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Proceedings and Relevant Parties

Hard Conversations on Race

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In the wake of high-profile deaths of often-unarmed black men and women in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and elsewhere, University Professor Anna Deavere Smith (pictured, above); Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU Steinhardt (pictured, below left); and Deirdre von Dornum, assistant dean for public service, joined together last September to discuss racism, police violence, and community action.


“I felt that it was important for us not to begin this year at NYU without some sort of ceremonial acknowledgment of what just happened,” said Smith, whose theater work has deeply explored race and politics in America.

Professor Paulette Caldwell, speaking from the audience, recalled the 2014 convocation speech given by Sherrilyn Ifill ’87, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The core of what [Ifill] said is that democracy maintenance is the most important thing that lawyers do,” said Caldwell. “It’s a part of professional responsibility.”

Noguera noted that, though it is easy to feel despondent when confronted with events such as those in Ferguson, one remedy is to join efforts to make change. “If you actually get involved, you realize there are other people trying to do things,” Noguera said. “What we suffer from is [a feeling of] powerlessness.”


Students in the audience were encouraged to speak openly. “What’s happening in Ferguson isn’t just a lot of people walking around and yelling,” a 3L commented. “It’s a very organized protest in response to what happened, and it’s getting us talking about these issues. And that’s a part of change.”

That same month, then-US Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured, right) delivered the keynote at a Brennan Center for Justice conference on mass incarceration. “For far too long,” said Holder, “under well-intentioned policies designed to be ‘tough’ on criminals, our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities—particularly communities of color.”

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