Bending toward social justice: Loyola University Maryland professor leads institute to address race, peace, and social justice
Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., associate professor of communication and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, founded and directs the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice, which opened at Loyola in October 2020. The Karson Institute provides a scholarly space for professors, students, social justice workers, and activists to come together to research, discuss, debate, and explore answers to America’s most pressing questions about inequality, injustice, and racial and economic inequities.
Whitehead answers questions on the founding of the Karson Institute and how she hopes it will engage the community.
What inspired you to create the Karson Institute?
In 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin and the launch of Black Lives Matter, I decided to take my work out of academia archives and move it into public spaces. I started writing op-eds for the Baltimore Sun and the Afro, hosting teach-ins, and facilitating Black Lives Matter training around the country. I was committed to doing everything to help co-create a world where my two Black sons could get home safely every night. By deeply engaging with race, class, and gender issues, I facilitated conversations either in person or through my work—on the radio or in my Afro column—in environments as disparate as college campuses and barber shops. In 2017, as an associate professor, I partnered with WEAA 88.9 FM to launch a daily drive-time radio show, Today with Dr. Kaye, which has since won both local, regional, and national awards.
Last August, while we were amid two pandemics—COVID-19 and racism (after the murder of George Floyd)—I knew it was the ideal moment to launch an institute where we could deeply engage with these issues on campus, within Baltimore City, and eventually around the country. I named it after my father, Dr. Carson E. Wise, Sr., because of his work during the Civil Rights Movement and his ongoing commitment to fighting against injustice and inequity. He was my first social justice teacher, and I thought this was a moment to honor him and draw attention to the nameless, faceless foot soldiers who have helped shape and challenge this country.
How is the work of the Karson Institute shaping your own scholarship and teaching?
I intentionally designed the Karson Institute’s three centers to support my work as a scholar and professor, and to make space for the work to be expanded beyond me:
- The Center for Research and Culture consists of research fellows and graduate and undergraduate students who conduct and support empirical research on issues that lie at the intersection of race, social justice, peace, education, and advocacy movements in the United States.
- The Center for Public Engagement provides a conversational space to discuss relevant and timely issues around racial, social, and healing justice, and offers regular dialogue sessions.
- The Center for Teaching and Learning works to help K-12 educators and administrators throughout the United States excel in their teaching, enhance the culture of teaching, and, in turn, increase the sociocultural perspectives of education.
How do Loyola’s Jesuit values impact the Karson Institute’s work?
One of the reasons I chose to work at Loyola was because of the University’s Jesuit values. I received my master’s degree from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Ind., so I was familiar with Catholic teachings and the Jesuit mission. The five elements that characterize Jesuit education—context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation—are essential to how I teach and help my students engage in a more in-depth discussion. I want them to think about what these elements mean to them and about what it calls them to do with their lives. I have worked hard to ensure that the Jesuit values of cura personalis, critical thinking, strength as a leader, and passion for learning are present in everything I do and everything I do through the Karson Institute.
How does the Karson Institute serve Baltimore and its community?
Given that my work is so deeply tied to the city, I believe that the Karson Institute never had to work to be accepted as a suitable place to host and facilitate these types of layered conversations. It effectively builds upon the work that I have done in and around the city. As a former Baltimore City middle school teacher, radio host, and opinion editorial writer with the Afro newspaper, I have found ways to be engaged with communities, City government, and the school system from both within and outside of the system. As a predominantly Black, activist-oriented, and close-knit community environment, Baltimore City is the canvas that is best designed for the Karson Institute to shine through and make an impact. I am tied to this city and the Karson Institute gives me the platform to continue to deeply connect our students with the residents.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish through the Karson Institute?
I want the Karson Institute to become an internationally recognized and respected authority on teaching and discussing these issues. I would like us to be inwardly focused, as we challenge our students to think and talk about racism, injustice, and our collective responsibility to dismantle these systems of oppression—and outwardly focused, as we look to challenge everyone around to engage in these conversations with us. I want us to think beyond our borders and start talking about what peace and social justice look like in places like Palestine, Haiti, Afghanistan, or South Africa.
What kind of action can readers take to help move the issues of race, peace, and social justice forward?
It is incumbent upon us to be in conversation with others. The problems we are facing, from racism and antiblackness to wars and climate change, did not begin with our generation. Still, we can try to end some of these conflicts and, if not end them, at least force everyone to think about why we are still so actively engaged in behaviors that neither benefit us nor sustain us. I want the Karson Institute to be where we can imagine the impossible, ask how it can be possible, and then challenge participants to believe that change is possible—and is happening now. The work and the struggle continue, and I want us to continue to lean into this moment and do the work.
For more information on Whitehead and the Karson Institute, visit the Karson Institute website.