By Niagara University
Since the 1960s, the Western New York region has borne witness to many teachable points of inspiration regarding racial equality and social justice.
The most recent occurred April 15-16 at Niagara University during an intergenerational forum, "Fostering Racial and Social Justice: Defining and Connecting the Roles and Responsibilities of Student Organizations, Academics, and Community."
Coordinated by Niagara University's Black Student Union, the conference focused on local and national issues of race in higher education, the role of colleges and universities in addressing racial justice in communities, empowering students as mentors and leaders, and strengthening alliances among organizations on and off campuses that address social justice issues.
Among the 130-plus attendees were representatives from 17 colleges and universities, as well as numerous community organizations, government officials and business leaders.
"The remarkable collaborative efforts that have taken place at Niagara to develop this conference - especially among students and faculty - reinforce the fact that enhancing the inclusivity of our campus environment is of critical importance to all of us," said the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University. "In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has called upon God's people to be builders of bridges. This conference reflects Niagara's mission to build bridges of dialogue on diversity and social justice, to do so as St. Vincent reminds us by the rays of charity."
The conference's keynote addresses were presented by U.S. Magistrate Hon. Judge Hugh B. Scott, a 1971 graduate and trustee of Niagara University, and Dr. Bryan Walls, C.M., a scholar and founder of the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum in Lakeshore, Ontario.
Scott, who said he was the only black freshman at Niagara in 1967, founded the university's BSU with Bill Bradberry, '70, amidst the Civil Rights Movement. He would go on to become the first African-American appointed as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Western District of New York, and the first African-American assistant attorney general in charge of the New York State Department of Law's regional office. In 1995, Scott became the first African-American to preside over the federal court bench in the Western District of New York.
"You may not know it, but you inspired me to want to become a lawyer," said current BSU president Nataisia Johnson while introducing Scott. "You also inspired me when you invited me to your office and allowed me to see some of the accolades that you've achieved over the years. I aspire to be like you."
Scott spent a portion of his address explaining Buffalo's Re-entry Court, a program he instituted that allows convicted defendants who have served their sentence to get job training, legal assistance and other help as a means of easing their transition to society. He also commended Niagara University for taking on a brand of community engagement and service learning that he said is what he wishes more institutions of higher education would do.
Finally, Scott praised Maher and university administrators for engendering a two-way line of communication with students on sensitive topics.
"I want to you to realize that, as a student, you haven't had all the life experiences that others may have had, and sometimes your voices aren't heard as much as they should be," Scott said. "But I can assure you that at a place like Niagara, in these times, you are heard and people do listen."
Indeed, the university has recently established and enhanced several initiatives pertaining to diversity and social justice:
Niagara has created a new position, the associate director of equity and inclusion, which will provide leadership to the university community in the area of equal opportunity, compliance and affirmative action. The person in this role will work collaboratively across campus and will be responsible for campus education in the areas of equity and inclusion.
Curricula for a black studies minor is in the process of being finalized, with the program scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017. It will include sections on Afro-Latino culture, modern Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, black women in history, and Islam and Black America, to name a few.
Earlier this semester, more than 500 students, faculty and staff completed a campus climate survey resulting in feedback that will inform an action plan to ensure the campus will continue to be welcoming to all community members.
A mentoring program has been developed through a partnership with Niagara Falls High School and the Niagara Falls Housing Authority. The Big Eagle, Little Eagle program will focus on creating opportunities for growth, leadership and development.
"After deeply analyzing student movements in the 1960s and early 1970s, I realized how important college students were to the Civil Rights Movement. It was students who organized rallies and created groups to deal with issues pertaining to the Vietnam War and race in America," Johnson added. "Our hope is to build a network of socially conscious, student-led college organizations."
Numerous attendees said they were impressed by the depth and breadth of the topics covered during the conference.
"I think it's important for us to come together for these types of issues," NU senior Marco Notaro said. "The remedy for ignorance is knowledge."