Social Justice Center forms committee to research biases at college

A committee formed of Social Justice Center members and one student gathered to research institutional racism at the college following student protests in fall 2015 and 2017.

Sylvia Spears, the vice president for the Social Justice Center, asked her coworkers over a year ago to help her look into issues that students raised in protests organized by Protesting Oppression With Educational Reform. The hundreds of students who attended each protest demanded increased racial representation and cultural competency at the college.

Spears will likely publish the report after spring break, but she hopes to release it as soon as possible.

“I’m pushing my staff like crazy for us to finalize this so we can get it out to students,” she said.

The research group includes Social Justice Center staff members Spears, Greta Spoering, Melanie Matson, Ashley Tarbet DeStefano, Jeeyoon Kim, Alayne Fiore, Samantha Ivery, and senior Madison Martino—a student employee at the Social Justice Center.

The study will pull from the college’s institutional data recorded during the 2017-18 academic year. The group will look at demographic categories across the college’s departments to examine potential differences in minority representation, such as in academics or casting for shows.

“If there’s overrepresentation or underrepresentation, there’s some phenomenon going on that’s not just about individuals,” Spears said in an interview. “It’s potentially about certain groups of students based on demographic makeup.”

Spears said she noticed the college’s retention rate for female students of color decreased, and four female faculty members of color left Emerson for various reasons. Spears said this information, following the protests from POWER, convinced her to form a committee.

Spears hopes the data will provide empirical support to student testimonies about microaggressions and incidences of bias at Emerson.

“It will be something I hope students look at and say, ‘They actually understand our experience,’” Spears said. “I’m hoping that it also provides students with context that says, ‘It’s not just your experience—you can feel it, but there’s something bigger that is not you. You’re not wrong, you deserve to be here.’”

Committee member Samantha Ivery said the data they have looked at so far did not surprise her and seems consistent with what she knows about small liberal arts colleges.

“I think a lot of what we’re finding are things that are happening across the country,” Ivery said in a phone interview.

Spears said she chose not to include more students in the research group because members of POWER, such as former chair Lucie Pereira, told her it should not be students’ jobs to address the issue of racial diversity on campus after the protests.

“Students should bring the issue, but students should not have to do administrators’ jobs—or carry the emotional burden of those jobs—when there are people who are getting paid to do those jobs,” Spears said.

Pereira declined to comment.

Ivery said she hopes the community will use the report to take action.

“I hope that the folks that look at it and take it in will understand it as a snapshot of what Emerson is doing, or how it is perceived by the people that are represented in the data,” Ivery said. “And then if there’s work to be done, to commit to do that work.”

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