Crammed into pews and lined up against the walls, members of the Yale community filled Battell Chapel past its 1,100-person capacity on Wednesday evening for “A Moment of Crisis: Race at Yale Teach-In,” a forum dedicated to educating the community about the issues faced by people of color at Yale.
The teach-in, which followed more than a week of open forums, discussions and rallies in response to racial controversies on campus, was organized by the University’s four cultural centers: the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Native American Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural. It was originally scheduled to take place at the Af-Am House, but due to the high unexpected turnout, was moved to Battell. The three-hour event was primarily composed of four panels — each featuring different students, professors and professionals — which discussed topics that included valuing women of color at Yale, mental health and its impacts on communities of color, addressing white and male privilege and the importance of taking ethnic studies classes. During the forum, panelists not only shared their experiences regarding race, but also recommended many concrete courses of actions for both students and administrators.
At the end of the teach-in, recognizing that racial struggles are not unique to Yale, the event’s organizers invited a student at the University of Missouri to speak over the phone. The student, Ayanna Poole, is a founder of the Concerned Student 1950 organization, which has figured prominently in the school’s own fight against racism in recent weeks and pressured President Timothy Wolfe to step down on Monday.
“It was important to not only educate the larger Yale community about issues people of color face, but [also to discuss] how we can be more strategic in addressing these issues,” said Nicole Tinson DIV ’16, one of the teach-in’s organizers and moderators. “This is not an overnight process, but organizing this teach-in was a great first step.”
The forum centered around four panels that each focused on a different topic, but it opened with two spoken word poems performed by black female students. The first highlighted the lack of support that black men offer their female counterparts. Both poems brought audience members to their feet in a standing ovation. University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway both attended the teach-in.
In the first discussion, which was about women of color, panelists, including African American Studies professor Vanessa Agard-Jones ’00, spoke about the intersectionality of black women’s fights for equality, as their identities are not encompassed entirely by either the civil rights movement — which is dominated by black men — or the feminist movement — which is dominated by white women. They also spoke about their personal experiences with racism, both on and off campus. They asked everyone to learn about black women’s history and culture and to be mindful of microaggressions.
In the panel about white and male privilege, the panelists, who included white men and men of color, shared their experiences with understanding systemic racism. Some admitted that they had been blind to issues of systemic racism growing up, while others urged white men to acknowledge and understand that they are products of the structure of white privilege.
The third panel focused on the issues of mental health, microaggressions and their impacts on communities of color on campus. The panel included Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun and a professional mental health counselor. Chun compared being different to carrying a backpack while running at the same pace as everyone else. He also admitted that the University has failed to protect its students from threats and inaccurate media portrayals, especially in the last week, and needs to restore students’ trust. Panelists also reiterated many students’ calls for a diverse mental health staff, noting that people of color need counselors who understand their specific experiences.
During the final panel, students and faculty involved with ethnic studies on campus spoke about its pedagogical importance as a way for people to understand others who come from different backgrounds. Speakers called on the administration to reform the structure of ethnic studies programs at Yale, such as the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program — which currently is not a full-fledged department and as such is not able to hire its own faculty members.
“Many Yale students graduate without ever thinking about taking an ethnic studies class, and the panel brought that into question,” Alex Zhang ’18, a speaker during the ethnic studies forum, told the News. “Why do national media outlets cover issues influenced by race, day in and day out, while students are never taught a language with which to analyze these issues? We forced the audience to think about these things.”
Attendees interviewed said the teach-in’s informational and educational mission was the main reason they attended.
“I want to make sure that I’m moving towards the informed camp and moving myself away from the ignorant camp,” Molly Zeff ’07 SOM ’16 said. “This is a fight that’s only going to be possible if the people who most benefit from systemic racism, which include myself, are fully aware of the people who most suffer from systemic racism.”
Mojique Tyler ’19 expressed similar sentiments, adding that he could not sit idly by while his community is experiencing problems and challenges. In particular, Tyler said he needs to support women of color. Describing himself as a black, atheist, agender and Jewish individual with one parent who is white, Tyler also said the struggle of identity that the forum touched upon was relevant to his own experiences.
Many said they left the teach-in more knowledgeable and appreciative of the experiences of their fellow students of color.
Olivia Pascal ’18 said she especially enjoyed the mental health and ethnic studies forums. Although mental health has been at the center of many discussions on campus, she said, the community rarely considers how a diverse staff in the mental health services offered on campus would make it better for students of color facing cultural- and ethnic-specific issues. The ethnic studies forum also taught her why it is important for people who have been “steeped in white culture” to take ethnic studies and understand the culture of fellow students at Yale, Pascal added.
“I think the teach-in was transformative. The unprecedented number of people there revealed what is ultimately at stake: love, hope, community,” Zhang said. “It showed President Salovey and Dean Holloway that student activism is a force to be taken seriously, that faculty and administrators are standing behind students in support, that there are things worth listening to that have been ignored for far too long.”
Both Salovey and Holloway lingered in Battell Chapel after the event ended to converse with organizers and attendees.
“I want to hear the voices of our students and our faculty on these issues. I think they’re critical, especially for making Yale a better place,” Salovey told the News, adding that these diverse voices are critical to Yale’s educational mission. “I think there are so many voices that can be inspiring to the Yale community that we don’t hear regularly, either because they aren’t listened to or because they’re speaking from the margins, and I think it’s very much time to place them in the center. That’s the biggest takeaway for me today.”
Battell Chapel is Yale’s largest chapel and serves as a space for Sunday services of the University Church in Yale.
Correction, Thursday, Nov. 12: A previous version of this article truncated a quotation from University President Peter Salovey.