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Doing Nothing Isn't Enough: Creighton community works to fight systemic racism

Aug 30, 2021
5 min Read
Blake Ursch
Antiracism image

This is not a new conversation.

Systemic racism is foundational to the society and economy of the United States, a nation established on Native land and developed through the enslavement of people taken from Africa. That racism persists and is baked into public and private institutions, making its presence known in ways large and small every day.  

Amid renewed public attention to calls for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, individuals and institutions across the country are working to understand their own part in perpetuating systemic racism and are actively pursuing ways to dismantle it, eliminating a hierarchy of human value and establishing equity for all. 

Because doing nothing isn’t enough. 

This is the idea behind the concept of anti-racism, a word that’s come into common usage in recent years, particularly following the publication of Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling 2019 book How To Be an Antiracist. According to Kendi, “one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism … the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then to dismantle it.”

Building on the social justice work of faculty, administrators and others, Creighton University is investing more energy and resources than ever to the anti-racism cause. Earlier this summer, Christopher Whitt, PhD, vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion at Creighton, and Erika Dakin Kirby, PhD, A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication, led a team of faculty and staff who virtually attended the 2020 Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Campus Centers, which aimed to help participating colleges and universities develop action plans for addressing racial inequalities. 

Individuals and groups at Creighton are pushing for a University culture that embraces racial justice through reflection on its structures and discernment on how best to ensure inclusivity and justice. In doing so, the hope is that Creighton will be well-equipped to identify, name and eradicate systemic and structural racism inside and outside the University in an effort to make a better world. 

“When we think about people who say, ‘I’m not a racist,’ that really is a neutral stance,” says Whitt. “With that neutral stance, a person is allowing systemic racism to persist, to really fester and continue to move from this generation to the next. As anti-racists, we work proactively to name and dismantle those racist structures.”

A major element of the socially constructed white identity in the U.S. is benefiting from policies and practices that limit opportunities and access for Black people and other people of color, particularly in areas such as housing and employment, Whitt says. But while there is a particular responsibility among white people to recognize and fight against systemic racism, the anti-racism cause should be a collaborative effort among people of all races.

“We can’t say that the only people doing anti-racism need to be white folk,” Whitt says. “People of all colors, all races, all backgrounds can proactively engage in fighting against racism. A big part of that is naming it — making people aware that systemic racism is a real thing.”

Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, said as much in a May letter to the Creighton community. “The unfairness, discrimination, and violence of racism in our nation, and the sickness, economic duress, and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic are real,” Fr. Hendrickson wrote. “ ... I share the sadness, confusion, concern, and pain of so many, particularly the members of the Creighton community locally, nationally, and globally. I am also aware that thoughts, feelings, and experiences impact us differently, and in this I am especially mindful of people of color whose own American context is framed and informed by other realities of which I cannot represent.”

A growing awareness of the institutional nature of racism, particularly among the governing majority, Whitt says, seems to be a defining characteristic of the current moment. For decades, he says, the mainstream conversation around racism has rarely moved beyond the level of individual attitudes and behaviors. 

“We think, ‘Let’s get to know other people, not use certain words, love each other and understand each other,’” Whitt says. “But that kind of misses the point. If we only define racism as those individual issues, people can call themselves neutral and allow the system to persist. You can have systemic racism with and without traditional racists in the system. But if people simply turn a blind eye to the system in place, they reap the benefits of those systems and the system continues.

“I think we’re coming to a realization. People talk about the broken economic system. The reality is, the system is not broken. The system is in need of transformation.”

With the help of Whitt’s office and other organizations on and off campus, Creighton is working toward that transformation. The following programs, while not an exhaustive list, represent a sampling of Creighton’s anti-racist efforts.

Teaching Anti-racism

Even before this summer’s nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, two faculty members in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences were working on a tool to help their colleagues address issues of racial justice in the classroom.

This summer, Kirby, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and Guy McHendry, PhD, associate professor in the department, published “Teaching Anti-Racism,” a collection of articles, books, videos, podcasts and other resources aimed at helping their fellow faculty understand the current conversation around race. The project, Kirby says, was made possible through the support of Creighton’s Kingfisher Institute, which hoped to integrate racial education into the University’s magis core curriculum. 

The University approached Kirby and McHendry about putting together a guide to covering racial justice issues in the classroom last fall.  

“When you work in academia, when you’re a researcher, you are forever kind of narrowing, narrowing, narrowing what you think about and what you study. And it’s just so easy to compartmentalize what you’re doing as separate from these larger, structural systemic issues,” Kirby says. “I think that one of the things that’s changed is, there’s more public discourse, public dialogue connecting different disciplines to these issues of race.”

Kirby and McHendry’s guide highlights Kendi’s book, as well as other nonfiction works, including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But the professors also recommend more literary works, including W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The guide also includes podcasts, such as the New York Times’ “1619” audio series, and several visual works, including the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about writer James Baldwin.

The guide also features class exercises and discussion prompts, designed to get students thinking about their own racial identity. For white students, McHendry says, that means recognizing not only the privilege afforded them by their race, but also the level of precarity in their lives and the lives of others.

“I usually talk about it with my students by asking them, ‘What are the ways that your life is more precarious, or that you are vulnerable to additional harm or hardship?’” McHendry says. “Being born into a war zone really makes your life a lot more precarious. Being born with a pre-existing condition health-wise in a society that does not provide adequate health care makes your life more open to hardship. Being Black in a society that has systemic racism makes your life more precarious.

“I think often people respond to ‘privilege’ as being told that their life is easy. That’s not what privilege is about. Your life can be really hard, but also not as hard as someone who has to also bear these systemic issues.”

Anti-racism in Public Health 

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened Americans’ eyes to the interconnected web of public health in ways few events have before, says LaShaune Johnson, PhD, associate professor in the Master of Public Health program in Creighton’s Graduate School.

“I think, more and more, Americans now understand that public health impacts all parts of our lives. They see the impact COVID-19 has had on jobs, family, relationships, schools, ability to travel,” Johnson says. “When we think about the ways in which racism is systemic and baked into our institutions, and we see the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on communities of color, we can now also see that racism is embedded in public health.”

It’s a reality discussed in a recent resolution passed by the Douglas County Board of Health in Nebraska declaring racism a public health emergency. In the resolution, the board reported, “Racism and segregation in Douglas County have exacerbated a health divide resulting in disparities for premature deaths, death rates for cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease, average and median age of deaths. This health divide is also strongly linked to disparities in infant mortality, rates of premature births and infants born with low and very low birth weights.”

As of June 2020, 80% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Douglas County (in which Creighton is located) were non-white. This in a county in which 69% of the population is white. In addition, some ZIP codes in predominately Black North Omaha report an average life expectancy 10 years below that in mostly white West Omaha. 

The type of divide, Johnson says, stems from decades of racial segregation in areas such as housing, employment and education. For example, Johnson says, because of historical redlining, many people of color live in lower-income neighborhoods that chain grocery stores avoid, leaving residents with fewer healthy food options. In some neighborhoods that see higher rates of violent crime, residents are less likely to take up healthy activities such as jogging or walking. 

Taken collectively, inequities such as these add up to huge disparities in general overall health.

As a researcher, Johnson is particularly interested in the experiences of Black women diagnosed with breast cancer, who, according to the data, are more likely to die of the disease, she says.

“Diseases like breast cancer are a really good microcosm of all these stories of inequality,” Johnson says. “People of color experience a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental factors, lack of access to education, lack of access to jobs that offer paid sick leave, and lack of access to the generational wealth that might provide a cushion for someone with high medical expenses.”

In her role with the University, Johnson serves as assistant director of the Creighton University at Highlander team. With the Highlander, Johnson organizes public health and education events for the surrounding North Omaha community. In doing so, Johnson says, she and her team work to amplify Black voices, giving them a platform to share their experiences in the health care system.

Alongside Kathy Gonzales, PhD, a former faculty member in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program in the Graduate School, Johnson received a grant for a project that aims to record the stories of Black women diagnosed with cancer, exploring their nonmedical experiences as they received treatment. The interviews will later be used as the basis for original poems composed by a professional poet. 

Johnson is also working on a project with Kevin Fuji, PharmD, associate professor in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, that aims to determine how physicians can best utilize a tool known as the Distress Thermometer — which records physical and emotional difficulties patients experience during treatment — to better serve communities of color. 

The Creighton School of Medicine is also making efforts to engage in racial justice. The school has named advocacy and community engagement a key priority moving forward and has ongoing relationships with several local community and campus groups, including the Creighton chapter of White Coats for Black Lives, a medical student group that addresses issues of race and medicine. In addition, the school has added a new course, Social Determinants of Health, under the rubric of Social Medicine. 

The school also has six pipeline programs established to bring groups underrepresented in medicine, such as African Americans and first-generation students, into the profession. The programs connect with students across the education continuum, including high school and middle school students (and, in the case of one program, middle school parents). Program partners include Creighton HS-MACA, Arizona State University, Dignity St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, and several Omaha middle schools.

School of Medicine faculty are also contributing to the pursuit of racial justice in individual ways. Amy McGaha, MD, professor and chair of family medicine, has been selected to participate in a Multidisciplinary Health Equity Task Force, organized by the State of Nebraska to address COVID-19 related health disparities in underserved populations. The task force will provide recommendations to Gov. Pete Ricketts for strategies to minimize health disparities generally.

Ronn Johnson, PhD, the School of Medicine’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion, recently hosted a series of town halls addressing racial issues, including the racial health gap and the School of Medicine’s response to the nationwide protests held in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Johnson also sent a statement, at the invitation of School of Medicine Dean Bo Dunlay, MD’81, to the school addressing the situation.

“Most informed physicians, nurses and other health care professionals understand that racism is an insidious social determinant that leads to health disparities,” Johnson wrote. “Each of us must become motivated to actively navigate through the imperfect psychosocial storm caused by racism. Convert your worries into actions that inform you about the legacy of racism in this country and the circumstances that allow it to remain ingrained within the fiber of many of our institutions, including medicine and education.”

Social Justice and Community

“I’m excited,” says Becky Nickerson, director of the Creighton Intercultural Center, one of the teams that attended the 2020 racial healing symposium. “I feel like we’re coming up with a University action plan. We’re taking the great work that all of our departments and divisions do and coming together in a concentrated effort to address these issues.”

That work, she says, is still in the early stages. But even so, the Intercultural Center is already involved in several efforts aimed at promoting racial justice on campus. 

This summer, the center is partnering with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice (SCSJ) on a University-wide reading group for Kendi’s book How To Be an Antiracist. 

Interest in the group has been high, says Kelly Tadeo Orbik, BA’06, MS’08, associate director at the SCSJ. In its first session, which began in May, the group maxed out with 46 participants. The second round, which began in mid-July, numbered more than 50.

“When we opened it up, it filled quickly,” says Kenneth Reed-Bouley, MBA’10, director of the SCSJ. “There just seems to be a desire for people who want to know more, want to learn more and figure out what they can do themselves. It’s not the end-all and be-all, but it’s one step forward for people who want to learn more.”

The group, Nickerson says, is “not the typical book club of just read and discuss.” In the group’s final session, participants are asked to brainstorm steps they can take as individuals to address systemic racism within their own sphere of influence.  

Reed-Bouley says the SCSJ also works to introduce students to the North Omaha community through an orientation program in which students visit businesses and landmarks and meet with leaders in the community. Though the program usually involves an on-site visit, students recently had the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the Great Plains Black History Museum, led by executive director Eric Ewing.

Reed-Bouley says the University has also benefitted from the work of others on campus. Creighton’s Kingfisher Institute regularly partners with the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, a group of community leaders that includes Whitt, Palma Joy Strand, JD, professor and director of Creighton’s 2040 Initiative in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program; Tracy Leavelle, director of the Kingfisher Institute; Chris Rodgers, BA’92, MBA’99, director of community and government relations at Creighton; and Charise Alexander Adams, program planner for Kingfisher. The group holds community meetings to explore how racial violence manifests in Omaha and what can be done to move toward racial justice. 

“The key is not to be thinking we (as a University) need to go into a community with all the answers, so much as really being mutual with what we have to offer each other,” Reed-Bouley says. “It’s been really great to see that synergy, with all of us working together with these organizations.”

Housing and Law

Creighton School of Law Dean Joshua Fershée, JD, says the legal education program, like others at the University, provides opportunities to pursue greater racial equality. But there are always ways to do more.

Fershée says he’s been meeting with students, faculty and staff in the School of Law to hear their stories for how to increase awareness and combat structural and institutional racism.

“We need to listen, learn and grow so that we can create a more supportive and more equitable community,” Fershée says, “and that starts with acknowledging how much work we have to do.” 

In addition, he says, each semester, students have the opportunity to work with the School of Law’s Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance on civil matters for low-income people in Douglas County. 

The School of Law started its pro bono program in 2018. In the law school, pro bono work refers to voluntary, law-related services provided to people of limited means or to community-based nonprofit organizations, for which students do not receive pay or academic credit. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Creighton law students logged almost 1,900 cumulative hours of service — more than double that of the first year — despite the global pandemic, Fershée says. 

“Not only does this provide much-needed legal service to under-served communities, it helps reinforce the need for lifelong service that is a critical part of Creighton’s mission,” Fershée says. 

In the wake of an economic downturn caused by the pandemic, Fershée says the legal clinic has been handling an above-average amount of eviction cases. According to the work of another Creighton expert, eviction disproportionally affects Omaha’s communities of color. 

Pierce Greenberg, PhD, assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Cultural and Social Sciences, recently co-authored “Understanding Evictions in Omaha,” with local attorney and Creighton alumnus Gary Fischer, BA’75, JD’79. The study features a heat map that illustrates a stark reality: Most of the city’s evictions occur in areas that were historically segregated, particularly the traditionally African American North Omaha.

Evictions, Greenberg says, have repercussions beyond housing instability. For example, children in families who are evicted are often forced to switch schools, leading to worse educational outcomes. Individuals who are evicted are often forced to move to group homes or experience homelessness, limiting their ability to socially distance, which can impact public health. 

“We just wanted to start the conversation,” Greenberg says, “and start it grounded with the evidence that these racial disparities do exist. And we hope that this leads to more conversation about this, and that it becomes the basis for action and policy change that can help reduce this problem.”

Negotiation and Conflict Resolution

While the conversation around anti-racism largely deals with transforming the racist structures that inflict harm, the Creighton Graduate School’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program also teaches skills to address individual conflicts that are triggered by racist attitudes. 

“Our program has been looking at racism as structural violence and teaching individuals the skills to engage productively with the conflict that arises from systemic oppression for the last 14 years,” says Jacqueline Font-Guzmán, JD, PhD, director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program. “You cannot promote belonging and shared humanity if you ignore conflict and relationships. Relationships and conflict are the core of making systemic change and taking an anti-racist stance.”

To dismantle racist structures, Font-Guzmán says, people must be willing to engage with conflict in a productive way. This means having uncomfortable conversations, and directly confronting conflict in a way that either productively escalates conflict to raise awareness and change policies or de-escalates the situation to foster dialogue. Coursework teaches students how to name conflict, and, if it can’t be resolved, how to stay with it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm.

“We are not taught to think of conflict as a positive thing. Our society steers us away from actually looking at conflict and being an anti-racist,” Font-Guzmán says. “If you say something hurtful, I could choose to call you a racist and say, ‘You’re a terrible person,’ or I can take a stance of curiosity and ask you, ‘Please tell me more about your comment. Can you help me understand why you think that comment was appropriate or productive?’ We teach students to take a step back and to hold back the urge to jump into problem-solving mode, so that they can focus on understanding first and problem-solving second.” 

Outside of the program’s academic curriculum, Font-Guzmán says she and her colleagues have also worked to foster a community dialogue about contemporary social justice issues. Beginning in 2017-2018, following the destruction in Puerto Rico by Hurricane María and NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s high-profile protest of the National Anthem, the program began hosting the NCR/2040 Initiative Speaking Truths panel series, which brings in members of the Creighton and Omaha communities to discuss issues such as racism, colonialism and misogyny. 

So far, the series has offered six events, and Font-Guzmán says she and her team are exploring ways to continue the panel, while accounting for the challenges of the pandemic. The next Speaking Truths panel, held in collaboration with the Durham Museum, will take place online this fall. 

“We have these conversations so the invisible becomes visible,” she says. “It’s not to make immediate change. It’s to raise awareness so that the change can follow. It’s about conversation that leads to action. But the important thing to think about is, what happens after the conversation? What can we do with it?”

Font-Guzmán advises looking for ways to act that are within your own sphere of influence. In her role as director of the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program, she has worked to hire a diverse faculty and ensure that the curriculum includes works from authors belonging to underrepresented groups. Most of the courses in the program are also cross-listed in other schools and colleges, such as the College of Nursing, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Heider College of Business and more, to ensure Creighton students are well-equipped to confront conflict and be agents of social change in whatever profession they pursue. 

With the support of the President’s Distinguished Curriculum Innovation and Pedagogical Research Grant, Font-Guzmán and Palma Strand have also developed a new course, scheduled to debut next spring, titled Organizing for Social Justice and Solidarity in the 21st Century. The course will focus on how to work within organizations to tackle structural injustice. 

“Creighton is in a good position to highlight and promote inclusiveness and belongingness, not only for African Americans, but for all underrepresented groups,” Font-Guzmán says. 

“The reality is that we are working across the campus on professional development opportunities where members of our faculty, staff and administration can become more aware of and engaged in anti-racism efforts within their spheres of influence to not only make a stronger and more welcoming Creighton, but also to best serve our students,” Whitt says. “We are also listening to students and student groups to have their voice included in this work, identify their priorities and help them to best engage as anti-racist in their spheres of influence. We are working to coordinate and organize our efforts across the University while making sure we are providing resources to help move the work forward.”