Dr. Ana Luszcynska, Chair of the English Department at Florida International University, wrote this letter to her Department and agreed to share it with our wider readership so we all may have more resources to assess and adjust our personal and societal awareness and priorities to end racism and oppression.
This is an extremely difficult message to write, and I’ve taken some time to write it because I don’t want to put out yet another “statement” that doesn’t materialize in change. Please know that I do not claim absolute authority or omniscient perspective. Like all of you, I am trying my best to responsibly navigate these difficult times, and this response and the initiatives outlined here are consistent with this effort.
While we collectively and individually process our unique experiences of rage, anger, sadness, shame, and sorrow in the face of the most recent, nationally-recognized examples of the state sanctioned murder of black people in our country, I believe that it is important to take a moment to clearly and emphatically make a statement about our departmental mission and to clarify our commitments. As set forth in our departmental mission statement, the FIU Department of English is committed to cultivating a just, safe, inclusive, equitable, and generous department, university, and community. In keeping with this commitment, we vehemently oppose the structural, legal, and ideological systems that perpetuate racial injustice in the United States. We stand by and join those who protest and resist these institutions in their various manifestations.
But what does it mean to oppose and to support in this context?
We, in the Department of English, are wordsmiths, and as such, know our way around pronouncements, declarations, and speeches quite well (whether they are ours or those of others). For us, words are easy. In contrast, the introspection and corresponding action demanded by the call to racial justice, can be more of a challenge. Self-examination, critical introspection, and intervention require a different set of skills and these must be cultivated and nourished. It is hard but necessary work. I propose that we begin by reflecting on the following questions:
Who are we?
Who are we, individually and as a department and academic community? How do we identify and understand ourselves, particularly in the context of this historical moment? The last decade has seen us probe the question of our departmental identity. I propose that we continue to question our individual, collective, and outward facing identities. Let’s begin by considering our Miami context and its communities as a starting point for self-understanding. We talk about Miami’s diversity and allude to valuing it, but what do we know about those we serve? What do we know about their histories, struggles, languages, backgrounds, and cultures? What don’t we know, but need to learn? As we inquire further and do the hard work of listening and learning, I encourage you all to be generous with not only those around you, but also with yourselves.
Where are we positioned?
Individually and as a department/academic community? What is our relationship to white privilege? As members of an academic department at a state funded University, our relationship to institutions of white power is incontrovertible. In fact, strictly speaking, we ARE an institution of white power (with all of the colonial echoes therein). Additionally, as faculty, we are amongst the most fortunate in the nation to have secure and reasonable employment as well as significant state benefits (such as healthcare, retirement plans, and sick leave). The vast majority of us have white privilege in its varied forms and thus navigate our local community free from concerns of state and other violences. For those of us who manifest such “whiteness,” we must ceaselessly self-interrogate regarding potential complicity, comport ourselves accordingly in our material lives, and recognize that we cannot and must not claim to “know” the experiences of those who do not have such privilege. Here again, I also encourage us to be generous with ourselves and others.
This is a marathon not a sprint and it seems crucial that we are mindful of the significant labor ahead. As the legendary Miles Horton said, “We make the road by walking.” To that end, I propose that in academic year 2020-2021, we, as individual teachers, and as a department, craft, plan, and execute a number of initiatives directly devoted to race, representation, and justice.
The first proposal is that we all educate ourselves on issues pertaining to race and ethnicity in South Florida, the state at large, and the United States and Caribbean more broadly. Attached you will find a statement issued by MLA, an active repository for resources, and a compelling letter from “a Black Woman in Publishing.” I encourage all to read and explore the recommended texts as well as add to the repository as you encounter new and instructive materials.
Also, from MLA: Here is a lovely graphic of antiracist books, by @janemount, brought to us by the University of Missouri Libraries (@MizzouLibraries), along with info on the books themselves:
And a reminder from Safiya Noble, of a bunch of books one could read rather than asking a person of color to explain things:
A Letter From a Black Woman in Publishing on the Industry’s Cruel, Hypocritical Insistence That Words Matter
I also suggest that we augment our departmental support of and initiate our own lectures, presentations, panels, or other events, devoted to issues of race, equity, and justice. The first such event that is open to the public is already scheduled. Our own Dr. Phillip Carter, the Director of CHUE, has managed to quickly organize a “teach in” entitled “Black Humanity Matters: A Teach-In On the Crisis of Race in America,” scheduled for this Thursday June 11 at 4 pm. Our fabulous literature faculty member, Dr. Aza Weir-Soley, will be one of the panelists. This promises to be an important and compelling event and I encourage you all to attend. You can logon to Zoom here or on CHUE’s Facebook page.
Third, we will be offering Spring 2021 course releases to faculty interested in creating or redesigning courses to address issues of race, equity, and justice. As the time nears, ENG admin will be sending out specific instructions on the call for proposals. Should you be interested in thinking about curricular changes or additions to your coming courses, please see as an example, an assignment on implicit bias generously “donated” to us by Heather Blatt: (https://docs.google.com/document/d/14n5FnllS6Uzxmf380yZ3jwybqP6IJJLqki23LymcmDU/edit?usp=sharing. Heather has generously indicated that all can use freely. For those of you inclined to make such changes in the summer for FALL CLASSES, such an assignment might be helpful in getting you going.
Additionally, we will be offering a course release to one faculty member willing to serve as a mentor and facilitator for an ENG department student-lead group, devoted to monthly discussions and/or activities directly related to issues of race, equity, and justice, in academia at large, and our ENG department specifically.
Lastly for now, I want to underscore the work of Exchange for Change and encourage you to support it, directly, through participation as a teacher, or indirectly, through attendance of events, such as their graduation ceremonies, or lastly, to simply publicize their work through word of mouth or social media. This organization has been addressing structural racism in the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex, for years. I propose we continue and amplify our support of and/or participation with this program.
This is by no means a comprehensive list but rather a few suggestions to get us moving in the right direction and to open a conversation about initiating and sustaining meaningful change.
On another note, for informational purposes, should you be interested, below you will find the contact information for a few non-profit organizations that meaningfully and effectively advocate for the most vulnerable among us, particularly those who are economically challenged and without the societal privilege of perceived “whiteness.”
Dr. Ana Luszczynska
Dr. Ana Luszczynska is the Chair of the English Department at Florida International University. With her PhD in Comparative Literature, she specializes in Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and 20th and 21st Century US American Latinx and African-American Literatures. She is an academic advocate and activist for the essential role of diverse voices in teaching and scholarship at all levels. She is the author of The Ethics of Community as well as parent to an incredible Miami Sudbury School Student. Christen’s daughter believes Ana to be Wonder Woman, which is interesting because they look alike.
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL