In a News Bulletin on July 31, President Sean Decatur unfolded a four-part plan to help combat systemic racism on Kenyon’s campus in the coming years. Included in this proposal is programming to provide anti-racism education for the Kenyon community, more effective training for law enforcement officers, additional mental health counseling for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and the creation of an advisory committee that will aid in the allocation of College resources towards anti-racism initiatives.
“Over the last two months I have watched with renewed hope as people and institutions across the nation have not only raised their voices in dissent but engaged in critical self-examination and begun to take concrete actions to combat structural racism,” Decatur wrote. “There have been calls for Kenyon, as well, to embark on this challenging and important work.”
The plan for these initiatives comes after thousands of nation-wide Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that followed the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in May. Although the protests were originally directed towards the prevalence of police brutality across the country, protestors also pointed to the structural problems which reinforce racism in institutions across the United States, including its education system. These protests have pushed educators to rethink ways in which BIPOC can be heard and valued.
Back in early June, Decatur sent an email to the community mourning the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. In the email, Decatur reflected on his own obligation toward the movement as a Black leader in higher education. He expressed sadness and anger at the fact that BLM, although nearing its seventh year of existence, continues to face setbacks as a result of institutionalized racism that has existed long before the movement began.
Despite his discouragement, Decatur asked others to look towards a brighter future ahead. “No one becomes an educator, or pursues an education, without having some enduring optimism that can help us move beyond anger,” he wrote.
Soon after Decatur’s email, discussions about anti-racism gained momentum among senior staff members and the Board of Trustees. Many at these meetings expressed a deep commitment to ensuring that their work was not merely performative, but rather represented their continuous involvement in the cause. Among them was Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason. Mason emphasized that the efforts needed to be ongoing and mutually reinforcing, rather than simply “checking the box.”
“The systems of racism are incredibly complex and also deeply ingrained. You must attack them persistently,” he said. “It’s important to understand that 400 years of history won’t get wiped away with a single workshop.”
Throughout these discussions that took place throughout July, Board members pondered how to best introduce anti-racism programming at Kenyon when racism seemed to be all too consuming.
“One of the challenges when you’re doing this kind of work is to think about, ‘well, there are a gazillion things one could do,’” he said. “‘What are the things that are of the moment right now?’”
Soon, it became clear to the Board that its efforts must address the importance of educating three parts of the Kenyon campus life — mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and community members themselves.
Finally, the Board expressed that it was committed to the establishment of an advisory committee that will fund anti-racism initiatives for the coming school year. According to Mason, this committee has not yet been created.
“[The Board] support[s] the College’s decision to establish an advisory committee to recommend and prioritize areas for investment, funded through a presidential discretionary account,” Board of Trustees Chair Brackett B. Denniston ’69 wrote in an email to the Collegian.
While the committee has not yet been established, the Board’s plans for workshops and education are already under way for the coming school year, although there were no concrete answers as to when — and how — such events will take place.
“[This work] is not easily accomplished,” Denniston said. He then added, “That is central to the challenge of addressing it.”
While initial planning for anti-racism education among the community has already begun, providing adequate mental health resources for BIPOC is a more daunting challenge for the College’s administration, seeing as hiring mental health professionals has been difficult in the past. Kenyon’s rural location has proven to be an issue in drawing counselors to campus, which has led to a shortage of mental health professionals. Consequently, locating professionals who are trained in BIPOC-specific mental health needs is something that will require more effort. But it is not a problem that is Kenyon specific. Mason believes that this shortage would exist no matter where the school was located.
“Even if we were in a major urban area, we would find [recruiting counselors] difficult to do,” Mason said. “The demand is very high, and the shortage is real, which doesn’t mean it’s not something one has to work on, but it changes how you think about it.”
Mental health training is not the only part of the plan that will require significant focus. The relationship between the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) and Black students has had a strenuous history. Although the College can recommend and provide anti-racism training to the police force of Knox County, Kenyon does not have power over decisions between the Village of Gambier and KCSO. Still, Mason hopes that KCSO and the Mount Vernon police department will be receptive to potential training programs, especially with the recent update to their contract that gives the Village the ability to remove deputies due to instances of misconduct.
What is most important to those behind the initiatives, however, is the lasting effect of anti-racism work, which, according to Mason, is something that “has to be done carefully.”
“Working against racism is important, undeniably so,” he said. “It’s involved, and it’s difficult and will necessarily be, for lack of a better word, uncomfortable — but importantly so.”