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GUEST COLUMN: Black History Month is good time to reflect on the importance of equity

Randall J. “Randy” VanWagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College
Posted 2/4/23

Black History Month is a time for all Americans to reflect and increase their understanding about the experience of Black people in this country.

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GUEST COLUMN: Black History Month is good time to reflect on the importance of equity


Black History Month is a time for all Americans to reflect and increase their understanding about the experience of Black people in this country.

It is certainly a time to celebrate Black American icons like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, as well as inventions from Black inventors that are essential to daily life in America, such as the three-color traffic light, refrigerated trucks, and the critical role brilliant Black men and women contributed to the carbon filament in Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and the math used to land a rocket on the moon.

However, Black History Month is more than surfacing significant chapters of shared history that should be part of our everyday knowledge.

The month of February is also a time to reflect on the important distinction between equality and equity.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for equality with great clarity and passion to recognize America’s shortcomings for more than half a century with the “separate but equal” policy flowing from the Plessy vs. Ferguson case of 1896 that legalized segregation for decades.

A challenge for our country today is to find common ground on the notion of equity. Equality is easy enough to understand with the reasonable need for things to be equal.

But when Black Americans today shoulder the burdensome legacy of 200 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow laws, and what is now roughly 50 years of mass incarceration, the idea of equality in that context always falls short and why equity becomes increasingly important to understand and advance.

Equity is about something being just or fair – creating and maintaining a level playing field, if you will. The lack of equitable practices over time has manifested itself in many discouraging circumstances.

For example, the compounding impact of our history makes it no wonder that annual income differential between Black people is, on average, 60% of that of white people.

Even more significant is that the generational wealth gap is four times greater with Black families having only 15% average household wealth as that of white families due to the significant disparity in family wealth accumulating across the generations of those families who were not enslaved or legally marginalized for centuries.

Along with so many individuals and organizations working together to increase equity and understanding, MVCC serves as a catalyst toward advancing equity and social mobility for everyone in Oneida County, and Black History Month is an opportunity to amplify specific aspects of our work.

MVCC has Black History Month programming on every weekday in February, with a special community showing of the Wakanda Forever movie from 3-6:30 p.m., on Friday, Feb. 10, in the Schafer Theater on Utica Campus.

Additionally, MVCC will be hosting a Juneteenth event this summer on our Utica Campus and will evolve our community-wide DEI Challenge from the last two years to our first-ever, month-long Community Town Square in October to promote understanding and connections among everyone in our region.

More specifically to programming and intentional support, MVCC provides an array of workshops for area businesses and organizations that have been well-received by our partners for inviting everyone into meaningful conversations to explore and understand diversity, equity, and inclusion.

MVCC’s Center for Leadership Excellence, in partnership with Leadership Mohawk Valley, the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, and multiple community leaders from Cornhill, developed and supports an annual Neighborhoods Rising cohort of Black and Latinx leaders to affirm and advance their leadership skills, increase their social capital, and help clarify their goals for making a positive impact in the community.

Black and African American students represented more than 10% of MVCC students this past fall.

Unlike many colleges across the country, there is no difference between Black and white student success at MVCC after six years, with roughly 75% of students having graduated, transferred, or still being enrolled (accounting for some students attending part-time).

Additionally, MVCC is evolving its outreach strategy to increase partnerships with local non-profits, as well as churches, to connect with people where they already are.

Yes, Black History Month is about honoring the history of Black people in this country, but it is also about increasing our understanding about the complex, unequal, and compounding legacy of that history and finding ways to nurture and advance equity wherever possible.

Randall J. “Randy” VanWagoner, Ph.D., serves as the fifth president of Mohawk Valley Community College – a position he has held since July 1, 2007. He is a current member of the Jobs For the Future Policy Leadership Trust, co-chairs the national Community College Workforce Consortium and co-facilitates the national Strategic Horizon Network of community colleges focused on learning about disruptive innovation, vibrant organizational cultures, and equity outside of higher education.


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