How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind ... The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Bob Dylan wrote these prophetic lyrics in 1962 to protest war, the race for nuclear weapons and the growing prospect of major world power confrontation. But, like many timeless pieces of art and music, they could have also been written to address the plight of Black Americans. Almost 60 years after Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and 400 years after the first African slaves arrived in America, we’re still asking how many deaths of Black Americans will it take till we know that too many people have died.
The deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky have left us reeling and crying out for justice for our Black brothers and sisters. As a Jesuit college, Canisius remains committed to the promotion of justice in the world. As far back as 1975, the Society of Jesus recognized that the promotion of justice demanded “a life in which the justice of the Gospel shines out in a willingness not only to recognize and respect the rights of all, especially the poor and powerless, but also to work actively to secure those rights.” We stand in solidarity with the victims of discrimination, violence and injustice. We support the right of people to peacefully seek redress of grievances with their government without fear of punishment or reprisals. We seek to create a world in which Black people do not fear for their lives to simply be out in public.
But we must go further. It is not sufficient to issue saccharine proclamations of solidarity and sympathy. As Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the former Superior General of the Jesuits, said some years ago, our hearts must be touched by direct personal involvement with innocent suffering. We must experience the gritty reality of the world so that we can respond to suffering and engage it constructively. Solidarity requires active, empathic listening and true accompaniment.
I often reflect on our individual and collective obligations as a Jesuit college to promote justice in the world. The night before he died in Memphis in 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made clear what our duties were on this point. Interpreting the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King said that the essential question was not the one that presumably crossed the minds of the priest and the Levite who passed by the beaten man on that road to Jericho: “If I stop to help this injured man in need, what will happen to me?” Instead, Dr. King said, the essential question is the one that motivated the Samaritan to put aside his fears and prejudices and ask: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
To be more concrete, the promotion of justice means that Canisius - here in the heart of the city of Buffalo and surrounded by injustice, poverty, hunger, violence, and despair - all byproducts of structural racism - must reach out and allow this “gritty reality” to inform our work with our students. It means working every day to eliminate structural racism in our world. All of us at Canisius - faculty, staff, students and alumni - must ask ourselves, “If we do not stop to help those for whom justice is denied, what will happen to them?” We must bring our resources - personal, intellectual, spiritual, financial - to bear on these pressing issues.
Already, Canisius has been working on its own campus culture. In response to a campus climate on race, we created an office of equity and inclusion and hired Fatima Rodriguez-Johnson to lead these efforts. This year we have created a bias response team to address racially-motivated incidents and measures to improve our culture. We have offered a variety of workshops and training sessions for our students, faculty, and staff around implicit bias and explicitly bringing race into the classroom. We have plans to offer additional workshops on microaggressions and the critical issue of having difficult conversations about race. This work is really just beginning; we can and will do more.
And so today, in the wake of the loss of another innocent Black life, I challenge the Canisius community to reflect on the injustice in front of our eyes on our campus, in our home town of Buffalo, in New York State, in the United States, and in the world. How can we recommit ourselves to the promotion of justice in the lives of people of color? How can we address this in our teaching and learning, in our scholarship, and in our service activities? This is what it means to be a Jesuit university committed to educating and preparing our students to become men and women for and with others.
President, Canisius University