When Dawn Bennett-Alexander agreed to teach an OLLI class this summer the topic was to be “Diversity and Inclusion in a Post-COVID World: Does It Still Matter?”
Bennett-Alexander has taught previous OLLI classes on diversity, a topic in which she is well-versed. As an associate professor of employment law and legal studies in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, she has taught business students about employment discrimination for 32 years. She holds a law degree from Howard University, but chose teaching because “I liked the idea of being able to affect people who will then affect others.”
When she was approached about doing the OLLI class, COVID-19 was dominating the news. “It felt like the pandemic had taken over everything in our lives,” she recalls. “It seemed like all other issues were pushed off the radar screen.”
But then May 25th happened. On that day, a pair of shocking events captured on cell phone videos went viral and suddenly issues of race were thrust into the glaring spotlight of public attention.
Bennett-Alexander remembers getting a text about Amy Cooper, the white woman walking in Central Park who called police to report that an “African-American male” was threatening her after bird watcher Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog per park rules. That was followed by a text about George Floyd, pinned to the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck and crying out “I can’t breathe.”
That day was a wake-up call. As protests erupted in cities across the country, Americans were confronted with the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many others. Painful stories were shared across the social media platforms.
Bennett-Alexander, in the midst of teaching an online Maymester class at UGA, began receiving calls and emails from former students.
“They were reaching out saying they were so distressed about everything going on and wished they were back in class with me to talk about it,” she says. “They also wanted to know if I had posted something somewhere that they could access.”
Bennett-Alexander, whose life’s work has focused on helping people understand discrimination and inequality, knew she had to respond.
But first there was the matter of getting through the Maymester class, which was keeping her on her computer till 2 or 3 a.m. each night, posting responses to assignments and grading papers.
On June 3rd, she finally broke down in a Facebook post.
“Today is the last day of class. All assignments are turned in. I can once again turn to my life—such as it is under COVID-19. I saw a news article about the police in L.A. taking a knee, which I thought was awesome. But then I saw the simple handwritten sign held by a man standing next to a police officer. The sign said, ‘We Matter.’ I just lost it. I did the ugly cry. Just thinking about it, I tear up….
“I am not just crying for today, for black folks. I weep for ALL of us as a country. For what we have lost. For the emotional toll it has taken not only on black folks, but on white ones and everyone else. You don’t wreak this kind of havoc without it taking a toll in your doing so, without it chipping away at your soul. And I still don’t believe most whites want to be oppressive. They are simply products of the system they grew up in. That we all grew up in, that they may not have been aware of because they didn’t have to be. Now they are aware. And now they have to do something.”
Taking diversity from theory to practice
Bennett-Alexander remembers a defining moment in her own life when she was 8 or 9 years old. She pulled a chair out from under a classmate named Rosetta, who tumbled to the floor. Everyone laughed, but Bennett-Alexander immediately regretted what she had done. “I wanted to be nice and kind and treat everyone equally, and I realized I had not done that with Rosetta,” she says.
Bennett-Alexander discussed the incident in the TEDx talk she gave at UGA in 2015 on “Practical Diversity,” which she defines as taking diversity theory into practice. It’s also the name of the website she recently created, practicaldiversity.com.
Her three principles of Practical Diversity are deceptively simple: 1) Figure out what your “messages” are, the things you’ve learned from the environment you grew up in and live in. 2) Stop being so judgmental; different does not mean less than. 3) Use the Golden Rule: be kind, respectful and compassionate.
Basically, asserts Bennett-Alexander, “it’s all about love.” And so, there is a section of her website called “Heart Work.”
She explains at the site: “I call this section Heart Work because I believe it will take individual people wanting to make change from the inside out, starting with their hearts (my life motto is “It’s ALL about LOVE…”) in order to do what needs to be done to create change.”
The section includes books, articles, and videos for personal knowledge, growth, and action as well as for organizations and corporations.
“Systemic racism is different from individual racism,” she says. “Systemic racism is built into laws and policies. We need to keep systemic racism and individual racism separate so we can discuss them.”
“We need to keep systemic racism and individual racism separate so we can discuss them.”
That was one of the messages Bennett-Alexander had for the OLLI class that finally met in July. The mostly white class members wanted to know how to talk about race. Her advice: first, do some homework by reading books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo or When They Call You a Terrorist, the memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. Then, in cross-cultural conversations, try to listen and learn without being defensive. Some expressed anxiety about “saying the wrong thing.” Bennett-Alexander’s reply: “Don’t beat yourself up if you get something wrong. It makes sense we would learn as we grow and adjust accordingly. When you know better, you do better.”
The class went so well that the Zoom participants asked for the conversation to continue for a second session, which was also well-attended.
Conversely, in a September YouTube lecture, the first in a new series sponsored by the Office of Minority Services and Programs at UGA, Bennett-Alexander advised Black students to “give people space and grace to learn. Teach them and be gracious about it.”
That’s a principle she has followed in the 32 years she has taught students of all races and ethnicities at the university.
“I came here because [then President] Chuck Knapp asked me to help move UGA forward,” she says. She was among 20 new Black faculty who arrived at UGA in 1988 as part of a concerted recruitment initiative that nearly doubled the number of Black faculty already on campus. But she was, and has remained, the sole tenured Black female teaching in the Terry College of Business. (There is currently a Black female lecturer and a tenure-track Black male.)
Nonetheless, she is a great believer in the Power of One. And an excellent example of it. She has won countless awards through the years, but one that was especially meaningful was the Beckman award for teaching excellence that she received in 2015, one of 10 professors honored nationwide “who have inspired former students to make a significant contribution to society.”
Bennett-Alexander used the $25,000 award to create a scholarship for students engaged in diversity and inclusion work at UGA. Recently she learned from UGA’s Development Office that a former student had contacted members of his fraternity pledge class and in June had raised nearly $17,000 for the Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander Building Bridges Scholarship.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can truly make the world better.”
Acts like that keep Bennett-Alexander hopeful. She says she feels a “sea change” has been happening since May 25th. “I’ve lived long enough to see a lot of changes, but this feels different,” she says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can truly make the world better.”
For her part, she feels okay about finally stepping away from the classroom when she retires at the end of this semester. Since her classes are currently online, she has already moved out of her office on campus. But her social justice work will continue. There’s the website and her consulting work. And more OLLI classes to teach. And the 10th edition of her textbook, Employment Law for Business, due out next year. And other books in progress.
But most of all, she says, she feels good about the current generation taking on leadership roles. As she recently told students: “I’ve done my job. Now go do yours!”