DEJA WELLS: How would each of you define social responsibility, both as a concept and in relation to your work at Tulane?
BRIAN T. EDWARDS: Responsibility imagines that you have some agency to make a change, or that you may respond. The word “social” is a complex word, particularly in a university community. Who belongs to it? What is the relation of the institution’s past to the present and future? For me, the phrase “social responsibility” suggests that we have the imperative to respond in relation to the social worlds around us. I think of universities as families with long and varied histories. As each person enters the family of Tulane, we are given the task to understand our responsibility in helping it reflect the kind of present and future that we would like to see.
ANNELIESE SINGH: When I think about the word “responsibility,” I also think of the ability to respond. I think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community,” where we are building a community in which we are socially responsible to one another where everyone’s needs are met. People who have come before us have already built the Tulane culture we’re living in now in 2020, and now we can think about the Tulane of 2030. Our social responsibility includes asking, “Is this a Tulane that affirms all community members, or do we want to grow into something different?”
DW: Your answers made me think of my involvement in the Ripple Effect with the first-year students during the 2020 move in, which is a program that explores racial inclusivity on campus. One of the examples I would give to new students was centered around being accountable for your classmates’ access in our classrooms and on campus. If it were just you, that engagement alone isn’t enough for you to learn. You learn from your peers and the questions they may ask that you weren’t even thinking about. You also learn from the answers they have, and the experiences they have. So, my next question bridges your responses and just that—the importance of individuality and learning from others. In what ways do you challenge yourselves not to uphold normative ideals in your everyday life?
AS: When I think about normative, I think about something I want to resist and question. I want Tulane to be a place where we can question the things that we have been socialized to accept. For instance, I was socialized to perform my gender and sexuality in binary ways, but I also got to question these things as a queer, non-binary person when I was a student at Tulane. As a mixed-race person, I grew up learning normative ideas about race that were not helpful in ending racism. These normative cultures didn’t really help me come to understand the world or myself. Asking critical questions is an important equity and justice practice. I even ask exactly what does my role as Chief Diversity Officer mean? It implies that there’s one person, and I want to question that idea. There’s not one person. It takes all of us.
BTE: I have trouble accepting an unproblematized sense of what is “normal.” So much of what is said to be “normal” has been constructed, and there’s often a lot of power at stake in maintaining it as “normal.” I remember the first time I had the opportunity to live in another language and being fascinated by the many different ways you express the “same” idea in different contexts. There is no “normal” in language, and this is part of why I’m so committed to students learning a second language. My perspective has been influenced as much by travel as by critical theory written about the everyday performance of self, of gendered and other identities. What does it mean to have multiple selves that we perform? How can we even use the word “normal” anymore?
DW: Both of your responses resonate strongly with me. I remember being a very young child and thinking about what it meant to question society’s “norms.” And now that’s kind of radicalized my approach to universities. I haven’t had a choice to think of institutions as experiences, only to question them. In some ways I think I’m upholding a normative of what a university experience looks like, but I’m also actively working against it by existing in spaces that society tells me I’m not supposed to be in. Moving into the context of campus life, how do you describe what social responsibility looks like at Tulane?
…we are building a community in which we are socially responsible to one another where everyone’s needs are met.Anneliese Singh
BTE: One of the exciting things about universities is that there’s a constant flow of new people, and therefore new ideas and energy, like a river. The course of a river seems hard to change; although, here in New Orleans we know that the Mississippi actually has shifted over time. For me, Tulane’s profound relationship to New Orleans is key to our future. In the School of Liberal Arts, we are constantly thinking about that relationship and our sense of responsibility to the environment that we live in, both in terms of the climate and to the people and arts that sustain this city, and developing sustainable ways to bring both city and university into greater dialogue.
AS: I keep returning to the idea of the “Beloved Community”—I know this is something that we can build here at Tulane. I think this is a gift we were given by the Civil Rights movement, and now the Black Lives Matter movement, among many others. What would it look like to build a culture at Tulane where everyone’s needs are met? Of course, it’s complicated. We have to keep asking ourselves, “How does internalized patriarchy live in all of us?” “How does internalized whiteness live in each of us?” Not just in folks who are subjugated, but in everyone. We can build a Tulane culture where we lean into these critical questions every day.
DW: Considering the positions that you are in as campus leaders, how do you give access to others?
AS: Building bridges may sound a little cliché, but this is so critically important. Even when we have deep divides. I don’t want to cancel anyone in this work of equity and justice. It’s 2020—if I cancel people, then I don’t get to grow and learn something about myself. I’m not talking about exposing myself to all types of harm. Boundaries are important. But that’s why I’m loving higher education right now. We can lean into courageous conversations and discomfort in healthy ways so that being at Tulane means we are changing.
BTE: I believe that the people you bring into an institution is one of the more influential changes you can make as a leader. Sometimes this is about people we hire, and sometimes it is about the practices we put into place. In the last year, we’ve made a substantial change in how we conduct hiring by having an “equity representative” on every faculty search committee. Their job is not to argue for any individual person, but to make sure that our hiring process has considered implicit and other biases at every step of the process.
DW: How do we foster a community-based culture—a community in which all students are in self-affirming company? And how have you been able to implement these efforts in your respective roles?
AS: I think historically Tulane has been a mostly white male institution and the vestiges of that carry over into 2020. A community-based culture means that we are not just “diversifying” from white men and women, then including other people; we are actually starting over. A lot of people assume that my role is only to support black, indigenous, and people of color students, faculty, staff, and that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about questioning the cultures that we have here, looking at the practices, and pinpointing those that are exclusionary. For example, racism seems insurmountable, but I think we can reduce racism in our everyday practices and policies right now as we build the “Beloved Community.”
BTE: Universities tend to be places that encourage thinking forward to new social conditions, but there’s also sometimes an event that pushes discussions forward in more dramatic fashion. The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests about systemic racism this summer are such a moment. The possibility for change can seem impossible even through it is sometimes right in front of us. Universities are places where we are able to deconstruct and then reconstruct aspects of the social—of the community—that we’ve been exploring and debating for years. As educators, we have to be optimists. I frequently say that if you are not an optimist as an educator, you are in the wrong business, because our students will outlive us. So, as educators our job is to work with you, our students, toward that future.