Black life, White life, Indiana, Pa.

Dr. Melvin A. Jenkins. Photos: screen shots from Feb. 28, 2021, teleconference

Q&A: Melvin A. Jenkins

By David Loomis

INDIANA – On the last day of Black History Month 2021, Melvin Jenkins – local professor, pastor, politician – discussed the state of local race relations.

Dr. Jenkins, 65, a resident of White Township and a native of the Philadelphia area, arrived at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1988. He led the university’s developmental-studies program and recruited IUP students from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. He co-founded Victory Christian Assembly in Indiana. And he served two terms on Indiana Borough Council beginning in the late 1990s.  

Last fall the university retrenched his position. He is scheduled to retire June 4.

His teleconference interview was conducted Feb. 28. Following is a transcript, edited for clarity and brevity.

 

THE HAWKEYE: You might have seen some changes, or efforts to change, since you arrived in Indiana County in 1988. Can you elaborate?

JENKINS:  Yeah, well if you’re talking about changes, I would consider a change to be if there were now officials of color in the county. And I don’t see that, so I would say there have been efforts towards getting police officers of color which they may have not done in the past. And I would say that there have been efforts towards getting at least a few or maybe one school teacher of color in the school district. Little things like that. So I would say there have been efforts.

THE HAWKEYE: One teacher of color in the Indiana Area School District?

JENKINS: To my knowledge, there is one teacher.

THE HAWKEYE: And who’s making the effort?

JENKINS: I don’t know. I would say that there are many people making the effort. I would say certainly the current chief of Indiana Police. I would say that at least one of the county commissioners is making the effort. I can’t speak to the school board.

THE HAWKEYE: It sounds like the pace of change here might be kind of slow in your experience. Would that be a fair assessment?

JENKINS: Yes.

THE HAWKEYE: So what else should we be doing in Indiana County to make things better, from your perspective? And how will we know when we’ve reached that point?

JENKINS: You should be doing all of the things that you have been doing on a larger scale. And when we know, we’ll know we’ve reached that point. In other words, I don’t think it’s going to be a couple things.  I don’t think it’s going to be necessarily a litmus test that has to be met. I think we’re going to know when the town feels like it’s equitable. We’re going to know when the community feels like it is representative of all of its citizens. I think we’re going to just know.

And the other thing I’m going to say about that is that for me to evaluate that is inappropriate. That’s the word I want to use. And the reason why I believe it’s inappropriate is because of the fact that I didn’t create segregation. People of color didn’t create it. We were sort of introduced to it and kind of ushered into it by society. And so if we didn’t create a discriminatory environment, I don’t think that we’re going to be able to solve the discriminatory environment. So we will know when.

THE HAWKEYE; I think I hear you saying we will know when White people have a change of mind or change of heart or a change of deed. Change of policy. What do we need to do here in Indiana County to get there?

JENKINS : Yeah, all the above, and set up — this is going to sound, you know, well, I don’t care how it sounds — and set up your own criteria to measure that. In other words, If a White community said, we want to abolish racism — I’m just using something outrageous — we want to have equity among hiring of school teachers across the races, where we wanted more diverse faculty in our school district. If White people said that, then they could set up their own criteria to do that and measure it against themselves. In other words, hold themselves to that criteria. I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate for me to set that criteria, because that’s just going to make everyone else resent me for coming in here and setting up a criteria, to benefit what I think should be benefited when you know the right thing to do.

THE HAWKEYE: It sounds like White people get a pass with that strategy.

JENKINS: No. I don’t know this, but I would hope that there would be enough, or even a few, conscious White people to say, we don’t look like the community, we should do something about that, rather than have me say, you don’t look like the community. You should do something about that. Can you see the difference?

THE HAWKEYE: Yes. It reminds me of the debate between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X – combatting White supremacy by nonviolence versus armed self-defense.

JENKINS: Isn’t it interesting, though, that they were both killed? Can you think of a White person that’s been killed for their position on black lives? I can’t.

THE HAWKEYE: It sounds from your assessment that not much has changed since 1988, that you can’t expect too much of White people in Indiana County, Pennsylvania.

JENKINS: I don’t think it’s limited to Indiana County. To be totally honest, I think Indiana County is actually in a better place than much of America. I shouldn’t say that. I think Indiana Borough is in a much of a better place than in America.

When I was growing up near Philadelphia, I never heard of White participants in the NAACP. Here, White folks are extremely active in the NAACP. Every year that I go to a banquet, it’s always packed standing-room-only, mixed black and White. I never heard of that in Philadelphia. So in that sense, Indiana County is actually ahead of the game.

Now, if participation in the NAACP equals equality, that could be debated. But even participation in the NAACP ought to be recognized as what I consider to be actions or intent or, you know, I think some steps in the right direction.

THE HAWKEYE: You mentored students at IUP’s Punxsutawney campus. Students there have told The HawkEye that it was a different world altogether from Indiana’s campus, particularly regarding race. What’s your assessment of what’s going on in other areas in and around Indiana County?

JENKINS: I don’t think that there’s any interest in racial issues outside of Indiana Borough, or, you know, White Township. I don’t necessarily know that it’s evil so much as it’s ignored. I don’t know that Punxsutawney is an evil place. I think Punxsutawney is an American place. My perspective is pretty universal. I don’t see a lot of difference outside of Indiana Borough than in the rest of America. I think the Indiana metro area is making some steps. But I don’t know that a lot has been accomplished.

THE HAWKEYE: How about Indiana University of Pennsylvania? How are things there in your judgment?

JENKINS: Um, unchanged in 30 years.

THE HAWKEYE: You were involved with  the multicultural center at IUP.

JENKINS:  I was a graduate student there, a grad assistant there, and I’ve obviously worked closely with them over the years. I was chair of the Department of Developmental Studies, which has assisted many underrepresented students, both urban and rural students. So, my experiences are varied with regard to race. But I’ve always been an advocate, obviously for minority students and did a lot of recruiting in my earlier years — in the Philadelphia area, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh.

I have a pretty good handle on the pulse of the minority community. I have a big church here in town that is majority minority.

With regard to IUP, I think it’s like many other predominantly White institutions in rural America. I think that they talk the talk. But I don’t believe the percentage of African-American faculty is any different today than it was 30 years ago. In upper administration, it’s exactly the same as it was. We all generally had one person of color and some women, and they felt like that’s probably as diverse as its going to get.

THE HAWKEYE: That’s got to be disappointing.

JENKINS: The same rule applies when you’re looking at IUP as it applies to Indiana County. That is, you know, you’re not in a position to stand up and shout about it. It’s really up to the folks who are in charge to take the issue in hand and do something about it.

THE HAWKEYE: That’s the approach you take with your employer?

JENKINS: Absolutely. I think it’s unfair to say to minority people, give us a solution, when we didn’t create the problem. The majority brought us here against our will to work us. Didn’t have anywhere else to go. Didn’t have any language. Didn’t have any reading. Didn’t have any skills. Set us free, turned us loose, and now 150 or 200 years later you say, give us the solution to the problem that we created? That’s ridiculous.

THE HAWKEYE: Media have brought attention to issues of concern to Black people in the past few years. Has that attention changed anything, moved the dial, in your judgment?

JENKINS: Let me answer the question with a question: What happened after we had a black president?

THE HAWKEYE: Let’s talk about that.

JENKINS: We voted an African American into the highest office in the land. And he was there for eight years and didn’t get killed. That’s good. But then, at the end of his term, what happened? I mean, what happened?

THE HAWKEYE: Well, do you take any comfort in the election outcome in November?

JENKINS: Yes. I do. I do take comfort in his loss in November. It was a fair election. But watch what’s happening now with individual state legislatures. They’re changing the rules, and they’re going to find a way to disenfranchise who? They’re trying to find a way to disenfranchise the people that would vote.

THE HAWKEYE: Speaking of that, Pennsylvania has one of those state legislatures that is among the most active on those proposals. You’re going to have a little more time on your hands, I assume, come June 4. You have a constituency in your church. What’s on your agenda for the next four years?

JENKINS: Well, if there is such a thing as good news in Indiana, it’s that they really can’t disenfranchise. There’s not enough of a voting bloc of people of color to make a difference. In other words, this is a red county. And there’s no real threat that it’s going to become blue. So if I were to say to everyone in my church, for example, go out and vote. Assuming that the majority of them are going to vote Democratic, it’s not going to make any difference. So I don’t think that Indiana County is going to be affected at all. They’re going to go after these places, you know, the cities — Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Milwaukee, Atlanta. Because they know that that’s where large populations of people of color are.

So, I’m back to the question: Are we really talking about major changes in the last 30 years? When you see that’s where this is happening all over again? You can see that’s where it’s going. No one White is standing up to say, this is wrong morally and we need to do something about this. The majority of people are just going along.

THE HAWKEYE: Are you inclined toward public service beyond your ministry after you retire?

JENKINS: I’ve been on the Borough Council. But we moved to White Township, and I had to leave the council. So I don’t know that I’m gonna serve anymore. I mean, who knows? When I retire I might, but that’s really not on my radar at the moment.

I really want to raise more questions than I want to give answers. And I just wanna leave the questions in the air so that people can think about them.

THE HAWKEYE: What would some of those questions be?

JENKINS: Well, is it my job to solve race problems? And are there ways in which anyone with eyes can see that there’s not racial equity? If I pay taxes, should I not have a representative that looks like me? I do pay taxes. What’s wrong with that? And what if not? If there’s nothing wrong with it, then why is it?

THE HAWKEYE: Are you seeing the economy and equality as linked? In Indiana, Pa.?

JENKINS: Yeah, if the university continues at its pace of cutting people. I think that eventually it is going to have an effect on race. I know that. I can probably identify at least three quarters or more of the African American people that work at IUP in all capacities. And I would say that if we continue this, some of us are getting older and some of us are going to be retrenched. But if we continue this pace and there’s no real new blood coming in, I can see where economics and race would be front and center and then laid at Indiana County’s feet, particularly at IUP’s feet. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So, I could see that connection between race and poverty there.

THE HAWKEYE: You did a lot of recruiting of students at IUP. What do you foresee there?

JENKINS: Traditionally, when there are economic cuts, legitimate or not, the most affected groups are those that are, you know the most underrepresented. So if the question is, are our minority numbers going to thrive in a tough economic time? I would just point you to history and say whenever there’s a cut, it’s going to be people of color that are going to be affected, you know, in an outsized way.

Just like Covid or anything else, the gap in economics, the gap in poverty is magnified by an outside catastrophe. So, if we’re in now a financially desolate time, I would say that more likely than not, students of color are going to be affected disproportionately, ’cause that’s just the way America works — and for people of low economic status generally.  Not necessarily people of color, it’s just people with low income status.

__________

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.

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4 Responses to Black life, White life, Indiana, Pa.

  1. celindascott says:

    I just heard that the Frederick Douglass Inst. is on all 14 campuses of the state university system, including IUP, and met the director of the IUP program on a ZOOM program (book discussion) recently. It seemed like a cause for hope. –About having more than one person of color teaching in our local school district: that seems quite important. Had not thought of putting pressure on school board members, but that makes a lot of sense.

  2. celindascott says:

    I had a long talk with a school board member today. The current superintendent is working on a plan that would stress “equity” for all students, meaning–in part–that an effort would be made to include faculty from minority groups (black, Asian). I also learned that it’s the administration of each school that receives resumés and applications (of course) and then sends recommendations to the school board. So–it would be helpful to talk to administrators.

  3. Michele Renne Papakie says:

    As usual, Mel, you’ve inspired me to learn more and to do better. When you said, “Can you think of a white person that’s been killed for their position on black lives? I can’t,” I couldn’t either. So, I did what any outstanding student would do … I Googled it … and, I found ONE. While I wasn’t as educated as I am now when my son was young, I’m much more aware of my privilege now, so we are teaching my grandchildren about inclusion and equity more intentionally and more rigorously. I just thought I would share this story I found (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/12/15/a-white-mother-went-to-alabama-to-fight-for-civil-rights-the-klan-killed-her-for-it/) to hopefully inspire other white women to take action. (Hmmm … maybe posting an article about someone being KILLED standing up for civli rights is not the BEST method to inspire … but, this woman was amazing. ) Anyway, I am one white person who is assuming responsibility for racism in our country and continuously looking for ways to combat it. Thank you for always telling it like it is. IUP will be worse without you.

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