Fighting Institutional Racism: Insights From Providence College

From Mizzou to Yale, campus protests have arisen in the backdrop of the larger Black Lives Matter movement. Providence College in Rhode Island, a highly-regarded Catholic liberal arts college, is also not immune to these national issues. Its Men’s Basketball Program was ranked in the AP Top 25 this season, and its Men’s Hockey Team are National Champions, but Providence College ranks 1,249th in the country in terms of meaningful diversity.

Our mission statement reads, “Providence College seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the human family. Following the example of St. Dominic, who extended a loving embrace to all, it welcomes qualified men and women of every background and affirms the God-given dignity, freedom, and equality of each person.” This façade has shattered in the face of recent racial incidents.

After a swastika was found on the dorm room door of a person of color (a resident assistant) in Spring 2015, students began to realize how Administration dealt with these issues: the “hush-hush” nature of their investigation prevented the larger student body from seeing that racial issues existed and were real. Later that same semester, students, faculty, and staff staged a protest against racial profiling on campus.

Tensions continued to mount in Fall 2015, when Providence College students organized a march in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri, accompanied by Father President Brian Shanley and Vice President of Student Affairs Kristine Goodwin. During the march, racial slurs were hurled from dormitory windows. When students brought this to Administration’s attention, they shrugged it off as an isolated incident. Student activists then disseminated “Demands of Redress” to deal with larger institutional problems from the curriculum to faculty. In the next few months, a second wave of protests, trending on Twitter as #PCBreakTheSilence, became the focal point of the movement.

The night of January 30, 2016, was the tipping point. Five female students of color were denied entry to an off-campus student-run gathering. They were reportedly told to return to the nearby Chad Brown Housing Projects, where many racial minorities live. Student accounts describe bottles being thrown and a container filled with water being poured from a second-floor balcony.

The resulting demonstrations culminated in a February 16 sit-in at Father Shanley’s office that lasted 13 hours despite threats of punishment if students did not leave by 4:30pm that day. Father Shanley signed a document promising to respond by March 7 to student demands, which include a Standing Campus Diversity Committee, curriculum reform, and a multicultural center. On March 7, Father Shanley kept his word. His response acknowledged the depth of the problem but fell short of student expectations. For example, though he committed to convert a classroom building into a multicultural center, he promised to make cross-cultural competency training available, but not mandatory. With regard to making the Development of Western Civilization curriculum more inclusive, Father Shanley reported that the relevant committees were discussing the matter. We acknowledge that it will take more time to implement certain changes, and the increased support from parts of Administration and faculty signal that the movement and the student body are being heard. The movement has accomplished that thus far.

However, as we have seen in Administration’s past tendencies, none of the above is a guarantee of any meaningful change. That these words will only remain on paper, that they were only meant to quiet and calm the movement, remains a real possibility. The only reason there was any response at all was that the movement kept the pressure on, specifically by demanding deadlines for response which were eventually met. When ignored for a period of time more acts of civil disobedience were undertaken, such as the occupation of Father Shanley’s office. Consistent pressure and consistent pressure alone led to these events.

All movements, including our own, must keep the pressure on to ensure that changes toward racial justice are truly made. The diversity committee we demanded, consisting of students, faculty and Administration, met for the first time this month, but we must continue to act, to speak, to march, to protest. There is no rest for the weary, but if it worked for us, it can work for you, too.

This op-ed was also signed by Dr. Cedric de Leon, Justice J. Donoyan, Michelle S. Ea, Sarah M. Elmiry, Paris J. Figueiredo, Terrence K. Harris-Hughes, Leslie Hernandez, Hannah R. Mackie, Kerry Anne McCrossen, Menalisa Mendes, Monalisa Mendes, Silvana Mercado, John A. Pereira, Jonathan M. Saucier, Miranda R. Simpson and Troy Valdivia.