Voices for Change

The Voices for Change logo on an aerial of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus.

Flores Forbes, Associate Vice President for Community Affairs, Office of Government and Community Affairs

In This Moment Fearless Honesty Is Paramount

My main concern about the work that the antiracism task force is undertaking is that it be approached with honesty, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Honesty that there is a problem embedded within the university. Honesty about what the findings reveal about who we are. And honesty about what it is like to be treated unfairly within this university.

Flores Forbes, Associate Vice President for Community Affairs, Office of Government and Community Affairs

I have been here 14 years and have experienced directly and indirectly the institutional racism that exists. There is clear data that says the university does not practice diversity and inclusion at its highest ranks, in grades above 13. To acknowledge that is the beginning of the work. Are there people at Columbia who benefit from a lack of diversity? Absolutely. The question is: Will we deal with the truth and work toward diversity?  

In the Staff Experience Working Group one of the recommendations is to conduct a university-wide survey to measure the experiences of people of color on campus. Until we do that, we will never know, because at the moment only a few voices are being heard and there are thousands at Columbia who have stories to tell, both positive and negative. As an example, I know that Black men who work here are worried about congregating in numbers because of a fear that’s based on their experiences here. There are obstacles to gathering information on these types of issues, but with the right type of data collection, we can, and then we can create a process to deal with them.

White Supremacy Must Be Addressed

White supremacy in my estimation is the most powerful ideology in the world. Treating people of color oppressively is part and parcel of how the world operates. The obstacles come from people who benefit from racism and the oppression of another group.

How do we deal with this legacy? We need education that teaches people that white supremacy and the vestiges of slavery are part of the current situation, and that changing that begins with being aware that it’s part of the system.

The university must first define what it’s really doing beyond the mild and academic term of antiracism, because it’s a cute word that is set to not offend someone who is white, but it avoids a real conversation about what is going on and I think the population we are targeting will view it as such.

Education and Access Are Key

The work that I have been engaged in over the last 12 months has been about talking to academics, staff, and students—not only raising the issue of racism here, but looking at how productive the process we develop can be in remedying racism at Columbia.

First I think it’s about education and access. Education begins with a conversation that is consistent and well informed. Access has to do with having the reach into all parts of the university to carry on this conversation; and planning which should lead to action.

This is an academic institution where things are often about being measured and evaluated. In this instance that is a problematic approach because it’s about some number. I believe if we are going to measure anything it’s about finding out if your quality of life is better after this process. And that can only be measured in time.

This Is Personal for Me

I have been Black my entire life so it’s not just about my experience here, it’s also about my life experiences. There’s a book called The Spook Who Sat by the Door that tells the story of a well-educated Black man who is recruited by the CIA and when he leaves he goes back to the community to help make change. My story is completely the opposite. I was terrorized by the police growing up in this country and I decided to fight back by joining the Black Panther Party when I was 16 years old. If a Black person is honest about America it is not a kind and democratic place, so I chose that path.

Today as a well-educated Black man who just happens to be in the room, I am more effective in trying to change the horrible stuff that makes up this society as part of this institution. It’s not just about having a voice; it’s about being able to use the university's intellectual capital to make change. That is my commitment here at Columbia and in the community. I see my office as the bridge to carry that message between the central administration and the academy and into the surrounding communities of color.