A new class at the University of Colorado aims to bring the curriculum "into the 21st century" by studying a present-day movement on racial injustice.
Reiland Rabaka, a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, is teaching a topics course on the Black Lives Matter movement, which he hopes to turn into a permanent course for the next academic year.
"This course is an effort to help to diversify the curriculum, it's an effort to decolonize the curriculum," Rabaka said.
The course offers discussions that are relevant to students' lives. Often, ethnic studies majors focus on past injustices, but many of those have been replicated in our current century, he said.
Last week, students discussed the recent incident between Naropa University student and Boulder police. Zayd Atkinson, 26, was picking up trash in the yard of his residence when a police officer approached him and asked if he was allowed to be there. Atkinson offered his student identification card, but then continued working. The officer, who has not yet been named and is on paid administrative leave, called in for backup, and some officers wielded lethal and non-lethal weapons. The police department is conducting an internal investigation into the incident.
Activists on Sunday held a large march from Naropa to the police station, which some of Rabaka's students attended.
Students spend time during each class to "radically reflect on how we can connect what we're reading with what's happening in the world right now," Rabaka said.
"I've been blown away by it. I cannot tell you how much they taught me, being in critical dialogue with my students. I think it's incredibly powerful," he said. "It's just really important to see the ways in which this class is having a transformative impact on students."
Makena Jane Lambert, a junior at CU majoring in ethnic studies, said she was excited to have a place to "unpack" social justice issues she has been following since high school.
The Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, "awakened in me a new sense of urgency and a passion for social justice and anti-racist efforts," Lambert said, adding it also inspired her choice of major.
"I wanted to finally take control of my education and learn about the histories, herstories and epistemologies that my Eurocentric education had always purposefully excluded from the curriculum," she said.
Rabaka said the student response to the course has been "phenomenal." There are 19 undergraduate and three graduate students enrolled in it as a topics course, which he said is serving as a pilot before he applies to make it a permanent class.
At the beginning of the course, Rabaka said he juxtaposes the Black Lives Matter movement with black freedom movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like the Combahee River Collective in Boston.
Just as the Combahee River Collective was founded by a black feminist lesbian, Black Lives Matter was founded by queer black feminists who focused on how race intersects with gender, sexuality and economic issues, among others.
"It's one of the first clear articulations of intersectionality," he said. "It grapples with the fact that racism intersects with sexism which intersects with capitalism."
The course, which also discusses the emergence of the prison industrial complex and the introduction of crack cocaine, is taught from an "intersectional framework," Rabaka said.
Lambert said she will carry one concept from the class — "revolutionary humanism" — with her for the rest of her life.
"Too often we try to pick apart what makes us different and we don't spend enough time relating to each other through our common humanity," she said. "In a racist, sexist, capitalist society that works to constantly and systematically dehumanize people, the act of simply seeing each other as human beings is radical."
Most people have a "social media relationship to Black Lives Matter," Rabaka said, meaning they only know of the movement from the posts they see on social media. This often provides a narrow picture of what the movement is about.
"It's about more than racial profiling or police brutality," he said. "It's a full-blown movement."
Rabaka said it's important that students at CU are exposed to these ideas.
"(Boulder is) a very homogenous environment, it's a vanilla environment," he said. "There's a lot of lip service paid ... but it's easy to say that when the groups aren't there."
Lambert also believes students are often able to "slip through college in an ignorance-is-bliss state," but classes like this can inspire them to be more active in their education, and potentially to be activists for social issues.
Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, firstname.lastname@example.org