Office of the Provost Hosts Final Community Conversation

by Sonia Lachter

The final of a series of three community conversation dinners was held on Monday, April 8th in Page Commons. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost and was part of an effort to respond to “incidents of bias that occurred on campus this year,” as Provost McFadden’s email announcing the event stated.

The event in question was Akon Day, a party hosted in downtown Waterville in November 2018 named after the African-American artist Akon. At the party, white students dressed up as convicts and used other racist imagery such as gold jewelry, fake teardrop tattoos, and writing the word “Africa” on their bodies.

The event sparked a notable amount of tension and discourse on campus, out of which the inspiration for the series of community conversation dinners arose. The first dinner was held on Jan. 21st during Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Week. The dinner was attended by students, faculty, staff, and senior administrators. The program opened with a statement from College President David A. Greene and continued into a discussion guided by volunteer facilitators who included students, faculty, and staff.

The theme of the evening was “repairing the breach,” which comes from a biblical quote and steered the conversation towards the topics of accountability, responsibility, and healing. Participants were invited to record reflections on the evening on paper tiles which were compiled into a mural which was hung in Pulver Pavilion.

In a follow up email to the first dinner, Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94 announced the hiring of an external investigator to look into the existence of underground Greek organizations at the College. She wrote, “President Greene began the evening by describing how underground organizations violate and undermine our community values and tear the social fabric that undergirds our educational mission. He made clear that our goal is to eliminate secret societies from our community and that we should act quickly to achieve that goal.”

The second such community conversation dinner was held on February 25th. Dean Burrell-McRae offered the opening remarks, commenting on her personal connection to issues of bias and race at Colby during her own tenure as a student at Colby. Students from the Pugh Center also gave remarks in opening and closing the evening. A mediated table discussion ensued, which this time focused on developing solutions for the issues identified after Akon Day and discussed at the first community conversation.

The ultimate event in the series shifted towards providing attendees perspective on bias incidents from an academic standpoint. The speakers included Associate Professor and Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Lisa Arellano from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies Chandra Bhimull, Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law Joe Reisert, and Assistant Professor of English Arisa White. Their reflections were followed by a period of table discussion.

Associate Provost Carleen Mandolfo opened the dinner by introducing the intent of the evening to expose attendees to professors and their work. She remarked “we have no goals for this or particular agenda…our only goal is to get people on this campus to think.”

Provost McFadden followed Mandolfo, framing the evening with many ideas to add to the conversation. She mentioned that she feels that “pop culture shapes very deeply how we think about the world” in establishing toxic stereotypes which are especially important to not take for granted in the era of social media.

McFadden proposed that “bias incidents are going to keep happening…because we live in a world that is fundamentally inequitable.” She clarified that this inevitably didn’t justify the occurrence of bias incidents. The Provost also recalled that after Akon Day, a group of students said to her that “what we need to hear is this ‘we love you, we want you to be here.”

McFadden continued in addressing the need to bridge the gap between the academic aspect of Colby and the social aspect. Referring to this concept of the “Two Colbys,” she said that the College community needed to think about “Not nighttime Colby,[or] daytime Colby but all the time Colby.” She questioned, “How do we get better at applying what we are learning or teaching in our classes?”

Professor Lisa Arellano spoke next about her current focus of studies: feminine anti-violence activism. She described the complicated relationship between power and protection in the face of violence, recommending that the vulnerable should “seek power, not protection.”

Arellano explained that when faced with violence, protection often ends up being the most obvious tactic for distancing oneself from danger. However, she said, “protection can make the vulnerable more vulnerable and the powerful more powerful.”

Next to speak was Professor Chandra Bhimull whose focus was on the value of questioning when faced with oppression. Bhimull said, “We need to question always…in the struggle for liberation, a question is a weapon.” She emphasized that such inquiries needed to be what she called “radical questions.” In a situation with an oppressor and and opressee, hse questioned the audience, “how is it always about them, somehow never about us?”

Turning back to the prevalence of bias incidents specifically on college campuses, Professor Reisert spoke to his reading into the proliferation of such events. He noted that forgiveness has often been employed in response and that speaking to “broken people” affected by such incidents must also not be forgotten.

The final academic speaker, Professor Arisa White, examined the role of poetry as “a way of being attentive in the world.” She emphasized the potent effect of words as well as silence and led the attendees through an exercise to express this. Participants were asked a series of questions including “describe how you feel when you are at your best” and asked what image of the future they held. The responses to these questions were then crafted together into a poem.

In reflecting upon the experience of the community conversations, Tina Odim-O’Neill ’21, who attended the first two dinners, expressed an appreciation for the value of the events but a dissatisfaction with the way they were ultimately carried out.

She said that what stood out for her from the various speeches that they were “a good place to start, I guess, but I don’t think they really addressed my concerns at all as a student.” Those concerns are “the atmosphere that people have to live with on this campus, and we can’t change people’s actions perse, like you can’t stop someone from throwing a racist party, but I think that the way that the administration and the faculty respond creates a culture. And I think that we need to examine that more closely.”

Odim-O’Neill reflected that she thought the community conversations weren’t the best method through which to address bias incidents, saying, “quite frankly, they were a little bit too structured and it kind of felt like a divide and conquer technique for students. So, ‘if we split the students up at tables, with other like-minded students,’ (because, to be honest, most of the people that go to these events are people who care), and, ‘if we split them up and give them guided questions, they can’t really go straight to the administration and tell them what they need and really voice their opinions.”

For example, although Odim-O’Neill was appreciative of the presence of senior staff at the dinners, ‘It’s hard to talk to the president of your college when you’re sitting…essentially one on one with him, there’s like five people at every table. And that’s really hard and I think there’s an opportunity for students to support one another but we weren’t really allowed to do that because of the way the dinner was set up.”

Odim-O’Neill stated that she thought the format of the diners could be restructured, saying, “I think it needs to be more open, I think it could take the shape of a town hall.” She acknowledged that, “I think one positive thing that came out of it was sharing out to the administration and kind of getting them on the same page and with the faculty, because a lot of the faculty that I was with had no idea what was going on in terms of campus climate. So I think it was a good way to share information but I think it lacked definite steps in improving campus culture and ‘repairing the breach.’”

Looking ahead, Odim-O’Neill proposed, “I just hope that the senior administration in the future can be open to implementing more of what the students ask for…because sometimes I feel that even when those of us who are outspoken go to the administration, we kind of get lip service like “oh yeah that’s a great idea” and then it never happens. And I understand that they have a lot on their plate and I quite frankly I don’t even the position that a lot of the senior staff are in, it’s really hard, and I appreciate that, but at the same time, your students are on the ground, and they’re your eyes and ears,