Shawn Newton Sows Seeds of Change

Associate dean of students addresses inequality in his own community

Interview conducted by Andrea Grant
Photograph by Michael J. Clarke

The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers this spring ignited protests across the country and spurred many Americans to acknowledge and confront the structural racism and inequality embedded within their communities.

Associate Dean of Students Shawn Newton discusses how he is helping people in his own city—Salem, Massachusetts—address this complex issue.

Q: You’ve recently been appointed chair of the Race Equity Task Force in Salem, with the goal of improving racial equity in all aspects of Salem life, from policies to services to the police force. How do you begin to address such complex issues?

A: If race equity was something that was easy to achieve, it would have been done a long time ago. It took real leadership for our mayor to call this group together to acknowledge there are problems and commit to addressing them.

My job is to harness the expertise of the community and not necessarily to give all the answers. I believe I have some. But the task belongs to all of us, so my responsibility is to make sure everyone has a voice and that people who are in a position to make change can exercise their voices to do just that. Then we can jump into the weeds and really try to make Salem a better community for everyone living, visiting, or going to school here.

Q: Salem is infamous in history for the intolerance of its witch trials in 1692. Can you talk about the challenges of addressing centuries of exclusionary systems?

A: I think Salem is probably no different from anywhere else. We’re known for the witch trials, but a lot of other cities and towns have been equally involved in creating systems that may not have been equitable to everyone. The challenge is really trying to reimagine the institutions that impact people.

Q: Can you give an example of the kinds of structural inequity that need to be addressed?

A: There’s an old story about a young child fishing with his parent. The child notices a dead fish in the water. A couple of hours go by, and they start to see another one, and another one, and another one. The parent says, “I wonder what’s wrong with all the fish?” But in the child’s infinite wisdom, he says, “I wonder what’s wrong with the water?”

Trying to address an issue like racism, often we’re looking at the individual rather than looking at a much larger system.

For example, the educational system was not created for the rich diversity of learners that we have in higher education today. When you have a system that hasn’t been tweaked and fully adjusted to meet the needs of the new students that are coming in, you’re going to have problems. If you look at data and see that a particular group hasn’t had the same graduation rate as their peers for 30 years, at that point it’s clear that the issue isn’t an individual student or a handful of students. There’s a structural and institutional problem that we need to fix.

Q: Why is it so important to get involved in your own community? What are some ways others can contribute to this work?

A: We’re all interconnected. We don’t have real boundaries around our communities. Suffolk students, for example, build bonds in Boston and then stretch them out across the world. We want to live in places where we’re respectful to one another and can have healthy conversations about making our cities and towns better. There is no overnight quick fix for institutional racism. You really have to plant seeds to make cultural change, then nurture them and do the weeding. Addressing issues like this is going to be messy, but if we stick with it we can make lasting positive changes.

Shawn Newton

Suffolk University Magazine

[email protected]
Suffolk University Office of Public Affairs
73 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02108-2770