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Teach-In to Examine Race and Racism within Academia

graphic of woman of color in profile with rainbow colors emanating from her head

This year’s two-day Teach-In on Race, with the theme of Teaching Truthfully about Race and Racism within the Academy, is an opportunity for Emerson to come together to listen, learn, contribute, and build community.

“That’s something that we don’t often have in a concerted, collected way,” said Director of Faculty Development and Diversity Tuesda Roberts, who is spearheading this year’s event. “We’re hoping the Teach-In allows individuals, organizations, and offices in different areas of our college to see that they are not working in isolation and that these are topics that collectively we can and should grapple with.”

The Teach-In will be held Thursday, February 16 and Friday, February 17, with a keynote address by renowned actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith.

Anna Deavere Smith stands with hands clasped, wearing all black against grey background
Anna Deavere Smith. Photo/Kwaku Alston@HBO

Smith is well known for her TV and film roles, including in West Wing, Philadelphia, Inventing Anna, and Black-ish. Along with those roles, some of her most impactful work is in theatre. Through in-depth interviews with people who have experienced critical moments in our history, her work, such as her award-winning play Notes from the Field, brings together authentic voices across different communities in the United States.

Roberts said Smith’s work on stage, as a playwright, and as an actor, is extraordinarily relevant to the Emerson community.

“[Smith] is taking the time interviewing — not for the purpose of exploiting or extracting, mimicking or politicizing people’s voices and their experiences — but going as a human and pulling together stories that offer us a glimpse into cross-sections of American society,” Roberts said. “Her plays also provide reminders that we are humans, and how do we find humanity in ourselves and others even as we are grappling with the vestiges and the contemporary manifestations of racism?”

The keynote address will be open to the public and take place at the Robert J. Orchard Theater at the Paramount Center on Friday, February 17, starting at 9:00 am. It will also be live-streamed at emerson.edu/live.

This year, the Teach-In on Race will also include a theatrical performance: An Evening in History with James Baldwin: Featuring Charles Reese. It is an interactive literary performance that will shed light on race relations in America in the 1960s, using excerpts from the critically acclaimed off-Broadway play, James Balwin: A Soul on Fire, and will include a Q&A with performer Reese.

The Teach-In also includes a session about student activism led by Vice President for Equity and Social Justice Shaya Gregory Poku; a panel presented by the Emerson Prison Initiative covering teaching about race and racism within the prison; the Deans’ Fellows for Racial Equity and Leadership Development student panel will feature student perspectives and highlight their efforts to effect concrete and meaningful change; and a faculty-only session presented by Performing Arts Assistant Professor  Joshua Streeter exploring how and why we teach about race. 

A full schedule of the events can be found on the Teach-In on Race page.

The Focus of Teach-In on Race

The Teach-In on Race, founded in 2016 by an ad-hoc Cultural Competence Committee formed in the wake of a Spring 2015 student demonstration, aims to provide a dedicated space for teaching and learning about race and racism through both historical and contemporary lenses, Roberts said.

“When we look at current manifestations of racism in our societies and within the academy, fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Historically, there are so many different ways in which student activism has been a cornerstone of advancement within these issues within higher education. There are lessons that can be learned from students of today, too,” Roberts said. “This needs to be a cross-generation approach to teaching and learning about racism and to combating racism within the academy.”

This is Roberts’s first year having a role in the planning process of the Teach-In; Distinguished Professor of Multidisciplinary Letters Jabari Asim had coordinated the previous editions. Roberts said being involved has given her the opportunity to see just how committed individuals across our college are to this event because they know how critical it is to our campus.

“It’s one thing when people say that they want to talk about or address racism. And it’s another thing when people declare their commitment to inclusivity and equity-based approaches,” Roberts said. “Planning this event has given me a behind-the-scenes view of the work that people at Emerson are willing to do to actually make those statements manifested.”

The Teach-In is sponsored by the President’s Office, Academic Affairs, Office of Internationalization and Equity, Social Justice Collaborative, Emerson Prison Initiative, Deans’ Fellowship for Racial Equity and Leadership Development, and the ProArts Consortium. 

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