Monuments not easily removed in education, healthcare and justice:
a call to the 21st century urban public research university
By Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.
Presentation remarks made during the iCubed opening seminar at the Hippodrome Theater, Richmond, Virginia
When I was an undergraduate student in the 1990’s, I wrote an opinion essay that called for the renaming of the John C. Calhoun Expressway in Augusta, Georgia. The essay later was published, in part, as an editorial in my home city’s conservative-leaning newspaper. Calhoun, a former South Carolina senator and U.S. Vice President, was considered to be a political leader in the defense of slavery and the subjugation of blacks. In retrospect, his name born on the expressway probably was fitting, as it bridged over, and in some cases, bulldozed through the city’s predominantly black communities. In a city population of about 200,000, with 55% identifying as black or African American, I believed there to be more unifying figures in Augusta’s storied history that could bridge our disparate cultural and political landscapes. More than a decade later, I would appreciate my father’s efforts as a city commissioner to renew this call, in terms of the expressway ‘stymying economic development in the community’. Since then, the nation, my home city included, has been engaged in a rather contentious debate about the removal of such artifacts considered dispiriting and divisive.
But these markers and monuments, and the legacies that they perpetuate, are not evidenced only in tangible culture such as avenues and street sign posts, public parks and schools. The legacies of discrimination and racism also influence beliefs and ideas about who among our children is entitled to the best public education, who among our infirmed and sick is entitled to receive state-of-the art healthcare, and who among our accused or victimized is entitled to fair justice. The incredibly measured progress toward toppling these institutionalized monuments, also considered intangible culture, shows it will take more than a bulldozer or crane at the midnight hour to dismantle the consequential impacts of concentrated poverty and neighborhood segregation, disenfranchisement, health disparities, underfunded schools, and unfair sentencing laws. Indeed, these intangible monuments still stand tall, even after a park statue is removed or a public school name is changed.
It is true that pulling down historically divisive monuments, like low hanging fruit, can feed a body politic hungry for, in fact, starving for, broad inclusion. However, the harder to reach fruit, or the kind of fruit that can replenish the malnourished soul of a nation will require that our populace engage in critical inquiry and reflection. This process is necessary to derive a truth that makes evident approaches or pathways to permanently remedy disparities and to reconcile inequities. From this process, we need to achieve something equitable and fair -- something we have never achieved as a nation, a commonwealth, a city, or as an institution. In this manner, we need breakthrough or open innovation.
These monuments, both tangible and intangible, are not exclusive to cities, like Augusta, Georgia or to institutions, like the University of Virginia. They exist here, too, in Richmond, VA and at our university. And, their existence creates a dialectical tension of sorts. On the one hand, our university pays tribute in building names, busts and plaques to medical doctors who served in and supported the Confederate government, which sought to preserve the enslavement of blacks. On the other hand, our university is recognized as a leading safety net hospital in the Commonwealth, providing high quality care to scores of the underinsured who are disproportionately black and Hispanic or Latina/o. On the one hand, our university honors capitalists whose companies utilized slave labor to propel forward the tobacco industry in Richmond; but, on the other hand, our university rightfully boasts and celebrates when awarded multi-million dollar grants in tobacco-related cancer treatment, which hold tremendous benefit and promise for health disparity populations in Richmond. On the one hand, our university gives center stage to a Confederate monument at the location of one of its performance centers. Yet, and still, on the other hand, our university embraces diversity and inclusion in the performing arts, as revealed by its commitment to recruit diverse and talented faculty and students to its #1 ranked public arts school.
So, considering all of this, what is the role of a 21st century urban public research university in the process of reconciling this dialectical tension? What is our role as the most demographically diverse research university in the Commonwealth, which happens to be situated in a city known civically and colloquially as the capital of the Confederacy? And, how do we – iCubed faculty, partners, postdocs and visiting scholars – envision the role of our institute in helping to dismantle monuments not easily removed?
If we take a step back and think about this for a moment, from conceptualization to design to the eventual construction, mounting and unveiling of these dispiriting and divisive monuments across our nation and in our city, the process required the coordination and consultation of many individuals with specialized knowledge and skillsets. The process required the art historian to consult with the political scientist… and the art historian and political scientist to consult with the sculptor… and the art historian, political scientist and sculptor to consult with the structural engineer… and the art historian, political scientist, sculptor and structural engineer to consult with the architect and urban planner… and those individuals to consult with private investors, land owners and city representatives… and the art historian, political scientist, sculptor, structural engineer, architect, urban planner and private investors, land owners and city representatives to determine how to consult with the public. You see, the art historian and political scientist were not the likely experts in calculating and predicting the stability and strength of the monument. But, the structural engineer probably was. And, the structural engineer was not the likely person you wanted consulting with the public. But, urban planners and elected officials probably were. And, while they each possessed specialized knowledge and skillsets, when their efforts were combined, they were able to erect towering monuments that perpetuated, albeit, an unfortunate legacy that today, still prevails.
But, much in the same manner as those tangible monuments were constructed in the early 1900s, today, we need to assemble individuals, each with specialized knowledge and skillsets, to work to deconstruct and remove the institutionalized and intangible monuments of burden and despair – the monuments of mass incarceration and the monumental health disparities. We need knowledgeable and skilled individuals to form transdisciplinary teams that are broadly inclusive, that are relentless in their inquiry, and that are vigorous in their pursuit of breakthrough and open innovation. We need the counseling psychologist to consult with the dentist … and the counseling psychologist and dentist to consult with the medical anthropologist in the oral health transdisciplinary core. We need the urban planning professor to consult with the pharmacist… and the urban planner and pharmacist to consult with the gerontologist in the health and wellness transdisciplinary core. We need the international curator of contemporary art to consult with the philosophy and religious studies scholar… and both of them to consult with the sociologist in the racial equity in arts transdisciplinary core.
To be an iCubed faculty member is to understand the limitations of your respective discipline and paradigm, and, by necessity and will, collaborate with those in other disciplines to solve problems. To be an iCubed faculty member is to embrace the dialectical tension that results from conflicting and contradictory change and circumstance. To be an iCubed faculty member is to view this dialectical tension as potentially explosive, as in explosively fertile for advancing human science… explosively fertile for enhancing human performance… and explosively fertile for optimizing the human condition. Indeed, the faculty we have here with us today exhibit these characteristics, and they are prepared to deconstruct the monuments that were built, and the legacies that were maintained, throughout the past century.
So, again, what is the role of the premier 21st century urban research university? First, we must be critically-engaged. The 21st century urban research university questions and is reflective of its architecture, culture, history, partnerships, place and space. Second, we must be open and accessible. There is no thermostat in the president or vice president’s office to control campus climate – where we can maintain a perfect campus climate at 72-degrees. We must be open and accessible to the cultural and political currents of change; and available and front and center in the debate about the most challenging topics related to culture, race and health; genetics research; K-12 schooling; social injustices; and, violence. Third, we must be innovative. The 21st century urban research university serves as a catalyst for new ideas; and, implements dynamic and responsive policies and practices, especially related to intellectual property and data proprietorship. Fourth, we must be collaborative. The 21st century urban research university is reciprocative and supportive of multiple stakeholder communities. Fifth, we must be entrepreneurial. The 21st century urban public research university invests in the development of new products and systems that advances community, cultural and social capital. Sixth, we must be problem-focused. The 21st century urban research university addresses global challenges, especially those of local and regional significance. And, seventh, we must be transcendent. The 21st century urban research university transgresses boundaries between teaching, scholarship and service; college and school; and university and community.
This is the CONCEPT for the 21st century premier urban public research university. This is one way in which our university can reconcile the dialectical tension between our past, present and future. And, with your continued support, this is the manner in which iCubed will move forward to remove the monuments that persist in education, healthcare and justice.
The challenge for each of us today is to choose a dispiriting and divisive monument to deconstruct; and, in its place, reconstruct a monument of equity and fairness; a monument of health and hope; reconstruct a monument of sustenance and sustainability; a monument of wellness and well-being. This is our challenge. We define it. We embrace it. We solve it.
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iCubed at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is a cutting edge institute focused on catalyzing collaborative connections between the university and the community at large through innovative academic and research programs. Our transdisciplinary core teams collaborate with key community members in order to develop holistic solutions to 21st century urban challenges within the Commonwealth. For more information about iCubed or to apply to one of the transdisciplinary core teams, please visit: icubed.vcu.edu.