BMCC Kicks Off Social Justice Week with Conversation Between President Munroe and President’s Fund Team Representatives

April 5, 2022

The Race, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee (REI) at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) kicked off the College’s inaugural Social Justice Week with an opening program on Monday, April 4 in Theatre 1 at the college’s main campus, 199 Chambers Street.

The in-person event, which was also live-streamed, featured an on-stage conversation between BMCC President Anthony E. Munroe and team leaders of seven projects supported through the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation.

The panel of President’s Fund project leaders included:

The President’s Fund was created through the generosity of philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, who awarded BMCC a $30-million gift in Fall 2021 to support students’ basic needs — addressing homelessness and food emergencies — as well as to advance equity and inclusion, economic mobility and other support for students.

Social Justice Week buttons were given away to attendees at the kickoff event in Theatre 1.
Social Justice Week buttons were given away to attendees at the kickoff event in Theatre 1.

Pedro Pérez, Director of College Discovery at BMCC — and an REI co-chair along with Criminal Justice Professor Shenique S. Davis (who was also in attendance at the event) and Chief Diversity Officer Odelia Levy (who attended virtually) — welcomed audience members as they found their seats among the tiered rows and others joined the event online.

“We are thrilled to host Social Justice Week and what perfect timing after the slap that was heard around the world,” said Director Perez, referring to a recent, highly publicized Academy Awards incident involving one celebrity slapping another on stage for a perceived insult. “Social justice is not about a week of programming and not solely the responsibility of groups like REI. Social justice is something we are all responsible for, in our daily practice.”

That perception of social justice emanating from an individual’s personal choices and actions was echoed throughout the conversation between President Munroe and the President’s Fund project leaders.

Panelists share how their projects serve BMCC students

After a video highlighting the theme of Social Justice Week, Your Voice, Our Action, a Better BMCC, President Munroe presented his first question: “What inspired you to apply for this grant?”

Angela Polite, a professor in the Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts department, said inspiration for the focus on anti-racist pedagogy went back to the early days of the COVID pandemic.

“At the same time, the pandemic of systemic racism reared its ugly head in such a way that it became a moment of racial reckoning for our times,” said Professor Polite. “All of us on a very visceral level asked ourselves, ‘How and where is racism pervasive in our lives?’”

Out of that awareness, faculty began meeting every Friday, she said. “Now we are doing the work of looking at how racism is affecting our Black and Brown students, when it comes to lessons and curricula. We want them to be seen fully and completely as who they are.”

Neda Hejizadeh, Director of the BMCC Counseling Center, said the President’s Fund project GAINS came about as her team examined how the College was reaching out to students on probation.

“We realized our efforts may not be enough,” said Director Hejizadeh. “Disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown students are on academic probation. Working with Academic Advisement and the Learning Resource Center enabled us to see what is lacking, and we realized the cohort model is what these students need.”

Academic probation is “very isolating,” she said, and the cohort model addresses that isolation while respecting the student’s identity beyond the classroom and recognizing their strengths.

Christopher Stein, chair of the Media Arts and Technology department represented the President’s Fund project centered around BMCC’s OpenLab virtual platform.

“We all know at a community college it is hard to feel a sense of community,” said Chair Stein. “People have jobs and family responsibilities, and COVID brought that up even more.”

OpenLab was introduced at BMCC just before the pandemic hit, he said. “We really wanted to see students in a place where they could interact with each other even outside of class, virtually. The OpenLab platform also enables students to connect with support services they critically need.”

Tammie Velasquez, Manager of the BMCC Women’s Resource Center, said that while BMCC provides a number of student-serving programs such as UMLA, Panther Partners and the Women’s Resource Center, “We still have a lot of gaps. Creating a Pride Center, Multicultural Center and other support from the amazing programs that are already on campus, creates a pipeline to them. Under one roof, the centers can collaborate and honor intersectionalities of identity.”

Ethnic and Race Studies Professor Judith Anderson said the Black Studies Across the Americas President’s Fund project was inspired on a BMCC Study Abroad trip to Brazil that she led.

“I had a conversation with the only Black city council member at the capital city Brasilia, said Professor Anderson. “He was saying, ‘It’s really great now that affirmative action has started in Brazil. We finally have students learning about their identity — but none are majoring in STEM.’”

That prompted the concept of mixing Black studies with STEM fields at BMCC. In collaboration with Jessica Levin of the Office of Internships and Experiential Learning, partnerships with groups in other countries were leveraged to create the College’s Black Studies Across the Americas program.

Ashtian Holmes, Director of BMCC’s Urban Male Leadership Academy (UMLA), said that creating the President’s Fund project B-UMLA — a collaboration between UMLA and the Business Management department — “was a new way of addressing an old problem, the retention and graduation of our underrepresented students at BMCC, particularly Black and Latino men.”

The B-UMLA model, he explained, provides a number of supports. “We realized that UMLA seemed isolated from the academic experience,” he said. “Business Professor Peter Hoontis listened to our conversation about this and said, ‘Why don’t we partner and create an UMLA that exists within the Business Management department?’ We embedded UMLA there with peer and faculty mentorship, career opportunities, academic support and more.”

In addition to asking about the inspiration for each project, President Munroe asked the panelists how each team project will support BMCC’s culture of care and how each project addresses equity gaps.

Audience members share their thoughts

Once the panelists’ conversation with President Munroe concluded, questions were opened up to the in-person and virtual audience.

Director Pérez moderated the questions and Ethnic and Race Studies Professor Patricia Mathews delivered the mic to audience members wanting to speak.

President Munroe, who had shared he was placed on academic probation his first year in college and didn’t receive advisement or guidance to use resources that could have helped him, inspired several students to open up with their stories and ideas for improving services.

BMCC Professor James Blake, who serves in the BMCC Counseling Department, identified himself as the President of the Black Faculty and Staff Association as he took the mic.

“A culture of fear, racism and white supremacy have taught many of our children they cannot succeed,” said Professor Blake. “But what’s more dangerous is teachers that have low expectations of our students. … I didn’t have a Black teacher till I went to college. We need more Black and Latino instructors in the classroom who can teach, motivate and inspire our students.”

Change emerges from historical and personal actions: “What will be your legacy?”

“BMCC has a long history of fighting for justice, fighting for what’s right and creating space for all voices to be heard,” said Professor Shenique Davis in closing remarks for the event.

She cited specific moments of change-making in BMCC’s history.

“As recorded in the CUNY Digital History Archive, in May of 1979, BMCC students led a strike that temporarily shut down the college, with students sleeping overnight in BMCC buildings,” she said. “Their demands included a call for a campus daycare center and their opposition to tuition fee increases. We know that Professor James Blake welcomed civil rights activist Rosa Parks to campus in 2017; Professor Shirley Leyro hosted the Exonerated Five in 2019; UMLA featured Shaun King, and our Change Agents events presented Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, who was held at Rikers for close to three years without a conviction, and many other supporters of justice.”

Social justice, Professor Davis said, “is not found only in powerful speeches, or major protests or boycotts, or in think-pieces or programs — change is found in the dailiness of our actions, what we do on a consistent and daily basis to create a space of belonging. Social justice can present in our scholarship. Social justice is the language and words we choose to use, and those that we refuse to utter in what we teach, and in our conversations.”

One person, one group cannot achieve BMCC’s goals of justice, equity and inclusion, Professor Davis stressed. “It is a collective effort that must happen in and out of the classroom — in and out of programs. It must take place in our homes, and in our communities.”

She closed with important questions for the audience: “How will you help to ensure that our institution is equitable and inclusive? How can we push ourselves and the College? How will we hold each other accountable? What will be your legacy?”

Music and Art Chair Eugenia Oi Yan Yau directed BMCC students in two choral pieces at the close of the April 4 event.
Music and Art Chair Eugenia Oi Yan Yau directed BMCC students in two choral pieces at the close of the April 4 event.

Program concludes with live choral pieces by BMCC students

As panelists left the Theatre I stage, it was filled by BMCC students dressed in black who had prepared a program of songs including an excerpt from “We’re the Voices” by Jim Papoulis and “Lo Yisa Goy,” a traditional Israeli peace song.

The choral pieces were directed by BMCC Music and Art Chair and Professor of Music Eugenia Oi Yan Yau, and pianist Jee Eun Ahn.

The BMCC Concert Choir included Music and Art majors Jorge Aguilar, Djustina Bojovic, Alexa Kandra Callender, Sophia Deporto, Jaime Andres Diazgranados, Rafir Gratereaux, Briana Lubin, Stephanie Antoinette Marrow, Jade Oritz, Jeremi Rivera Quinonez, Kirsthin Reyes, Oliver Sebayan-Dumont, Isabel Urena-Diaz and Ashley N. Wagner.

The College Chorus and Downtown Chorus included Music and Art majors Jasmina Daniello, Terra Joanne Greer, Andres Guerra, Emma YingYi Lin, Remington Tobias MacHarg, Nalin Nabha, Ameer Pruitt, Carmen Salas and Davina Stewart, as well as College Assistant Delong Le and Professional Studies major James Pederson.

 

Social Justice Week events continue through April 12. View the full list here.

Projects supported by the BMCC President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation relate to many of the college’s Strategic Goals including Strategic Goal 2: Improve Learning and Engagement in the First Year; Strategic Goal 3: Integrate Career Development Throughout the Student Experience and Strategic Goal 5: Strengthen our Culture of Care for Students, Faculty and Staff.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • The Race, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee (REI) at BMCC kicked off the College’s inaugural Social Justice Week with a program on April 4 in Theatre 1 at the college’s main campus, 199 Chambers Street
  • The in-person opening event, also live-streamed, featured a conversation between BMCC President Anthony E. Munroe and team leaders of seven projects supported through the President’s Fund for Excellence and Innovation
  • Panelists responded to questions from BMCC President Anthony E. Munroe, followed by an audience Q&A and performance by the BMCC Concert Choir, College Chorus and Downtown Chorus led by Music and Art Chair Eugenia Oi Yan Yau

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