Price School discusses racial climate on campus

Students, faculty and staff discussed racial issues on campus at a talk hosted by Price School of Public Policy Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion LaVonna Lewis following a racist incident at the school.
(Andrea Diaz | Daily Trojan)

Students, faculty and staff from the Price School of Public Policy gathered Monday morning to discuss the school’s racial climate and the need for discussion of topics like implicit bias following an incident Thursday of alleged racial harassment. 

Nearly 75 members of the Price school community attended the two listening sessions hosted by LaVonna Lewis, the Price associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

At the talks, Lewis discussed the USC and Price school atmospheres for underrepresented students, giving audience members the opportunity to voice their thoughts and ideas.

“It is important to me that every student, staff and faculty member at the Price school feels like they belong, that they are valued and that they are not alone,” Lewis said to begin the discussion. “That is why we are here this morning.”

Lewis detailed the incident in an email to Price students, staff and faculty Friday and requested they attend Monday’s listening sessions. Lewis wrote that several students from her Social Justice Issues in Public Policy and Urban Planning class had been discussing a project related to race, class and privilege in the Price student lounge when they were harassed by three white students. 

Lewis said one of her students, who is Black, and his group were told to be quiet. The three white students claimed that Black people didn’t face problems anymore. 

While the students targeted in the incident were not identified, Lewis said they expressed hurt and surprise in the aftermath of the incident.

“They felt silenced, they felt targeted, they felt afraid and they felt uncertain about their place at not just USC but at [the Price school],” Lewis said. “You can’t come in our house and cause harm and not be called out about it.”

Sol Price Center for Social Innovation Director Gary Painter said that while he was disappointed to hear about the incident, he hopes the Price school’s diversity and inclusion plan will yield positive results and improve the school climate.

“My first reaction was even a feeling of failure because it has to be our responsibility to make sure that our students … can come to learn, to belong and to engage on issues that currently face our communities, our country,” Painter said. “There’s a passion to … make sure that our students, our staff, our faculty do find this a place where they can grow and engage.”

Throughout the sessions, Lewis emphasized that the incident was not isolated but rather aligned with current prejudices and political ideologies.

“Clearly, we’re seeing behavior on campus that mirrors our broader society and the broader University, where there appears to be more willingness to share negatively our thoughts on difference and speak out loud our prejudices,” Lewis said. “While we are clearly not alone, that offers small comfort. We can do better.”

Price professor Erroll Southers addressed the audience at the first session, sharing that his time in law enforcement showed him the prevalence of attitudes like those of the instigating students and that those in the Price school community should continue to speak out when they feel threatened by prejudice.

“What happened on Thursday can and does happen here, and I think that’s the first reality we all have to deal with,” Southers said. “The most important thing for me in this conversation is safety and security. You should not feel unsafe, you should not feel at-risk, you should not feel that you can’t walk into a classroom and be yourself because of who you are.”