Fall 2022 Convocation with keynote Paul Harris, Ph.D.: ‘Promoting equity on purpose’
The VCU School of Social Work kicked off the 2022-2023 academic year with our Fall 2022 Convocation on Aug. 19, featuring remarks by keynote Paul Harris, Ph.D.; Interim Dean and Associate Professor Rebecca Gomez, Ph.D., LCSW; and VCU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D.
Dr. Harris is currently a fellow with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. As part of his fellowship, he is serving as the intervention and training specialist for social and emotional learning for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Richmond. He previously served as an associate professor of education at The Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia.
Below are the full convocation video archive, a photo gallery from the event and highlighted excerpts from each speaker.
Dr. Paul Harris
‘Promoting equity on purpose’: “When I talk about making the choice to be great, please know that that’s inextricably linked to your reducing barriers and creating space for others to be great. If you haven’t already – and perhaps, I imagine, you have already, so today could be a recommitment – but if you haven’t, today is a great opportunity to commit to disrupting and dismantling the status quo in your sphere of influence.
“That currently, the status quo privileges some and marginalizes many others. In doing that, so that influence, that leadership that you have, allows others to have their unrestrained brilliance benefit us all.
“When I talk about being great, I’m talking about all of us promoting equity on purpose. And so if I were to title this time … if I were to title our time together, it would be ‘promoting equity on purpose.’ ”
Four considerations for being relentless: “There are four things that … I want you to consider as a part of your relentless pursuit of promoting equity. First is a question. It’s: What’s in your world? The second is a moral imperative is not always enough. Thirdly, DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – without anti-racism is not DEI at all. And fourthly, expect resistance, expect resistance.”
Advice on the ‘big pond’: “For you new students coming in, you’re gonna sit in class and just think, ‘oh, my goodness, everybody is brilliant. Everybody. I was a big fish in my small pond, and now everybody’s a big fish.’
“Can I tell you something? What’s in your world is in your world. And there’s nobody in the space that you occupy in this class, in this program, in your community, in your dorm, wherever you are, that has what you can offer. You have a unique gift, without which, this community will not function as optimally as it possibly can.”
Inequities need interventions: “Socialization through sport is tied to so many other issues, including, but not limited to, disproportionate discipline referrals for Black males; disproportionate and inappropriate assignment to special education; biased gifted and talented selection processes; placement in honors, advanced courses; the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Are you hearing enough things that social workers can intervene on?”
Cultural competence + community: “Now, mind you, I think sports … is an incredible space within which we can do amazing things with athletes. And so I’m not against sports. I’m just talking about how we structure and deliver them in a way that marginalizes some, while providing a lot more benefits for others.
“Now, I personally have taken a strengths-based approach to serving the needs of underserved students, to Black male athletes in particular, and have found in research that a team approach, cultural competence is critical to ensuring their success.
“All of the partnerships that you all will make – ’cause you won’t do it in a silo – with school counselors and school psychologists, with other community agencies, other stakeholders that you’re privileged to work with, that’s how we facilitate the empowerment of the marginalized, the underserved.
“I’m talking about Black athletes. You can fill in the blank with anything, LGBTQ+, Muslim, right? Fill in the blank. Women, physically disabled, handicapped. … It’s in this space of cultural competence and community as teams that we can see the empowerment.”
Being the change: “In schools of thought, social work, education, we’re left to think about what to do when a moral imperative is not enough to reject incremental change in favor of radical change on so many fronts.
“Guarantee you’ll be confronted with that. But what I imagine is what more can be accomplished if all of us commit, like I asked you to do earlier, or recommit, to not waiting for everyone to catch up.”
“… My hope for you all, as you step into this space, to become the best social worker that you can be, is that you, too, find safe spaces within which you can be vulnerable so that you … can commit to finding and rooting out anti-racism wherever you find it, even if it’s in you.”
Dr. Rebecca Gomez
A healthy dose of fear: “I hope as students that you’re also a little bit scared, because you have embarked on a journey in which people will trust you. They will allow you the honor of journeying with them. Every day, a new experience will be before you.
“We will teach you lots of skills, but we will never teach you how to expect exactly what is going to happen in front of you. You will learn to adapt, you will learn to grow and you will make mistakes with real human lives that are vulnerable and trusting of you. So I hope that you’re a little bit afraid.
“Also, the journey on your own’s gonna be hard. If you thought medical school was supposed to be hard, wait till you meet social work. ‘Cause once I teach you a heart, that heart will stay a heart. The valves, for the most part, will stay where they’re supposed to be. There’ll be a few surprises. But a human being will not do that. And you will learn and adapt and grow in real time, and that should make you a little bit afraid.
“And as you go on this journey, all the people in this room should make you feel a little bit stronger. All these faculty and staff are here because they have dedicated their life to equipping you to do that well. So that through each of you, we have the opportunity to continue to make the world a better and stronger place.”
Here for you: “We will be here and we will be with you and we will walk with you. And we will cheer and celebrate when you graduate, and we will cheer and celebrate when you come back and tell us the good work that you do.
“… Please remember to stop by my office and tell me all the wonderful things that are happening, or tell me that you need to cry for a minute. We can do that, too.”
Dr. Fotis Sotiropoulos
Black and gold magic: “I have been at VCU, for a little over a year here. And one thing that I have come to realize, I’ve been touched by this energy, this engagement, this enthusiasm of this rich, diverse, urban community. What I have come to refer as VCU magic.
“I’ve been touched by the magic. I experience it every day, and you will, all of you who are new, you’ll soon experience that. And you’ll understand very soon what I mean by that. You’ll be able to be part of this magic and make it even more magical.”
Diversity driving excellence: “We are immensely proud for the diversity of our students and the fact that we give opportunity to students who simply did not happen to have the same amount of opportunity earlier in their careers, but they can come here to VCU and show what they’re made of, and show what they can do and what they can accomplish.”
Culture of care: “We are advancing what we call a culture of care for all our students. We wanna make sure that not only we provide an environment where you feel you belong, that this is a family-like atmosphere, an environment where you can thrive, graduate on time, in four years, but also graduate with meaningful degrees.
“You are the ones who will, our students, who will drive economic development, innovation, change and social justice that we all care so much about. So these are the types of things that we focus as a university. These are the types of things that distinguish us, distinguish us as a university.”