“Break the Silence” Teach-in

CSJ and CNDLS Co-Host “Break the Silence” Teach-in as part of the University’s “Let Freedom Ring!” Initiative, Featuring Dr. Ibram Kendi

On Tuesday, January 10, over 65 faculty and staff gathered in the historic St. William Chapel in Copley Hall for the “Break the Silence” Teach-in, one of the many events in the University’s “Let Freedom Ring!” Initiative. Over the past four years, this initiative– one that honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through a range of campus events– has included an invitation for faculty and staff across the University to participate in a cross-campus curricular initiative by teaching one of Dr. King’s speeches in classes or other educational spaces. For this spring 2017, Dr. King’s 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietname: A Time to Break the Silence” (original text) (pdf) (audio) is the selected text.

In support of this aim, the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) co-hosted a community teach-in to reflect on both the speech and the campus climate surrounding the recent report of the Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation working group, and to encourage and support faculty and staff considering “teaching the speech” or “reflecting on the report.”

The event featured keynote remarks by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award Winner in Nonfiction (2016) and African American Studies scholar specializing in Dr. King’s work. Kendi’s engaging talk detailed the climate before, during, and after this April 1967 speech, discussing Dr. King’s evolution on his stance regarding U.S. participation in the Vietnam War and the role of the war in civil rights work. With Black Power rising and an increase in urban rebellions from 1964 to 1966, Dr. King’s position on the war in Vietnam was impacted by these domestic experiences. With an anti-violence approach to domestic issues, Dr. King knew “[he] could never again raise [his] voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Dr. Kendi then noted that it was only one year after this speech that Dr. King christened the report “Physicians Warning for Approaching Death”, discussing the approaching spiritual death of America. Dr. Kendi asked attendees: “Are we spiritually dead?” Kendi raised the points that five decades after this speech, America is spending more money on war programs, the Cold War has been replaced by the War on Terror, we are spending more money on incarceration than higher education, and income inequality has continued to grow; where are we now as a country? He encouraged all to work to “transcend the labels of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’” that can be constraining, since the choices we face as a people are more fundamental and internal than those labels. Going further, Kendi urged the teach-in participants to pursue ongoing efforts to end inequality and war and to continue to engage in the “long and bitter struggle for a new world.” Kendi called cynicism “the kryptonite of change,” and suggested we must pursue this work in order that our nation is not lost.

Following the powerful remarks of Dr. Kendi, a panel of several Georgetown faculty shared reflections and thoughts on how they were able to (or planned to) incorporate Dr. King’s speech and/or the working group’s report into their classrooms in such a way as to invite engagement with these important issues. The faculty discussed a range of experiences, from how the speech became a tool to discuss wealth, health, and education disparities in a business school class, to how the speech can serve as an opening for a conversation on the concept (and implications) of a society’s memorialization of events. Patricia Grant (McDonough School of Business) noted that her students seemed to really appreciate the opening for a the conversation on inequalities, reaching out to her afterwards to express that gratitude. Elham Atashi (Justice & Peace Studies), who plans to use the speech this year in her course, The Politics of Memory, hopes this experience will help support students’ sense that it is “important to act… to wake history up and have a dialogue about it so we don’t have collective amnesia about the past.” Atashi hopes students will gain tools in her course to truly “become stakeholders and take a role in society.” The final faculty panel member discussed his work engaging with the campus working group report in his fall, Improv for Social Change course. Gibson Cima (Performing Arts) made the report a central focal point for his students in the fall, arranging for exploration into Georgetown’s slavery archives and interviewing members of the University’s working group to capture–and later perform– their experiences. Cima impressed on colleagues in the room that “I cannot emphasize enough what that encounter [to really see Georgetown’s slavery history through the archives] does for our students.”

As a way to conclude the Teach-In on an action-oriented note, Michelle Ohnona (CNDLS) and Amanda Munroe (CSJ) facilitated a working session for attendees to brainstorm and discuss in small groups their own ideas for incorporating the speech and/or report into their classrooms or campus spaces this spring. This allowed faculty and staff to share with one another their plans, or to gather inspiration for those just beginning to consider this work. Over the course of the full spring semester, there is still time to consider how you might incorporate these conversations into your campus space as well!

To learn more about the curricular initiative, please see the Provost’s email from December 2016, or if you would like to discuss ideas about “teaching the speech” more specifically, please contact Andria Wisler or Amanda Munroe at the CSJ. For more information on upcoming “Let Freedom Ring!” Initiative events, visit the listings here.