“We are setting the world on fire”

Panel promotes conversation on policing and social justice

“We are developing a sustainable framework for the continuation of inclusive practices across CNU, and we’re identifying a university-wide assessment to evaluate inequities within our formal and informal systems,” said Dr. Angela Spranger, Christopher Newport’s newly appointed Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. “Our processes, our leaders, and our overall logistics, with the explicit purpose of measuring our baseline climate and assessing the diversity profile, and determining the readiness for change at CNU.”

On Thursday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m., the Christopher Newport community was invited to watch a live-streamed panel discussion over the video-conferencing platform Zoom. The discussion, entitled “Seen, Safe, and Valued at CNU: Policing and Social Justice,” brought together individuals of various backgrounds, ages, and professions to answer questions submitted by audience members. Together, they facilitated an open dialogue surrounding aspects of America’s current social justice climate and how Christopher Newport can be a part of positive change.

To begin the evening, Amie Dale, Executive Director of University Relations, introduced the panelists. The goal was for each panelist to answer at least one question as Spranger hosted and directed the conversation. She prefaced the discussion with an explanation of its expected goal: “…At Christopher Newport University, I wanted to create a space where we can learn together, get some information about what our current state is, and to move forward together. This is our university, our community. So tonight is about listening, learning from one another, and then talking about opportunities for making change effectively.”

The event was split into two categories, Policing and Social Justice, each resulting in about thirty minutes of dialogue. The first panelist to speak regarding the former was Chief Dan Woloszynowski, Chief of Police of Christopher Newport University Police Department (CNUPD). When asked what the community should know about what policing looks like on campus, he responded, “What we are, and what we hope we are to you, are guardians. You, the community members, are in our care. Our number one priority is that people not only need to be safe in our community, but we want you to feel safe.” He went on to discuss a “heart-focused” manner of policing in which he strives to treat everyone with equal dignity and respect.

Sheriff Gabe Morgan, who has been Sheriff of Newport News since 2006, explained the relationship between himself and the Newport News Police Department (NNPD). He described their connection with the phrase “one team, one fight,” as the two parties strive to uphold civil and criminal law in the incorporated city of Newport News. Chief Steve Drew — who was named Chief of Police of the NNPD in 2018 and later retired as Deputy Chief — further developed these points as he discussed the importance of the collaboration between CNUPD and NNPD.

Dr. Kevin Hughes, Christopher Newport’s Dean of Students and the Vice President for Student Affairs, discussed the concept of community policing, a way to bridge gaps between police officers and the members of communities that they serve and protect. Hughes said, “I don’t want anybody to feel like, ‘I have nowhere to go, so I’m just going to stay quiet.’ Because that doesn’t help us get better, and ultimately, that’s what [the community policing approach] is about… the emphasis is on community, and everyone here is a part of that community.”

Harry Lewis, a retired Chief of Police from Pocono Mountain Police Department of Pennsylvania, was asked to offer general advice for students on campus. “Their behavior on and off campus has consequences, and they have to be aware of that,” he said. As a parent of a Christopher Newport student, he went on to explain, “When you go into a new environment like college, people don’t think like you… Everybody has value, and everybody has something different to offer. Everybody brings something to the table because we all have different experiences.”

To shift the evening towards conversations surrounding social justice, the second part of the panel discussion began with a response from Dr. Elizabeth Gagnon, a senior lecturer at Christopher Newport. She addressed the possible ways that students can become more actively involved in social justice. As the Academic Director for the university’s Center for Community Engagement, she encouraged students to look into the opportunities that the Center has to offer. “We have to learn how to talk about social justice. The community is hungry, [the Center’s] partners are hungry to have students alongside them and engage in these issues with them,” she said.

Vidal Dickerson, Special Assistant to the Vice President of Student Affairs, advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion in regards to Christopher Newport students. He encouraged the use of social media to engage in activism and to start conversations about difficult topics such as the recent spikes in “death and trauma within the Black community.” He argued that such conversations are essential, especially at a predominantly white university like Christopher Newport.

Blakely Lockhart, a senior at Christopher Newport, began her response by saying, “I would like to preface that I am a woman of color. To start, one of CNU’s biggest problems is that they are reactive and not proactive.” She went on to explain that the university has received press coverage recently regarding the administration’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement as it came to a head during the summer of 2020, as well as the importance of student-led marches and protests. Lockhart planned the “Keeping the Momentum” protest on campus in June.

“What I find disappointing is that it took these protests and these marches and the bad publicity of CNU, along with the exposure of racism at CNU, for administration to take action,” she said. “This had led me to reactivate the NAACP… as a unifying organization on campus.” She called for change beginning with the Christopher Newport administration promoting it, alongside student and community support.

“Our university president continually preaches to ‘set the world on fire,” Lockhart continued. “Guess what, President Trible? I think you should be very proud. We are setting the world on fire and we are rebuilding this country from the ground up.”

Marlon Dubuisson and Marckel Bonds, two Christopher Newport Alumni, class of 2017 and 2019, respectively, echoed her sentiments as they continued the conversation regarding student activism.

“Unfortunately, President Trible and CNU went down a more performative route, went down a comfortable route, and went down a route we’ve been going down for too long,” Dubuisson said. He called for the university to “take time to progress” in its responses to racism and racial injustice, which can only come from uncomfortable conversations about these topics.

“[My generation] is here to make bold and immediate change,” he said, “and we urge CNU to put forth real action for real results. This is the fire that you cannot put out. I yield my time.”

When Bonds was asked about his reflections on his time at Christopher Newport, he began with the statement that the university’s student population is less than 8% Black. “Not a single police officer on here said the words ‘Black’ or ‘-Lives Matter’ while they were speaking. Not knocking them or anything like that, but I’m just trying to put in perspective that we’re not only talking about policing. Social injustice is not something that can be separated from any conversation.” The police officers on the panel then responded, agreeing that Black lives indeed matter as the panelists offered closing remarks in response to a few more audience questions.

The “Seen, Safe, and Valued at CNU: Policing and Social Justice” panel was a multifaceted discussion surrounding how Christopher Newport as a whole can become an agent of positive change. After the panel ran over its allotted time with questions still left to answer, Dr. Spranger committed to hosting a second “diversity deep-dive” discussion in the coming weeks.

~Anna Dorl, Editor-in-Chief~

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