need” instead of “want,” referring to the idea that the school recruits to fulfill diversity quotas instead of choosing valued applicants to enrich the Friar community. If the concept of race is being utilized as an indicator of both enrollment and safety and security factors, than we must question the ethics and standards of our community.
That was what this rally was all about: the Providence College community is currently sending a message to people of color that they do not belong here. When students, such as Bini, were confronted by Security guards, they defended themselves by saying that they were just making sure that he wasn’t a “neighborhood kid.” As Matt Smith said in front of the crowd in the Ray circle this morning—he is a neighborhood kid. What PC is guilty of is systematic exclusion based on race. We dissociate from the neighborhood community because it is dangerous—this is a way of explaining away racism. We then allow our staff members, people in positions of authority, to protect this system. Students and faculty are the overwhelming majority of those stopped and questioned by Security, that much was made clear today.
We can understand that there is a call to address an injustice in our community: the persistence of racism. Whether we are affected by this in one way or another regardless of our skin color, we have a civic duty to protect the rights, values, and dignity of those we call our own. As Friars, we engage with the college’s mission in welcoming “qualified men and women of every background” based on their “God-given dignity, freedom, and equality.” If we are to uphold these morals, then we must act to change how we look at one another and how our school defines who we are. If race is a determining factor in opportunity and potential, then we must persist with what we began today: organizing and acting to achieve justice.