Vincentian University Turns Racist Incident into a Teachable Moment

What do you do when you find a “yellow nylon cord ending in a loop” hanging from the ceiling in a residence hall on the campus of Niagara University? Niagara University immediately acted and turned it into a teachable moment. The incident was especially painful during a year in which Vincentians around the world celebrated “Welcoming the Stranger.”

Niagara Wire, the student newspaper, offered the following.

These conversations may not be easy, but these conversations are needed,” said Dr. Rolanda Ward, executive director of the Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko center, at Monday’s community conversation in the Russell J. Salvatore Dining Commons. Ward, along with Averl Harbin, director of multicultural affairs, and University President Father James J. Maher hosted this event following an email Maher sent to students and faculty on Jan. 19. In the email, he described a “yellow nylon cord ending in a loop” hanging from the ceiling in the basement of Rev. John Lynch hall.

Students, teachers, and administrators filled nearly every seat in the Dining Commons for the community discussion where all members of the University’s community got a chance to open up a dialogue about diversity and discrimination. At the event, Maher described the yellow cord as “resembling what could be a noose,” and acknowledged both the racial discrimination and mental health paths that this could have been interpreted as.

At the event, students majoring in social work had the opportunity to moderate small groups through discussions on how the incident affected individuals and the community, and what they’d like to see come out of this situation. When asked how receiving the email from Maher made them feel, many students and faculty used words like “heartbroken,” “disappointed” and “concerned.”
“I’m disheartened that we’re at this point in 2018. I thought we moved past it,” Harbin said.

The hope of many people around campus is that this incident was just a mistake and not intended to be malicious. However, a number of people think differently, and that opened the dialogue for discussion about racial equality and inclusion. Senior, Gabi Jackson, shared a personal experience of her own during the conversation,

“Personally, I’ve been in a situation where it’s been racially insensitive on this campusa and things that I had to go through affected me in a way that I felt lost on this campus. Although I felt lost I didn’t lose my hope because I love this campus so much.”

Another student that spoke at the meeting was junior, Ben Schian, who addressed the large number of white students on campus by saying,
“As white people we need to stand in solidarity with people who are affected by these discriminatory acts.”

The theme of the  conversation was undoubtedly community. Nearly every table talk at the event shared the desire for a true sense of community on the Niagara University campus.

“We can do our part to bring people together, but ultimately we all have to do the work,” said Ward. For all of those who attended the meeting, and for the entire campus community, this unfortunate incident was not the end, but only the beginning of an important conversation long overdue.

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