On January 15, members of the Regis Class of 2021 assembled in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola for an annual tradition that felt quite different this year. Typically, the entire student body comes together with the faculty and staff for a January prayer service reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but in 2021, the majority of the Regis community participated via Zoom as the school continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the smaller number of in-person students, not to mention the masks and social distancing, was the most obvious change, it wasn’t the most significant one. This year’s Mass honoring Dr. King took place within the broader context of the Race at Regis initiative, a comprehensive effort to understand and take action against racial injustice inside the Regis community and beyond.
“This incredibly important work, undertaken by our students, faculty and staff, Board of Trustees, alumni, and parents alike, has been and will continue to be a significant focus at Regis during this academic year,” Regis President Daniel K. Lahart, SJ, said. “This summer, many alumni and current students shared horrifying, heartbreaking, and unacceptable stories about experiencing racism inside our walls. We must work to ensure that current and future Black students and other Regians of color do not suffer similar discrimination and that we prepare all of our graduates to leave Regis equipped with the knowledge, skills, and desire to acknowledge and address racism and all forms of injustice.”
A 15-person steering committee of Regis alumni, trustees, and administrators is overseeing and coordinating the Race at Regis work. This committee is supported by five task forces, each one charged with studying and developing recommendations around five specific topics at Regis: student formation, faculty and staff hiring/professional development, curriculum, student support resources, and admissions and recruitment. Roughly 12 alumni, trustees, parents, and faculty and staff sit on each task force. (The full list of the members of the Regis community who have generously volunteered so much of their time as members of the steering committee or one of the task forces is available here .)
The task forces have met regularly throughout the fall and winter and conducted research and listening sessions with members of the community and outside experts. The Board of Trustees hosted the chairs of each task force during its January virtual retreat, which was entirely devoted to Race at Regis. Each task force will submit concrete suggestions to the steering committee, which will then make formal recommendations to the Board of Trustees and administration about tangible steps the school can take to combat racism, forge a more welcoming community, and better educate our students on this critical topic and all of the issues and subjects with which it intersects.
While the steering committee and task forces formally began their duties at the beginning of this academic year, critical work that laid the foundation for the initiative started this summer thanks to the participation and selfless service of many Regis alumni. Following the murder of George Floyd and the national conversation it sparked around issues of race in our society, many Regis graduates and students wrote to the school, met individually with administrators, or shared their experiences anonymously on the @blackatregis Instagram account. Seeking to more fully understand and learn from our graduates, Regis distributed a survey in July to all alumni asking about their experiences with race at the school. Working closely with a group of concerned graduates, Regis also hosted three virtual Town Halls, where alumni were invited to reflect on their time at Regis and help brainstorm potential strides the school could make.
Heritage Club Alumni, a group of roughly 150 Black and Latino graduates from across six different decades, have met every other week since July to look back on their Regis tenures and help their alma mater identify and correct factors contributing to racism at the school. The group has hosted Regis administrators and trustees during its meetings and shared recommendations with school leadership. Several Heritage Club Alumni members also serve on the Race at Regis steering committee and task forces. (A broader feature story on the inspiring work and camaraderie of this group will appear in a future issue of Regis magazine.)
“I am deeply grateful to the many alumni who have and continue to share their perspectives, talents, and experiences — and especially to our alumni of color, many of whom have revisited painful memories in an effort to help Regis improve,” Fr. Lahart said.
Regis students also have actively engaged in learning and conversations about race and equality throughout the first half of the school year via readings, discussions in and out of the classroom, and several school-wide assemblies. In September, Fr. Mario Powell, SJ, the President of Brooklyn Jesuit Prep and former Director of the REACH Program, spoke to the student body about the school’s history since its founding of shaping the lives of those most marginalized. “I am asking you to be bold and live out the school’s mission. Look at the metropolitan region and see whose poverty, whose cries, you discover,” Fr. Powell said. “Be bold. Be Catholic. Be Regis.”
Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University, talked with Regis students in October about leadership and the role young people have played and continue to play in the creation of a just society. While the perspective of youth is often overlooked in contemporary society, Dr. Chatelain utilized personal and historical examples to highlight the many ways young people do in fact lead and impact their societies.
In December, Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Professor of Theology at Fordham University, addressed the student body about racism in the United States and within the Catholic Church. “Solidarity happens when people recognize each other as persons. Solidarity is basically the response to ‘Who is my neighbor?’ ‘Whose life matters?’” Fr. Massingale said. “Racial solidarity is the mark of an authentic, Christian faith.”
Later that month, Wes Moore, the CEO of Robin Hood and author of the acclaimed book The Other Wes Moore, participated in a virtual assembly and fielded questions from three Regians about the themes of his book and his work. Moore talked about the need to show empathic love, as the pain Black people and other people of color experience should and must be felt by all members of society if we are going to enact true change.
These critical conversations, held against the backdrop of this year’s John Francis Regis Day theme of “Race: School, Country, Church,” have informed and enlightened the perspectives of Regis students and faculty and staff alike. Faculty members also have participated in various conversations and professional development opportunities centered on race and racism, including invaluable virtual discussions with Claude M. Steele, a Stanford University Psychology Professor and the author of Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and Rich Milner, a Vanderbilt University Professor of Education.
Throughout the winter and spring, as the Race at Regis initiative continues, our students, faculty and staff, trustees, and committed alumni and parents will continue to engage thoughtfully and productively on the critical topic of racial injustice. The school is determined to make concrete, meaningful changes to ensure that it meets the needs of all of its students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, and continues to transform Catholic young men into service-minded leaders in a world badly in need of them.
“Our God is on the side of the underdog, and when people in authority seek to maintain the status quo so that their comfort might not be diminished, God gets mad,” Fr. A.J. Rizzo, SJ, Regis’ Director of Mission and Identity and the chair of the Race at Regis steering committee, said in his homily during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Mass. “It is the work of our lives as Christians to strive for integrity between worship and action, between love of God and love of neighbor. Let’s make sure that our worship here – indeed, your Regis education – is not in vain. If we work together to make King’s vision a reality, I promise you, they won’t be.”