Last June, in an open letter to the Thomas College community, President Laurie Lachance urged Terriers to “find their voice” in response to “the familiar, painful feeling of injustice” brought on by the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Shortly thereafter, President Lachance created the Presidential Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Social Justice co-chaired by Dr. Richard Biffle and Professor Judith Hansen-Childers. Since June, the Task Force has been hard at work. Divided into four work teams focusing on educational programs, curriculum and co-curricular activities, supporting materials, and our campus learning environment each work group has its own tasks, goals, and responsibilities.
“President Lachance, as well as Richard and I are incredibly pleased with the progress each work group has made in such a short period of time. Our Task Force members have gone above and beyond our expectations and we are energized and encouraged by their accomplishments. Everyone involved in this critically important initiative is committed to making Thomas College a welcoming and safe place for everyone by addressing systemic racism, discrimination, and inequality on our campus. During this racially and politically wrought time in our country – not to mention the new pandemic reality – the energy and commitment of our members is indeed a bright light on the horizon,” said Task Force Co-Chair and Associate Professor of Humanities, Judy Hansen-Childers.
In early September, work team two created and distributed the “TC Diversity Survey” which solicited information from the Thomas College community. The task force wanted to hear how people view campus relationships, interactions, infrastructure, and communication around the challenges and issues associated with equity, diversity, and social justice. The survey received 189 responses and provided the task force with a window into the current climate on campus. It showed that the community was eager to participate in the process even as it identified some its own weaknesses. Forums for communication emerged as a first step forward.
Building on the momentum of the survey results, the task force hosted a town hall meeting in November called “Conversations of Hope”. More than 60 staff, faculty and students participated in an interactive virtual meeting to discuss the survey results and begin to hold the candid conversations the community desired.
Assistant Professor of Education and facilitator of work team two, Dr. Katie Rybakova, moderated the successful virtual town hall meeting.
“I am working with an amazing set of faculty, staff, administrators and students– Brian, Alicia, Steve, Dan, Ryley, Michael, Carol, and Isaac. Our goal is to look at the curriculum and co-curricular options at our college and see what can change,” said Katie.
Along with the survey, her group has created an advocate digital badge which is in the pilot stage; initiated conversations about inequitable practices and are in the process of purchasing books for our task force to engage in further discussion about racism and discrimination (including How to Be an Antiracist by National Book Award-winning author Ibram X. Kendi); and working on incorporating discussion-based diversity across the curriculum school-wide.
“Not only are we talking about equity and engaging different voices, but it also is a representation of who we are at Thomas. I think we can do better– we can engage more voices, we can have more critical conversations, we can engage more faculty in adjusting their curriculum to live up to best practices in culturally sustaining pedagogy– a shifting society means shifting teaching practices,“ Katie continued, “We need to make space for all voices and truly sustain them– moving beyond ‘I hear you’ to ‘I now have a more holistic viewpoint of this topic because I have heard your story.’”
Task force facilitator of work group three and Thomas College Librarian David Smith has been working with his team members to identify and deliver support materials and resources to the campus community. Focusing first on the College’s website as a conduit for communication, their goal is to make content accessible and provide resources that will aid the entire campus community in better understanding the concepts and issues related to equity, diversity, and social justice. The Task Force website can be found at thomas.edu/diversity.
“Prior to the task force. . .I had already shared some relevant resources with a handful of faculty and staff, “ said David Smith, “The idea of creating and maintaining an atmosphere of cooperation and inclusion is fairly innate to most libraries as is trying to pro-actively share information and resources once an interest is expressed. I did not really consciously think about getting involved. When Richard and Judy asked if I would be interested in joining the task force and being a facilitator for one of the work groups it just made sense.”
Waterville Deputy Police Chief and Adjunct Criminal Justice Instructor William Bonney, also a member of work group three, is happy to join the task force with his unique perspective, “As a career law enforcement professional who teaches at Thomas College, I feel it is incumbent on me to positively represent law enforcement and encourage everyone in our community to treat other humans as equals. Our laws and our society are based on the rule of law – or the idea that justice is blind, and everyone is treated equally. I hope to demonstrate that philosophy as a member of the task force.”
William added, “I would like to thank President Lachance for the opportunity to work together with other members of the Thomas community to help make this a great place for everyone.”
As head field hockey coach, athletic administrator, and Adjunct Instructor of Mathematics Andrea Thebarge is honored to be a part of the task force: “I’m excited to be part of developing a culture on campus that will help educate and unite our campus community. We as an institution have been molding young people and preparing them for success in their personal and professional lives, and for leadership and service in their communities. We recognize that there is more that we can do as an institution surrounding diversity and inclusion and I am excited to be a part of those efforts.”
Work group one, co-facilitated by Jim Delorie, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement, and Stephen Reid ’19, admissions counselor, are using information gained by work group two’s survey to hold in-person focus groups to empower students to speak to faculty and staff about their experiences here at Thomas. Their goal is the establishment and support of educational programs that address diversity, social justice, racial injustice, and antiracism training through dialogues and community discussions, reading circles, symposiums, guest speakers and lecturers.
“We have been taking a deep dive into where our students heads are at and what they feel regarding inclusivity, equity and diversity for Thomas students. Our next steps are putting the data collected into practice but incorporating ways for students, faculty and staff to understand more about the importance of all that we are working towards,” said Stephen.
Jim added, “I got involved in the task force to empower students to use their voice and actions to bring awareness to the task force in the work being done. I would add that Judy and Rich’s leadership in this has been outstanding. Their focus on not solving things quickly but taking this as a long-term plan and goal to really make institutional and long-term change has been outstanding.”
For Stephen Reid, his involvement in the task force is deeply personal, “I wanted to get involved because I have a personal stake in what the task force is trying to accomplish, being a person of color, and because it helps to mold the community that is Thomas College into something more; something better.”
Stephen added, “The mission isn’t to cause any kind of guilt or point fingers towards people but bring to light the imbalances in our community. We walk and talk like Thomas College is a utopia in which everyone feels safe and equal, so this initiative should be welcomed and encouraged.”
Camille McGadney, internship and career coach here at Thomas, is the co-facilitator of group four. “Team four’s role is an exciting one. We have been charged with creating a more holistic campus learning environment that welcomes, celebrates, and supports all members of the community. We recently launched the Campus Conversation video series and in addition we are working with students, and will invite faculty and staff to create a Social Justice Club which will focus on developing events and activities to promote equity and inclusion for all individuals on campus,” said Camille.
Co-chair Dr. Richard Biffle summarizes the current work of the Task Force by stating, “We are proud of the initial work being done but recognize this a marathon and not a sprint. This means continuing to be the voices for engagement and change. The Task Force is firmly committed to the philosophy and teachings of social justice, equity, inclusion, and cultural diversity. Our goal is to provide a ‘360-degree’ perspective and approach related to diversity, multicultural education and sustaining inclusive communities in addressing the many issues and challenges facing our society and world today. There are times when something should and needs to be done — this is one of those moments. Simply stated, being silent during the chaos of the moment is not an option.”
*This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 Thomas Magazine & Annual Report.