As I was preparing for the new school year, I heard from several Ithaca College students and alumni who traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Alumnus Daniel Sitts ’12 wrote to say he facilitated an interview with Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King and their daughter Yolanda. Park students who have been working with James Rada, associate professor of journalism, on a documentary project about the civil rights movement were also in D.C. With support from Dean Gayeski, Park students had the opportunity to work with NBC Nightly News and PBS NewsHour to cover the march.
College faculty and students distinguish themselves from other colleges by increasingly creating opportunities for hands-on learning. Yet, as we move more and more toward “integrative learning,” it is crucial to remain vigilant of the fact that production skills devoid of critical-thinking frameworks and knowledge will tend to reproduce dominant narratives that reinforce — consciously or unconsciously — processes of oppression and exclusion.
Take for example the dominant misreading of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in contemporary discourses. King’s claim that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is often misinterpreted to mean that we should adopt a “colorblind” stance on issues of race and racism. Yet, in reality, race and racism continue to significantly determine people’s opportunities in the United States.
For the past two years, I have been working with the Shawn Greenwood Working Group in the Ithaca community. Our group focuses on combating institutional racism in policing, criminal justice and the prison system. In our work, we often meet people — generally white liberals — who claim that we now live in a “colorblind” society where racism is no longer prevalent, or that class, not race, is the key problem. SGWG works hard to show that both these claims are myths.
Disseminating accurate information about contemporary injustices is difficult, and SGWG’s message is unpopular, because it goes against the status quo. For example, mass incarceration is much more about profits and racism than crime. Yet dominant media narratives continue to spread stereotypes that associate people of color with criminality. Moreover, we lack the equipment, technical knowledge and distribution mechanisms for spreading our message.
Sometimes I stay up at night, trying to figure out how to merge my work with SGWG with the wealth of knowledge, media skills and creativity I know students at the college possess. It would be a dream realized if SGWG could depend on a team of students who weren’t simply looking to apply their skills, but who wanted to be part of building a local movement against contemporary injustices. Working with organizations like SGWG is challenging, because the predictability of the classroom disappears. But it does offer the invaluable reward of being part of shifting history toward what King called “the long arc of justice.”