UPDATE: We caught a few minor errors, and we have corrected those errors as of June 24, 2020. We also produced a follow-up article on this live video discussion between Dr. Simms and President Cordano (read here). This transcript was originally typed as a raw first-time type, and it has since been corrected intermittently for accuracy. If there are any corrections you’d like to suggest, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you! — Piper Collins
[Image description: The live stream features a Zoom screen with two side-by-side images. Dr. Laurene Simms is on the left side of the screen. Dr. Simms is a Black Deaf woman with Black-rimmed glasses, small bronze earrings, and a long-sleeved red sleeve. Dr. Simms is seated in front of what is a blank white wall. President Cordano is on the right side of the screen, and she is a White Deaf woman with dirty-blonde short hair, and she has dark-framed glasses. She is wearing a black blouse with a grey blazer, and she is seated in front of a beige wall that has a fireplace and a displayed painting.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: I want to have a structured presentation with a subsequent discussion where we take turns. My first goal is to set a model for this kind of dialogue. What does it look like? It is organic. No rehearsal, no practice, nothing. We are going in cold. The second goal of this conversation is the truth. Share our truths. The third aim is to bring about collective unity at Gallaudet University.
There are three key points I will make in the course of this presentation, and I will expound on each point. Explanations will be provided. Why? Context is critical for everyone to truly understand why before I proceed to ask Bobbi some hard questions. Bobbi does not know what hard questions we plan to ask her. [Laurene Simms shakes her head as she signs the next sentence. Bobbi stays silent.] Bobbi does not know.
First, I will share my personal journey and reflections. Second, the machine is powerful. The machine of systematic racism. I want all of us to understand systematic racism. Third, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement and what the path forward is. For the first two points, I will mostly talk and Bobbi will have to actively listen. Sometimes she may need to ask for clarification or have questions, but most of the time she needs to listen.
With the last point, [Laurene nods her head.] We will put on our roles — myself as the CBO (Chief Bilingual Officer) and her as University President. I will ask questions. This is a conversation where we go back and forth, and you will see her answers and any questions she may have for me.
How long? My presentation will be about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes. Whether we have time for questions and answers, we will see. Hold off on that for now. If time runs out, I can take the questions and review them. I will try my best to answer. Bobbi and I are doing the first two parts of this, person-to-person—she is not acting as the President of Gallaudet University and I am not acting as the Chief Bilingual Officer. It is just us, Laurene and Bobbi. The reason why is because I want to build a relationship.
Now, my personal journey and reflections. To my sisters and brothers in the Black community, my family, my friends… I want to thank you for your amazing support. Yes, I am very, very nervous, yes. Bobbi is also feeling the same, nervous, yes. Why? We are at a crossroads. When this talk is over, what does this mean for Bobbi and for me at the end of this? I am nervous because of the strong fear I am feeling in my soul. Why? I have labored hard all my life, from childhood to adulthood, thinking about whether anything I do is right or wrong. If I make one wrong step, I shoot myself in the foot and I lose everything. It’s that easy for it to happen. That is my greatest fear.
Bobbi could make inappropriate comments to the point that if anything happens and she is no longer President, Bobbi would still be able to make good progress in her life… that is how much power she has. [Laurene nods her head]. It is easy for her to be racist. I don’t have it easy. [Laurene shakes her head]
I want to thank all of you for vlogging your stories, your experiences growing up, your childhoods, your raw feelings from the soul. It’s powerful. I have listened. I see you. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Keep at it. Keep pouring your hearts out. Keep going. I see how raw it is, yes. Keep going. We need to be reminded of that. Even I need to remind myself. When I watch your stories, I remember myself growing up, yes. I am nodding. I remember myself, yes. It is very, very painful and raw.
[Image Description: Laurene looks down to the floor to pause for a few moments before she looks up, directly at the camera. Bobbi is sitting still, quiet.]
People have asked me to share my personal story in a vlog. I will do that in a separate vlog, on my personal page, where I share my journey growing up. I will do that, I have been putting it off. It’s difficult. [Bobbi slightly nods her head and presses her lips as she nods in silence, listening to Laurene.] It’s hard to share decades of oppression, since the ‘50s, ’60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s…all the way to 2020. Ok, let’s get moving along.
Please don’t forget other persons of color. I have many, many friends who are of color. Latinx/Hispanic, Asian, and many other different people of color… they share the same pain. [Bobbi slightly nods her head in silence.] They experience the same pain from the system. We do not intend to ignore them or push them to the side. Certainly not. Now is the time for the Black Lives Matter movement. The focus needs to be on Black lives. [Bobbi nods a few times in silence.] We are at high risk.
[Laurene looks down at her notes for a short time as she clasps her hands together, and Bobbi is silent. Laurene looks up to the camera again.]
This is for the public. I have many, many enemies. Yes, I have enemies. I have seen things. [Laurene pauses momentarily as she places her right palm on the top of her left hand. Bobbi is listening in silence. Laurene shakes her head as she signs the beginning of the next sentence.] I am not too concerned about that but … my great concern is where I will go from here. We are at a crossroads.
[Laurene looks down and licks her index finger to turn over a page of her notes on the table, the notes are off-screen.] Social media has lit a flame that has spread like wildfire, causing a trail of destruction. Social media has made it easy for so much destruction to happen. [Laurene pauses briefly in silence.] Ok, moving on.
Now I want to explain my role and who I am. [Laurene clasps her hands together.] First of all, I am not a token, period. [Laurene shakes her head.] I have experienced tokenism growing up. I know what tokenism looks like. This is not tokenism. Why? I asked Bobbi for this talk. Bobbi never asked me. [Laurene shakes her head.] I asked Bobbi. Why? We are working through the process of building a relationship. Still, it’s hard work getting to that point. I could easily have overlooked many things in hindsight, as I am so close to Bobbi. I did ask Bobbi directly to please look at herself and unpack her privileges. [Bobbi nods in acknowledgment as Laurene continues signing.] I asked the University President to unpack her privileges in front of other attendees at a meeting. I reminded her, “Bobbi, please unpack.” [Bobbi nods in silence, slightly pressing her already-closed lips. Laurene looks down off-screen then back up to the camera, quickly.]
It was not easy. The planned meeting for today was not a reaction to the recent events or the National Black Deaf Advocates’ letter. No, no, this was planned a long time ago. We set the date for today. All that has happened along the way, I carried it with me and included in the presentation. This event is not in a reaction mode. [Laurene shakes her head.] Bobbi did not arrange to put me in front of her and have me protect her. [Bobbi shakes her head slightly.] No, no.
People who know me know that I am a strong person but I am very vulnerable inside, yes. Why? I am old. Weary from the heavy burden I have carried, yes. But my heart inside—why I asked Bobbi to come and sit down with me, why—is the heart of a teacher. I am a teacher. I have always been a teacher. I teach people over and over again. For example, a child is asked what 2 + 2 is and the child answers the number “5.” What do I do? [Bobbi smiles slightly, and Laurene chuckles.] I teach again. I teach again. [Laurene finger spells “again” three times.] Again. Again. Again. That is my spirit of teaching. I wanted to take the time to sit down with Bobbi, in hopes that she would internalize the lessons and understand. Fingers crossed. I have faith.
I know some people are on the other end of the spectrum where they say, “Too bad! It is your fault, I am done with all the discussions. Finish finish finish! I have zero patience.” I don’t. [Laurene shakes her head.] I am not like that because I saw a few students grow to be successful. I saw it happen before, that’s why I have faith. I have seen many, many, many failures, yes, but I see a few successes. [Laurene pauses as she looks down at her notes on the table before she looks up. Bobbi looks on, in silence.]
Now, my motive. I am the Chief Bilingual Officer. Do I want to take advantage of this powerful position, being so close to President Cordano? Do I want to become the next University President? No. [Laurene finger spells “no.”] No! I want to retire. I want to be with my family. COVID-19 has impacted me greatly. [Bobbi nods in silence.] I am alone at home. Alone. My family is in the West. I need support. I have many friends who I have not been able to hug since March 13. I have no motive behind this. I have nothing to lose. I can just leave and retire if I want to, that’s all. I have no desire to have power. I want peace. Before I sat here for the talk, I prayed a lot. I prayed a lot. This is the toughest situation I have ever experienced. The toughest.
I am one of Gallaudet University’s American-born faculty. Just a handful. There are more international Black faculty here at Gallaudet University. It is just the 6-7 of us, and we have experienced rough lives. Ok, that is my background and who I am.
One more thing. Some people say, “You are not knowledgeable about multiculturalism or social justice.” I have trained several schools, agencies, clubs, families, and interpreters. All my life. You can ask others about my credentials and about my background. My strength is multiculturalism, I have studied it. This is my strength. Bilingualism is another strength of mine.
Now, I’m not going to continue defending myself. There are people out there who still want to stir the pot. Yes, this will happen whether I tell the truth or not. But I am telling you, I am being honest with you. Now, why do I struggle when I see the Black Lives Matter Movement? George Floyd had an officer’s knee on his neck. It impacted me greatly. Yes, there were Black lives lost before. BLM started because of Trayvon Martin. July 13, 2013. Trayvon Martin was first. The hooded teenager. He was first. The loss of one Black person after another Black person, it just does not stop. I see it happening, and I am filled with worry for my son. I am worried sick. I have been all along. But why this?
Why has this, May 25, been the most triggering for me? So much distress. I have been silently mad. [Laurene fingerspelled the word “mad.”] I am silently mad. I want one minute to experience being White. Just one minute. That is all I am asking for. Just one minute so my soul would be at peace inside. I would not have to worry when I go out for a run. I would not have to worry when I go for a walk. I would not have to worry about nothing. Is that too much to ask for, one minute of being White? I am exhausted. The fear that comes with being Black is exhausting.
I had a conversation with my family to reflect on this question: how do I keep going, even when I am silently mad? I feel the fire of anger inside. Vlog after vlog after vlog, too many of us share the same experiences. Oppression, discrimination, the list goes on. It is constant anger.
Why? Psychologists say the DNA we have in our blood is inherited from the DNA of enslaved Africans who were brought to colonial North America, the DNA of Blacks who saw lynchings and were lynched, the DNA of Blacks who experienced constant fear and torture at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, and the DNA of Blacks who have survived and died from police brutality. The very DNA of our enslaved African ancestors who arrived on the North American shores runs through our blood, our bodies. As if we are there, as if we are the enslaved Africans. We inherited their fear and trauma when we inherited their DNA. We are in constant fear.
It does not matter how hard I have worked. I still live in fear. The DNA of intergenerational trauma is powerful in American-born Black Deaf persons, and it is why it is important to understand our experiences. What we carry is a very heavy burden, and it will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Our individual and collective trauma shows up again and again.
Now I have finished sharing my personal journey, my experiences, and it dovetails on to the next point. The power of the machine. The power of systematic racism. You underestimate—I repeat, you underestimate—the system. The system is huge. It is gigantic. It is old. It is hard but smart. The system is a big ol’ machine. Gallaudet University was founded in 1864, and it has been 156 years. 156 years of a well-oiled machine steaming along.
I want to discuss the NBDA letter. I love NBDA. I am loyal to NBDA, you know that. For years, I have attended NBDA conferences. I have never missed one single NBDA conference. I have invested incredible amounts of time and energy in it, I have worked with the NBDA’s college student leadership program for 10 years. I am proud of all the participants in the college student leadership program who have gone on to graduate over those 10 years. The 99% who have graduated, including those from Gallaudet University. Some of the Black Student Union (BSU) leaders you see today are from the program. I stand proud of the BSU students for speaking out loud, for taking the initiative on petitions, and for being leaders.
I think to myself, YES! This is what NBDA’s training is for, it has prepared you as leaders. Keep going. Don’t give up. Don’t give up, Keep going. I am loyal to NBDA. I am torn. I read the NBDA’s open letter. I support all of it, except for number 7. I do not want to see Bobbi thrown out as University President. I am conflicted. Let me explain about the machine. The machine of systematic racism.
There is an elephant in the room at the NBDA. There are American-born Blacks—like me—who inherited the DNA of trauma and fear from enslaved Africans on the ships arriving on North America’s shores. And then there are international-born Blacks. Hey, it is not my goal to be divisive. But we have not had a dialogue yet. We have not had the chance for a discussion because of the longstanding tension between American-born Blacks and international-born Blacks. We have been holding it in.
I have close friends who are international-born Blacks, and I look up to them. Lindsay Dunn. He is an international-born Black man, but he fights for us! He is very involved in NBDA, and he is a role model. I look up to him. Kory Rashid. She has worked her way up to the position of Dean of Faculty here. She is a fighter, she is a role model. Both are international-born Blacks, and I look up to them. But why do I look up to them? They have children in America. They are armed with the extra lens of understanding how the machine is, they have seen their children grow up with firsthand experiences of systemic racism. I bonded with both of them.
I know some of our international-born Black community members have the goal of removing Bobbi. I know. There is nothing to hide. Nothing but the truth here. Bobbi, the truth is, there are people who want you out. Tension exists within NBDA… at the same time, I cherish NBDA. It is my home. It is my backbone. I am loyal. I do not want them to lose face. I do not want them to lose dignity. I do not want that. NBDA has stood strong since 1980, and I want to see NBDA last. It was established to fight for civil rights for Black Deaf people.
I want international-born Black community members to honor our process. Watch our vlogs, absorb our raw stories of suffering, and give us honor. We need to band together, work together, unpack, and discuss our feelings. The process is very painful. We need time and our international-born Black community members need time, too. Yes, we both do experience racism by the color of our skin. Cops look at us the same. Restaurants look at us the same. Store employees look at us the same. Everything is the same for the color of our skin, but I’m talking about systematic racism here in America and how it has impacted us our whole lives. Am I asking for division? No!
I support the NBDA’s letter except for number 7. I will explain why. Look at Gallaudet University’s history over 156 years. Nine University Presidents. All were White men, except for Robert Davila—he was Latino—and except for one woman. Bobbi.
Let me explain the history. Bear with me, again I am a teacher. Remember that. Zinster was the first woman but she was eliminated, related to the DPN movement. Strike one. White man, White man, White man. Jane Fernandes was a woman. Strike two. White man, White man. Bobbi would be strike three. Except for those three women, White men stood dominant. The machine is still there, going on strong. That is why I am scared. I am a woman. I am Black. Bobbi is a woman, Deaf, and queer. The machine is here. The Black Lives Matter movement started on July 13, 2013. Bobbi started the University President position in 2016. It is 2020 now. It has only been four years. Four years. And people already want to push her out. That’s fast. All those White men have taken pleasure in inflicting oppression. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) was a major issue before Bobbi. The Persona Non-Grata’s was a major issue before Bobbi. The machine was there all along, running in the background. Bobbi joined Gallaudet University, all this happened, and you are going after her already? A woman, Deaf, and queer. All those White men.
Angela McCaskill was the CDO. The Chief Diversity Officer. She made one flawed move. It was political, yes, and she was immediately removed from her position. Bobbi knows she has made many, many mistakes. Bobbi has admitted it, she knows how racist some of the actions were, she knows she is racist. Yes, she has a few flaws, and yet no patience has been shown for her. We have had White men as University Presidents who demonstrated many, many, many flaws but they still stayed. They kept their jobs. That is what I am talking about, the machine. The Kappa Gamma fraternity and other fraternities, sororities are in the machine itself.
This is really what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. The system tolerates White men, that is the point here. Why did we not do this before? Why not? Why did this sort of discussion not happen before? Often we hear, “Where have you been?” Where have you been? No. The number one question you should be asking, “Where have I been?” Where have I been? When Angela McCaskill was demoted, I was numb. I was numb. I did not send a complaint letter about her removal, insisting that it was wrong of the University President to remove her from her position. I was silent. I was in fear, and I was numb. The machine has several puppets, and I was one of them. I kept quiet. I held it in all this time. This time, I will not be silent. No more. I will not be silent.
I know you want to see White people get fired. To see specific White folks get fired. You feel that you are owed, that the White person owes you for the suffering they have put you through. I understand. I completely understand. I can relate to that, I have the burning flame of anger inside. I have been silently mad. But does it dismantle the system? No. If you remove Bobbi, what happens? [The Zoom screen shows a picture of a dandelion with white pieces falling away in the air.]
See what happens? The pieces flying off the dandelion land on other areas of the grass now are spread out there, and new dandelions grow. The machine continues, this time with new machines growing there and here. The machine of systemic racism reigns supreme. You can clean up all you want and take Bobbi out, but the machine is still there. [Laurene shakes her head] Many of you do not realize you underestimate the system. It is stubborn, old, and smart. I was afraid when Angela was asked to leave. And now I am afraid of Bobbi leaving. Why? If she leaves and I make a few flawed moves, I am gone! I would be done for.
Bobbi is a symbol of all women. She is a symbol of all queer folks. If she makes too many mistakes, she is gone. But not the White man. Look at our history, it has a factual pattern. None of the White male Presidents were asked to leave. This is how strong the machine of systemic racism is.
Instead of removing people, we want to show a picture of Patrick Hutchinson. [The Zoom screen changes to a picture of Patrick Hutchinson, a Black man who is carrying an injured White man on his shoulder towards safety.]
I just found that picture of Patrick. Yes, yes, that is what we are looking for…not to remove people from their jobs. Patrick is very much involved in the BLM Movement, he is a father and a grandfather. A very fit man. Across the street, there was a group of racist White participants who were yelling slurs and trying to incite violence. A White racist man fell and got injured, with blood all over. What did Patrick do? Patrick ran to the White man, lifted him over his shoulder, and started carrying him to safety. The White man was against BLM and other Black BLM protesters huddled around Patrick, protecting them as Patrick carried the White male to the police. Wait, what? Why, why? The White male is against BLM. Patrick said, “He was injured on the ground. He is a human being.” That is a BLM principle. Look at the people and remember justice. Justice for all.
I want to be Patrick. It is hard for me. It is easy for me to have it out for others to be terminated from their jobs. All those years growing up… those White folks owe us. We are overdue. I want you to be Patrick. The White man Patrick was holding… what do you think the White man was thinking, as he was being carried away and his life was being saved? What do you think he was thinking? Maybe bewildered. He could be thinking, “Hmm… maybe BLM is all about justice after all.”
Let’s look at Martin Luther King (MLK) and his marches. King was all about nonviolent protests and marches. The principles behind the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement are the same. He was fighting for civil rights. He was against dehumanizing and threatening others. If MLK started to insult people, his whole civil rights movement would have been gone! When Obama was President, he never, never said one word to dehumanize others. If he did, his career would be over, it would be no good now. But we allow a White male President to insult people and dehumanize them. Again, this is the machine of systematic racism.
This is why, when we look at Bobbi, we see her as a woman, Deaf, and queer. And you want to throw her out over a few flawed moves? I have some hard questions saved for her, to ask her. It’s getting close to time.
Bobbi has been listening in silence, patiently. She has been reflecting. Honestly, when we are around each other, yes, there have been times where she was impulsive. Bobbi recognized that she’s impulsive, yes. She has had to practice active listening in silence. Again, I am a teacher. Active listening, active listening. Often, when you are listening, you feel paralyzed. You find yourself being distracted asking yourself what you should do when you should have your full attention on active listening. Active listening requires an extraordinary amount of patience. You have been pushing for action, asking to see where the action is. You want to see proof of action.
Hold up here. Bobbi still has to unpack and be able to listen first before she is able to participate in discussions with us. We are under Gallaudet University’s machine of systematic racism, 156 years. When we engage in self-introspection, the first step must be to admit to yourself: “I am a racist.” No need to advertise this on a billboard that says “I AM A RACIST!” No. This is an internal process for you where you tell yourself, “I am a racist.” Bobbi admitted that, yes, she is a racist. She has made that first step. It’s a hard step. I am an audist. Same concept. I am sexist. Same concept. It takes you opening yourself up with that first step. It takes you having to assess yourself, listen, re-assess yourself, and listen on an ongoing basis. Self-assessment and active listening to others are skills. It is not easy. It is not as easy as oh, having a coffee at a sit-down with someone else while you listen and self-assess. No, it is not that easy. No, it is a skill. It takes time to look inward and think about what happened. Look at McCaskill’s situation as an example. I have had to look at myself on that, to ask myself how I could have allowed that to just happen.
People are starting to demand apologies from other people. No, no. Forgiveness is expensive. An apology is expensive. It is not as simple as doing a signed or written apology and just moving on. No. It is expensive, expensive. Expensive. I told Bobbi to expect people not to buy it when she apologizes, no matter how many different ways she tries to apologize. Some people might accept it, others do not. The Black Deaf community has that resistance. Why? Our inherited DNA, all the way back to the enslaved Africans on that ship. All those years of impact. Gallaudet University’s machine of systematic racism has lasted 156 years. It is very old. The same ol’ big machine all those years.
Now I’m done with that. The machine of systematic racism. Now we are ready for Bobbi to wear the hat of the University President. Bobbi, how do you feel? Are you okay? Are you good?
President Cordano: I think I’m alright.
Dr. Laurene Simms: I’m acting as the CBO now. Thank you for your vlog yesterday. We worked hard to edit it, and ensure that the video is honest. You worked hard to sign it. You always get criticized. Even the flyer design with you in the back and me in the front had criticism. Anything I do, I get criticized. Anytime I say something, I get criticized. But thank you.
Now my hard question. The reason why the NBDA went public with their concerns is your lack of response. We have been waiting for 2-3 weeks. We have been waiting. What have you done? What are you doing?
We know that–hold on, I am going to go off the point and get right back to it—we know that with MLK, people were doing marches because they had bad experiences. The BLM movement started in 2013, in hopes that law enforcement would drastically change. Now it is 2020, and we are still seeing marches. The police departments had told the Black communities for years that change would happen. It never happened. The Black communities no longer believed the police departments. It’s still very much the same. Change has to happen now. Reform. Defund the police. We stay steadfast until we see actual proof.
It is the same concept as our Black Deaf community with you right now, Bobbi. We are waiting. We have been waiting. We do not believe you. It is all talk, no action. We do not believe you. My question is, why? Why is there no action? Are you ready to answer this? Why? Why, Bobbi? [Bobbi momentarily reflects, her eyes wandering a bit, her eyes blinking, as she nods.]
President Cordano: I’m opening with an acknowledgment that you have been waiting. Our BSU/SBG coalition sent us a petition and I have to tell you, it was a wonderfully produced document. Key points were made, and we agree. I fully support what they are asking for. I think my leadership—first, I recognize I could have done better to notify the BSU/SBG coalition what internal actions have been initiated or completed. Second, since I received—really, since the panel received, on that day, Friday, it’s been almost exactly a week ago. I listened to the panel, and I looked at a comparison of the BSU/SBG Petition and our Master Plan. We did invest in some effort where some of the components in the petition matched up with the Master Plan, good. What is missing is…the…[pauses] ability for me to communicate about my work from inside, to develop authentic, honest answers for the students. I…I…
Dr. Laurene Simms: [Nods] A lot of thinking is involved.
President Cordano: I sent it to my Executive Team—right after I received the petition—I sent it to my Executive Team. Now what? What has been done? Our CDO, Dr. Nuria, created a spreadsheet and asked everyone on the Executive Team to fill it out to understand where we are at now. [Dr. Simms is nodding, stating, “I saw that.”] I was asked, is this enough information? But we can’t answer more, while they need more inclusive feedback to understand. But that process involves teamwork. It takes time and patience, and I recognize that the machine is all about satisfying deadlines with submitted checklists and filled out paperwork. The machine will always continue on that, it’s the same over and over again. Part of important leadership work involves building an internal executive team that is committed to follow-through and the completion of tasks. I think that, from yesterday, we accepted the fact that communication has not been our greatest strength when it comes to conveying what we have accomplished. We owe it to the students to do more. I am honestly admitting that I owe much more to you. I acknowledged and accepted the students’ feedback yesterday. I think this afternoon, we are beginning our journey. We will have another discussion with our students. We owe it to their leadership. We will include students, faculty, and staff on what work needs to be done for anti-racism. We are focused on supporting the three executive members in their work, in uplifting students, faculty, and staff of color. Uplifting them. And the DPS—[Stops signing, indicates that Dr. Simms go ahead and sign, as Dr. Simms looks like she wants to make a clarification.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes. Yes, we did respond to the petitions. Yes, thank you, but—[President Cordano interrupts her]
President Cordano: The DPS officers—[Dr. Simms interrupts her.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: But the BSU students have expressed, “Where have you been for the past four years?” Some have expressed being ignored, or abandoned—I don’t know—
President Cordano: I—
Dr. Laurene Simms: I appreciate you, yes, but—
President Cordano: Thanks for the clarification.
Dr. Laurene Simms: For the past four years, BSU students have been bringing various issues to your attention. They felt neglected and discouraged that nothing productive happened to the point of feeling, “What’s the point now? She has to go now.” That.
President Cordano: We agreed to be honest with each other.
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes, please.
President Cordano: We–[President Cordano glances down off-screen at what appears to be notes or a cell phone screen on the desk for a brief moment before she looks up, as Dr. Simms looks on]–we agreed to find [her eyes are glancing upwards to her left to her right, away from the camera, then she makes eye contact with the camera as Dr. Simms watches in silence]—I will be honest—where have I been for the past four years? I will share. [President Cordano momentarily looks off-screen to her right before coming back to the camera.] When I came into Gallaudet, I inherited an Executive Team that was White male-dominated.
Dr. Laurene Simms: There’s that machine.
President Cordano: There was one woman. I think that out of the entire team, only two members could sign proficiently. All the other members either sim-comm’d or did not sign at all. That was four years ago. My work to push for some changes—I experienced the machine, the system—my efforts were met by pushbacks from the Executive Team. It was a back and forth struggle. It was rather difficult. And what did we accomplish? I think, look at the Executive Team we have now.
Dr. Laurene Simms: [Nodding her head] It’s a diverse team.
President Cordano: I have you, our CBO. Deaf. Black Deaf, American-born. I have the Chief Diversity Officer, hearing, Black hearing woman, international-born. She had extensive knowledge and experience coming in, with the faculty and community member interviewers having picked her. [Nods] We have Dominic Lacy, our Chief Operating Officer. Our Executive Team is now much more diverse—of which a majority is now Deaf and ASL-fluent. It took time for the community to do an intentional search in such a strategic way to hire qualified, diverse candidates. I felt that I finally have an Executive Team that can commit to this kind of work. And then this situation came up. I felt, “Wait! Wait, let them succeed! Let them succeed!” I think that is my pain for now… that is how much it took just to get to this point. Honestly. It’s hard. It’s important work.
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes. The students have been waiting for you. Many have shared stories of harassment, of police brutality. It’s a constant outpouring of pain, they are screaming to be heard… and there’s been no action taken.
President Cordano: I—
Dr. Laurene Simms: This is where they are very, very skeptical. Suspicious. “Will she do something about it, or will she talk, talk, talk about it?” It is the same as the Black Lives Matter movement. [Bobbi is nodding, her hands are clasped together.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: I invite you to—
President Cordano: I have—[interrupting Dr. Simms.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: Assess yourself—
President Cordano: Assess myself…[Looks off-screen to her right before she looks back to the camera] When I arrived at Gallaudet, one of the first things I did was have the DPS Director sit down with me. I asked him, “What does your team know about trauma?” [Dr. Laurene Simms is nodding.]
President Cordano: “What do you know about trauma?” He couldn’t answer. I asked him to please go learn about trauma, especially how students would react when they carry the weight of their cumulative trauma and a police officer shows up with a gun on his belt. How the student reacts…this situation is adding to their trauma, trauma is happening here, too. I will…emphasize to you that I have—we will do more work from this point on to create a different environment for students where they can feel less trauma, they feel they have more support while going through difficult times. We will—I have already asked—we will start looking at and make some decisions about what expectations we have on the officer’s role. The officer’s role should be limited. What we need is more mental health support, social support, positive reinforcement. Redirect priorities for service. So many of our faculty and our staff are doing that for our students now. You mentioned the NBDA Leadership Program, we’re trying to shift from policing to mentorship. We will need to include more students on how—I already asked the COO and the Dean of Student Affairs to work with the students in designing what kind of program they want.
I know that in my self-assessment, for many White students, DPS gives them that sense of security and safety. For Black students, they do not feel safe. Like here now, in my home state of Minnesota, the police department has been defunded and we have to change the system. I am here and I have seen what is going in my hometown with George Floyd. I am committed to understanding how White students and BIPOC students perceive policing differently. I acknowledge it is two very different experiences. We must find a path.
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes.
President Cordano: We need to make it safe for everyone, where everyone feels supported in our moment of vulnerability.
Dr. Laurene Simms: Thank you for your honesty. I want you to be aware that everyone out there is still reluctant to believe you. Forgiveness does not come easily. Forgiveness is expensive. [President Cordano nods.] Apologizing is expensive.
Dr. Laurene Simms: I feel you, because I am building a relationship with you. I can still overlook some things and only realize it in hindsight. I want to be like Patrick. I don’t believe in dehumanizing others or destroying others. I am a teacher. I can’t imagine being destructive towards other people. I am a teacher in social justice. It is an automatic reflex for me. I incorporate social justice in my teaching. Time is getting close.
President Cordano: I want to—[interrupting Dr. Simms]
Dr. Laurene Simms: Go ahead, what was it that you wanted to say?
President Cordano: The challenge I have, to be honest with you, I have had a list of just so many things I needed to do. When I came to Gallaudet, what was hot? PNG’s. Remember how hot that was?
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes.
President Cordano: People hated PNG’s. Why? They complained that it was mainly that one White man was making all the decisions, and they resented that. We did revamp the system for PNG’s. We changed the decision-making process to a diverse panel so PNG experiences are very different than before.
Dr. Laurene Simms: You have to communicate that.
President Cordano: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Laurene Simms: We did not know any of this.
President Cordano: When I came in, the PNG list was so long. I reviewed the list and thought—What for?? Is this appropriate? For the PNGs to go on for so long? That is where the list of PNG’s is much shorter. We have time limits. We have different rules, the PNG’s are more restrictive, we have a panel in place making the decisions. We are telling ourselves we need to be careful for future scenarios. If I was a Black parent and the officer looks at me all suspicious, asking me why my Black children are just standing there. That sort of attitude still makes me upset. What for?? It happened not too long ago to my friend. How does that still happen today?
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes, still, still, still.
President Cordano: That needs to stop. I just see a Black person being Black but the fact that a police officer goes, “What are you doing?” That horrifies me.
I felt the shock and that disgust. We have to find a way to address it and change the process, keep working at it. We need to have training and have our officers engage in self-introspection. It has to be a mandatory demand for them, just like you expect it from me and others. We have work to do.
Dr. Laurene Simms: Yes.
The NBDA letter is similar to the petition. We need to add faculty/staff training about racism at Gallaudet University, even among faculty and staff, and most especially in the Department of Education—where I am. (Heart touch). Increase the diversity in faculty and staff. Include student representatives in the University’s hiring process. Increase diversity in the student body. Introduce a zero tolerance policy on racism.
I support all of that. I understand that the executive team has taken the responsibility on addressing those demands. It can’t be just you doing all of this alone, Bobbi. Can you explain a bit about the Executive Team, just briefly, so the community is aware? I am a member of the Executive Team, yes, but I want people to be aware we are grappling with this. Bobbi is not doing this alone. Can you talk about how the Executive Team is addressing the other demands? Then we can wrap up. I have a recommendation and then we can wrap-up.
President Cordano: I want to start by saying that as University President, we are as good as the people we have around us. The same is true for me and when I think about the Executive Team we now have, We are doing anti-racist work even in our own meetings. We have our moments—you know, even just last week where there was a painful moment and it was an experience for our Executive Team. I don’t know if you mind me stating about what it is that you shared in that meeting. Dr. Laurene Simms: You have my permission.
President Cordano: A White member of the Executive Team was sharing their perspective of the pain they felt over the past 2-3 weeks. Laurene looked at the person and said, “I envy you. I envy you. You have only experienced this kind of pain for 2-3 weeks, while I experience this throughout my lifetime.” The entire team sat in silence, feeling the impact of your comment. You know, speaking as a Deaf person, I have been taught I need to perform. If I do not perform, people will then not support me and the work I do. This is my experience growing up. But this team has taught me something different. I am being told, “No, you are the President but let us show the community our work.” The work of the executive team supports my work. We started yesterday on the students’ demands. Each member of the Executive Team will explain their area of work and responsibilities and start the conversation. We know we need to start the conversation.
Laurene, you and I have talked—even with our experiences with bilingualism—about the time that is needed to engage conversations with different individuals and create a greater impact with deliberate changes to the system. Only when will we experience true breakthrough. I thought it would take one year for the Bilingual Task Force’s work to happen, but it took—I think it was—two, almost two full years. [Dr. Simms is nodding, saying “yes.”] We experienced a true breakthrough with the Bilingual Task Force.
For the BLM movement, I want us to be able to work I want us to work together as a team and engage the appropriate individuals. We must repeatedly show our work to the community in transparency. Only then will we be able to experience the breakthrough we need. We need to break through. I want to see unity in not just the team, but the community. We need to have hard conversations and do the work.
Dr. Laurene Simms: I want to offer something for you to reflect on. I want to pull together Black change makers and work closely with you. It would include Dr. Ndura, Gallaudet University alumni who are concerned about this, it might need to include Board Members. We all need to focus on dismantling the system. The Executive Team can’t do all this work alone. This is a teachable moment. Again. Again. Again. We have to teach you because once we successfully teach you, that can be a model of change for Gallaudet University and other Universities. You are a Deaf, female and queer President.
I want us to avoid the Rosa Parks Syndrome. You know, oftentimes the Executive Team is chipping away at our work with plans, you are working behind the scene. But you treat us like we’re Rosa Parks and you tell us to sit at the back of the bus while you do all the work at the front, where you present us with work that we will veto or approve. Stop doing that. Put Rosa Parks at the front. When you start developing plans with students, put us in the front. We need to be at the table. We need to be involved in the entire process, not just being invited to the table after the fact. This is where we see institutional racism in the process. Some people thought racism was gone. No, it’s been ongoing. No. It’s forever. Same as audism. It is permanent, even when we engage in activist work. Some people think, “Oh once I complete this project, my work is done.” No, it is forever. I might be exaggerating a bit here. There is a spectrum of racism, from the most oblivious racists—like the White man Patrick was carrying on his shoulder—to our allies who have to understand they are still racists, period. I want you to understand Rosa Parks Syndrome, we can’t afford to have that at play here. I think that will be my closing remarks. Bobbi, do you have anything to add?
President Cordano: You showed that picture of Patrick Hutchinson. You know, there’s a trust exercise where you have to fall and you trust someone will catch you. I think my experience with you today, Laurene, that you are asking me to fall and you are catching me. That is so you could carry me. I can imagine, it feels awkward, the feeling of being carried on somebody’s shoulders, because it is a very different experience for me. I really appreciate this gift. The gift of humanity in this experience for all of us. Because so many of us in the deaf community are in pain, because of what’s being shared on social media, the negative reactions to people sharing their experiences. All the religions, the faiths, and all the great leaders in the world, those who have led others—they have been successful in leadership through kindness, through love, and through respect.
It requires love and that is what is going to get us through. Laurene, I recognize that you taking me on your shoulders just as Patrick did, it is an act of love. I, as a human, to feel that love is the most precious feeling in the whole world. I imagine that, if you know I am experiencing this, for everyone listening in and watching—they are seeing and learning this from one of our world’s greatest Deaf teachers. You, Laurene. [Dr. Laurene Simms looks on, as if she is about to tear up. It looks like it is a raw emotional moment.] The reason why I came to Gallaudet is because I believe in teaching and learning. You have shown firsthand why Gallaudet is an extraordinary university for our community. You give that love. You are willing to take me on your shoulders—you are not just carrying me… you are carrying all of us in this community. From you, Laurene, as one individual. I want to ask the world of community members who are watching, when we see Laurene doing this, how can we love you back. [Dr. Simms is nodding her head.] How we can also carry you when you need to be carried.
Dr. Laurene Simms: [Nodding her head.] Okay, thank you. [Dr. Simms grabs a tissue to wipe the tears from her eyes.] OK, so we are now closing our time together. Yes, I have some more hard questions to ask you, Bobbi. We will have future opportunities to do that. Now we know that tomorrow, remember, tomorrow is Juneteenth. June 19. We are commemorating the freedom of enslaved Africans. Let’s not forget Juneteenth. Gallaudet University has decided to be closed tomorrow in honor of that holiday. I want to acknowledge the Executive Team’s sensitivity to that in making the decision to be closed for tomorrow. I am asking our community members to continue sharing your vlogs with us. Do not stop. Do not stop. I will make my own vlog. I think social media is the best avenue that we have to share our pain with the community, and for others to listen and feel that pain. You know, it is going to be raw when you see people you know being mentioned in those narratives. Bobbi and I are standing at a crossroads.
We don’t know what will happen next. We do not know what comes next. I know some people would like to overthrow her. I don’t agree with that. I love NBDA. I am passionate about NBDA. I cherish NBDA. My respect for NBDA remains high. I want to see NBDA continue to have a strong standing in our community. But, I will understand if NBDA decides to disown me. I stand by the BLM principle for human rights, period. We cannot keep dehumanizing others, removing them from their roles, and inflicting revenge on them. No. We need to teach them, so they can learn and change. We need to be with them, we need to support them. Forgiveness and apologies are expensive. It’s not easy to forgive. It’s expensive. I want to apologize to Angela McCaskill. I want to apologize for my silence, for doing nothing. I was numb and I was living in fear. I can only imagine the suffering Angela has been through. Angela was demoted from her position and I did not speak up. I love you, Angela. I want to send love to Angela.
I also want to apologize to Mark Amissah. I know you worked with Davila and you were making good progress, only to be removed from the President’s Office. I saw him fall, and be stuck in the position where he is right now. He is an angry man. I am so sorry, Mark, for not doing much. Moving forward, I will do all in my power to do the work I am called to do. To work with you, Mark. There are others I might have missed, others I might have caused pain to but not have realized it, because of my privileges and where I am seated. Forgive me. I hope NBDA can forgive me. NBDA will have a webinar this evening. I will be the facilitator and we are using our platform to have a webinar with NBDA, with the Indiana chapter of NBDA. I respect NBDA’s Board, but I do not support number 7 in their open letter. What does that mean for the Board? I don’t know. I will respect their decision if they want to reject me because I do not agree. I want to stay and fight for our human rights. I want unity in Gallaudet. I am going to fight for it. Include the rich diversity of our community. Offer and receive forgiveness, teach, and grow. Again. Again. Again.
Shara, please show Patrick’s picture again. [The picture of Patrick Hutchinson pops up on the Zoom screen.] I invite all of you to be Patrick. I want to be Patrick. I want to operate from a place of love where I acknowledge our common humanity, regardless of our race or ethnicity. We are all human beings. We saw a group of Black protestors protect Patrick and the White man just so he could be handed over to the police… even when they were at the BLM event. I give you my virtual hug, and I want to extend a hug for Bobbi.
President Cordano: Hugging you right back. [A moment of silence while both women hold the “hug” sign on their torsos while their eyes are closed.]
Dr. Laurene Simms: Goodbye.
President Cordano: Goodbye.