From the Desk of Stephen D. Keene – President 

 June 4, 2020 - Town Hall Address

Good afternoon.  We meet under extraordinary circumstances and unprecedented times and yet, sadly, it seems as though we have been here before.

In October of 2015 I was asked to facilitate a session at a conference being held at Murray State University. At the time I was called, I had no idea that the session I would hold would be a catalyst for growth, inspiration, and activation for many of the college students who would take part. As I think back on the discussion I started that day, I vividly remember sharing my story: My life growing up in Louisville, KY; My move to Murray State University for college and making Murray, KY my home; and My life as a black professional in a place that is not always receptive of that accomplishment. I remember a question that was asked of me during that session: “How do you continue to fight when it feels like you’re the only one and sometimes it feels like you’re the “poster child” or the “chosen one”? My answer was quite simple, “If not me, then who? If not now, then when? Change must begin with the “Man in the mirror.”

This battle we are facing is a journey that requires each of us to figure out how we can inspire change. Not everyone is called to speak out. Not everyone is called to stand on the front lines. But everyone is called to be an ally, a supporter, a protector, and an activist. Equality happens when all these pieces align and the voice is finally heard.

My truth that I’d like to share now.  I am hurting. My family is hurting. My friends are hurting. And I am certain that YOU are hurting. Because the reality of the America we are currently living in is not the America we believed we were experiencing. Some of us thought we had overcome. Some of us believed that racism and inequality would not be able to overtake our existence again, especially in the midst of a pandemic that is destroying the economy, the workforce, and the spirit of what it means to be an American. Some of us never dreamed that we would fear jogging, walking through a park, or sleeping in a bed, but now we do because we have clearly seen all of these everyday simple activities turn into horrific outcomes.

We are called to serve.  What can I do to help this situation? That’s a question that those of us who are in leadership and have gained the trust of our constituents, loved ones, and friends are asked daily. I had to take a moment to allow myself to come up with an appropriate answer. Understand that it’s not because I don’t have one, but it’s because most of you who are asking the questions are definitely not part of the problem. You stand, support, fight alongside us, and love BlackLivesMatter and all other projects that push progression and equality forward. So here are my thoughts about this question, “What can I do to help?”

1.    Get uncomfortable. Realize that black men and women wake up in fear on a daily basis. Your colleagues, your loved ones, your brothers and sisters have watched valuable lives be taken away without warning, notice, and with little to no remorse or consequence. When I, a black male, watch a video of a man who is no different in look or stature than myself, be killed in broad daylight on the street by the very system that is supposed to protect and serve all people, my life becomes uncomfortable. I know you may not be able to fully understand it the way that I do, but I ask that you allow the visuals to make you uncomfortable. Because once you become uncomfortable, your mind, body, and spirit will allow you to begin to step up and join the fight.

2.    Educate yourself. Just as our students must prepare for the ACT or SAT or any college entrance exam, we must arm ourselves with knowledge regarding the crisis that people of color and allies are facing. You may not figure out every answer in this situation, but it is important to know exactly what you are fighting for and why. Educate your students, children, friends, and family. We are servants and our participants look to us for knowledge. Encourage when you can and assure your tribe that they are loved and supported. This is astronomically important.

3.    Choose your action plan. Whatever you feel comfortable doing: standing in protests alongside people of color; encouraging people to vote for change; speaking up for the oppressed; working behind the scenes to make events happen; providing funding; and even simply saying, “I am here and I love you.” All of these actions are equally important to the battle we are facing.

4.    Step into your truth and don’t be afraid. Everyone in this battle has fears, but unity and strength is where we build character. The strong shall bear the infirmities of the weak. If you take just one step, the strong will walk alongside you as you make a 2nd or 3rd…and someday you will be strong enough to provide the strength and support for a new ally.

5.    Understand that just like you, every person of color has his/her own way of dealing and coping. Some of us are open to discussion. Some of us want to be left alone for a period of time. But all of us know and feel the love you are sending. Do not misinterpret our hurt for hate because that would negate the cause. Even when some of us don’t understand why you want to stand alongside us, we know that love plays a major role in healing.

This is a call to action. And now the dialogue may begin because I am sure that opening a dialogue will allow us to understand even more. It is important for us to lay a few ground rules as we begin this conversation:

1.    Remember that we are all here out of love. We are all here to learn and grow from this experience so although there may be some harsh realities to share, there must be an understanding that everyone is here in this space working for change.

2.    This is a safe space. There are no dumb questions. You are allowed to not know everything and in many ways the destruction of ignorance IS the point.

3.    Everyone’s experience, no matter the race or ethnicity, is different and is worthy of being heard.  Shared experience is the path to understanding and allows for empathy over sympathy.

4.    Make certain that you are listening about 75% more than you are talking because that is where growth begins.

5.    In order for discussion to be effective there must be an understanding that white privilege exists and BlackLivesMatter is the cry of a marginalized population.

6.    We must all be open to growth and understanding in order to move forward. Get comfortable with sharing your experiences and hearing about everyone else’s.

7.    Commit to joining the fight.

If we allow these rules to ring true within us, we can have a conversation that will be ground breaking. I have attended some workshops and sessions this week in preparation for this discussion and I have resources to share. Thank you for being a part of this town hall. Being here is Step 1 in working towards finding approaches to discussions with our TRIO colleagues and participants.