Reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
School of Law
A book club for close to 82,000 members? That’s the idea behind NYU Reads, an initiative that encourages the entire university community—students, faculty, and administrators—to read and then come together to discuss the same work.
There have been three NYU Reads: the memoirs Educated by Tara Westover (fall 2019) and Just Mercy (fall 2020) by Bryan Stevenson and the novel Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (spring 2021).
For the inaugural NYU Reads, bookworms gathered at the Skirball Center on the Washington Square campus for a talk with Westover moderated by Provost Katherine Fleming. The second was livestream only due to the pandemic, with Fleming again serving as moderator for the lecture with Stevenson, a professor of criminal justice at the School of Law.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is Stevenson’s account of his work, much of it with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit he founded in 1989 and of which he is executive director. EJI provides legal representation to those who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in jails and prisons. Here is a quote from Stevenson’s inspiring, compelling, and eye-opening talk on October 12, 2020:
“The narrative that we are a great society because we do great things for great children is a narrative that has to change. A great society does great things for the children that have fallen down, the children that are struggling, the children that are in crisis. That narrative has to change. I believe we have to change the narrative about race in America. I wrote this book in part because I don’t believe any of us are free in this country. I think we’re burdened by a history of racial inequality and racial injustice that’s created a kind of smog in the air. There are contaminants, pollutants everywhere you go in this country, and whether you live in California or Mississippi or New Hampshire or Minnesota, there are contaminants that are the consequence of 400 years of racial inequality and racial injustice. And a lot of people have argued that these things will just dissipate at some point. But I believe that these toxins will never go away until we change the narrative of racial difference and racial hierarchy that have created these problems. And that means we’re going to have to talk about things that we haven’t talked about before.”
“As a media scholar and journalist, I grew tired of a divided, predictable news cycle focusing too much on partisan politics and police killings,” says Kaia Niambi Shivers, clinical assistant professor in Liberal Studies, of conventional sources of information. “As a Black person, it wore on me.”
Shivers founded Ark Republic in 2017, an ad-free multimedia platform “to give people another avenue to access information to navigate the daily world—and keep the people’s well-being first,” she says. Supported by member-subscribers, the site is produced by what Shivers describes as “traditional and nontraditional journalists who mostly consist of women, Black folk, and people of color” working on three different continents to produce solutions-oriented journalism.
One solution is Ark Republic’s Black Farmers Index (BFI), a database of farmers, winemakers, fisherfolk, and beekeepers of color who can sell directly to consumers.
Shivers came up with the idea after reporting on shortages that made it difficult for poor people in Italy to access food during the COVID-19 crisis. “This will happen in the US, too,” she recalls thinking. “And directly linking consumers to farmers helps both.”
Since launching in May 2020, BFI has become the country’s largest free, public directory of Black farmers. Shivers is committed to growing the site, as well as Ark Republic, with the help of a community of supporters. “In this great reimagining that is the current state of the world,” she says, “no one will survive without organic, honest, reciprocal relationships.
—Eleni N. Gage
A professor of anthropology and American studies in the Faculty of Arts and Science and a 1990 Graduate School of Arts and Science alumna, Arlene Dávila believed her alma mater-cum-workplace was missing something.
“We had thriving ethnic and area studies centers focusing on African American, Asian Pacific American, and Latin American studies, and more, but not a single space focusing on Latinx studies, which echoes a general void across the US,” says Dávila. Considering nearly 29 percent of the university’s namesake city is Latinx, she thought that should be addressed.
In 2018, Dávila launched the Latinx Project, which she describes as “the first Latinx-focused, interdisciplinary center at any of the top East Coast universities.” The project promotes US Latinx culture and art through programming—from book talks to conferences to exhibits—that, says Dávila, “amplifies the voices of Latinx writers, scholars, and artists.” Programs including an artist-in-residence opportunity, a digital publication called Intervenxions, and a curatorial competition are bringing visibility to Latinx art, which Dávila defines as “artists born and raised and/or working primarily in the context of the US who have historically been racialized as ‘minorities’ and consequently excluded from most mainstream institutions.
A recent Ford Foundation grant and earlier Mellon Foundation support will help bring the project closer to Dávila’s ultimate goal for it: “To become a permanent center that will communicate the value of Latinx studies at a time when a better understanding of Latinxs’ generative role in society is urgently needed.”
—Eleni N. Gage
School of Law
Like virtually no other arm of the government, the police, notes Barry Friedman, a professor at the School of Law, is governed on the back end, after they overstep. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that armed officers are routinely sent in to deal with social issues such as homelessness or mental illness. “When we send in people who have been trained primarily in the use of force and law enforcement, it can hardly surprise us that what we mostly get is force and law enforcement.”
In 2015, Friedman cofounded the Policing Project at the School of Law to promote front-end accountability (i.e., systems put in place to avoid outcomes before they occur), public safety, and responsible use of tech.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, as protests spread and then grew violent, NYPD officers responded with punches, batons, and pepper spray. They hit people with their vehicles. To Mayor Bill de Blasio, the police had used what he called as “light a touch as possible,” but not so, said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who opened an investigation. Friedman was invited onboard as a special adviser. Although he’s been working on issues around policing and public safety for over a decade, even he was taken aback by the toll their actions had taken. It was “just staggering,” he says.
With the investigation now concluded, Friedman and his colleagues argued in favor of redesigning public safety and the role of police by 2023. As the city and nation await the outcome of a long-overdue reckoning into police violence and racism, Friedman is cautiously optimistic. The investigation, he believes, is “going to effect some real change.”
Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Until Confederate statues were toppled during last summer’s racial reckoning, many viewed them as wallpaper—occasionally noticed but usually passed without a second thought. Patricia Eunji Kim, assistant professor and faculty fellow at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and a curator and editor at the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab, aims to change that.
A public art and history studio, Monument Lab is “a multiracial group of artists, scholars, researchers, activists, and organizers who are dedicated to cultivating and facilitating critical conversations around the past, present, and future of monuments,” Kim says. “We critically engage our inherited symbols in order to unearth the next generation of monuments that elevate stories of resistance and hope.”
In her own research as well as at the lab, Kim says she is “committed to amplifying stories and voices that have been historically overshadowed by dominant narratives.” The lab is currently conducting a National Monument Audit, which she says will “provide a definitive account of the monument landscape across America, organized along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation.” The lab is also creating a dataset of protest activities tied to the monuments.
The findings from the investigation will be released this summer. But that’s just the beginning. This year will also see the creation of 10 new Monument Lab field offices that, Kim says, “will reimagine monuments in cities, regions, and communities across the country,” shaping the way we see our history, our present, and our future.
As vice dean of the brand-new Office of Equity, Belonging, and Community Action at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, he thought long and hard about naming the new department. “Belonging is about how people feel. Equity is about how systems work on behalf of people. Community action is about the power to determine our fate,” Kirkland says. “Equity, belonging, and community action reflect the possibilities of giving people a chance to dance to their own songs, in their own ways, and to rhythms that make the most sense to them.”
The office is empowering the community to dance to its own beats by offering action opportunities as well as equity and belonging resources. “These include Wednesday Workshops such as the How to Be an Antiracist Racial Justice Series, our Gender Justice Series, and our Disrupting Systemic Inequity Advanced Training Series,” says Kirkland. There’s also the Ruth B. Ginsberg Womxn and Work Taskforce, which has been commissioned to advance equity for women working at Steinhardt.
The office’s overall mission is nothing less than a new landscape at NYU and elsewhere. As Kirkland explains, “My main goal is to promote a climate, culture, and commitment to intersectional identities, antiracism, cultural proficiency, equity, social justice, and sense of belonging—all while advancing strategic Steinhardt activities in partnership with communities throughout NYC and beyond.”
—Eleni N. Gage
College of Dentistry
According to the statistics, Rose Amable (DEN ’12), a Peruvian immigrant who moved to the United States with her family at the age of 19, was unlikely to become a dentist. Less than 20 percent of the profession hails from backgrounds known as URM (underrepresented minority)—such as African American, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander.
It was Amable’s experience that inspired her, a clinical associate professor of pediatric dentistry, to pursue a career in the health field. “I’ve translated at every medical appointment on behalf of my Spanish-speaking parents,” she says. “Patients are more likely to seek out consistent care if they have a provider who speaks like them and respects their cultural background.”
To help address that health disparity gap, Amable launched the Bringing Smiles Dental Enrichment Program (BSDEP) in 2018. This dental pipeline selects five interns from underrepresented minority undergraduate applicants in their last two years of college and provides them with clinical and research experience, mentorship, and guidance as they apply to dental school. Along with attending seminars, the interns spend one day each week working with the BSDEP team to treat children at five NYC public school–based dental clinics.
With 12 alums in dental school and the rest applying, BSDEP has seen huge success. For Amable, the effort to seek funding is worth the struggle. “As a first-generation college student, I had to learn how to navigate the college system on my own,” she recalls. “BSDEP came from a desire to help underrepresented minority students, like myself, reach their full potential.”
—Eleni N. Gage
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
She wrote the book on talking about race at work. But Erica Foldy, coauthor of The Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work, says we’re never done learning about how to manage our own biases. An associate professor of public and nonprofit management at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, she studies how our identities and assumptions inhibit or empower our ability to connect with others at work and elsewhere.
It’s research which aims to improve life beyond just the workplace. “If we can create organizations that treat employees of color with equity, dignity, and respect,” Foldy says, “that contributes to communities with more resources and more ability to thrive.”
One valuable learning tool at Wagner, says Foldy, is a series of discussions called Teaching in Progress, where, she says, “we engage in peer learning to enhance our teaching.” In each session, a faculty member brings a one-page write-up of what Foldy calls “a knotty question or experience.” Then, she says, “we dig in and see what we can all learn from the conversation, rather than giving advice.”
The sessions mirror life itself in that “while it is often clear what not to do, there is rarely an obvious right answer about what to do,” Foldy says. “Instead, people talk through the issues, and see how their colleagues may have a very different take from their own. We walk away with multiple ways of understanding a situation which, to me, is the ultimate goal of teaching and learning.” And a positive way to approach work and life in general.
—Eleni N. Gage
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development / Silver School of Social Work
Since the first reports that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in China, the United States has seen troubling waves of anti-Asian discrimination and physical attacks. Doris F. Chang, associate professor at the Silver School of Social Work, and Sumie Okazaki, professor of applied psychology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, are exploring how Asian Americans are reacting.
Chang and Okazaki are currently conducting a study named CARA (COVID-19, Asian Americans, Resiliency, and Allyship). They’re analyzing a sampling of nearly 700 adults with 24 different Asian ethnic groups represented to investigate how fear and dismay are affecting this minority group. “A rise in anti-Asian harassment and violence has been directed toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders [AAPI] since the start of the pandemic,” Chang says. “Between March 2020 and February 2021, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate reporting center received 3,795 firsthand reports of anti-Asian incidents. About 70 percent involved verbal harassment, 21 percent shunning or avoidance, 11 percent physical assaults, 7 percent being coughed or spat on, and 9 percent civil rights violations such as workplace discrimination, refusal of service, being barred from transportation.” Such disturbing numbers make Chang and Okazaki’s work both crucial and urgent. “As violence against Asian Americans—including horrific attacks on Asian elders—continues unabated, the emerging research on the impact of racial trauma on Asian Americans must be sustained,” Okazaki says.
Tisch School of the Arts
In 2019, Tony winner and Grammy-nominated musician and actor Michael McElroy, already a Tisch School of the Arts undergraduate drama associate arts professor, also became the department’s first director of diversity. McElroy was a natural choice for the job, having worked with Rubén Polendo, the department’s chair, to start Community Call-In, monthly conversations with the Tisch community that address topics such as race, gender, casting, and body image; launch a Women in Theatre series; and foster the growth of nine affinity groups for BIPOC students.
Drawing on his extensive connections in the world of entertainment, McElroy also brings strong outside voices to Tisch, such as a panel with the Latinx Artists Collective which featured the original cast members of the Broadway musical In the Heights. Additionally, he says, “we have created an Archive of Voices as a resource for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers and are in the process of integrating these works into our classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and repertoire for performance.”
Integrating equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging into any artistic practice is “new territory that takes time, mindfulness, and partnerships across the department,” McElroy notes. “I’m honored to step into this space, not only because it’s personal to me as a Black man, but because the future of our field, and the world, depends on artists who have been cracked open in a way that develops tools to celebrate diversity and utilize their privilege to support those who have historically not had a voice.”
—Eleni N. Gage
Long Island School of Medicine
As the assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at the Long Island School of Medicine (LISOM), Diana Badillo’s job is twofold: recruiting students who are underrepresented in the field of medicine, and supporting them while they’re in school.
LISOM works toward the first goal with a full scholarship model and its Envision Scholars Academy, a pipeline program designed to provide an educational pathway into healthcare professions for students who come from communities that are underrepresented in medicine or socioeconomically disadvantaged.
It approaches the second through unconscious bias educational training for faculty and students as well as a mentorship program. “Students can request a mentor with specific criteria they find important in their goals of becoming medical professionals—such as race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation,” Badillo explains. “That shared perspective allows for another avenue of support and guidance.”
Badillo’s ultimate goal isn’t just classes full of happy students, but a community full of helpful medical professionals and supported patients. “A diverse learning environment fosters intellectual engagement, increases the capability of solving complex problems, and improves empathy and racial understanding,” she says. “Having a healthcare workforce that reflects the faces, races, creeds, genders, and more of the patients facilitates a greater level of trust, communication, and understanding. Diversity in healthcare is vital for lessening health disparities and getting closer to achieving health equity; it’s a driver of excellence that improves care for all.”
—Eleni N. Gage
College of Arts and Science / Rory Meyers College of Nursing / Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
“Birth used to be celebrated, revered, honored, and protected,” says Paulomi Niles (CAS ’97, STEINHARDT ’04, GPH ’14, MEYERS ’19), assistant professor and faculty fellow at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing. “I want to return to that place.” As a nation, we have a long way to go before achieving that goal; the United States ranks 31 out of 32 peer countries when it comes to maternal health outcomes. Not coincidentally, only 12 percent of births in this country are attended by midwives, versus 70 percent in other countries.
Among the people cared for by midwives, many receive Medicaid. Midwifery care can lead to better outcomes such as lower C-section rates, fewer preterm babies, and higher patient satisfaction than doctors—or, as Niles puts it, “providing high-value care with significant cost savings.”
Midwifery is a profession developed by women, for women. Niles believes that the tradition of treating historically marginalized people with empathy and respect could make midwifery a game-changing model of care to create maternal health equity. She is researching “how midwifery care, as it is operationalized in public hospitals, offers a solution to the maternal health disparities crisis that plagues the US,” Niles says.
The way she sees it, “women—particularly Black women—are telling us that they want respect, autonomy, and connection in their care. I want to be part of a movement of researchers, clinicians, advocates, funders, and community leaders demanding justice and equity for those who have been harmed and excluded for far too long.”
—Eleni N. Gage
Leonard N. Stern School of Business
The difference between being nonracist and antiracist? For Dolly Chugh, associate professor of management and organizations at the Stern School of Business, it’s action. “When we are believers, or nonracists, we believe in diversity, inclusion, and equity,” she explains. “But we do not act on these beliefs, so we allow the status quo to continue. When we are builders, or antiracists, we use tools and knowledge to build the communities, organizations, teams, families, neighborhoods, and societies that are more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.”
In her own effort to help build inclusivity, Chugh wrote The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, which she describes as “a guidebook to try to offer a path for believers to move toward being builders.” She has coauthored papers on such issues as diversity thresholds—a diversity profile that corporate boards aim to hit, “after which the diversification effort seems to plateau,” she says—and bounded ethicality, “the basic notion that our minds have systematic constraints on the quality of our ethical decision-making, so we use shortcuts that lead to some predictable errors.”
Chugh describes her work as “the psychology of good people—the ways in which those of us who see ourselves as good people still make ethical errors, often outside of our awareness.” Each month, she publishes a newsletter called Dear Good People, which showcases some of her research and offers “bite-size, actionable tips for people trying to be the inclusive people they mean to be.” In other words, a monthly list of ways we can all take action to build a better future.
—Eleni N. Gage