In search of a Beloit College classroom…
Charles Westerberg would open each class with a question. A single, open-ended thought-provoking question that uncomfortably hung in the air waiting to be answered. Between sips from his twelve ounce porcelain coffee mug, he would grin while silently waiting for someone other than himself to speak. As the students in his Social Stratification class shook our early morning haze, we would try to recall the assigned reading, and if we had even done it, assuming the same stoic face regardless of our preparation. Eventually, one brave, misguided soul would offer up their respective opinion and wait to face judgement…
From Charles, judgement never came. Curiosity, yes. Concern, yes. But never judgement. Interest piqued, peers would chime in accordingly. Piggy-backing, dovetailing and whirlwinding into a beautiful cacophony of discourse and discovery until Charles gave the final wave of his imaginary conductor’s wand to conclude our class’s performance. Dismissed into the halls of Morse Ingersol, the buzz of our conversations would carry across campus into library study rooms, Commons lunch tables and shared dorm rooms. Our conversations were unending. Critical, yet optimistic. Ignorant, yet vulnerable. Mentally, socially and emotionally consuming, they were fulfilling.
I think, in part, Beloit alumni travel all over the world trying to rediscover, to recreate their Beloit College classroom experience. Whether we enter top-tier graduate programs or join national service organizations, live abroad or return home, we are constantly searching for peers, groups and places that foster our insatiable pursuit of knowledge and self-growth.
It is a Thursday night in April. I am in the living room of a century old Victorian home having a critical race discussion on the writings of James Baldwin and their modern implications. As Baldwin would put it, I am in a room of “relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” openly challenging society’s whiteness “to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” (The Fire Next Time, 1963)
It is that same Thursday night in April. I am in Detroit’s first Unitarian Universalist church. Alongside University of Michigan students and long-time Detroit community members, I am unpacking tax foreclosures, water shutoffs, unsigned community benefits agreements and failing public schools. Systemic racism and fiscal austerity have brought Detroit the injustices it faces today. It is up to the people in this room, among others, to do something that counteracts society’s failure.
It is 11:59pm on that same Thursday night in April. There is no deadline, but my experience has to be put into words before it escapes me. A vague prompt and fundamental need to self-reflect is all have. This is for me. Each and every one of those papers I wrote at Beloit College were for me. Instilling within me the consciousness to process the injustices that exist in the world today. Instilling within me the critical thinking to create solutions to address those injustices.
Detroit opens each day with a question. A single, open-ended thought-provoking question that uncomfortably hangs in the air waiting to be answered. Detroit is my classroom. Not my playground, not my blank slate, Detroit is my classroom and its citizens are my peers. Thanks to Charles Westerberg, I have the confidence to speak up, to be wrong and to fail. Thanks to fellow leaders in Detroit, I embrace my confidence to speak up, to be wrong and to fail. I’m not afraid to contribute because my intentions are pure, my mind is open and the acknowledgement of my place in this community is grounded. Every day I wake up with the opportunity to contribute to conversations being had throughout the city. Every night I go to bed knowing that I have done something to make Detroit a better place for those who live here.
Beloiters travel all over the world trying to rediscover, to recreate their Beloit College classroom experience. I have been lucky enough to find mine in Detroit.