Portland native, Portland State alumni and scholar Dr. Daymond Glenn gave his blunt take on diversity in higher education on Jan 22. In Glenn’s words: “I’m a free Black man, I don’t work for anybody but myself, I’m just gonna tell you the truth as I see it.”
PSU hosted its Martin Luther King Jr. tribute 2020 event in the Smith Student Memorial Student Union ballroom. According to Interim President Stephen Percy, who spoke at the event, the tribute was meant to “reflect, remember and reconnect to the important work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” as well as “[reimagine] diversity in higher education.”
The keynote presentation featured Glenn, whose research includes fields such as “the college experiences of undergraduate Black males attending predominantly white institutions” and “the intersections of race, faith, hip-hop and justice in society.”
Glenn is also the founder and senior pastor of the Portland-based Cultural Soul Project Church which, in his words, is “dedicated to addressing the needs of people of color in inner city urban America through the lens of the African American experience.”
“People think I only care about Black folk,” Glenn said about the initial reactions he receives when people hear “African American experience.” But according to Glenn, “This couldn’t be further from the truth, but I am a Black man. I own that, and that is my lived experience, my lived reality, that is my truth.”
On the night of the tribute, in front of the ballroom entrance, a line wrapped around the third floor hallways of SMSU as attendees waited for doors to open. Not long after were the rows of black folding chairs filled with students, faculty, administration and other members of the community.
Among the attendees were Janvier Gasabato and Wilondja Mashimango, both PSU sophomores. In an interview, Gasabato and Mashimango shared their perspectives on the progress of diversity since MLK and the civil rights movement.
“I feel like we’ve made some progress and people have come together and work together,” Gasabato said. “But we still have a long way to go.”
According to Mashimango, progress in diversity appears to have been made, “but if you really look close we are still at the same place.”
Gasabato is originally from Rwanda, and Mashimango is from the Congo. Both now reside in the Portland area.
Julia Seydel, another PSU student in attendance, said in response to the same question: “I’m absolutely an optimist ‘til I die…I do think we are making progress toward social justice.”
The event began with James Weldon Johnson’s “Black National Anthem” as sung by Brandi Alberti and was followed by Julie Caron, interim vice president of global diversity and inclusion. Caron thanked event planners as well as gave a land acknowledgment in honor of the indigenous people whose lands the Portland metropolitan area is built on.
Percy, following Caron, closed his university welcome speech with a quote from Dr. King about being vigilant in moving toward equity and freedom: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
After a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” by vocalist LaRhonda Steele and an introduction from Walter Ghant, director of PSUs Veterans Resource Center, Dr. Glenn took the stage.
Glenn gave thanks to everyone who organized and took part in the event gave some background on his earlier research, which “exists within the context of critical theory.” According to Glenn, it’s “a profound analysis on systems and structures and how they perpetuate sometimes inequitable institutional culture.”
By critical theory, Glenn said he is referring to the Frankfurt school of critical theory.
“We’re gonna look at systemic, structural and institutional cultural transformation through the lense of a radical King,” Glenn said continuing his presentation.
An excerpt from a letter written by King was projected above the stage which, according to Glenn, expressed the early stages of King’s “transformative theory [and] philosophy.”
Part of the excerpt contained: “[Capitalism] started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human system[s] it [fell] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today, capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
“A lot of [King’s] theory that existed, he talked about early in his life through a love letter in 1952 to his sweet girlfriend at the time Coretta Scott,” Glenn said. “You can’t do work for the people, by the people without love…and Martin Luther King profoundly had a sense of love.”
According to Glenn, King’s ideas in the excerpt are also “a profound way to talk about how we need to reimagine diversity work within the context of institutional life.” In the “spirit of hip hop,” Glenn “remixed” the excerpt and called it “a love letter to the academy.”
Part of the remix contained: “[Integration] started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to give people of color access to a high quality education, but like most human systems it [fell] victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today, an integrationist approach to education has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that marginalizes cultural identity and is used as an insidious vehicle to socialize people of color to the values of the elite.”
For Glenn, when institutions, like those of higher education, bring people of color in and aren’t able to properly support them there becomes “a little bit of civil unrest.” Developing diversity programs in higher education, while beneficial, isn’t enough.
That’s not to say Glenn feels that people doing diversity work have bad intentions, but rather he feels “there’s a whole lot of talk about the rhetoric of diversity, [but] there’s not a lot of result on the ground that [he’d] like to see.”
“We have to stop thinking about diversity as just this thing that cosmetically changes environments,” Glenn said. “But power doesn’t change, ideology doesn’t change, and the arbiter for how historically underrepresented or marginalized populations are successful is through a lens of that elite.”
“I think we need to deconstruct that and dismantle that altogether,” Glenn said.
In his experience as a chief diversity officer and diversity director, Glenn has noticed that institutions often view offices of diversity as “repositories” and aren’t playing a pivotal role in these institutions as one of their “power brokers.” Glenn recommends placing offices of diversity in other major offices in institutions such as human resources and finance.
According to Glenn, “If you want to be for real about diversity work…think about it ideologically as a systemic response to disparities that exist.”
Glenn went on to comment on diversity in Portland as a whole, saying that some people of color have made it into positions of power, but that is not representative of “what is really going on on the street.”
“One person of color who gets a position that is highly…relegated to the margins” is not an indicator of social progress, Glenn said. “That sounds like that Portland pseudo-liberalism stuff.”
Ghant made a joke in his earlier introduction about predominantly white Portland: “I’ve known Dr. Glenn for sometime from afar, but we have several things in common…we are both native Portlanders and Oregonians and African American; that makes us somewhat of a unicorn here in Portland.”
Mashimango made a similar remark with regard to PSU: “It’s not easy to spot a person of color. You have to wander everywhere.”
Glenn continued onto his experience consulting for various institutions about their own diversity offices and has found that most are a “cosmetic representation” and not nearly “transformative” enough.
Keeping the presentation in line with a tribute to King, Glenn gave five principles of “King-sian” philosophy that he recommends to transforming higher education systems.
“We need to put people in power who have a different lived experience, a [different] lived reality and a different cultural sensibility in positions of power that can help change the institutions in different ways,” Glenn said near the end of his keynote presentation.
The event concluded with a questions and answers session moderated by PSU graduate student Jasmine Taylor.
After the event, Seydel said in an email: “I appreciate [Glenn’s] emphasis on systemic changes, and that PSU has the courage to host a speaker who calls them out on how to do better. I hope that the Board of Trustees takes Dr. Glenn’s words to heart as they interview potential candidates for PSU’s presidency.”
Five principles of Kingsian philosophy:
- “The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”
- “But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood after a Birmingham or Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation.”
- “No great victories are won in a war for the transformation of a whole people without the total participation. Less than this will not create a new society; it will only evoke more sophisticated token amelioration.”
- “Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low-paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”
- “The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.