The Right to Breathe

For the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, Dean Ian Solomon led the Batten community in a discussion of the University’s fight against racism and inequity

Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon, took a deep breath in. Then he exhaled slowly. “The right to breathe,” he said, addressing an online audience of nearly 70 people last week. “Let me breathe. I can’t breathe,” he continued, echoing the last words of George Floyd and Eric Garner, two of the latest in a long list of Black victims of police brutality. 

His remarks opened the latest installment of Batten Expert Chats. For last week’s conversation, titled “The Right to Breathe: A Community Conversation,” Solomon moderated a panel of trustees from the University of Virginia’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Fund Board. All three panelists are UVA graduates, although they attended the University long before the founding of the Batten School. 

“I’m eager for this timely and important discussion for the Batten community,” Solomon said. 

“That word, ‘breathe,’ figures so much in the early ideals of this country,” said trustee Karima Bouchenafa, assistant director of the Philadelphia University Honors Institute at Thomas Jefferson University. “When you think about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ or when you think about ‘your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’—those have become emblematic of the United States of America, but they have not always applied to African Americans and other marginalized communities.”

Solomon framed the conversation with the Rodney King riots, which were sparked in 1992 by a jury’s acquittal of the three policemen who were caught on camera beating King, an African American man. Solomon asked the panelists to discuss changes they saw between those riots and the protests of today.

Bouchenafa noted the prevalence of cell phones, pointing out how easy it has become for almost anyone to take a video, share it widely, and hold police accountable. She added that the racial makeup of protestors has grown far more diverse. “To speak plainly, there are so many more White people present,” she said.

Trustee Jennifer Mencarini, director of career development at Elon University’s School of Law, said that many White people have been experiencing a major shift in perspective. “We cannot look away anymore,” she said. “We are waking up to say, ‘These are my fellow humans who are suffering greatly, and I have an obligation to step in and do something about it.’”

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the IDEA Fund is an alumni interest group that has been helping the University start taking action to address inequity. “UVA was one of the first institutions to acknowledge that they utilized the labor of slaves—and to begin taking ownership of the fact,” said Kevin Carrington, chair of the IDEA fund and vice president in Segal Consulting’s Washington, DC, office. Over the past decade, the Fund has pushed and empowered the university to publicly reckon with its history. The organization played a significant role in developing the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on Grounds, for example, and in the University’s decision to name a new dormitory after an enslaved couple.

The goal of such initiatives has been to humanize the experiences of enslaved people. “It’s important to recognize that enslaved laborers were human beings,” said Bouchenafa. In addition to listing the names of the laborers, UVA’s memorial is engraved with the words and eyes of Isabella Gibbons, a writer and educator who was once enslaved at the University. “I ask people to learn about all the things Isabella accomplished and to allow that to help you shift the narrative you may have about a group of people at a particular time,” Bouchenafa said.

The panelists had many recommendations for people seeking to support anti-racism work, but they all seemed to agree that for White people especially, it starts with learning and leaning into discomfort. “I think a lot of us don’t have language for how to talk about these things,” Mencarini said. “We’re cushioned by an educational system that does not push an accurate narrative about our history, so sometimes uncomfortable conversations just don’t happen.” 

The panelists cautioned against solely engaging Black friends to provide that education; instead, they encouraged White people to do their own research and to amplify Black voices. “We never want to add to the burden of marginalized people, and we don’t want those people to feel like they’re a spokesperson or the only source of information,” Bouchenafa said. But when people of color use dialogue as an opportunity to share their insights, she said, it’s also important that we listen. “A large problem with structural racism is that people tend to be ignored or not invited to the table,” she explained.

We also need to take action now, while systemic racism is still capturing the attention of the media, the panelists agreed. “It’s as if you’ve always been on the sidelines, and now the coach calls your number,” Carrington said. “Make hay while the sun shines—make it count now.” He stressed the importance of pushing mayors to insist on training for their police in de-escalation tactics and urged viewers to talk with their senators about changes that need to occur to make sure that police forces are charged with protecting all people, not just one group. Sustaining that momentum is also essential, Mencarini added. “We all need to be relentless in holding people in power accountable—not just in government, but in our own spheres of influence,” she said. “Don’t ever quit.”

Bouchenafa framed structural racism and inequity as concerns that affect everyone. “This isn’t just a Black problem; it’s an American problem,” she said. “It is damaging to all of us and to the idea of America. That’s something that we’re seeing now, and hopefully we’ll sustain this perspective for generations to come.”

In his closing remarks, Solomon echoed that sentiment, encouraging viewers to support each other and to keep pushing for equity. “The Batten community is strong,” he said, “and we have a lot of work to do.”