By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published May 12, 2023
The questions concerned “the elephant in the room,” suggested one of the participants. How did we get here? How did Buffalo’s East Side become a target for “racialized violence?”
Then there was a long pause.
“Wow,” said Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church and a member of the Erie County Medical Center board of directors, who the first member of a panel to speak at Thursday’s UB-sponsored event on racism, racial literacy and mental health held at the Jacobs School of Medical and Biomedical Sciences.
“We got here through a series of circumstances that are uniquely American,” Pointer said after several breaths. “We have created a circumstance in which we ask people to live [under] policies that really do not allow people to live.
“Because those policies are in place, people suffer in a number of ways that really look invisible, but they are there every day. They have divested Black families of wealth. They have put that wealth in the hands of families that are not Black. As a nation, we have repeatedly suggested that we have made racial strides. But I would offer that you cannot make racial strides until you dismantle all those policies that lead to those negative outcomes.”
And has UB historically contributed to any of these inequities?
Pointer was just the first to address numerous difficult questions during the panel discussion that followed remarks by the event’s keynote speaker.
“The uniquely American reality is we teach racism in all our institutions in multiple ways,” Pointer told those attending the two-hour presentation.
“And we divest people of their humanity when we do that. Has the university contributed to that? Of course, the university has contributed to it. It is an institution. But I think where we are today is that we are more enlightened than we were previously. And there is a lot of work to be done. And I think we can be succinct about that work if we begin simply by making a decision to do justly.”
Presented almost a year to the day of the mass shooting at the Tops market in the heart of Buffalo’s Jefferson Avenue community, “Racism, Racial Literacy and Mental Health” unofficially inaugurated Western New York’s commemoration of the anniversary of the event.
“With great humility and a sense of urgency,” Henry-Louis Taylor, director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies, said in welcoming the more than 200 attendees. Taylor said the event was “purposely scheduled on the eve of last year’s murder of 10 black people who were killed in (the) racially motivated shooting” about a mile and a half from the site of the UB conference.
“We hold this conversation to remember them, the hideous event that took their lives and to forge a path toward healing, social justice and the building of an anti-racist society,” Taylor said.
His remarks preceded a keynote address by Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education and professor of Africana studies in the Human Development & Quantitative Methods Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, which is designed to promote racial literacy in education, health and community institutions.
In a largely personal presentation, Stevenson talked about how his parents taught him the difference between “belonging” and “fitting in.” Before you can fight to change racism, you need to heal, Stevenson said. And Black Americans need to take control of their own story and not leave it to others to provide their narrative.
“The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it,” Stevenson said, quoting an African proverb.
The tough questions kept coming.
“A year later many people are still mentally and physically affected by the Tops disaster,” said LaGarrett King, associate professor of learning and instruction in the Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, who organizers credited with planning the program and who served as moderator of the panel discussion.
“What should we as a university, especially from schools of medicine and education, do to assure that we are both proactive and reactive to this tragedy?” King asked the panelists. “What are the action steps to ensure our citizens receive the care and services they deserve and need?”
Panelist Christopher St. Vil, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, noted that Stevenson had said “we need to heal before we can move forward.”
“But how can we heal when we refuse to have this conversation about slavery, about reparation, about what has happened in this country to Black people?” St. Vil asked.
“This just compounds the racial trauma that Black people experience and, unfortunately, we have to teach our children about racism. It’s an uncomfortable conversation we have to have. And a lot of people in this country still think we don’t have to have this conversation. They feel a lot of kids are not prepared to have this conversation, especially a lot of white kids. A lot of Black families don’t have the luxury to not have that conversation,” he said.
“But we’re not healing yet because we refuse to acknowledge the atrocities that have been done to African Americans, of which Tops is just the most recent.”
St. Vil described himself as “pretty privileged,” and said that even as someone with a doctorate, he has had a hard time finding a mental health counselor.
“How hard do you think it would be for the average Joe on the East Side who is not in the position I am in to be able to find a competent mental health counselor?” St. Vil asked the group. “We have a mental health crisis in this country, and we have a dearth of mental health counselors who are able to meet that level of need.”
The conference came together when Jacqueline Hollins, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence, and Suzanne Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education, met with members of the UB community to discuss how best to commemorate May 14. They decided that engaging the community in conversation would be the most appropriate and thoughtful.
Sponsors included the Graduate School of Education, the Office of Inclusive Excellence, the Jacobs School, the School of Social Work, the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, and the Community Health Equity Research Institute.
In addition to Pointer and St. Vil, panelists included Isaac Burt, associate professor, Graduate School of Education, and Anyango Kamina, assistant dean for student development and academic enhancement, Jacobs School.
Watch a full video of the event here.