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Black History Celebration: Racism expert Debra Leigh shares lessons from 30 years in St. Cloud

Hello meet Debra Leigh one of my sisters. We were raised in the Jazz District near18th & Vine as small children. Our parents moved a little further south when it was time for us to go to school . Debbie, we call her, moved to Central Minnesota in 1989 from Kansas City, Missouri, to direct the dance program at St. Cloud State University.

Now she serves as vice president for cultural fluency, equity and inclusion at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. This summer Gov. Tim Walz tapped Leigh to join the state's Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage.

The term "anti-racism" spiked among Google searches in late May, a week after a white Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man. The incident led to Floyd's death and sparked protests around the world. "How to Be an Antiracist," by Ibram X. Kendi and other books on anti-racism became best sellers at the same time.

Leigh and many others did anti-racist work for decades before it became a 2020 buzzword. Leigh co-founded the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative (CARE) at St. Cloud State more than 15 years ago. And she has insight on how to begin or continue to unravel racism.

Leigh is confident that it can be done.

"Can we bring change? Absolutely," she said during an interview in late September. "I intend for my grandsons to grow up in a society, in a world, in a community where they are respected because of the content of their character, their intellect, their creativity, their imagination, their humanness."

It's tough work, said John Smith, chair of the Promise Neighborhood executive board. "There are personal sacrifices with challenging institutions and policies."

He's worked with Leigh and seen her make change and develop young leaders in her career.

Experiencing racism

When Leigh started at St. Cloud State 30 yeas ago the school was struggling to hold on to diverse faculty members. A lawsuit then forced the university to provide some diversity training, Leigh said.

She also experienced racism there.

Her colleagues debated for 45 minutes whether to provide her with a key to the storage room in the dance studio when she first started at SCSU, Leigh said. "The thing that was the barrier for me having a key didn't have anything to do with my education or my degrees or my capacity to teach dance, but that I was a person with brown skin and the only person with brown skin on this faculty."

After she told one student in her ballet class to remove his hat, he complained to her department chair: "That damn black lady is making us buy books for a dance class," Leigh recalled.

Leigh was director of dance at St. Cloud State from 1989 to 2004 and taught ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, African dance, dance history and dance production. She helped move the program from physical education to performing arts. From 2004 to 2020, Leigh served as lead organizer for the Community Antiracism Education Initiative.

Leigh's background in dance is reflected in her anti-racism work, said Mary Clifford, professor in SCSU's Department of Criminal Justice as well as co-founder and current interim lead organizer of the CARE initiative. She's known Leigh for 20 years.

"She is absolutely fluid, instead of rigid, when it comes to moving things forward," Clifford said about Leigh. "She does not ever bump up against something. She flows around what might be seen as an obstacle for other people."

Tackling racism

Leigh and Clifford met when Clifford asked every faculty member to donate $1 toward a diversity event her department couldn't afford. Leigh was the only person to send a dollar.

The two worked on the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative which hosts workshops on campus and in the community at large. It has made some strides through training.

After those trainings, attendees have shared that they didn't previously know the history of the 1920 lynching of three Black men in Duluth or the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Clifford said.

Businesses have shown interest in tackling racism, and for 10 years, faculty across SCSU have made changes in response to an anti-racism pedagogy initiative, Clifford said.

"The work together has changed how I do my work in the department and the classroom and at St. Cloud State broadly," Clifford said. "Everyone should be so lucky as to connect with an idea and a vision that is truly transformational."

The language of anti-racism

Leigh first learned the language of anti-racism in the early 1990s when she attended a training offered to her as a member of the Central Minnesota Arts Board. It was the first time she learned about the historical context of racism, including laws meant to disenfranchise people of color, Leigh said.

She learned racism wasn't just about interpersonal feelings and behaviors, that it had been institutionalized through U.S. history, Leigh said. And she started thinking about how to apply that knowledge to higher education.

"When I came back to St. Cloud I was on fire," she said with a laugh.

St. Cloud State University was a place where people didn't want to talk about race 30 years ago, Leigh said. Her organizing at SCSU started with in-depth conversations about racism and how that shows up at the individual and institutional level.

"Having the conversation is the first step and the most important step and being able to stand in place with that discomfort without retreating," Leigh said. "Once you can stand in that place, then you can begin to move forward … and make the kinds of changes that need to happen."

Leigh is tasked with making those changes at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. The college is in the same place SCSU was 30 years ago — it's polarizing and uncomfortable to even talk about race, she said.

She's been asking questions such as: What decisions have administrators made about students of color? What did those students say of their experience at the college? And how can the school improve outcomes for current students?

Nora G. Hertel St. Cloud Times , October 16, 2020

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