Dr. Eve L. Ewing, author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, addressed racism in Chicago Public Schools and predominantly white institutions, on April 16 in Ryan Auditorium.
Dr. Ewing is a Chicago-based scholar, sociologist, writer and activist who specializes in racial inequity and education policy. She’s critically acclaimed for her poetry collection, Electric Arches, currently writes comics for Marvel superhero “Ironheart” and has another collection, 1919, coming out this summer.
The talk, moderated by SESP dean David Figlio, was supposed to focus on “scholarship, leadership, and effective activism in our community,” as part of the Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership Series. But the most poignant lesson for many students and faculty of in attendance was on the relationship between predominantly white universities and their minority students.
“It’s not the institution’s job to love me,” Dr. Ewing said. “And for me to ever believe that the institution loves me, is really foolish.”
She continued, “I see it as a necessary way of understanding my own survivance in a space. It means that it’s my job to look after myself and it’s my job to surround myself with people who love me and do see me as a human person.”
Ewing said she reached this conclusion after experiencing racialized trauma during her undergrad at University of Chicago, where she was one of the few Black students from a low-income neighborhood in Chicago. Ewing came to a realization about her experiences when her dorm hosted a “ghetto-themed” party. She said she wasted emotional energy trying to make those students understand the injustice, and noted that the trauma made her suffer mental breakdowns and nearly drop out.
“What I think was most disturbing, in retrospect, was that the administrators were more than happy to have me do that, and at no point was anybody like, ‘Wait, but you’re a student. There are actual people whose job it is to deal with that, and it’s not you,’” Ewing said.
Medinat Ayodele, a first-year SESP student, said that this point especially resonated with her. “It’s really sad that I feel like I’m being drained by this institution, always thinking about the microaggressions on this campus, when I’m supposed to be a student.”
Ewing then gave students three pieces of advice for dealing with micro or macro-aggressions at Northwestern: One, know you’re not imagining things; two, take advantage of mental health resources like therapy; and three, document and tell the past stories of struggle for future students.
Dean Figlio also asked Ewing how faculty should treat minority students. She responded with, as students, instead of as representatives of their minority to educate others.
In conversations on race as a graduate student at Harvard, she said she wrote grocery lists in class, because there was often nothing for her to learn. She said the conversations were framed around white people, who because of our segregated society, probably never even had a friend of color.
Furthermore, she said that schools underestimate how implausible it is to expect those same white people to go into schools as educators and teach students of color.
“If you don’t know how to love black kids, then you shouldn’t be allowed to teach those black kids. Point blank,” she said.
One student of color doing a practicum at an elite private school asked advice for advocating for the few minority students among a mostly white faculty. Dr. Ewing bluntly replied that many private schools could devote more resources to recruiting more people of color–they just don’t want to.
“That hit home for me because I went to a private, independent school, and there were just a lot of issues with the school, that I see more now that I’m not there,” said Camille Cruise, a first-year in SESP. “It’s not that they couldn’t have known it, or not that they didn’t have the resources to do what was best for me as a student, but, they didn’t.”
When Dean Figlio asked what she would “whisper into the ear” of newly-elected mayor Lori Lightfoot, Dr. Ewing responded that she would yell–not at her but her but in her general direction–to have political and moral courage, to eradicate “morally unconscionable” social ills, like homelessness, segregation, and poverty.
Her response on what the trajectory of education reform should be garnered the loudest applause of the night.
“Our students will have better test scores and be able to read, do math and graduate high school when they have food, when they have a safe and stable place to live, when they have treatment for trauma that they’ve experienced, and when they have health care,” she said.