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Harnessing the Power of Justice

The brick walls and oft-snow-covered grounds of SUNY Potsdam’s campus are no strangers to cries for justice and equity. For years, the College has been a focal point for social justice movements in the North Country. Student and faculty activism and administrative resolve have resulted in many positive changes on the campus and throughout the region; yet the work of social justice is never truly complete.

This truth was made freshly evident to Dr. Peter McCoy in the summer of 2020, as the nation responded to the death of George Floyd and subsequent incidents of racial violence and injustice. McCoy, who serves as Chair of Music Education at The Crane School of Music, remembers feeling profoundly frustrated.

“I felt like I wanted to do something, to be supportive of the issues of racial justice and equity, in particular, both as they were happening nationally and on our own campus,” he shared.

McCoy was active in posting on social media and participating in Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations held in Potsdam, all the while desiring to make a more tangible impact.

“While I was listening to the memorial service for George Floyd,” McCoy recalled, “I heard a comment from the president of North Central University, where the service was being held, and he challenged universities around the country to establish scholarships in support of racial justice and equity. I immediately thought, ‘Yes! This is something that we can do to directly support students who are actively working to improve our campus climate.’”

McCoy poses for a portrait outside SUNY Potsdam's Crane School of Music.

McCoy took action, talking to representatives from various SUNY Potsdam departments to determine how to realize his vision and best support student activists. Soon, the Racial Justice and Equity Scholarship was established.

This scholarship will support a rising junior or senior who shows advocacy and/or scholarship to advance the cause of racial justice and equity at SUNY Potsdam. Because he believed it was important to move forward promptly, McCoy provided outright funds so that awarding could begin as soon as Spring 2021. The scholarship will be made permanent when it reaches a minimum funding level of $25,000.

“We are committed to being able to offer it for at least five years while the endowed fund is being built,” McCoy shared. “My hope is that we will be able to generate the funds necessary to make the scholarship self-sustaining so that it can go on in perpetuity.”

McCoy’s outright gift and pledge to the endowed fund were supplemented by a generous gift from Eric Nelson ’13, bringing the scholarship $15,000 away from the minimum funding level.

Alumni, faculty, students and friends who wish to support the Racial Justice and Equity Scholarship, enabling it to become fully-funded, can give online at Potsdam.edu/give. In the “Designation” field, donors should select “Other” and type “Racial Justice and Equity Scholarship” in the corresponding text box.

The scholarship will support students like Jacob Hernandez ’21, a senior and current recipient of the Pay It Forward scholarship, who recently thanked his donors for allowing him to continue advocating for equity and inclusion at SUNY Potsdam.

“Since becoming a student, I have been integrated into a supportive, caring and inclusive community,” Hernandez shared. “In my second semester, I joined the first class of the Potsdam Diversity Ambassadors & Mentors (PDAMs). In this program, I work as an ambassador for diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus, orchestrating events that encourage global learning and inclusivity for all. This scholarship is helping me to achieve my goal of earning my degree at SUNY Potsdam, while furthering my work to promote diversity and inclusion for our school community.”

SUNY Potsdam is a second home to many students like Hernandez who are committed to using their voices and actions to help the College become a more equitable community.

Mal Brewster ’23, a student from SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, helps to lead a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Potsdam following the death of George Floyd.

In the summer of 2020, many students took to the streets of Potsdam with cardboard signs and heartfelt cries, hoping to communicate the value of Black lives to those around them. Students also spoke up in virtual campus “town hall” meetings, sharing their personal experiences of racial discrimination on campus. Faculty and staff listened–moved by the students’ openness, honesty and vulnerability–and wondered what they could do to make a change for these students.

The Racial Justice and Equity Scholarship, McCoy noted, “was a way I could bring together the kind of motivation that I felt like a lot of my faculty colleagues were feeling. We are very privileged to still have jobs and still have income–and so I want to put some of that towards this important initiative, and encourage and invite other people to do the same.”

While McCoy hopes faculty and staff will give to the scholarship, he extends his invitation to anyone in the Potsdam family who feels led to give to this cause. “Now is the perfect time to harness the power and the interest and the energy that we are all feeling to make a difference in the life of a young person who is doing the work and making a difference to improve our campus climate and community.”

To make a gift to the Racial Justice and Equity Scholarship, visit potsdam.edu/give.

To learn more about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives at SUNY Potsdam, visit potsdam.edu/about/administrative-offices/division-diversity-equity-and-inclusion

Article by Alexis Donnelly, Photos by Jason Hunter