Tillman Scholars’ Voices is a blog and video series amplifying the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Keidrick Roy and his work in pursuing systemic equity and fighting racial injustice. Watch his Tillman Scholar Voices video on YouTube.
“In some ways I have no choice but to talk about race as a Tillman Scholar and a military veteran. Like Frederick Douglass, I love this country and what it claims to stand for in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution, but in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I also want and need America to be true to what it said on paper. However, I do believe that we can do better and that we can correct racial inequities together.”
His work over the past decade has taken him from teaching English at the U.S. Air Force Academy to examining issues of race and ethnicity between the civilians and military. In 2017, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded him a grant to lead a project entitled “Beyond Black and Blue: Race and the Future of Civil-Military Relations,” which brought together students and professors from civilian liberal arts colleges, the Air Force Academy, and West Point to discuss strategies for teaching students about race and ethnicity within and across their institutions.
Based on his background and experiences, it is no surprise that Keidrick believes education is the starting point. From where we are today, his stance is that there is much more to do.
“Understanding the multifaceted political, economic and social dimensions of racism definitely requires changes be made to school curricula like improving the diversity of texts students read and nurturing their creative thinking about ways to make structural changes aimed at solving systemic inequalities,” he said.
These changes in themselves, though, are not enough, Keidrick argues. While he advocates for building better, more inclusive school curricula in social studies and political science classrooms, he also understands that cultural transformations must happen on a much broader scale to heal our nation’s rational divide.
It is these cultural transformations that he continues to pursue in his American studies program at Harvard. In exploring the connections among American literature, religion and political philosophy, he determined that stronger connections to culture, literature and empathy are necessary to foster the America that America aspires to be.
“We need to teach [students] why diversity is important in economics classes rather than paying lip service to diversity in order to make organizations look better on paper,” Keidrick says. “And we need to emphasize to everyone the importance of doing simple things like showing people who look different from you kindness at your workplaces, in your houses of worship and in your communities.”
True structural change will also need to pull everyone into these conversations. But, what does this look like? For Keidrick, it comes down to a few actionable interventions.
Expand your knowledge. Keidrick recommends individuals of all ages engage with texts across U.S. history, from Robin DiAngelo’s, White Fragility to Frederick Douglass’ 1855 book, My Bondage and My Freedom or Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. By expanding knowledge, we can all strengthen our conversations about race.
Don’t just passively acquire knowledge—engage critically with texts. “I would invite adult learners to constantly try to make connections between what they are reading and watching to the present moment, to take notes, and to talk about these things with people who ask them about the ‘race problem’ in America.”
Persist, together. Ultimately, Keidrick believes that the quest for freedom for all in the United States will take endurance, perseverance, and commitment. He strives for a unified way forward that pulls all to the table in the journey for systemic equity and brings all voices and minds together to seek policy transformation at all levels of our society.
“I believe that we can come together and identify what Frederick Douglass calls, ‘our common causes,’ and that we can abolish racial inequities through policies and initiatives centered on human rights and social justice,” he says. “We are at a moment right now in America where we need to keep marching, to keep talking, to keep listening, to keep reading and to begin voting in ways that demonstrate that we as a nation will not tolerate racism and gender discrimination.”
Agitate, Agitate, Agitate. Keidrick argues that it will be empathy and cultural transformation that drive change. By connecting with books and ideas and discussing them with others, he sees a way forward for individuals and communities, no matter how difficult the struggle becomes.
“Late in Frederick Douglass’ life, when a young man asked him what to do in order to become a great leader for social change, Douglass responded with three words, ‘agitate, agitate, agitate,’” Keidrick says. “So to begin this process, I recommend reading a book, ideally with the group of people who are either curious about or who are already invested in making changes to legislative policies and cultural practices at the local, state and national levels.”
For our systems to change in America, Keidrick sees the need for reflection at both the individual and systemic levels; not only an engagement with policies and initiatives, but insights into our own values, strengths, and empathy.