It wasn't junior Brendan Bakala's most comfortable moment at St. Ambrose.
Then again, comfort and true learning are not always compatible.
In a Rogalski Center ballroom filled to capacity with students, alumni, faculty, staff and a large number of Quad Cities community members on Sept. 28, Bakala began a question to featured speaker Cornel West, PhD, with nine words that more than a few members in the room thought presumptuous.
"We have come a long way since Jim Crow ...," the sophomore from Sugar Grove, Ill., began.
West, a well-known commentator on race in America, quieted a buzz of dissent within the room, noting truly significant progress had been made since lynching and violence were rampant a half-century ago in the Jim Crow South.
But then he challenged Bakala and all in attendance to consider the perspective of those around them who face the continuing challenges, both economic and societal, that confront minorities today.
"That experience made me realize the wide spectrum of views of race and religion in the United States," Bakala, a Caucasian history major, said weeks later. "The Race Matters theme may be an uncomfortable one but it is one that needs to be discussed nonetheless."
Race Matters is the topic for the 2012-2013 campus-wide project series, led by the College of Arts and Sciences. It is the fifth in a series of lectures, films, concerts, performances and exhibits geared to spur yearlong campus and classroom discussion on a chosen topic.
The idea of discussing race in a particularly sensitive moment in our nation's history actually emerged out of an uncomfortable moment at the school-year-starting Presidential Assembly in August of 2011.
Project director Lisa Powell, PhD, an assistant professor of theology, listened then as minority students described their own not always comfortable experiences at St. Ambrose. She ultimately proposed Race Matters as this year's project theme to Aron Aji, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The sensitivity of the topic obviously didn't stand in the way of its approval. Instead, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Tim Phillips said the campus community viewed a yearlong examination of race and race relations in America as an opportunity.
"With our renewed interest in campus diversity, it just seemed like the right thing to do," Phillips said. "The reality is race is an issue a lot of people want to talk about, don't know how to talk about and, therefore, are afraid to talk about."
Removing that fear and enlisting experts to spur the discussion "within the context of our Catholic faith was just seen as a real opportunity," Phillips said
A prolific author on the subject of race and a well-known commentator on television and radio, West was an extremely high-profile speaker for this year's Baecke Endowment for the Humanities Lecture. His appearance early in the school year helped supply the project series early momentum.
"This is a moment our students will remember long after they have graduated," Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, the university president, said following West's lecture. "These kinds of events help define who we are and want to be as a university."
The message minority students are getting is that St. Ambrose cares about what they care about. "We need to think racism is not just over," said James Pace, a sophomore from Belleville, Ill., and an African-American. "It still does matter and we need to fight to improve this in our society."
The message to the student body as a whole is that St. Ambrose is here to challenge the ways they view the world, to help them leave with a broader perspective than they had when the arrived, Powell said. That is a lesson every university strives to provide, but not every school is willing to push beyond the margins of comfort to provide it.
An email from a professor in Wyoming with whom Powell will present at an upcoming conference re-affirmed that St. Ambrose is a proud exception in that regard.
"She had clicked on the Race Matters link at the bottom of my email signature," Powell said. "She sent me another email saying ‘It looks like a very important, very impressive series of events. Congratulations to you and St. Ambrose for the breadth and depth of the issues you are raising as a community."