Professor hosts day of discussions surrounding racism for DePaul community

The Sept. 8 Racism Teach In featured various presentations from faculty members via Zoom.

Nadia Hernandez

The Sept. 8 Racism Teach In featured various presentations from faculty members via Zoom.

Led by DePaul professor Matthew Girson, the DePaul community took a step towards opening up discourse surrounding racism in a Racism Teach In on Sept. 8. 

Girson was compelled to start a conversation from the national Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and events in Kenosha. Although these conversations are often difficult to start, the teach in provided a space for both students and faculty to come together and learn from each other. 

“Academia gets siloed, and sort of like the painters are over here, the political science people over there, musicians are over there, the edge of education professors are over there. So this was an opportunity to talk across things and break down the silos,” Girson said. 

Faculty from five different colleges and schools volunteered to present at the teach in. Presentations discussed multiple topics regarding abolition, economic disparity and race representation. 

My presentation was geared to help participants understand what we mean when we say abolition. In particular, I wanted to discuss abolition as both a call to get rid of places where people are segregated from the community (ex. Prisons),” said Professor Traci Schlesinger. “And also a call to build things (ex. housing ) to reinvest in resource-deprived communities in order to create a world in which harms are less and less likely to occur.”

Presenters were motivated by several factors including a sense of urgency, the Vincentian message, and personal responsibility. 

“[The motivation] came from my sense of responsibility that I always feel that when I’m called to participate in something like this. It’s really an opportunity for me to share what I have learned,” said professor Bibiana Suraez. “We are in a really, really, really hard time. So, if I could just put my little seat there to help the people that are in the audience to gain a sense of clarity about some of these features, and also point references where they can look at. Ah, I’m gonna run with it.”

Girson believes that during critical moments in history like this, the public should respond urgently. 

“History and all these other traditions and previous protests and teachings and things, but urgency demands urgent action. And so, you know, the urgency of our moment that has to do with racism and all this violence, demands a surge in action,” Girson said. “I think as faculty, I always hope that we are responding to the moment in which we live and operate and teach.”

The Vincentian message highly motivated Schlesinger because the message also applies to social justice. 

“We all need to do our best to fulfill the Vincentian mission of DePaul and teach for social justice,” Schlesinger said. “As white supremacy is a generative force in every aspect of life, people teaching in any discipline can, and, I argue, should work with their students to explore how white supremacy, or resistance to it, fits in with the topics of their teaching or research.” 

Not only was the teach in a space to discuss these issues, it was an opportunity to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable when confronting these issues. People with certain privileges can be exempt from certain experiences, but it’s important to still address them. 

“If we’re going to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and we have to trust the community in which we operate,” Girson said. “We have to trust the people that we’re working with to trust the people who are across the table from us, or standing in line with us. So much of that trust has been eroded. In order to allow ourselves to participate and be willing to feel vulnerable, we have to have a lot of trust, and that takes a lot of work. Trust doesn’t happen in the short term, you know, like we need something to take time to cultivate and to build.”

There are multiple factors on how a conversation about racism can be productive. 

“We need to come out with a good understanding of the issues, or some kind of consensus of the issue,” Suarez said. “A productive conversation about racism will have to first have representation from the group that we’re focusing on. And then they have to be a good moderator, that is prepared and knowledgeable, that can, you know, steer in a conversation or even if it goes into the negative chart to bring it back to the focus of the conversation.”

Schlesinger encourages these conversations should not be isolated in special forums, but extend to the classrooms as well. 

It is our hope that by starting the quarter in this way, we will move easily into continuing these conversations in our classrooms and with our colleagues. By continuing to have these conversations, we not only learn more about these topics but also develop our skills at communication and civic engagement,” Schlesinger said. 

Girson learned to reevaluate his own models when the world changes because his models may not be relevant.

“I’ve been teaching this contemporary art course every year for 20 years, and I love teaching it because contemporary art is always changing. But I sort of still have the models that I always rely on and stepping out and doing this, it was sort of like having my lapels shake with almost like a slap across the face,” Girson said. “Like ‘wake up man, like the world is in crisis,’ and we can’t rely on our usual models. 

Girson also learned to use his privilege to uplift the DePaul community. 

“Let’s all recognize the different types of privilege that we have, and this could slip down a whole slope of other conversation. But the mere fact that we are in this institution together is really a privilege,” Girson said. “And you know, that this is something that some of us who are in a position like I am, have to use this privilege to help lift and benefit others.”