As the university remained focused on maintaining a safe and healthy campus from the very start of the pandemic, the leadership team was also busy creating a unique way to establish a point of excellence at the university. What started as an idea to showcase the university’s success in handling equity and inclusion for students and staff, the Breaking Barriers Series quickly evolved into an innovative program that has placed Cheyney at the forefront of addressing two major pandemics – Covid-19 and the civil unrest.
Kizzy Morris, University Provost & Chief Academic Officer, spearheads the Breaking Barriers Series with the support of faculty expertise. Morris’ idea of highlighting campus efforts and activities around equity and inclusion became a wide-ranging initiative spurred by the May 25 tragic killing of George Floyd.
“We wanted to help our students face the dual pandemics and utilize faculty expertise to figure out ways we could help the university community to press on with everything that we were dealing with,” said Morris.
Morris initially met with Dr. Marietta D’Antonio-Madsen, who created a course proposal for a healing arts course “Trauma Finds Expression”. The course was held during the fall semester and students worked on building a mural. Each student had a piece of the mural and when they it put together it will create a large art piece. Amir Campbell, a Cheyney alum, came back to the campus and filmed the students’ work and is creating a documentary that will be presented to the entire community.
Students in the Trauma Finds Expression course also had the opportunity to participate in a lecture with Dr. James Haywood Rolling Jr., a dual professor and chair of art education and teaching and leadership at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and School of Education and director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Dr. Rolling is also the president-elect of the National Art Education Association.
In addition, students along with alumni created a “Black Lives Matter” virtual gallery with various artwork.
“We created the virtual gallery to showcase the work being done in the same manner we would in a normal environment,” said Morris. “We had to think in the virtual space to reach those who were dealing with social injustice and with students who were at home. The virtual gallery allowed us to bring the entire community together.”
Another component of the Breaking Barriers Series included leveraging Cheyney’s involvement with Aspiring to Educate (A2E), a statewide program to teach diversity. Cheyney faculty and staff are involved with the creation of the A2E Program Toolkits that established the pillars of the program: recruitment, retention, mentorship and culturally relevant sustaining education. Over the summer, Cheyney hosted the first ever A2E Virtual Summit to engage stakeholders in problem-solving conversations about the inequities in education, and specifically, the underrepresentation of Black and Latinx teachers across the Commonwealth.
“Cheyney is proud to have educated a large population of teachers in the Philadelphia region,” said Morris. “This was a way for us to engage the community on this initiative.”
Additionally, through A2E, Cheyney launched a five-week Summer Bootcamp designed and coordinated by Dr. Shelly Weeks-Channel for future educations that included a cohort of 25 high school seniors. The students were brought into the boot camp to get them interested in the education field. They were able to take two college courses that gave them a let up before entering their first semester.
The Breaking Barriers Series also included a program to support faculty of color through sponsored research. It included two sessions in November that focused on “Writing an Effective Grant Proposal” and “Breaking Barriers for Securing NSF Funding”. The two sessions included 120 participants from many HBCUs and several other state system universities.
“Faculty of color have a hard time achieving tenure,” said Morris. “We created these workshops to collaborate with federal agencies and help faculty of color understand the available sponsored research opportunities so they can convert to their ideas into fundable research projects. The successful workshops held in November are the first of many to come on faculty professional development and mentoring and we expect many more colleges and universities to join.”
The remaining initiative within the Breaking Barriers Series will include an education component for social justice. Five courses will be offered during the winterim session that specifically deal with social justice. They will be accelerated sessions (four weeks) and students will have the opportunity to do two courses over the four-week period. It is open to anyone, not just Cheyney students.
“The Breaking Barriers has evolved in a short time as we connect with more individuals that see a need and as more events happen in society,” said Morris. “In recognizing Cheyney’s legacy and what we have meant as an institution to the nation, we had to be part of the change that is happening.
“With all of the different things that have happened this past year, we had to find the best way to bring it all together under a common theme and goal. As we move forward, we will have defined actions to be part of that change.”
The Breaking Barriers Series is unique to the academic world and something Cheyney will continue to build.
In the wise word of Cheyney’s President Aaron A. Walton, “When you are first, you need to be prepared to lead.”