Volume 97 Issue 5 News

SURJ brings racial justice to Huntingdon

by Laura Snyder

Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a new activist group in Huntingdon. Its goal is to encourage an inclusive attitude toward racial justice issues in the community and facilitate productive conversations.

SURJ is a national organization. “It was started with very few small local chapters in the California area, but with Mike Brown and the things that have happened more recently, it’s kind of exploded into many more small local chapters,” said Lynn Cockett, professor of communication.

SURJ was formed in an effort to get more people involved in racial justice issues. “There’s been a tendency for otherwise sympathetic white people to look at racial justice and say ‘that’s not our problem,’ or ‘we can’t possibly do anything unless we have black leadership,’” said Susan Prill, associate professor of religion.

The goal of SURJ is to change attitudes toward racial justice from apathy to involvement. Cockett said, “My most modest goal is that the 12 or 15 people that are regularly attending meetings are 12 or 15 more white people who know about these issues than there were six months ago.”

Beyond the small-scale goals, Cockett hopes SURJ will bring people who have no experience with racial justice into the conversation. “On a grander scale, my goals are to educate my neighbors about what it means to be privileged because you’re white, and why that matters, and to make Huntingdon a place where my students of color feel safe,” said Cockett.

Many other racial and social justice groups may not be as successful as SURJ because they do not facilitate a conversation. “SURJ has this idea of calling in rather than calling out. Calling in is basically an ideology that says, ‘we all make mistakes, and if I make a mistake, I want to be gently corrected.’ We have an obligation to bring people into a conversation,” said Prill.

These conversations can give everyone a chance to empathize with racial issues, even if they do not experience racial tension in their lives. Freshman Anne-Marcelle Kouame said, “When it comes to racial issues, a lot of the time the majority doesn’t understand. Different races live a different reality and (people) don’t always understand each other.”

Problems can arise when people who do not know how to talk about race inadvertently say things that may be offensive. “Sometimes people don’t mean any offense, but they offend,” said Prill.

In these situations, learning from mistakes allows for more productive conversations. Cockett said, “If everyone would approach each other as if they want to understand each other, that would be ideal.”

Overcoming bias is the biggest challenge to having successful discussions about race. SURJ wants people to put aside their bias while having these conversations. According to Cockett, a successful conversation happens when everyone comes in without an agenda and with the goal to collaborate.

“We don’t call people racists. If I believe a behavior is racist, it’s the behavior, not the person. It’s not about who you are, it’s how you behave,” said Cockett.

Some people may be unintentionally offensive to other groups, and recognizing this is important in starting social change.  “It would be nice if you can rewind your words, but you can’t. Acknowledge that we are humans and make mistakes,” said Prill.

The Huntingdon community is primarily white, which is why Prill and Cockett decided to form a SURJ chapter. “White privilege is that by virtue of being white or by looking white enough, there are certain things that are easier for you, or that you don’t have to prove about yourself, and we benefit from those things,” said Cockett.

Recognizing white privilege is a crucial step to understanding and talking about racial justice. Prill said, “Racism never went away, and it seems to be having a resurgence in some ways with having a black president.”

Rather than ignoring this issue, SURJ wants to bring them to the community’s awareness in a way that is conducive to change.

Prill and Cockett also created their own flag through SURJ to symbolize racial justice. “We formed in Huntingdon partially as a response to the number of Confederate flags that appeared over the summer, but also as a desire to be part of the national conversation,” said Prill.

This conversation needs to start by recognizing that some community members feel unsafe or unwelcome by the presence of the Confederate flags. Huntingdon SURJ plans to respond positively to the increase in Confederate flags by openly supporting minority groups, rather than condemning the actions of those who choose to hang it. “The response needs to be very clear and very positive in support of the targeted community, and I thought the targeted community is African-American people,” said Cockett.

The Huntingdon chapter of SURJ was intended to be primarily for community members. According to Prill, SURJ is more effective as a community-based group rather than a campus-based group because it has a more permanent, steady impression. “We’re here to stay, and students come and go,” said Prill.

However, this should not discourage students from forming a SURJ chapter on campus. Prill said, “My perception is that there’s a lot of talking past on this campus and not enough talking with.”

SURJ could facilitate more effective and inclusive conversations about race. However, it can be challenging to get these conversations started. Prill said, “You don’t need to be aggressive about it, but stand up and say, ‘that makes me uncomfortable and here’s why.’”

Recent events on campus have brought to light the political legitimacy of racial justice groups like SURJ. “One thing about effective political action is knowing your audience, and knowing what will push them away and what will bring them together,” said Prill.

SURJ hopes to bring people together, and to call attention to harmful ideologies rather than to individuals. Prill said, “On a campus this size, some of it becomes enmeshed in personalities rather than the issues.”

By having open dialogue, students will be able to share their ideas and feelings without fear of having their identity attacked. When students stop talking about race issues and start name-calling, they lose their power to have an inclusive, sensitive community. “Don’t point your finger and say ‘you’re a racist,’ say ‘can we have a conversation?’” said Cockett.

Current tensions in the community may be a sign that change is happening. As students and community members become more aware of inequality, more efforts in social change are being made. “We are more aware of the struggles that minorities are going through,” said Kouame.

By sharing compassion and openness instead of creating division, SURJ puts individuals first in the fight for racial justice. “We didn’t come to Juniata just for a big paycheck and to put our faces in our books; we came because we care about students and teaching, and we care about people,” said Cockett.

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