Catholic colleges embrace the call to work toward racial justice

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Best friends Megan Wright and Juienne Brown are seen as protesters rally around the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., June 12, 2020, against racial inequality. CNS photo/Jay Paul, Reuters

The world that college students inhabit looks different this fall than it did in March, when most U.S. campuses were shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United States has been roiled by not just the novel coronavirus and all the hardships it has caused — physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially — but also by widespread protests for racial justice in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd.

Father Campuzano-Velez

“This is a unique moment in which we all need to react,” said Vincentian Father Guillermo Campuzano-Velez, vice president for mission and ministry at DePaul University in Chicago. “The fear of young people is that this is going to pass without producing any change.”

Catholic colleges, said Father Campuzano-Velez and other leaders, are well-situated to help students navigate the situation because of their grounding in Catholic social teaching; at the same time, they have to look at themselves and find ways to be sure they are staying true to that mission.

“DePaul University is an institution grounded in mission,” Father Campuzano-Velez said. “The heart of what we do is not in the academics. It’s whether we translate our mission and values. Our pedagogical approach values the human being as an echo of God and as an image of God.”

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That approach is evident in the university’s emphasis on all manners of diversity, Father Campuzano-Velez said: racial diversity, social diversity, cultural and religious diversity.

“We believe in unity and diversity; we embrace diversity, and we are proud of diversity,” he said. “That principal is in our classes and in our programs and in extracurricular activities. We hope our students are learning that.”

Given that diversity, Father Campuzano-Velez expects much discussion about the push for racial justice.

‘Creating opportunities’


Phyllis Scott, dean of Barry University’s School of Social Work, said the Miami Shores, Florida, institution has held similar discussions about race and racism and is committed to expanding them this year.

“Barry is pledging itself now to become even more [involved] in racial justice by creating opportunities for all of us to educate ourselves and take action,” Scott said.

That includes the material students learn in class, but also the “implicit curriculum,” Scott said, which includes everything from school-mandated social justice training and activism to the topics of conversation in campus hallways.

Barry University is about 30% Latino, 30% Black and 20% white, so diversity is a way of life on its campus. So, too, is a commitment to social justice, which goes back to the Adrian Dominican sisters who founded the university 80 years ago.

“We have always focused on social justice and human rights as an institution,” Scott said. “That mission is threaded through our all of our curriculum, both explicit and implicit.”

‘Work for change’

In the days following Floyd’s murder, DePaul University President Gabriel Esteban issued a letter expressing solidarity with the Black community and those who suffer the effects of racism.

“In the past few weeks, we have witnessed the jarring violence of racism in images in the news and social media. Even in such unsettling times, these events are still occurring and prove that our country is still not immune to racism and the hatred it brings. These events cause grief, sadness, anger and frustration at our inability to conquer racism and protect our loved ones and our communities,” Esteban wrote.

“In our grief, let us pledge to work for change, to seek reform and to hold each other accountable for taking a stand against injustice. Let us work to become instruments of peace. As Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King once said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ In these times of darkness, let us protect and care for one another. The DePaul University community will stand together in solidarity against racism and hate.”

That statement was accompanied by a commitment to engage in dialogue at all levels and to work to identify and root out structural racism within the university.

“That’s only possible if we engage in conversation,” Father Campuzano-Velez said. “The mission of DePaul is based on principles that we took from Catholic social teaching. Administrators, faculty, staff and students all bear responsibility in making that mission relevant and fresh for today.”

But discussions about race make many people uncomfortable.

“It’s emotional, it’s psychological,” Scott said about people’s reluctance to engage with the subject. “There is trauma there.”

‘Break the cycle of injustice’

Father Campuzano-Velez said the activism of the moment has been driven by a confluence of events: the ongoing political polarization in the United States; the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color, especially the Black and Latino communities; and, setting it off like a match to a fuse, “a criminal act by a police officer,” the killing of Floyd that was captured on video.

“All those things come together to produce a perfect opportunity, a movement that I hope will produce real structural change,” he said. “The antiracist movement is the fruit and the consequence of these three things coming together.”

That doesn’t mean everything will be perfect, or even good, in the near future, Father Campuzano-Velez said.

“We are just writing one page of a very long book — the book of human society and racism,” he said. “We have to write a page of the anti-racist book of humanity. We have to do it the best way we can.”

At DePaul, that might mean looking at the names of campus buildings, he said. While DePaul was founded in Illinois more than 30 years after the Civil War ended, and thus has not had to grapple with heritage that included founders or illustrious alumni who owned slaves, it still has named most facilities after Vincentian priests and donors — nearly all of them white men.

“Where can our African American students look to see themselves?” he asked.

The work of anti-racism is broader than the academic world, but universities can help by engaging with the community.

“We hope education will help us break the cycle of injustice and racism and poverty,” Father Campuzano-Velez said. “There are many, many partners we engage with. We have many faculty and staff who are experts in diversity and equity. We are really willing to be part of the conversation.”

‘Well-positioned to be leaders’

The University of St. Thomas is trying to fill a similar role in Houston, which was George Floyd’s hometown, said Richard Ludwick, the university’s president. With a student body that’s about 60% Hispanic and 20% Asian and Pacific islander, it is no stranger to fostering diversity.

A graduate of Nathan Hale High School in Seattle protests racial inequality June 15, 2020. Tamir Rice was an African American 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a white Cleveland police officer in 2014 while playing with a toy gun. CNS photo/Lindsey Wasson, Reuters

Ludwick was a guest on a podcast hosted by Larry Payne, a leader of the Society of St. Martin De Porres, the university’s African American alumni group.

“We want to use the university as a platform for a wider conversation in the community for these issues, through the lens of Catholic social teaching,” Ludwick said. “It gives us a really great opportunity to talk about how ‘catholic,’ the word, means ‘universal,’ and that gives us the opportunity to bring all of God’s people together.”

“We are really well-positioned to be leaders in race relations,” Scott agreed. “We cannot only look at ourselves, but also look at changing public policy and change in our communities.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.