On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination and enforcing desegregation. But, within a month of signing that groundbreaking legislation, riots would erupt in communities across the nation, including Rochester.
Fifty years have passed since the National Guard was called to quell rioting in Rochester’s Joseph and Clinton avenue neighborhoods, and today, a generation of young people has grown up largely unfamiliar with the events of 1964.
Conversations about diversity have national significance yet really begin closer to home as RIT progresses toward a diverse and inclusive campus environment. But RIT is also part of Greater Rochester, and what happens in the city impacts the campus. The university is contributing its distinct resources to address educational, social and economic challenges in the area.
Through strategic and grassroots efforts, RIT is seeing diversity success—with more diverse students, faculty and staff. Diversity goals are being incorporated into each of its colleges, and multicultural learning opportunities for all members of the community are expanding.
Yet questions remain about how far the U.S. has come in dispelling racism and providing equality for its citizens. Some of those questions will be addressed at RIT’s 2014 Expressions of King’s Legacy in January. This year’s event features PBS talk show host, author and advocate Tavis Smiley. He’ll discuss the state of diversity in America and how far the nation, Rochester and RIT have come since 1964.
More than numbers
When Kevin McDonald, vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion, attended his first RIT Expressions program, he recalled only a handful of people in Ingle Auditorium. Today, the programs have speakers with more name recognition and content that is relevant to current trends. Academic departments are asked to build programming around the event. Over the past three years, nearly half of the attendees to RIT’s Expressions events are from the Rochester community, and attendance increased by nearly 700 percent, McDonald says.
“The RIT community has embraced a much broader definition of diversity as the various mix and combinations of human difference,” McDonald says. “That has allowed us to have a very important dialogue about what that means for different constituency groups.”
Through those conversations, McDonald collaboratively developed RIT’s Inclusive Excellence Framework, a working model with strategies and measurable goals toward improving campus climate and supporting education and scholarship to provide opportunities to learn about domestic and global diversity, inclusion and social justice. It also is a guide to support policy development at an institutional level.
“To have any real, lasting impact, this had to be developed by people who would feel connected to the effort and the work,” he says.
The framework has been in place since 2010, and 88 percent of RIT’s colleges and divisions have added diversity goals into their strategic plans. Including this fall’s race/ethnicity numbers, AALANA (African American, Latino/Hispanic, Native American) students have increased from 11 percent of enrollment in 2009 to nearly 15 percent in 2013. The first-year persistence rate for undergraduates is nearly even between AALANA and non-AALANA populations, at 86 and 87 percent respectively, for the 2012 incoming class.
Some of that retention is due to the increase in affinity groups and academic support units such as the Multicultural Center for Academic Success. Formerly called the North Star Center, the organization sought a culture change as well as a name change to foster more connections among students, the staff serving them and the partnerships the group has established, says Candice Baldwin, director of the center.
“We cannot only focus on AALANA students,” she says. “We must expand to service first-generation, women and economically disadvantaged students.”
The center had more than 1,600 student-visits in fall 2012 about academic, personal and career options, nearly double the appointments from the previous year. Baldwin and her staff introduce concepts of family, excellence and “lifting as we climb.”
“You should never forget where you came from, but you can’t let where you come from impact your motivation to become more and do better,” she says.
Global and domestic diversity strategies
Experiencing another’s life and circumstances can influence new viewpoints. At the forefront is RIT’s Partnerships in Pluralism program, where individuals are matched with peers from different colleges and divisions, and from different socio-economic statuses and roles at RIT. It offers a chance to learn about others and to dispel stereotypes.
Overall, faculty and staff expressed satisfaction with RIT and its focus on diversity in the 2012 Faculty and Staff Engagement and Climate Survey. More than half the faculty and staff responded to the survey. Seventy-five percent stated that RIT has been effective in promoting diversity, and 78 percent agreed senior management is committed to, and supports, diversity.
Yet some of RIT’s students have remarked to McDonald that they go through their entire time at the university never setting foot in the city of Rochester.
“As we talk about global efforts, we don’t want to dissociate the domestic from the international,” he says.
To connect the two, McDonald began working this year with James Myers, associate provost of international education and global programs, and Richard Newman, College of Liberal Arts professor of history, to develop a domestic study abroad program. Still in its early stages, the program would consist of classes and hands-on experiences in historic locations. Imagine traveling the routes of the Underground Railroad or the Trail of Tears, or re-enacting the march on Selma. Courses would be open to U.S. students as well as RIT’s 2,000-plus international students.
“These kinds of experiences would enrich the understanding our international students have about U.S. history, human rights and diversity,” says Myers. “There’s good evidence our student body will continue to be more diverse and that we need to make a serious effort to reflect this, not only in a diverse faculty, but in the curriculum. Our hiring practices reflect the high value we place on diversity. But if we really value inclusiveness, we’ll teach it and I think that goes to the core of why we think it is so important.”
Expressions Keynote Address
Noon–2 p.m. Jan. 30, Gordon Field House and Activities Center
Keynote speaker: Tavis Smiley, PBS talk show host, author and advocate.
With Curtis Babers, winner of the 17th Annual Gardere Oratory Competition; RIT student-poets Alexis Harris, Lakeisha Brown and Michelle Sason; and local singer, Whitney Morrison. Registration is required for this event; go to https://www.rittickets.com to purchase tickets.
Discussion: “The State of Race in Rochester: 50 Years after the July ’64 Race Riots”
6–8 p.m. Jan. 30, East High School, Moderated by Tavis Smiley