This article is the third in a series of opinion pieces on student refusal to attend the upcoming Precedent talks. You can read the first piece by Amulya Pilla (M’22) here, and the second article by Kate Tanha (M’21) here.

Starting tomorrow, June 22, Minerva is hosting Precedent, a series of discussions about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US (though no explicit reference to BLM is made in any messaging about the events).  A document that outlines the event was sent to students and alumni by email on June 15.

Several students have voiced concerns about these events. I had originally signed up to participate in Precedent but decided to drop out and attend as an observer because I didn’t think it would be valuable for me to take part in these discussions.  Throughout the article, I have bolded what I consider to be actionable improvements to Precedent and any future conversations.

Here are my reasons for not participating in Precedent:

Abstract, academic nature

Right now feels like the time for action, not for academic discussion. There are mass protests happening around the US and the world. They’re still part of the news cycle (for now). We’re coming up on the presidential election in the US.

And because right now I’m ready for action, not academic discussion, I’m not going to be able to get much out of Precedent. I know I will end up feeling frustrated, feeling like we talked in circles, feeling like I don’t have the background information and experience to address these questions. This is not an academic exercise for me right now. This is Black people in my country fighting for their basic human rights, their right to not be murdered. This is me supporting those people, my family, my friends, my city, people I’ve never met and will never meet as we try to convince the government, the police, and, in general, people with privilege to fundamentally change the structures and institutions that have systematically oppressed Black people.

But at this moment, it is not about the movement. It is about the cause.

I don’t think it’s right to use this as an example/case study for applying the HCs or even for talking about protests and social movements in general. I don’t think it’s appropriate to position ourselves as the problem solvers in a conversation where we have much to learn. Precedent, like so many Minerva classes, asks students to consider big and complex problems, evaluate existing solutions, and even come up with novel ways to address them. It’s one thing to do this with limited background knowledge in class to learn and practice problem-solving skills, but this movement isn’t about learning: it is about valuing and protecting Black lives in the US.

To forget, ignore, or downplay the significance of this specific topic at this moment is a great injustice to Black people in the US. The BLM movement may be analogous to other movements. It certainly draws from previous civil rights movements both in the US and around the world. But at this moment, it is not about the movement. It is about the cause. And right now I do not want to participate in a conversation about the movement instead of the cause.

To elaborate, the movement is the “how” and the cause is the “why.” So, from my point of view, the movement is the BLM in-person protests, petitions, the types of organizations involved and how people are supporting them, the messaging and chants, etc. The cause is valuing and protecting Black lives and dismantling the structures that perpetuate anti-Black racism.

Insufficient context

The session I was supposed to participate in, “The Movement: Galvanizing effective support,” centered around questions of whether it is possible to have an effective social movement without a clear and public leader and whether it is more effective to have broad or specific goals. The other sessions are framed in a similarly abstract manner.

I want to figure out how I as a young person, a US citizen, and a Minerva student fit into the movement and how this movement fits into our community.

While I personally find these general questions rather interesting and while “being qualified” is not a prerequisite to participate, I don’t feel like I have enough experience with these ideas to apply them constructively to the BLM movement.  There are people who have thought about institutional anti-Black racism in the US and how to fight it WAY WAY more than me, have been involved in the BLM movement for much longer, are actively leading the protests right now, and are therefore infinitely more qualified to discuss these things productively. I want to learn from those people, be able to ask questions, and figure out how I as a young person, a US citizen, and a Minerva student fit into the movement and how this movement fits into our community.

The moderators of these discussions are Minerva faculty and staff. To my knowledge, they do not have significant experience running or moderating discussions about sensitive topics like race and racism. Effective moderators and framing of the discussion are essential for making it productive. A good moderator can make sure that all participants are sticking to the agreed ground rules, maintaining a respectful environment, keeping the conversation moving forward, and leaving room for all participants to feel safe and heard.

External guests

In that vein, I am confused about the external guests who were chosen to participate in Precedent. Don’t get me wrong, I googled them and they seem like super cool people, but I’m not sure why they are taking part in this conversation with us. It seems like they were asked because they participated in Consequent. But that does not necessarily make them qualified to speak about racism or the BLM movement as subject-matter experts. I think it would be much more productive to have external experts who are actually experts on these topics: the current BLM movement, police brutality against Black people in the US, anti-racism in the US or world more generally.

These guests aren’t the people I’d put on a panel to talk about racism.

I am also concerned that the external guests might dominate the conversation. In a pre-Precedent meeting, Ben Nelson told us that the format of the discussions would be similar to a panel with “main panelists” who are the external guests, and the students, alumni, staff, and faculty would add additional thoughts as they come up. In this case, why frame Precedent as conversations at all? And if it will be in a panel discussion style, these guests aren’t the people I’d put on a panel to talk about racism.

Who would I include? There is a wealth of speakers and organizations that specialize in community organizing and workshops about race and racism: a list from the Bay Area Council, Black Organizing Project, East Oakland Collective, Showing Up for Racial Justice Bay Area, Black Lives Matter (Los Angeles), Californians for Justice, Merging Path Coaching, and so many others.

Lack of Minerva focus

At Minerva, the majority of students are not from the US and likely have even less context than I do about institutional anti-Black racism in the United States, or they may have different understandings of racial identity. Race relations in the US (and everywhere else) is a hugely complex issue and without adequate background knowledge, I think any discussions will be superficial at best. A more productive conversation would instead explicitly address or at least draw on the experiences of students with different racial identities and associated prejudices or discrimination that they face. We definitely should also talk about race and racism within the Minerva community.

A more productive conversation would explicitly address or at least draw on the experiences of students with different racial identities and associated prejudices or discrimination that they face.

There is also no component that allows students to discuss what they want or need Minerva to do to be anti-racist. As an institution, I think there is a responsibility for Minerva to listen to students and support us. As far as I can tell, students were not involved in the creation of Precedent and we did not receive the list of external guests until Thursday, June 18th, just four days before the start of the program.

Black representation and sensitivity to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)

We have very few Black American students, staff, and faculty. This is a problem in itself but needs to be taken into account specifically for conversations like these. There must be an explicit plan for how participants and moderators of Precedent will avoid making assumptions about and speaking for Black Americans. And, of course, when there are Black Americans in the room, they only speak for themselves, not the whole Black community (just as any one white person does not speak for all white people).

There must be an explicit plan for how participants and moderators of Precedent will avoid making assumptions about and speaking for Black Americans.

Precedent also does not seem to acknowledge that these conversations are HIGHLY emotionally intense for some people, notably BIPOC. I haven’t read or heard anything from Minerva about how they will make this a safe space for BIPOC, for example by setting ground rules and expectations for participation. I have talked to a few of my classmates who are choosing not to participate or observe Precedent because these topics cannot be divorced from their lived experiences and it will be too emotionally draining for them. The additional component of there being an “audience” of observers has further deterred some Minerva students.

Self-reflection

Precedent doesn’t seem to have any component of self-reflection which is crucial when engaging in discussions about race and racism. There are a few topics that I think deserve a reflection prompt, and I’m sure that I am missing many more:

  • Self-reflection on part of people with privilege, for example, white people, so that they can be allies in moving towards a just world
  • Reflecting on the ways race and racism issues come up in our community (Minerva, and home communities of students)
  • Especially for white folks, to reflect on how they have benefited and perpetuated from the racist structures and what they are currently doing and need to start doing to be actively anti-racist

Steps forward

While I hope that Precedent is the first of many actions, this alone is not enough; in my opinion, it’s not even a start. Even if we put aside all the shortcomings pointed out thus far, Precedent is still just a conversation series. We need a plan of action. And then we need to implement that plan.

I hope these conversations come back up in other formal, Minerva-sponsored contexts, like classes, Elevation and Foundation Week events, and co curriculars because they are important. Racism is one of those complex challenges of the 21st century that Minerva claims to prepare us to tackle. We at Minerva should talk deeply about social movements (and no, our one class about the Arab Spring in Complex Systems doesn’t count).

And finally, conversations are important but should be a starting point for genuine action. There should be a component of planning for this action and that is currently missing from the Precedent program.

As I said above, to write all the changes that Minerva should make is beyond the scope of this article. Here are some broad areas of change suggested by Minerva students, which we hope to expand on in future articles and initiatives:

  • Acknowledge systemic inequality within Minerva and talk about it frequently and respectfully with an emphasis on how to become anti-racist
  • Decolonize the curriculum by shifting away from a US and western focus, especially in Social Science and Arts and Humanities courses
  • Improve the cultural dexterity course, and intercultural dexterity on rotation, to include conversations about power and privilege, and equip students from diverse backgrounds to cope with the challenges of the Minerva curriculum and the global rotation
  • Adequately address that there is no African city in the global rotation
  • Hire a staff member to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and ensure that they play a role in the Minerva ecosystem which goes beyond appearances and false promises
  • Address disparities in community leadership; many student leadership roles, for example, ASM, SI leaders, and the Quest are filled by students from the US and Europe (although this has been changing in recent years)
  • Make sure that all students are included and given a voice in the Minerva community, with a focus on students who are struggling financially
  • Enroll more Black American students and other racial groups that are underrepresented, while avoiding tokenism
  • Honor traditions of Black emancipation in the United States like Juneteenth. For example, Santa Fe Institute, whose research philosophy is closely aligned with Minerva’s pedagogical mission of teaching students to tackle complex problems, closed all research activity for the holiday.
  • And many more

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