Being a ‘good’ white person or a liberal white person won’t get you off the hook.
My name is Rel Dowdell, and I am an acclaimed screenwriter, filmmaker as well as an English professor who has taught at Community College of Philadelphia for over 13 years. Last December, I filed a federal lawsuit against the college for discrimination in its hiring practices, for I was denied a full-time position in the English department two times, once in 2005, and once in 2015. As a result of my stand against hiring discrimination against African-American males in higher education, other African-American faculty members have respectively filed complaints in hiring and treatment. Additionally, one African-American male finally achieved full-time status in his science department this year after being denied four times in past years.
In my time working at CCP, I have had tremendous results of success with students of all kinds, literally. I have done so at every campus of CCP, and there are four of them. The letters that students have written to department heads and administrators about my instruction to them are immense and heartwarming to hear about. Also, I do academic advising, assessment, and Allied Health test preparation at the school, and work with African-African males in the Center for Male Engagement.
Moreover, I met the qualifications of the human resources department, the hiring committee, and the department heads on two different occasions over the span of a decade. In fact, in 2015, the process included two department heads, for the hiring committee chair was Professor Linda Fellag, who was a previous head of the English department, as well as the current department head, Professor Girija Nagaswami. However, two administrators, one being the Vice President of Academic Affairs (who is African-American) and the Dean of Liberal Studies (who is Caucasian) denied me on both occasions. The first time I was denied, in 2005, I was shocked because the head of the hiring committee at that time, Doug Swauger, told me I was the best candidate that year. I was very optimistic that I would be hired full-time. I remember him telling me, “Rel, you can reach students I know I cannot. I am rooting for you, the committee is rooting for you, and we look forward to the good possibility that you will be a full-time colleague by the fall semester.”
That was a very humbling statement to hear from a veteran professor in the English department at CCP. I then met with the department head at that time whose name is Dr. John Howe. He is the one who originally hired me to teach in the department, and he also came to the premiere of my film “Train Ride” in Philadelphia at the International House. He knew of all of the positive assets I brought to the department and the school, and I advanced through that stage with no problem also. When I didn’t get the position, I was disturbed because I found out no African-American males were hired full-time in the English department that year. Since that time, top cable station BET’s website, BET.COM, cited “Train Ride” as one of the “best films about African-Americans in college,” ahead of major Hollywood studio films such as Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters” and “Love and Basketball.”
Fast forward to 2015: I knew something was wrong within the hiring process this time, for I noticed that three black men have been hired by these two in the past fifteen years at a predominantly black school that gets substantial funding from the government to educate African-American men. Subsequently, there are only 5 out of 124 African-American men in the entire English department. All the while, I am on CCP posters and in its articles giving spotlight to my accomplishments in screenwriting and film-making. Those highlights have made me proud to be a professor at CCP. There was even a posting on the school’s Facebook page that cites me as a “great and well known professor.”
However, the events that have transpired are very disappointing and make me realize that significant efforts like mine from African-American male instructors at CCP are devalued. It is difficult enough going through such an arduous hiring process where you don’t encounter any African-American males during it, whether in human resources, the hiring committees or the department heads. In the English department at CCP, full-time African-American females outnumber African-American males in a ratio of 3 to 1. When I met with the Vice President of Academic Affairs and the Dean of Liberal Arts during my interview in 2015, I was ironically asked, “What can you do for the profile of the school outside of the classroom?” I had to wonder to myself, “Have they seen the numerous advertisements and correspondences from the college that promoted me and my accomplishments throughout the years?”
Dr. Warren Hilton, the former Dean of Enrollment Management, wrote me a letter of thanks last year and stated, “Thanks for your hard work! I know that there are countless other students you have helped over the years. The work of individuals like you makes our students’ lives so much better.” Additionally, I have a file full of thank you notes from various students over the years that make my heart proud. One student, Jeannie Burns, sent me a note also in 2015 that stated, “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all your great work at CCP. As an older adult going back to college, I felt it was a challenge. As a mother, wife, and a full time employee, I asked myself, ‘Was I ready for the hard work that was required?’ However, your constant and thorough patient English instruction pointed me and other students like myself in the right direction. You gave me hope and encouragement. Day after day, week after week, you made yourself available for any new challenges that came my way and other students as well. As a result of your help and support, in 2016, I will earn my BS in Behavioral Health Counseling from Drexel University.” Additionally, I have even assisted the college in a liaison with University of Pennsylvania. In April of last year, I received an email from Katrina Glanzer, who is an advisor at Penn. In her note to me, she stated, “I am working on a team project this semester to research what Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships might do to best support students transitioning from West Philadelphia High School through their matriculation to CCP. The Netter Center currently partners with the guidance counselor at West to help students with the college search, application and financial aid process. As part of this project, we met with Sandy Harrill, who recommended you as an excellent resource.”
In looking back at civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, one has to respect the sinew of the sacrifices each made when each risked his and her life in order to achieve equality for African-Americans. Rosa Parks specifically made a stand that African-Americans should not have to sit in the back of the bus and should be able to sit wherever they want. Nonetheless, it is very disheartening to see that African-American males are being excluded to sitting in the back of the bus when it comes to getting full-time opportunities to teach in the English department at Community College of Philadelphia, and that most assuredly needs to change, and change now, for good. There are a myriad of students that want to get into the profession that I am in and approach me on a countless basis, but it is very difficult to truly help them in the capacity that I would like to unless I am of full-time status.
I hope and pray for change so that collective society can benefit. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am certain that the aforementioned situation of the lack of full-time African-American male professors is something that is unfortunately going on at institutions around the country. Hopefully, there will be those with courage and integrity to champion the cause of equality and bring change. If achieved, it will be evident that everyone benefits from the diversity of integrating full-time African-American male faculty into the fabric of higher education
By Prof. Rel Dowdell