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New Loyola institute promotes conversations on race, social justice

Karsonya "Kaye" Whitehead

Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead

Karsonya “Kaye” Whitehead has long wanted to create a space to hold conversations about racism and inequality at Loyola University Maryland, where she has taught since 2005. 

This summer, as the coronavirus and protests against police brutality sparked nationwide discussions about social justice, Whitehead felt the time was finally right. The Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice, named for Whitehead’s father, who was a part of the civil rights movement in South Carolina, launched on Wednesday, with Whitehead as its founding director.

“He would tell me, you can change the world just one small step at a time,” she said.

The institute launches with two inaugural programs, the first of which is the COMloquium Series, monthly talks in which Whitehead, who is known throughout Baltimore for her daily radio show “Today with Dr. Kaye,” discusses racial and social issues with a guest. The debut COMloquium talk is now available on the institute’s website and focuses on racism and white supremacy within the medical field. An upcoming talk will delve into what is at stake in next week’s election.

Whitehead’s ability to bring a wide variety of voices and perspectives to the Loyola community is one of the many things that make her a perfect director for The Institute, says Stephen Fowl, the dean of the College of Arts and Science, under which the institute is housed. The virtual nature of the COMloquium Series, too, allows guests to participate that might not have otherwise had the chance.

“The COMloquiums open up to us this network of connections that Kaye has without the time and expense of bringing someone to campus,” he said. “We can get the benefit of hearing them and engaging them virtually.”

The other inaugural program is “Student Talk Backs,” in which high school and college students respond to a monthly discussion question. This month’s question, “am I anti-racist?” was answered in nine short videos created by Loyola students that are currently featured on The Institute’s website.

Including the student voice in the institute is important to Whitehead, who said that university faculty too often “talk at students, talk down to students … I want to hear from them. What do (they) think about these issues?”

This ties in with one of the institute’s larger guiding principles: that conversations about race and social justice should not be confined to the classroom. These conversations can and should happen in coffee shops, at dinner tables and throughout the Baltimore community.

“This is the moment that Loyola is providing a space to Baltimore city, and the country more generally, to begin to wrestle with, debate, discuss and perhaps to even answer America’s most pressing and urgent questions,” she said.

Fowl sees the institute not only as a bridge between activism in Baltimore and academic work at Loyola, but also as a beacon for Loyola’s own students.

“It is crucial that, as we become more diverse in terms of our admissions process and bringing students onto campus, that they find a place where … they can bring the riches of their identities and see those riches enhanced and deepened by their membership in our community,” he said.

Whitehead noted that the institute’s website is a “living space” that will be updated often with new resources, videos and projects. Along with its two recurring programs, it will feature some shorter-term initiatives, such as the #TeachFreedom, which encourages and provides the tools for K-12 teachers to spend all Monday teaching only about the election.

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