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TCC, Norfolk State working to address racial inequality

By Marcia Conston and Javaune Adams-Gaston

As presidents of two public institutions of higher education in our Hampton Roads region, we stand together in solidarity, committed to making a difference for the African American students we serve.

Like you, we are saddened and outraged by the deaths of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. The names Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd join a list of others — Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Manuel Ellis to name a few. They are African American men and women robbed of a future by a justice system that disproportionately harms them at far higher levels than their white peers.

As African American college presidents, we offer a unique perspective. We feel especially obligated to serve our student populations, certainly with our prayers but more so with a call to action to help eradicate racial injustice, institutionalized racism and inequalities for all marginalized communities. Norfolk State University, one of two public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the commonwealth, boasts five academic colleges, 49 degree programs and more than 5,600 students. Tidewater Community College, the largest provider of higher education and workforce development in southeastern Virginia, serves nearly 28,000 students. African Americans make up 30% of enrollment.

We feel our students’ pain. Many of our students have either led or embraced the social movement determined to raise the consciousness of this country’s leaders focusing on a system of racial inequity. Their voices of despair resonate from the murals that have been etched during the protests on streets in a movement that has spanned the globe.

We stand with them: Black Lives Matter.

As thought leaders in our community, we share a role in eradicating the discrimination that is a plague for young Black men and women who fear the system that is meant to protect them. Black Lives Matter is a refrain to correct multiple system inequities, higher education included.

More African Americans need access to college so they can work toward a certificate, credential or degree that will be their passport to meaningful employment. Examining the diversity of our faculty in all subject areas and revisiting our curricula to ensure they are relevant and current are additional vital priorities.

We must begin by evaluating our criminal justice programs. Law enforcement agencies throughout Virginia — and across the nation — must diversify their ranks to reflect the communities they serve and protect. TCC and Norfolk State can help by producing more qualified job candidates from our respective criminal justice programs.

TCC provides a foundation in criminal justice with specializations in forensic science, homeland security and public law. Norfolk State’s offerings include a graduate program where students can develop specialized skills and expertise for leadership positions. As proud as we are of these programs, we must constantly be aware of the evolving challenges that these students will face upon entering the field. Recruiting minority students into the criminal justice field is paramount.

The transformative changes we are talking about begin on our campuses before our students ever enter the workplace. It is critical to support students inside and outside of the classroom. Our faculty and staff must be more sensitive to the issues that matter. One of them is safety; another is trust. As higher education educators, we recognize that we should take a leading role in the solution to remove the burden that too many of our students experience.

We embrace inclusion and equity for all members of our campuses. Our commitment to the African American students who entrust us with their education is that we will implement change to make a difference, change sustainable for this generation and the ones that come after.

We know our students are depending on us to do that. We will not disappoint.

Marcia Conston, Ph.D., is the president of Tidewater Community College. Javaune AdamsGaston, Ph.D., is the president of Norfolk State University.