Facing the past: Harriet Tubman Center begins Truth and Reconciliation initiative
To create a new future, you must first come to terms with the past.
That’s why the Harriet Tubman Center for Freedom and Equity is embarking on a new initiative: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will look at issues of race on the Binghamton University campus, listen to voices that too often go unheard and make recommendations for Binghamton’s future.
Now in the planning stages, the new initiative is spearheaded by Harriet Tubman Center Director Anne Bailey and Associate Director Sharon Bryant, in partnership with President Harvey Stenger.
It builds on the work of the Harriet Tubman Center, which was founded in the summer of 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of African American presence in the United States and its colonial precursor. The legacy of slavery lingers in today’s society in the form of deep racial inequities, which are the subject of research sponsored through the center.
Those inequities also persist in higher education. While Binghamton doesn’t have a history directly connected with slavery like some older American universities, people of color weren’t part of the genesis of Harpur College more than 70 years ago, said Bailey, a history professor.
“Maybe in some ways, it’s not surprising we’ve had this silence,” she said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks to break that silence and allow the University to co-create a more equitable future in partnership with faculty, staff, students and alumni. It is modeled on similar restorative justice efforts that have taken place both in the United States and around the world, most famously in South Africa in 1996 after the fall of Apartheid.
“This will be one of the first times a university undertakes this process,” said Bryant, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Decker College of Nursing and Health Sciences. “Countries have done it. Communities have done it.”
Stenger welcomed the process, and hopes that it will become a model for other colleges and universities.
“In order to create a better future, our nation first needs to come to terms with a troubling legacy of racial inequity and injustice. The recent events in Kenosha, Wis., are just the latest evidence for this,” he said. “We can’t just expect someone else to have those necessary, painful conversations and create lasting change. That work must first start at home, with each one of us.”
“As the summer concludes, we continue to be reminded in very painful ways that we have not overcome our nation’s long history of racism,” added Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Donald Nieman. “This initiative will ensure that we at Binghamton have the honesty and courage to identify racial inequities on our campus and take the steps necessary to end them.”
Creating a culture and practice of inclusion is a priority at Binghamton, including measures to attract and retain diverse faculty, staff and students. In 2012, Binghamton became the first campus in the SUNY system to establish the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (now a division), as well as the position of chief diversity officer.
The University is currently establishing a Campus Citizen Review Board, which will provide independent and evidence-based assessment of our campus police operations, and also supports Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Say their Name Reform Agenda that has enacted specific transparency and policing requirements on law enforcement officers, including the Binghamton University Police. In addition, the University has allocated $1.5 million in endowment funds to establish the George Floyd Scholarship for Social Change to support minority students, and increased funding by $200,000 annually for the Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowships program for graduate students.
“The Truth and Reconciliation process won’t be easy, but it is deeply needed here and elsewhere,” Stenger said. “I would like to thank Anne Bailey and Sharon Bryant for their leadership in this initiative.”
The goal this fall will be to put together an inclusive TRC panel and advisory committee with diverse cultural backgrounds, disciplines and viewpoints, and with particular attention to Black voices and perspectives.
“We want to make sure all areas of the University feel as if they are a part of this initiative,” Bryant said.
Starting next spring — although the ultimate timeline may be affected by the ongoing pandemic — the TRC plans to hold six hearings, giving people the opportunity to share their stories and experiences. These accounts will be confidential, and will also be accepted in a written format. From these testimonies, the panel will come up with recommendations for the University administration, potentially by fall 2021.
Public education is also a goal, and the TRC will sponsor at least two lectures during the year, as well as presentations on contemporary issues and scholarship both through the TRC and University departments and schools. Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and the former chairwoman on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, is on the list of proposed speakers, Bailey said. Berry was awarded an honorary degree at Binghamton University in 1999.
Other components of the plan include a look at how to make campus spaces more inclusive; and the opening of a physical Harriet Tubman Center space later this year.
The TRC isn’t a “name and shaming exercise, but the plan is to be solution oriented,” Bailey said.
“Part of what we need to do is rise to the challenge when it happens. Challenges don’t happen on schedule, as we have seen this year,” she said. “We’re still in a time of racial reckoning. We see this as a process that will take a while and we’re in it for the long haul.”
Overall, the truth and reconciliation process underscores the importance of listening to voices that often go unheard, a crucial component for healing society’s deep wounds and creating a more equitable future.
Through the years, Bryant and Bailey, along with many others on campus, have served as the sounding board for faculty, staff and students of color who have experienced incidents ranging from microaggressions to blatant racism. Concerned about student response to the pandemic, political unrest and protests over police brutality and racism, this summer Bryant established Holding Space for Decker College students, a safe, virtual forum where they could to discuss their feelings and experiences.
She and Decker Dean Mario Ortiz also conducted a mini-version of the truth and reconciliation process recently with alumni, who shared negative experiences they had as students that made them reluctant to return to campus. After they shared their experiences, the meeting’s atmosphere visually shifted: a weight had been removed, Bryant reflected.
Bailey finds inspiration when she teaches about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in her classes.
Founded in 1948, Apartheid was a regime of systematized terror. Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission gathered statements from 22,000 victims of human rights violations under Apartheid, approximately 10% of whom gave evidence at public hearings.
While South Africa still struggles with its legacy from Apartheid, the restorative justice process allowed the country to move beyond that troubled past into a better, more fully democratic future, she said. That’s also the hope behind Binghamton University’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It takes courage to take this on. We have to hear some pretty horrific stuff until we come out of the other end, and we don’t know where it might take us,” Bryant said.