Anti-Racist Pedagogy Creates a Place Where All Students Can Thrive

June 7, 2022

Seven team projects to raise student retention and graduation rates, enhance research and advance the socioeconomic mobility of all students at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) have received support from the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation.

The Fund was created through a game-changing $30 million donation to the College by philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott in Fall 2021, and one of the projects it supports is the Anti-Racist Pedagogy Summer Workshops and Faculty/Student Fellowships working group led by Teacher Education Professor Kirsten Cole, Business Management Professor Shawn Grant and Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts Professor Angela Polite.

The project builds on the Anti-Racist Pedagogy workshop series offered through the BMCC Center for Excellence, Teaching, Learning and Scholarship (CETLS) in Spring 2021 and attended by over 60 faculty members. The overall goal of the Anti-Racist Pedagogy Project is to increase awareness and implement anti-racist pedagogical practices across BMCC, aligning with the BMCC Strategic Goal to “increase equity, foster inclusion and dismantle systematic racism.”

An anti-racist pedagogy looks at student success gaps and addresses root causes

According to Professor Grant, “This work is more effective when we all come together, so we want to get everyone here at BMCC — students, faculty and staff; we’re all part of the BMCC community — to participate in these important and productive conversations about race, racism and racial equity.”

In order to raise student success, she says, the College as a whole needs to look at the impact and sources of racism in the classroom and the institution itself.

“When we look at students’ graduation rates, when we look at retention and persistence rates for Black and Latino male business students, for example, you see that there’s a huge gap between these and other students at the college,” says Professor Grant. “The Anti-Racist Pedagogy project will ask the question, ‘What is that gap coming from?’ ‘How can we address it?’ Our work provides an opportunity for us to really get to the root of that problem.”

The project’s focus is also interdisciplinary in scope.

“When we look at disparities and inequities; for example, health disparities with respect to COVID-19, or when we look at inequities with respect to police violence toward Black men, we see that this has a disproportionate impact on the Black community,” says Professor Grant. “Why is that? Where does that come from?”

Looking at those questions intersects with every academic focus at the College, and impacts every member of the community, she explains.

In order to dismantle racism, “you have to know it when you see it,” she says. “So part of doing this work goes across the various departments and is interdisciplinary because racism infuses every aspect of our society.”

Anti-racist pedagogy encourages students to be active citizens in a multi-cultural future

“All students deserve to be affirmed and feel that they can bring their whole selves into the classroom, and that has to do with culture, gender, language, all aspects of identity,” says Professor Cole. “If a student feels they have to put down a part of who they are, when they enter the classroom, they’re not going to be able to be wholly and authentically there. It’s going to get in the way of their learning.”

She adds that creating an anti-racist pedagogy means considering the student experience in every department and taking into account, students’ experiences before they enter BMCC, as well as beyond graduation and into their careers.

“When we look at the workforce, all fields and disciplines, it’s not just about bringing what you learned from the content of the class,” says Professor Cole. “It’s also about being able to build relationships across spaces of difference, being an active citizen in a multi-cultural future.”

Whatever a students’ major or career goal, she says, an anti-racist pedagogical environment in the classroom can address the fact that “work spaces, as well as school spaces can become highly segregated because there’s a fear and a discomfort of working across our spaces of difference. If we prepare our students to be real multicultural citizens of the world, whatever content knowledge they bring — whether that’s science, nursing, philosophy — that content knowledge paired with that knowledge of how to be an empathetic, caring, anti-racist person in the world is going to be of great value in their careers and their lives.”

Professor Grant, an attorney who teaches business law at BMCC, relates the concept of anti-racist pedagogy to her own class content.

“Students don’t get the full picture when you present the law as neutral — because the law has never been neutral,” she says. “The law has always been biased, often against people who are Black and Brown. We want to encourage students to challenge the law, to look at who makes the law and how to change it.”

Extending that perspective, she applies it to another discipline.

“When you look at the dynamics of knowledge production, when you take a European literature class, for example, you see that part of the process of creating an anti-racist pedagogy is educating students so that they’re able to demand that they receive an education that’s more reflective of their experiences.”

Creating an anti-racist educational community means building empathy and becoming self-aware

Creating a place where students, faculty and staff can talk about having felt the impact of living in a racist culture is part of the sessions the Anti-Racist Pedagogy group will lead in Summer 2022 and beyond.

“I don’t know that we are necessarily going to make it a safe space, but we are looking to make it a brave space,” says Professor Polite.

“The world is not safe, and we cannot guarantee that people are going to feel safe in these workshops,” she says. “But I think our job is to create an environment where they feel brave enough to explore and express themselves, and also to build empathy to listen to others’ stories.”

The workshops will provide an opportunity for participants to become more self-aware, she says, “to look at who we are in our cultures and in our identifies, and how those things really impact and play in the classroom.”

Everyone has underlying biases and experiences, she says, “and those things come along with us when we come into the classroom. I know that people don’t think they do, but they do. So these workshops are really centered on allowing people to have the freedom to be brave enough to have conversations that can move us forward, in the path of racial equity.”

Pulling back the lens, Professor Grant says, “I see the Anti-Racist Pedagogy summer workshops as part of the continuum of having an anti-racist educational environment. You can’t really have a culture of care when you have students who feel that they don’t belong in classrooms and they’re being subjected to microaggressions, or you have faculty who are interacting with their peers and being subjected to microaggressions and racism within the institution.”

The workshops, she says, “are just the beginning of what we’re doing. It’s impactful but it’s very small, and we’re hoping that this is the beginning of something much larger. We also want to emphasize that anti-racist practices should not be limited to our engagement within the BMCC community. We challenge everyone to inject an anti-racist mindset into every aspect of their lives and to share it with their broader communities and networks. That is how we can create effective, sustained and systemic change.”

The Anti-Racist Pedagogy Project supports BMCC’s strategic goals including Strategic Goal 5: Strengthen our Culture of Care for Students, Faculty and Staff.


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