Valencia College President Responds to the Death of George Floyd

Monday, June 1, 2020

“Not again,” I heard myself thinking. “Not another young, black man dying a brutal death at the hands of those who were sworn to serve and protect.”

Yet, I hesitate to respond publicly. I am a white, Christian, privileged, cisgendered, older man who never had to worry about being followed by the police, was never afraid to jog through anyone’s neighborhood, never felt the sting of discrimination in housing or employment, and always knew that the promise of hard work being rewarded included me.

But I am angry… angry for my friends and colleagues and neighbors and students who live in a world that still treats them, at least some of the time, as less than fully human. I am angry for the parents who do have to worry whether their children will be safe from rogue law enforcement officers or treated humanely by a manifestly biased criminal justice system. I’m angry for my friends – contributing, productive, taxpaying, and neighborly – who are frequently told they aren’t really welcome here. Is America really having second thoughts about who is welcome here, even over those whose ancestors were forced to come here so long ago?

What do I do with my anger? First, I pray that my anger will be righteous indignation, not hateful reaction, and that it be turned into resolve. If my prayer is answered, and my efforts genuine – (Mother Teresa used to say, “Work without prayer is futile, but prayer without work is a lie.”) – I will resolve to continue my own “interior” work, to grow a heart that is expansive enough to love any and all, and to root out and eliminate every form of bias, fear and hatred.  It is a lifelong task. Lack of bias isn’t enough; only presence of love is.

If my prayer is answered and my efforts genuine, I will resolve to engage in every civil venue actively to seek leaders and policies that will not tolerate racism and discrimination, and who will seek a vision of America and my community where everyone, and everyone’s children, has a real chance to flourish.

If my prayer is answered and my efforts genuine, I will resolve to engage all the knowledge and authority I have in my leadership role to make Valencia College a “city on a hill,” never perfect, but someday a gleaming example of a diverse, self-aware community that insists on and lives out a working ethic of inclusion and justice and grace in all we do.

Please, help me turn my anger, our anger, into resolve.

I also feel, in light of all we are experiencing, a deep sense of longing, not for the past, but for a better future.

I long for a time and place where the real root of our racism, the real root of all of our inhumanity toward one another, is healed. Where can this healing begin?  I think it begins by recognizing that our culture and our own unspoken belief systems have been surrendered to a bankrupt anthropology. That is, we are living as though we had no idea what it really means to be human – the numinous wonder and astounding miracle of human existence, in all its variety, of consciousness and creativity, of cooperation and sacrificial love – and the always present possibility of wickedness. Every human being is a wonder, even those who no longer know it or behave like it themselves. One of the great thinkers in my faith tradition once wrote:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

I long for a world, for a community, for our College, to be a place with a living and active wonder for the persons we serve and with whom we work, what I might call a “sacred anthropology.” I long for racism to end and justice to thrive, for opportunity to be real, for relationships to be full of grace and mutual regard, and for our work to be joyfully inclusive, what Robert Frost called “play for mortal stakes.”

And I long for, and further, insist that everything we plan and do at Valencia includes an explicit and enduring commitment to building a college and a community on a cornerstone of just treatment for every person. We can begin by doubling down on work that has been ongoing at the College through the Peace and Justice Institute, Circles of Belonging, reading circles, SEED, and other approaches for addressing implicit bias in the classroom, employment and engagement of our whole learning community. I expect this commitment to be clearly evident in the budgets and plans we make for the coming years.

Further, we will continue to raise the standard of our performance in serving the learning needs of our students to include measurable impact on the equity gaps at every part of their experience – access, inclusion, engagement, learning, academic momentum and progress, completion, and success beyond completion. In particular, I invite the College to make this the center of our next round of collaborative strategy-making, and perhaps the topic of our next Quality Enhancement Project (QEP) that will drive our investments in improvement for years to come. Valencia has a special responsibility to push back against social and institutional systems of inequity, especially through fulfilling our mission of education for opportunity.

We will recommit to a workplace without bias, where each of us can expect to be treated with respect, courtesy, equanimity and full equality. We will convene a collaborative design team to develop concrete, actionable plans to make real progress toward this central value.

Finally, I ask everyone at Valencia to make space for the challenging conversations in which we must engage, to understand how we experience our shared lives so differently, and to find ways to lift one another up by listening deeply and vulnerably, taking risks in our work toward making real for everyone the promise on which Valencia and other colleges of opportunity were built.

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