The Heller Community’s Deep Dive into Racial Equity

February 11, 2021

“I think the challenge serves as a good reminder that as Black people we are experiencing elements of the trauma and triumph of being Black, in real time, every day, and can’t simply end the challenge after 21 days.” -Andrea Epstein, MBA’21
“It was a real gift to be able to do the 21-Day Challenge. I'm passing it along to my friends and my kids' school principals and teachers and anybody else who will listen.”  - Lanni Isenberg Senior Program Administrator, Center for Youth & Community
“The pro-seminar was intense. Having just moved here from Mozambique, I’m now caught in a situation where I need to be aware of myself. America is not only the land of prosperity, it’s the land that’s teaching me to look around, walk carefully, becau
The willingness to participate, to learn or revisit hard truths, and to challenge what you thought you knew. To share. To question. To listen. Those are things that made this experience what it was. And those are things that help strengthen community
“I was pleased by the diversity of content, from op-eds to academic journals, to classic literature on race and introductions to Black-female-invented items.” -Lynn Debilzen, MBA’12
“This was a great experience and I am very glad I signed up...The implicit bias test surprised me and I shared it with several other people.” -Deborah Gurewich, PhD’02

In January 2021, the Heller School embarked on a school-wide initiative to deepen the community’s understanding of racial equity and racism in the U.S. This effort consisted of a one-credit pro-seminar for students, and a school-wide and alumni invitation to participate in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, a self-guided reading and reflection exercise originally conceived by Eddie Moore, Jr. and the American Bar Association. 

Over 60 students participated in the pro-seminar, which was co-led by Associate Dean for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Maria Madison and Practicum Program Manager Sarah LaMorey, MA SID/COEX'19, with support from EID Administrator Tynika Booth and students Kendra Davis, MS/MA SID'21 and Pierrce Holmes, MPP’22. 

The course, titled “Racial Equity: Intersections of Race, Power, Privilege, Supremacy and Oppression," centered on the 21-Day Challenge while integrating lectures from Heller faculty. This included a lecture on Kingian Nonviolence, a talk by Anita Hill on the future of equality and the U.S. Supreme Court, and an exercise on developing personal action plans to continue antiracism work after the course concluded. For their final assignments, students prepared reflection memos or proposed a 21-Day Challenge of their own design.

Overall, says Madison, student feedback about the pro-seminar has been enthusiastic and powerful. “There were transformative experiences,” she says. “For some it was transformative in terms of a learning experience, for others it was very emotional, and some even described engaging differently with their spirituality. It’s difficult but important to tap into the humanity and the lived experiences of these topics.” Madison referenced the words of Bill Jenkins, the epidemiologist and activist who blew the whistle on the U.S. government’s Tuskegee syphilis study: “If you ever wondered who you would have been in the 1960s, now is your time.”

The strengths of the people were not emphasized enough in the original 21-Day Challenge. I wanted people to experience black joy, black love, black innovation, black sorrow, and all of the range of expressions and emotions that we experience as human
“I prioritized among topics I thought to be most significant for me to learn more about; for example, "The Case for Reparations" was addressed in a way I had never seen presented before.” -Roberta Walsh, PhD’89 Heller Alumni Association Board Member
“In the 21-day Challenge, people can read, listen, watch something, and the light switch of a deeper understanding of social justice goes on. We all begin to reflect, address and plan. It’s an aspirational beloved community going through the process,
‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ resonated with my very recent experience of being stopped in my own neighborhood. At a particularly fragile time in this democracy as well as in my own life, I reflected about my own experiences, and I've been tryin
“I am hopeful that this personal reflective journey that many of us took throughout January translates to action and equitable solutions within our institution.” -Sarah J. LaMorey Practicum Program Manager, Pro-Seminar Instructor

These initiatives build on years of work led by Madison to develop a multicultural responsible and relevant teaching and learning (MRRT) program at Heller. Madison forged an MRRT partnership with the Brandeis library and Center for Teaching and Learning, and created a pilot program with the MPP faculty that showed feasibility. These successes suggested scaling up and strengthening behavioral and organizational change approaches as a logical next step.

“Step one of MRRT isn’t transforming your syllabus, It’s self-reflection and self-awareness,” says Madison. “When I heard about the 21-Day Challenge, I thought ‘that’s it!’ The Challenge presents a unified, collective way to engage a community simultaneously in the journey of perspective-taking on populations (and their history) that are systematically misrepresented in academia and society. The Challenge moves the community through and beyond the failed promises of policies and laws to the racialized imagination buoying discrimination. We knew students wanted to take a class over winter break, so this seemed like the perfect way to take this work and make it bigger.” 

In addition to the intensive nature of the course and 21-Day Challenge, national and global events in January led to a heightened awareness of the nation’s current racial justice crisis. As one student said, “We went through a lot this month. Not just the 21-Day Challenge, but also the Georgia runoff elections, an insurrection, an impeachment, and an inauguration.”

Outside of the student pro-seminar, the entire Heller community and alumni body were invited to participate in the 21-Day Challenge. Over 125 people opted to receive daily email prompts to engage with the day’s article, video or podcast, and to reflect on the content. In addition, Heller student Pierrce Holmes, MPP’22, and classmates Adam Jones, Andrea Tyree, and Vandita Wilson built a companion Spotify playlist and added resources that celebrate Black resilience and the contributions of marginalized artists, poets, authors, musicians, scientists and more.

Among the 21-Day Challenge participants was Dean David Weil, who offered his reflections to students during the last pro-seminar session. “This morning I read a Boston Globe article about the disparities in vaccine access for Black and Hispanic residents in Boston,” he said. “That news wouldn’t have surprised me before, but I now see that article through a much broader lens of structural racism than I ever had before.”

Given the success of these January initiatives, the team is looking to ways to build this into the Heller experience. Other graduate schools at Brandeis are planning 21-Day Challenges of their own, and the planning team hopes to host a campus-wide event with Moore this spring. 

“As far as I’m concerned, we should consider these efforts as merely a pilot. The question is not whether Heller will continue to build this into our curriculum and professional development, but how and when,” says Dean Weil.