Anti-Racism & Social Justice in Education Abroad

The following messages appeared in the June 4, 2020 Special Edition of the Forum News.

Dear Colleagues,

Over the course of the past week, the world has watched as actions of police brutality against Black citizens have led to a growing urgency in the public discourse around systemic racism in the United States and direct actions taken to dismantle an unjust system. In our roles as international educators and citizens, we have watched, we have marched, we have cried, we have shouted, we have whispered, written, and read. Hopefully, we have also listened.

Today, we have decided to use the Forum News to center and amplify the voices of colleagues of color who offer us another opportunity to listen and reflect. Some of these are colleagues who serve on The Forum Board or Council, while others have given their time to our committees, conferences, and working groups. They, and so many other members of our field, have helped this organization extend the impact of the work we all do by identifying resources and opportunities to meet the needs of every member of the education abroad community. I am grateful, humbled, and proud that they have chosen to share their thoughts with you through this platform today.

As a field, we value the impact that education abroad experiences have on students’ ability to respectfully engage with and learn from difference and to be good citizens and stewards of the world. We must remember that this applies to who students are and what they choose to do at home as much as it does when they travel overseas. And we must keep working.

We would love to hear your thoughts on what The Forum can do to support your work on anti-racism and social justice in education abroad. Please reach out to with feedback.

Melissa A. Torres (she/her/hers)
President & CEO
The Forum on Education Abroad

Channeling Study Abroad as an Instrument of Social Justice & Equity in a Post-Pandemic World

Gretchen Cook-Anderson
Assistant Vice President for Diversity Recruiting & Advising
IES Abroad

I am an evangelist for study and travel abroad. Some use knowledge of medicine to cure illness, deliver new life and expand access to public health. Some use the power of the law to right wrongs and advocate for those without a voice. I use my knowledge of travel, cultures, and places to cultivate global citizens who reflect the world’s rich diversity. This is my form of social justice. This is my platform for change. And, the horrific incidents of racial injustice over recent weeks, including the linchpin murder of George Floyd, reinforce why I do the work that I do.

As we emerge from this historic pandemic, change and adaptation have indeed become our reality, our uncomfortable, pushy new companions in life. We left one world behind last winter. And, an altered world bows before us, awaiting students, and the rest of us, to eventually explore it again.

We must work feverishly as a field to foster and make concrete the concept of “One World,” and to remind our neighbors, colleagues, students and friends of the humanity we amplify through our efforts. The work we do cultivates diverse global citizens who will be on the forefront of forging a brave new world as we emerge from this pandemic – and we must ensure they’re armed with the empathy, compassion, anti-racism mindsets, intercultural responsiveness, and capacity for innovation the world needs.

And, so I find myself, as many of us do, seeking ways to preserve this unique launchpad to social justice with equity not only intact, but exponentially expanded. I want to see us catapult global education to its rightful place in the hierarchy of drivers of human progress and diversity.

For more than 25 years I’ve had a professional’s front-row seat to observing how travel changes people — women and men, black, white and other. Travel humanizes us. It expands our potential by honing our language, intercultural and other skills, and, deepening our capacity for humility, empathy and fairness. It forces us to reconsider how we think about history, politics, migration, commerce, technology, health care, education and community. My own experiences changed my way of looking at “the other side” of everything. And, it also taught me that I’m never really alone, despite how big and scary and impersonal the world might seem to some. The world, herself, became my friend. And, all of humanity evolved into my extended family.

The smaller the world became in my mind, the bigger my ambitions grew to fight for humanity in whatever small ways might ripple across borders.

I feel empowered in my difference when I travel. I’ve found there’s poetic beauty in others’ differences – the smoothness, kink or curl in their hair, the lilt in their language as it slides of their tongues, the mosaic hues of their skin, their regal religious garb, the salty, sweet or savory of their food, and the sound of their laughter or cries. In recognizing that beauty in others, I also found it in myself. And, to me, that too feels like a kind of equity in the outcome of study abroad.

Sociologist Helen Fein coined the phrase, “universe of obligation,” to define our network of people who we care most about and to whom we remain connected even in times of crisis. People tend to shrink that “universe” in troubled times, to those who are like us and turn our eyes away from those who may be “different.” Rather, study abroad pushes students to stretch and expand their universe of obligation. Their sway in turn reverberates to peers and others in their sphere of influence.

We have a compelling, ground-breaking opportunity ahead. And, though it will not happen overnight, as we emerge from this pandemic, thousands of education abroad professionals like you and me can boldly bring global education to more students, in more ways, more safely, across more cultures, and with greater dividends than ever for humanity.

So, in memory of my then-enslaved ancestors and lost family members like my uncle, Ricky Byrdsong, and the perished with familiar names like Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, I will decisively continue this work in the time ahead – hopefully in partnership with all of you – to expand diversity and inclusion in a field that is an antidote to hate, prejudice and racial injustice here and around the world.

A Knee and A Breath

Dr. Keshia Abraham
Founder and President
The Abraham Consulting Agency

Inhale deeply. Exhale fully. Feel your breath fill your lungs, breathe again, fill your belly, exhale, inhale, fill your whole body with breath. Exhale fully. On the next inhale, check to see where you are holding tension and breathe into that space, exhale there. Take a moment to experience how you feel being in control of your breath… settling your spirit, resting your mind a bit with the gift of breath in your body. Relax, feel yourself relaxed as you breathe, normally.

This is a simple act.  One that many take for granted, yet, this simple, life giving, life sustaining act, this free feeling, this natural freedom sits at the heart of the tensions we are now sharing as a global community.  “I can’t breathe…” “I can’t… breathe…” “I… can’t… breathe…”

The breath… whether we are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately killing Black and Brown people while we shield and protect ourselves from each other’s breath or the snatching of breath from black bodies by the police, our ability to breathe, and to breathe easily, has pushed people to the limits of what we can tolerate and live with as a society.

I check myself constantly, how am I breathing? Am I holding it in again? Have I exhaled? All week, not just this week, but every week of working and living while Black in America, engaged in daily conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion, I find myself using my awareness of breath as a touchstone for how safe I feel. I know that in some ways this is a luxury because so many Black people are daily having the life breath forced out of them and this has been going on since my people were first brought here.

We all have so much to learn by considering what it is to be Black in this world. So much of our global curriculum has marginalized the world-views offered by Black scholars, artists, educators, and cross-disciplinary contributions, what we are now witnessing is when the bubble of ignorance bursts and the dream deferred explodes.

And in this moment we have choices to make. We have an opportunity to make big bold moves that cement this time of global change. We can decide, as our cousins did with the Holocaust, to say, “never again” and mean it. We can choose now to ensure that our organizations go beyond hiring and recruiting for diversity and inclusion optics by seeking genuine inclusion which means making room for, and insisting upon valuing the intellectual contributions and perspectives of people of color. This could be the time when we choose not to minimize the lived experiences of students and staff who feel and intimately know discrimination. We could choose to say and mean, “I hear you, I see you, I appreciate you and your experiences. It’s time for change. Let’s do it together. I stand with you, supporting true equity,” so that we can heal from the past, advance the field, and breathe again.

George Floyd on My Mind

Kelechi A. Kalu
Professor of Political Science & Founding Vice Provost, International Affairs
University of California Riverside

The names runoff our tongues as if written into a dirge – Amadou Diallo, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and the list goes on; and, we remember these names with tears in our eyes, and fears that our bodies, and those of our children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, and friends, may be next under a police person’s knee, in their choke hold or facing the barrel of their gun, for the “crime” of simply being Black! Reversing the trend of making black bodies, bodies of guilt for crimes not yet committed requires deep self-reflection by the Caucasian communities because therein lie the authority and power from which rogue police officers draw strength to kill people of color with impunity. If the structures of power that sustain the negation of black bodies by many law enforcement officers in the U S is left unattended, I fear that this arrogance that is the result of this raw power, now fully visible in social media across the world will hasten the irrelevance of the United States in the eyes of a steadily-changing global community.  Yes; in the interim, and if not checked, the misapplication of this raw power will deepen existing foundations for a darker governance future across countries with illiberal and sometimes illegitimate governments who kill their own people because they can!

The policemen in Minneapolis who Killed George Floyd did so because he was Black, and they knew they could kill him with impunity.  Historically, Black bodies have been dismembered, mutilated, and simply murdered and displayed as if they never had breath in their lungs.  From the Atlantic Slave ships to the cells of various city and private jails across America, people of color continue to suffocate in a system constructed to be blind to our common humanity.

What is different today from the historical injustices against black people is the availability of information technology and personal devices that enable us to now connect with each other across global communities.  And, using these same tools, we can pull back the curtains and veils of ignorance to reveal America’s value contradictions to the rest of the world.

My name is Kelechi Kalu, a full professor, senior international education administrator, a husband, father, friend, son, brother to some of the most caring human beings I have ever known. And; yet, each time I drive out of my garage or take a walk in my neighborhood, I am always afraid because in this place – the United States of America – I am first and foremost a Black man who is already perceived guilty because I am Black!  I think I live in a free country but I must check in daily with my children just to make sure each one has returned to their homes safely at the end of the day. Somedays I wonder how many of my Caucasian colleagues with a different skin color experience similar fears or must go through similar routines in their daily lives?

For several years now, my role in the university has been to travel to different countries – mainly to non-Caucasian countries – to persuade families to trust me and the institutions I have worked for, to send their children to the United States for a world-class education. Usually, the invitations come with a promise that we will mentor and protect their children throughout their academic experiences in our institutions.  And at home, we work hard to persuade American students that if they have international experience through a liberal arts education and study abroad, their global consciousness and open-mindedness towards others will lead them away from prejudice and its damaging impacts on the most vulnerable, powerless and often marginalized in our increasingly globalized societies.

Yet, in moments of doubt and over the years, I have worried about the future of our world because even as we succeed in bringing international students to American campuses and sending American students on Study Abroad programs, the dial has rarely moved on the face of ingrained systemic racial superiority complexes.  To understand this traumatic moment in American life and the role and leadership of young people of all races, Frantz Fanon’s insightful comment, “every generation must out of obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it,” offers a beacon of hope.  George Floyd’s death took place in full camera view, and the young people have taken up the cause of human rights and justice and are defying their parents’ stubborn unwillingness to live up to the creed that, “All Wo/Men are CREATED EQUAL….”  Each time a police officer suffocates the breath out of a Black person, it is a fundamental violation of everyone’s humanity; and, specifically that individual’s human rights.  In this, we should listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reminded us that, “Justice denied anywhere, diminishes justice everywhere”.

For those of us in International Education, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on the African American community in the United States has been revealing. The needless killing of George Floyd and the anger it has unleashed have also revealed the hidden and lingering dangers of America’s value contradictions. Hopefully, these overlapping events will serve to remind us that teaching students to become globally conscious requires us to first understand what the mirror of our consciences reveal about us and this society. COVID-19’s lack of discrimination about who is worthy of infection has seemed to point out how unnecessary it is to only allow those in the majority to speak our collective futures behind closed door meetings, or how easily the views of the so-called Other contribute to our understandings of our common experience of being Human.  Each of us should know that the impacts of long-standing, low-intensity assaults on the senses of colleagues is tiring for their bodies and tasks their minds beyond their capacity to comprehend as, like the late Rodney King, they frequently ask, “Why can’t we all get along?”  Be nice to yourself, check your own prejudices and come to terms with the reality that we are all human, deserving of every opportunity to take a deep breath. Because, One Breath is all we owe Life.

Where do pronouncements fit in a world calling for action?
Where Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Intersect with Education Abroad

Dr. Joy Gleason Carew
Linguist and Professor of Pan-African Studies
University of Louisville

My home towns of Chicago and Louisville are burning up.  I was born and grew up in Chicago; and for the past 20 years, I have lived and worked in Louisville. They, along with many other US cities, are seething with discontent and disappointment. And, like elsewhere in the US, and as seen in solidarity demonstrations abroad, people are taking to the streets to demand accountability for the rise in police violence against Black and Brown people.

As a Black college study-abroad student, I lived in France during the 1968 student solidarity demonstrations in Paris; and then returned to the US to complete my undergrad studies in Cleveland, OH during the enflamed 1968-1969 year of African Americans’ reactions to the neglect of their neighborhoods. I moved on to do graduate work at Urbana, IL, where the University of Illinois was the focus of intense student anti-war protest in 1970. The commonality of the smell of tear gas and the eminent dangers associated with walking the streets struck me; but more so, what struck me, was the very common thread of  taking direct action when all other measures had failed–whether this was in France, in a largely black US urban setting, or on a bucolic college campus nestled among the corn fields.  This social unrest – then, like now — has often been described as ‘rioting’ (implying a non-thinking desire to just destroy everything). But, what the media did not report, is that here were people for whom words and platitudes no longer worked and whose quest for a better world compelled them to put themselves into extremely vulnerable positions to “be heard.”

These days, over 50 years later, the battle cry “No justice, no peace!” has arisen again and people have again flooded into the streets. This time, though, I am struck by the plethora of statements being issued by educational and cultural institutions acknowledging a legacy of neglect around racial and social issues. To my mind, this is new. Our growing awareness of the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion, has fostered this new way of interacting with one another. But, we are also faced with the legitimate test of the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot gather in our traditional venues and in our traditional ways. The pandemic, too, has heightened our sensitivity to the stark economic inequities in this country, not to speak of exposed a history of ignoring the decaying infrastructures of our cities. And added to this has been a troubling, albeit a growing tendency of fearing “the other”-only now, it is because of the disease, and not only because of racial or other difference.

These very real challenges are not insurmountable. Our cultural and educational institutions have the capacity to help bridge the widening divides. The Forum, too, by promoting high quality education abroad experiences, offers invaluable resources to help foster safe and effective programs. The Forum also offers various supports to help minority-servicing institutions have a more equitable access to education abroad. Using what tools we have at our disposal-virtually for now, but in person in the future-we come together for the key common purpose of using education abroad to learn and come to appreciate diverse cultures, ways of doing, and world-views. Education abroad can be a very powerful tool. As I have experienced with my students many times, students placed in the international context–like the first group I took to the USSR in 1973 (9 Black and Brown from inner-city Chicago and 11 white from downstate Illinois)–often learn not only about what they see as the ‘foreign’ culture, but also much more about themselves and the diverse cultures within their own home environment.

Global Learning in Weary Times: Essential and a Source of Hope

Dawn Michele Whitehead, PhD
Vice President of the Office of Global Citizenship for Campus, Community and Careers
Association of American Colleges and Universities

I, like many of you, have long argued that global learning is essential to solve the world’s most pressing problems and to help students see that what happens in another part of the world often directly impacts their own communities. Drawing on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, students are often introduced to the local and global dimensions of world challenges. This spring we were all impacted by the global challenge of COVID-19 as institutions across the world shut their physical doors or pivoted to remote instruction, rushed to help students return from education abroad placements, and many of us lost family and/or friends to virus. COVID-19 transcends geographic boundaries and has reminded us that the world is interconnected.  It has also elevated the importance of the flow of knowledge and information across nations, a hallmark of global learning. International higher education researchers and practitioners worked in partnership with the scientific and healthcare communities on vaccine development, the creation of testing tools, patient treatment, and strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. It also affirms the interdependent nature of our world as COVID-19 has touched countries across the globe.

In the midst of this global pandemic, we’ve seen another powerful example of global interdependence and how an action in one community has an impact in another part of the world. The outcry over the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota has been amplified with protests across the country from Minneapolis to Anchorage, from Portland to Bozeman, from Indianapolis to Birmingham, and from Greensboro to Washington, DC. with new voices joining the call for racial justice and systemic change. These calls have also gone beyond the borders of the United States. However, this isn’t the first time a local or national cry has crossed borders. I’m reminded of the Rhodes Must Fall cries in South Africa around 2015, that started with calls from students to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town. It grew into a larger movement to decolonize South African institutions, and this action in South Africa spread well beyond the country and the African continent with student demands in the United Kingdom to decolonize curriculum and in the United States of America to take down Confederate monuments (although this wasn’t the first call). The inspiration from South African students influenced students to push for change in their local contexts.

What happened in Minneapolis has been a bit different. People in cities all over the world have been inspired to act in response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. There have been footballers in the Bundesliga with George Floyd’s name written on their jerseys to protest his death, footballers in the English Premier League have taken a knee in his memory and used #BlackLivesMatter to spread anti-racist messages, and Black tennis players from all over the world—Serena Williams (USA), Naomi Osaka (Japan), Gael Monfils (France), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France) and others—joined Frances Tiafoe (USA) for his “Racquets Down, Hands Up” video to spread awareness about the unjust deaths of African Americans. All of these athletes stood up to respond to what happened in Minneapolis and the broader patterns of injustice in the United States. These protests and cries have continued to go out in the midst of this global health pandemic. While many countries have just come off stay-at-home orders, with limitations on the size of gatherings, there have been large protests in London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, Toronto, and other cities, and vigils and/or tributes in Krakow, Mexico City, and other places. Yet, despite the pandemic, people in many other American cities and cities around the world have still come together to raise their voices against racial injustice.

Seeing these multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-national protests has been a bright spot in a weary time, and it affirms that we can come together across differences for good. It also affirms that we, as leaders in education abroad, have to be prepared to take the next step with our students to prepare them for potentially difficult conversations where they hear different perspectives, wrestle with these perspectives, and develop ways of understanding local and global issues to solve the global challenges of the day, including racial injustice.

Cierra Gillison
Believe In the Journey

I have made it my life’s mission to center unheard and underrepresented voices. While I’ve been in the thick of my own identity development, I’ve allowed my pain and trauma to help motivate me to speak into spaces, advocate and find my voice and my influence for change.

I started Believe In the Journey in 2017 after leaving college athletics, and I started it to keep momentum around student athletes participating in international education opportunities. In 2012-13, under the direction of Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director David Williams, I was able to chaperon a group of 25 student-athletes on a service-learning trip to Tanzania. I watched student athletes across all sports bond, grow, and reflect on their own identities. In leaving Vanderbilt, I saw that David’s leadership style was one where he was always pushing the athletic department past and through the status quo. It is from his influence on my life, that I push myself and those around me to do the same.

I joined my alma mater, The Ohio State University in Fall 2013 as an Athletics Academic Counselor and talked with manager about wanting to start a similar program for Ohio State student athletes. My goal was to expand education abroad opportunities to a group of students who have traditionally been limited in their ability to study abroad due to athletic commitments. I worked with David and Athletics Administration to develop this program to mirror that of Vanderbilt’s— starting with one trip to Costa Rica in its’ pilot year and expanding to 2 trips per year across all sports prior to my departure.

I made it my mission to find international education programs that offered flexibility and a tailored/specialized approach to working with student-athletes. In doing so, I found some incredible organizations and partnerships that joined me in my efforts to support student-athletes having these experiences. I talked with colleagues across college athletics and have shared best practices with hopes of expanding representation in study abroad to reflect more Black women and Black men.

Believe in the Journey remains a soul-feeding project for me. While international education faces some evolving conversations right now and always, I am grateful for organizations and friends  across these organizations who are continuing and committed to the dialogue around representation abroad.

I decided to start Believe in the Journey so that I could keep motivating athletic departments to intentionally offer a variety of opportunities for all of their students to study abroad. As I have matured in my ability to honor my own beliefs, and assertively stand in my own intersecting identities, I am most specifically making a case for revenue-generating sports with Black students who would regularly come to me as their advisor and say it was never going to happen-that their coaches would never allow them to miss practices, training, etc., to participate in these experiences.

Believe in the Journey has provided me the space to engage in essential dialogues at the Black Student Athlete Summit and The Forum about where and how to start engaging underrepresented students in international education opportunities.

Cheers to making it happen, and cheers to continuously pushing past and through the status quo.

Naomi Valdez
Program Coordinator
University of Texas at Austin

What can I say about this outrage? A man was senselessly murdered in front of cameras while police disregarded the pleas from him and the bystanders. George Floyd did not die in vain. I keep telling myself he couldn’t have. For the last week, I’ve been working on auto pilot – walking the dog, signing on to work, attending Zoom meetings and advising students from home all the while thinking what’s going to happen next? No one has the answer and that’s okay. I sit with that answer and accept it. Maybe George’s murder will catalyze change for a lot of injustice around the United States for centuries. I can’t say for certain it will happen. But what I can do is hope. I know the protesting that is happening in all 50 states and a handful of countries around the world cannot be ignored and that gives me hope. So, I sit with that too. I hold on to the hope that things can change. That systems of oppression and discrimination that have been gripping this country can be dismantled and broken.

A long time ago, I decided to start a career in higher education so that I can help impact the lives of students of color and underrepresented backgrounds. I was told by one of my graduate program professors that education is the great equalizer. So, I continue to hold on to that hope as well. That the work I do with undergraduate students is going to make the world a better place for future generations. That the students I send abroad are future nurses, doctors, engineers, lawyers, social workers, journalists and directors and their time abroad helps them understand the world better. Or even the United States and the deeply engrained discrimination that exists here.  The experience they have abroad opens their eyes to the injustices here at home. In a time of uncertainty and sadness, I know that the work I do with students is good work. So, I sit with that hope. That the work we do in International Education is good work.

Take Action