#ScholarStrike: How St. Mary’s Professors are Participating in a National Anti-Racism Movement

Written By: Angelie Roche

One of the most defining moments of 2020 was the unlawful killing of George Floyd. In the months following, there have been numerous racial justice movements across the nation, from the “I Can’t Breathe” protests in June to the removal of Confederate monuments in July and August. Now, in September, activism continues with the #ScholarStrike movement, which arose following the NBA and WNBA boycott. Its founders, Athea Butler and Kevin Gannon, define it as “a movement designed to bring recognition to the mounting numbers of deaths of African Americans and others by excessive use of violence and force by police.” #ScholarStrike quickly gained recognition in millions of academic institutions including at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), wherein our very own professors are speaking out and taking action. 

According to its creators via a CNN interview, ScholarStrike is “a two-day action on September 8-9 where professors, staff, students and even administrators will step away from their regular duties and classes to engage in teach-ins about racial injustice.” This strike has taken many forms — several professors who did not “strike” in the traditional sense have taken the opportunity to educate themselves and their students on inequalities and police brutality in the U.S. Those who are able to have replaced their regular classes with statements of solidarity on their social media platforms and online teach-ins in order to raise awareness about the issue. This mirrors the “teach-ins” that were done in the 1960s during the Martin Luther King, Jr.-era civil rights movement, wherein scholars and professors would use their powerful voices to speak up for the rights of people of color. Now, in the digital age, professors can amplify their voices even more with the use of social media via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. SMCM professors posted “teach-in” lectures on a new #ScholarStrike website, which can be accessed at http://bit.ly/scholarstrikeSMCM.

Two professors who helped organize the ScholarStrike teach-in lectures, Dr. Barrett Emerick, associate professor of Philosophy, and Dr. Sahar Shafqat, professor of Political Science, certainly had quite a bit to say about the racist systems that were created and are enforced to benefit the privileged. In her teach-in, Shafquat examined the issue of the “cops in our heads and our hearts” — how “positive” ideas about policing have been so ingrained in society that it is hard to imagine them as fallible or corrupt. Emerick spoke about how racism is understood through interpersonal interactions, institutions and ideologies; in an interview, he said he participated in the teach-in because “that’s what justice required,” going on to say that it is of the utmost importance to educate others about the structural racism so ingrained in our society. 

On September 8 and 9 — the Tuesday and Wednesday following Labor Day weekend — students at SMCM most likely had at least one professor, or heard of one, who was participating in ScholarStrike in some way. Two such professors were Dr. Cjersti Jensen, visiting associate professor of Psychology, and Dr. Nadeem Zaman, visiting instructor of English.  Jensen participated in the strike by cancelling classes on Wednesday, urging her students to focus on racial justice issues. When asked about her participation in the movement, she stated, “there is racial injustice in academia… [and] I am willing to take steps, no matter how small, to disrupt the status quo until those with power take notice and make change.” Specifically, she said, the racial disparities in academia included hiring biases, who gets into published and into PhD programs, and the groups of individuals who are studied.

 Zaman used #ScholarStrike to incorporate racial issues into his classes, and teach his students about the importance of racial equality during class time, speaking of current issues occurring at and around SMCM, such as the possible nooses found in the woods. Nadeem says he contributes to the #ScholarStrike movement to “be an ally in creating space for raising awareness about issues of racial, social, economic, and other forms of justice”. Many professors are not opting to fully strike in the traditional sense because professors are not unionized, so there is some risk and striking does not guarantee change in the academic field. 

No matter how professors at SMCM chose to engage in ScholarStrike, many are making efforts to be allies to the movement. As Jensen put it, “this is a widespread problem which St. Mary’s and other schools have been increasingly working to address, but systematic and individual change takes time, support, and reminders – like strikes!”

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