“What does it mean that I’m a white person who was born in a small wealthy seacoast town in New Hampshire, moved to Philadelphia 25 years ago, and now is a parent of two kids in the public school district in the school that’s subsidized by Penn?” Professor Amy Hillier’s determination to constantly question her position as a tenured white female cis-gender professor at Penn is a guiding force through her life.
“I think a lot of folks have wanted to dance around whiteness and not embrace it as an identity,” she elaborates. “But I know it’s so much a part of my everyday life, my privilege, and how I’ve been able to navigate Penn.”
The professor at the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) and School of Design lives by the question: “In terms of my experience and my positionality and my privilege, what are the right things for me to do?”
Her answer is thorough and insightful. “A lot of what I do is teach white students about white supremacy and white privilege, and I think that’s very appropriate. As a post-doctorate mentor, I want to help open the door and launch other people’s careers—people of color, trans, queer people.”
Learning to be upfront and diligent about her privilege has been a gradual, continuous process for Hillier. As director of “The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois’ Seventh Ward,” a research project that includes a curriculum designed to engage high schoolers in discussions about racism, she has had the opportunity to learn from students in West Philadelphia and remarks that those authentic perspectives provide a refreshing contrast to the “white norm-politeness of Penn.”
Hillier is well-aware of the shortcomings of her own institution when it comes to discussions about race and equity. “I think it’s almost become acceptable to say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about race if it’s going to piss you off.’ That’s not acceptable. We need to normalize these conversations and get people used to the idea that, ‘Yeah it’s hard, and we do it anyway.’”
Referencing the Penn Disorientation Guide, a student-created resource explaining in-depth Penn’s involvement and complicity in injustice on campus and in Philadelphia, Hillier argues: “We need to change the narrative about what it means to be at Penn and what Penn’s relationship is to Philadelphia. College hall issues press releases, and they’re like the glossy brochure version of Penn. That’s not where we live. None of us can live in a glossy brochure, we live in this messy place where we have conflict with neighbors and people who work here.”
In the professor’s experience, new students often aren’t aware of Penn’s history of racism and complex relationship with West Philadelphia. She explains, “Six months in, a year in, students find out about these stories. They find out about the neighborhoods that have been displaced, they find out about gentrification. And students are often angry—they’re like, ‘Did you know this?’ And then they ask, ‘Why didn’t we know this?’”
Student criticism of Penn’s failure to take responsibility for its role in perpetuating inequality directly inspired the launch of a new online course entitled “The Penn Experience: Racism, Reconciliation, and Engagement”. Offered to all incoming students at the School of Social Policy & Practice and the School of Dental Medicine, the course establishes basic terminology for thinking about structural inequality and then develops a discussion around Penn’s history of oppression, its relationship with Philadelphia, and its efforts to improve inclusivity.
Hillier, who helped design the course, believes Penn needs to be honest to its student body about recognizing and addressing its shortcomings: “Penn is a complicated institution, and that doesn’t make it exceptional—other institutions are also full of contractions...Penn has also been an amazing place of opportunity. Let’s just put it all on the table and let people come.”
But why does a class like The Penn Experience matter? Penn might have a responsibility to confront its own racist transgressions, but why do students need to know about concepts like oppression and ally-ship and implicit bias? For Hillier, the answer’s obvious: “You have no business being a nurse, a teacher, a dentist, a social worker, a lawyer, a public health professional unless you’ve done the personal work to think about the role of institutions in upholding oppressive practices.”
“All those professions are helping professions, they’re caring professions, they’re working to help individuals navigate tricky institutions and life challenges. None of us can do that work without reflecting, what’s the context in which people are struggling? Why do they need a lawyer to bail them out? Why are they hit with COVID or asthma? Why do they need to negotiate extra support for their kids in school?”
Framing professional practice in the context of people's identities and needs is incredibly important to Hillier, so it’s no surprise that she is also the Faculty Director of the LGBTQ Certificate, which provides students seeking a Master’s in Social Work with specialized courses and fieldwork addressing the needs of LGBTQ communities. Interviewing trans high schoolers, she hopes to help schools strengthen their support for LGBTQ students so that “wherever people are in their journey, they’re affirmed.”
Hillier praises Penn’s leadership in LGBTQ issues, which she attributes in part to the work of her wife, Erin Cross, who is the director of Penn’s LGBT Center. The two women tied the knot fairly recently—“Yes, it was a pandemic wedding!” she laughs. “Our wedding video is just a Zoom video!”
It seems that the researcher’s whole family is well-versed in issues of injustice. She marvels at her kids’ elementary schools, which have already introduced students to concepts of injustice. “My kid’s reading this book called The 57 Bus about restorative justice, and their school all went to see the movie Just Mercy. I mean, they saw that!” she exclaims excitedly. Such developments in school curriculum invigorate the mother-of-two’s hope for a more conscientious, equitable future: “I’m encouraged that this younger generation of kids are not shying away from these conversations. So keep putting on the pressure—that’s what I’ll say.”
For the Penn community specifically, the SP2 and PennDesign professor urges students and faculty to ask themselves “What does the world need from me right now?” Together, by engaging in meaningful conversations and calling out injustice, Penn can slowly work to bridge the immense gap between its current status and Hillier’s ultimate vision for Penn: “To have West Philadelphia feel like ‘That’s our Ivy League’—we don’t all go there, and we don’t all have jobs there, but we’re proud of that school.”