By Regina D. Biddings-Muro
Leadership takes courage. Acts of courage will likely make you stand out — and sometimes in ways that will make some uncomfortable.
By way of introduction, allow me to share that I am the first person of color to serve on the executive cabinet in the history of California Lutheran University. As an African American woman, this constant “first” status elicits a shoulder shrug and an already-knew-that nod of agreement among many Black professionals.
Without exception, it has taken acts of courage to bring a “first” to sit at tables where powerful people are making decisions. This persistent truth magnifies the systemic realities that reinforce limits imposed on individuals based on race. Courageous leaders must question long-accepted norms that push underrepresented groups of people to the margins.
Top executives in Fortune 100 companies, higher education, professional sports, grocers, medicine, and the automotive industry were publicly talking about the same thing on the same day at the same time. It was May 25, 2020. The topic was the repellent killing of George Floyd that elicited national and international outrage.
The abhorrent act jolted our collective conscience with many calling for justice and an end to racism; yet the body count keeps climbing. I found myself deeply troubled for the umpteenth time about the perceived devaluation of Black bodies. In that moment, the words of James Baldwin echoed in my mind: “We can disagree and still love each other. Unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
My steelworker parents and coal-mining grandparents left an indelible legacy that compels me to channel my grief into building positive coalitions for change. I was drawn to Cal Lutheran because my family’s values resound with the university’s mission: “to educate leaders for a global society who are strong in character and judgment, confident in their identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice.”
Designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution a few years ago, Cal Lutheran still has significant work ahead before we can claim to fully live into this mission. We have some of the same race-related challenges as other universities — as we are, indeed, a microcosm of the larger community.
That said, it is in my nature to find encouragement in our university’s support for a new initiative — the Community Scholars for Black Lives Fellowship program — to memorialize Mr. Floyd and others who have lost their lives due to anti-blackness. The fellowship encourages students to envision concrete projects informed by a network of Ventura County nonprofit community organizations whose goals are to lift the Black community through civic engagement, youth development, and educational activities.
Thanks to our phenomenal partnership, Amgen Foundation President Eduardo Cetlin was the first to join a community conversation that launched this fellowship program, and, less than one year after that discussion began, the inaugural class of scholars has completed its projects, which aim to inspire courageous decisions that will lead to change.
Graduating biology major Emozino Ayetuoma produced a documentary that recalls America’s history of using Black slaves for medical experimentation. Her work includes interviews with Black medical professionals and patients talking about their experiences.
Landry Irumva, who will graduate with a degree in political science, convened a panel of highly successful Black professionals to offer mentorship for students seeking out career guidance.
Sia Williams, a junior majoring in English, organized a book club that exposes high school students to coming-of-age novels that present Black characters in a positive light.
Although Cal Lutheran’s fellowship program is barely a year old, this brainstorming experiment conceived with my colleague and thought partner Kelly Owens, Ph.D., is scalable and transferable to many communities.
Change is possible one courageous decision at a time. While wrestling with the spirit-crushing tragedy of yet another Black man’s murder, these students used their own imaginations to answer the question “where do we go from here?”
Another round of students has applied for the same fellowship experience for the next academic year. This momentum could lead to sustainable changes in our broader community. The call to anyone who wants to create a society that doesn’t impose second-class citizenship on “others” is clear: Make tough decisions that challenge our status-quo comfort zones.
Yes, I know it’s a risk that might have lasting consequences. Our future depends on our willingness to take courageous risks anyway.
• Regina D. Biddings-Muro, Ed.D., is vice president for University Advancement at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.