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Our System Is Broken


The names may change, the details of the stories differ, but the narrative remains the same for far too many and for far too long — Black lives seem to be expendable. 

That was the case for Walter Wallace Jr., a young Black man who was, by his family’s own account, in the midst of a mental health crisis when he was shot and killed by Philadelphia police officers on Monday. Another senseless end of another Black life.

This latest tragedy hits some of us particularly hard. Swarthmore enjoys a special connection to the city of Philadelphia. Its proximity to campus not only allows meaningful academic and civic engagement between the College and the city, but it is also home to many of our faculty, staff members, and students. The images we see in the news are unfolding in neighborhoods many of us call home, just eight miles from where I write this note. I hope you’ll join me in holding Mr. Wallace’s family and friends, as well as our own friends and colleagues, in your thoughts and in the light.

From George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Atatiana Jefferson to Trayvon Martin and so many others, each of these tragic deaths carries its own particular set of circumstances. They are unique stories linked by a common theme: Our system is broken. Criminal justice, mental health, and racial equity are ideals we have not realized.

Collectively and over time, our community can and will play a role in bringing about meaningful change. Our capacity for creative and intellectual problem solving, combined with our empathy and deep belief in serving the common good, both unite us as a community and position us to act in the face of so much pain.

As renowned author and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson often reminds us, with proximity comes responsibility. "We need to engage and invest and position ourselves in the places where there is despair," Stevenson has said.

Proximity is a central tenet of many of the College’s own initiatives that address racial equity and inclusion. As but one example, the newly-established President’s Fund for Racial Justice (PFRJ) supports curricular and co-curricular initiatives that promote engaged scholarship, especially, though not exclusively, in local and regional communities, all with the goal of improving the lives of Black and Brown people and other minoritized groups. We recently announced that the PFRJ will support eight new courses this academic year focused on transformative racial justice. We have also identified more than 80 courses across 19 programs and departments focused on issues of race and racism and their relationship to power and privilege.

While the College’s work toward creating a more just world evolves over time to address the myriad challenges we face, all of us can engage in more immediate activities to make our voices heard. It is abundantly clear — perhaps now more than any time in recent history — that leadership matters. If you haven’t already cast your ballot, I urge you to do so. If you still have questions about how to vote, please visit our Get Out the Vote website.

The Student Affairs Division is working with students who are organizing an on-campus event for those who wish to come together in this moment. In line with what I shared in my earlier email, this on-campus event will accommodate a greater number of students, so long as they already reside on campus, wear masks, and maintain physical distancing.

At this moment in which so many of us are experiencing incredible anxiety and fear, please take care of yourselves and of your friends and loved ones.


Val Smith