WATERVILLE — Thomas College in Waterville has announced the members of its newly formed Presidential Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Social Justice.

Laurie Lachance Photo by John McKeith

The task force was formed in June following the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis who died May 25 while being arrested, an incident that sparked nationwide marches and protests to decry racial injustice.

“In response to George Floyd’s murder, it sparked our understanding that just saying something about it was not enough,” President Laurie Lachance said during an interview. “We had to take some action, something different that had been done for years before.”

Professor Dr. Richard Biffle and Professor Judith Hansen-Childers, who are co-chairs of the task force, unveiled the 35 representatives, all from different sectors of the college, including students and alumni.

The representatives have been divided into four subcommittees that will focus on different aspects of the campus:

• Establishment and support of educational programs.

• Expansion of curriculum and co-curricular activities.

• Identifying and delivering support materials and resources.

• Creating a more-holistic campus learning environment.

The task force will assess the standing of equity, diversity and social justice in these areas and make recommendations, according to college officials.

“The whole idea is to critically reflect on the type of communities and cultures that we want to maintain at our college and how that fits into the grander scheme of things ,” Biffle said during an interview.

“One of the things that I feel very strongly about: Being an advocate of human rights. Civil rights and social justice is critically important. It’s certainly important in my life and what I’ve done in my life. (So) it’s really critically important that we’re working with, researching with, having dialogue with students so that they understand what their roles and responsibilities are as they transition through college.”

Biffle has extensive experience in social justice, human and civil rights and equity and diversity. This experience includes a role as a national staff member for the NAACP after he graduated from the University of California, Riverside.

Richard Biffle Photo by John McKeith submitted by Thomas College

After the death of George Floyd, Biffle felt compelled to make his feelings known to the Thomas community.

“It (the task force) was really initiated as a result of a number of things that are happening, and the most prominent I guess in the conversation was the George Floyd murder,” Biffle said. “And I had sent a letter to the Thomas community expressing my feelings and opinions about this issue about racial injustice, racial intolerance and systemic racism. 

“And the response I got back from many people was very affirming and positive. They too were concerned, they too were in a state of shock and dismay in regards to what has happened in this country relative to the racial divide.”

Katie Rybakova, as assistant professor of education, will facilitate the group focused on the expansion of curriculum and co-curricular activities. She wanted to participate in the task force to continue educating herself which will benefit the way she instructs students. 

“It allows for me to continue to learn about equity and social justice amongst my colleagues,” Rybakova said in an email. “And it allows for me to really underline the necessity of moving towards culturally sustaining pedagogy regardless of content area because this is simply best practice in instruction. Truly equitable classrooms allow for all students to have a voice and share their stories. That’s a powerful notion.”

Rybakova’s hope is that the task force will “broaden” the school’s community in a way that “embraces all minority communities that traditionally can be marginalized in classrooms.”

Rybakova said all college campuses should participate in initiatives of acceptance.

Jim Delorie, assistant dean of student engagement, will lead the group that is focused on the establishment and support of educational programs. 

“I’m seen on campus as somebody who can work with people, work across boundaries and help different groups come together and have a voice,” Delorie said. “For me, I see it personally as an opportunity to learn and listen and lend a voice.”

Judy Hansen Childers Photo submitted by Thomas College

Delorie said the task force will allow the Thomas community to be more welcoming and more understanding of people who come from different walks of life.

“We’re trying to get a community that really lends itself to be welcoming to all, and one that understands that everyone comes from a different background,” Delorie said. “And we’re trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable and heard and safe, knowing that one of the key topics right now in the country and in the world is diversity and equity.

“We have students that are coming from varied experiences, so we can’t assume that they all have a ‘central Maine’ experience. We want to make sure they can share that.”

As Thomas College prepares to bring students back to campus in a modified way due to the coronavirus pandemic, Biffle said he hoped the entire task force can meet virtually or in-person on a monthly basis. The individual groups will meet twice a month.

“We really have to address these issues of these senseless killings and murders of community members,” Biffle said. “We have to address systemic racism. If we can participate in learning experiences that engage people and fosters a sense of healing and combating structural racism, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

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