Skip to main content

Black History Teach-In Sparks Dialogue and Reflection

Back to All News
Dean Stephanie Shonekan
Dean Stephanie Shonekan from the College of Arts and Humanities addresses attendees at SPP's first-ever Teach-In event, "A Day of Black History: Stories of Empowerment and Justice."

The School of Public Policy recently hosted its inaugural teach-in event, “A Day of Black History: Stories of Empowerment and Justice.” This day-long event drew students, faculty and staff from the School and across campus, and aimed to provide a platform for dialogue, education and reflection on the significance of Black history in shaping policy and society. Scholars and practitioners from diverse backgrounds shared their expertise on various aspects of the Black experience, emphasizing its relevance to policymaking. 

As American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin once said, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” The teach-in highlighted how the lessons and struggles of the past continue to inform and influence our present actions and policy decisions, and the importance of recognizing and addressing historical injustices for a more equitable future.

Throughout the day, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a series of sessions covering a wide range of topics, each shedding light on different facets of Black history and its intersection with contemporary policy issues. The teach-in event was organized by Professor Alana Hackshaw, the School’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, who welcomed attendees, noting that hosting a teach-in during Black History Month holds profound importance and serves as a catalyst for deeper understanding and appreciation of Black history, culture and the ongoing struggle for equity and justice in a discipline such as public policy. 

School of Public Policy Dean Robert C. Orr addressed the audience and cited the 2024 Black History Month theme, African Americans and the Arts. He introduced the first speaker, Dean Stephanie Shonekan from the College of Arts and Humanities, setting the tone for a day of insightful discussions and presentations. Drawing from her work as an ethnomusicologist, Shonekan noted the critical role the arts and humanities, particularly music, play in fostering political consciousness and driving social movements for change. 

Emphasizing insights from her new book that she co-authored with Adam Seagrave, Race and the American Story, Shonekan also called attention to songs by Black musicians throughout history in advancing civil rights causes. She quoted lyrics from several songs, including this line from the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” which read, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.” This song protested the lynching of African Americans and highlighted how music can represent a form of protest.

Jason Johnson, professor of global journalism and communication at Morgan State University and MSNBC political analyst, emphasized the crucial role of Black political analysts and public intellectuals in shaping public discourse, stressing the responsibility both as scholars and everyday individuals to offer diverse perspectives. He highlighted disparities in media representation, citing instances where Black experts are required to meet higher educational standards compared to their white counterparts, revealing systemic biases in platforms like cable news.

A wellness and self-care session, led by Graduate Academic Counselor Simone Warrick-Bell, reminded us of the critical importance of nurturing mental and emotional health, especially in the face of societal challenges. She stressed the importance of protective self-care and knowing signs of distress, from cognitive issues to physical, emotional or behavioral symptoms.

Psyche Williams-Forson, professor and chair of the Department of American Studies, led a discussion exploring the complex interplay of race, culture and food policy and how these elements intertwine with identity and community. With a body of research examining the lives of African Americans living in the United States from the late 19th century to the present, her research focuses on the relationship between Black individuals and their material environments, particularly through the lens of food and culinary traditions. 

Brooklynn Hitchens speaks at a podium to a room full of people
Students, faculty and staff gathered for SPP's inaugural Teach-In event.

Brooklynn Hitchens, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice with the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, discussed the impact of street violence in the era of social media, exploring ways in which social media platforms both amplify and shape narratives surrounding issues of racial justice and community violence. “Violence is never a good thing. … If you think about youth who make drill music or youth who make music that can be seen as violent, it’s important to understand why they’re doing it,” explained Hitchens. “Part of it is a reflection of their worldview. If you live in a social world view or you feel unsafe or you feel that there is violence propagating around you, art imitates life in a lot of ways and you use your art as an expression. It becomes a slippery slope when people use that music to then perpetrate violence offline.”

Hitchens pointed to data that indicates many people don't actually live the lifestyle they portray in music. There are financial incentives for presenting oneself as violent, not only for Black individuals but for others too. She contended that as long as there is economic gain in perpetuating this image, people will continue to promote a lifestyle they don't truly lead.

Another session, led by the School of Public Health’s DEI Activist-in-Residence Beth Douthirt Cohen and College of Behavioral and Social Sciences Professor Jeanette Snider, focused on racial trauma, racial justice and racial healing. The discussion provided a space for reflection and dialogue on the enduring legacy of systemic racism and the importance of collective healing in the pursuit of racial justice. In their talk, Snider and Cohen referenced Glenn E. Singleton and Cyndie Hays’ essay on the four agreements of courageous conversation: staying engaged, expecting to experience discomfort, speaking one’s truth, and expecting and accepting a lack of closure. These guidelines were developed for educators to promote successful interracial dialogue about crucial issues with both students and colleagues, and to help create the conditions for safe exploration and learning for all.

SPP Lecturer Curtis Valentine led a discussion on the power of belief and educational equity. Quoting Carter G. Woodson, whose dedication to celebrating the historic contributions of Black people led to the establishment of Black History Month, he shared, “If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do.” Valentine noted a study of enrollment trends and data gathered from thousands of students in North Carolina which showed that Black students are more likely to enroll in advanced coursework – honors classes, advanced placement courses, or international baccalaureate classes – when a Black teacher is among the educators teaching that course.

The day concluded with the Terp Table Talk event led by the School’s Black Students in Public Policy student group. The event offered a platform for students to share their perspectives and experiences, focusing on cultural and political issues within the Black community. Topics ranged from navigating the origins of colorism to challenging stereotypes and perceptions surrounding Black love, as well as exploring the role of Black women in leadership and the influence of music on crime culture.

Reflecting on the event, Associate Professor Niambi Carter observed, “It was a great community event and conversation starter. My students really enjoyed the experience. I hope we can do it again.” Clyde Moore, Senior Mentor, MPS-PA Program shared, “I believe the SPP Teach-In event discussion was inspiring and insightful, and it set conditions for future heartfelt and meaningful conversations and collaborative efforts with other affinity groups and students—bringing people together to use their collective voices to speak out against oppressive forces.” 

Students were meaningfully impacted by the day’s events. “As an Arab American, this teach-in opened my eyes to new perspectives and deepened my appreciation for the power of understanding, unity and shared purpose,” observed graduate student Noor Tofailli. “The teach-in was organized very intentionally and provided the SPP community with the right amount of resources, knowledge, and nuggets for the future regarding Black History and policy,” said Ph. D. student Lindsay Dieudonne. Graduate student Jamal Oakman echoed these sentiments, “Every professor and or professional brought something unique and riveting, they were passionate and engaging. Even if you knew about the topic, you went away empowered with more knowledge and perspective! Great event!”

The Day of Black History teach-in highlighted the School’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice, fostering dialogue and understanding around issues of race and social justice which are critical within academic spaces to educate and inform students, faculty and staff and to shape policy and society. As participants left the event with a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Black experience and its implications for policymaking, the day’s discussions and insights will continue to resonate far beyond the walls of the School.


For Media Inquiries:
Megan Campbell
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
For More from the School of Public Policy:
Sign up for SPP News