Joe Flynn heard the news without any sense of surprise.
“It came out in late April that there was a disproportionate representation of African Americans and Latinos who have been contracting and, most importantly, dying from the virus,” says Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
“When I saw that headline, my first reaction was, ‘Of course. Of course that’s how it’s going to be. Obviously,’ ” he adds. “It’s just another example of how this history of systemic and institutional racism has shaped these contexts.”
Helping educators and their students to understand and combat that “how” drives Flynn and James Cohen, also an associate professor in the department.
Together with former NIU College of Education colleague Mike Manderino, they have presented three editions of the Social Justice Summer Camp. Year Four would have taken place this month if not for COVID-19.
But the pandemic will not stop the three from maintaining the momentum they ignited in 2017.
“It was essential. We had to come up with something,” Flynn says. “If we cancel, we’re going to lose steam, and we don’t want to go an entire year without anyone hearing from the Social Justice Summer Camp at NIU.”
Flynn, Cohen and Manderino will record the introductory podcast to set the stage; each then will record his own podcast on topics of race, undocumented immigrants and literacy, respectively.
Previously booked keynote speakers for the face-to-face summer camp also will contribute podcasts as will College of Education faculty members Daryl Dugas, Katy Jaekel and Melanie Koss, along with Sandy Lopez, coordinator for Undocumented Student Support at the NIU Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, among others.
Topics will include the school-to-prison pipeline; the intersection of race, gender, socioeconomic status and belief systems; LGBTQ students; policies regarding English Language Learners; the multiculturalism of young adult literature; and more.
Campers from the first three years also are being asked to provide 30- to 45-second reflections on their experiences – their “aha!” moments, their epiphanies – for use during the podcast series.
“The topics are meaningful and interesting, and the people we’ve invited are very passionate about their respective topics,” Cohen says. “They’re going to deliver the information in an interesting way.”
“I have no doubt that the guests will all have amazing things to say,” Flynn adds. “Some will be fiery and feisty. Some will be thoughtful and contemplative. Some will be really practically oriented. Some will be larger explorations of theory.”
Meanwhile, podcasting offers multiple benefits.
“It’s an opportunity to not only honor our partnerships with these districts that have been so instrumental in helping the camp grow,” Flynn says, “but at the same time, we do also have to balance that with the need to continue to grow, so the podcasts can become a great advertising or recruitment tool to expand the profile of the camp and hopefully help it to get bigger.”
Reaching and perhaps changing the hearts and souls of educators is just as crucial this summer as in the past three years – if not even more urgent.
COVID-19. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd.
“Social justice, at the end of the day, is about working to bring about equitable relations,” Flynn says, “so that everyone in the community has the ability to grow and receive the services and the supports they need in that process, as well as ameliorating past wrongs.”
Looking critically at 400 years of history since Europeans first arrived in the Americas can provide a foundation for comprehending current events, the professors say, by revealing the racism inherent in everything from housing to health.
It explains why some people think that African Americans and Latinos are falling victim to COVID-19 in greater numbers, they say, because of four centuries of believing that those populations are inferior – four centuries of “white folks and non-white folks being pitted against each other” through both law and social practices.
Africans brought to North America as slaves once outnumbered whites in some places in the South – Charleston, South Carolina, for example – which, Cohen says, caused great concern for white people.
Those fears resulted in increasingly restrictive and dehumanizing laws
“A common belief is that all they had to do was have several successful rebellions across the South, and the whole structure of society would crumble,” he says. “But the plantation owners and colonial lawmakers were strategic and conniving, and constantly pitted people against each other. Despite several rebellions indeed occurring, society did not change. Instead, it became more severe in its treatment of Africans and later African Americans.
Flynn and Cohen cite the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion, led by Nathaniel Bacon, a white former indentured servant.
Frustrated with the actions of colonial Virginia elites, Bacon assembled a rebellion of former indentured servants, poor whites, free Africans and enslaved Africans – arguably, the professors say, the first interracial and interclass rebellion in the North American British colonies that would become the United States.
Although the rebellion did not last long, it prompted lawmakers to begin approving policies that restricted the rights of blacks across the board and further cemented a racial hierarchy in the colonies.
On the other hand, white participants either were given light sentences or exonerated.
Centuries later, Flynn and Cohen say, those attitudes remain and manifest themselves through “real and serious” race oppression, language oppression, economic oppression and beyond.
That strategy of divide-and-conquer has been used since then to significant effect, they add, citing the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and attributing those examples to White House recordings and the recollections of campaign strategist Lee Atwater.
Cohen and Flynn agree that President Trump has, unfortunately, also employed these strategies to great consequence.
“Throughout the history of the United States, nearly every single policy can be looked at through the lens of race,” Cohen says.
“If you peel back the onion one layer – you don’t even have to peel back two layers, just one – and you look at the policies that have been put in place for the last 400 years, you can’t not see how we are living the direct results of those last 400 years,” he adds. “You can’t not see it because they lead to each other and they compound each other.”
During the current coronavirus, reports that children from low-income schools and households lacked the technology for successful distance learning were not unexpected. Some schools are wealthier than others, Cohen says, and the virus simply “exacerbates the inequities that already exist.”
Adults from oppressed communities also are suffering from the pandemic for more dire reasons.
“They are in the service industry a lot more than others, due to the history of systemic racism,” Cohen says, “and since they’re in the service industry, they’re being confronted with people who are ill, and then they get ill themselves, and then they bring it home and give it to their families, and on and on and on.”
If everyone truly is “in this together,” as the TV commercials insist now, maybe some good will come from the situation.
“My hope,” Flynn says, “is that this shakes policymakers and community members, especially those outside of these highly affected communities, into doing something different or at least changing the conversation from being about what people don’t do to being about what impedes people’s ability to do something.”
Can it happen? Both would like to think so.
The United States is seeing “a burgeoning number of politicians at the local, state and federal levels who are far more critical and much more comfortable with exercising their voices,” Flynn says, as well as “more and more people out there who are frustrated.”
Much depends on whether those voices do reach into legislative bodies, whether in government or in schools.
“We need to have policy makers and curriculum planners who are critical enough to think about how these historical and current realities are shaping the life chances of people,” Flynn says. “If we honestly don’t give a damn, then just be up front about it and say, ‘You know what, there are the haves and have-nots,’ and just call it a day. But we can’t really do that because of the very values that we say, as a nation, we uphold.”
He calls himself neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
“I am hopeful – you can never lose hope – but I am trying to balance my hope with the recognition of this history of efforts toward justice being thwarted in some way, shape or form,” he says. “Either policies get watered down in the policymaking process, or policies get rejected after a new administration or new regime comes in.”
Flynn can envision a path forward.
“Probably the most important thing that’s going to have to happen is that the interests of rural America, particularly white, working-class rural America, are going to have to start seeing how their interests and needs are very, very similar to those in urban America,” he says.
“Once those two groups can begin to see how their fates have been linked and manipulated for 400 years, I think that can provide the basis for a sea change in the ways in which we interact with each other and the ways we think about each other’s politics,” he adds.
“Will it happen within the next election? No. Will it happen over the next 20 years? Probably, because people are getting sick of things in all directions, and I think when people finally get to that feeling of, ‘Oh, we are all being manipulated and pitted against each other,’ and start letting their defenses down, perhaps then people can understand.”