Administration Fields Questions About Race in Town Hall Forum

Photo by Carolyn Brown '16 Chief Diversity Officer Dwight Hamilton (front) and President Kathleen McCartney (back) participated in a town hall listening session about race on campus on Nov. 23.

Photo by Carolyn Brown ’16
Chief Diversity Officer Dwight Hamilton (front) and President Kathleen McCartney (back) participated in a town hall listening session about race on campus on Nov. 23.

Katherine Hazen ’18, News Editor

Rachel Farber ’16, Assistant News Editor

Chief Diversity Officer Dwight Hamilton, President Kathleen McCartney and Associate Dean Jennifer Walters answered questions from students and listened to their concerns in a town hall forum moderated by L’Tanya Richmond, Staff Director of Multicultural Affairs, Monday afternoon in John M. Greene Hall.

The 80 minute event began with a brief introduction from each of the panel members.  

McCartney, who returned from a two-week trip to Asia on Saturday, detailed her efforts thus far in securing more students and faculty of color, including  a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and mandating diversity education. Before beginning the question and answer session, McCartney commented that her main role in the forum was to listen.    

The question and answer session started with one student asking, “I know you guys are not the enemy… My question is, do you, [McCartney], have a stake in these movements that are happening? Do you feel like you care, actually?”

“Of course I do … A lot of the work I do on antiracism is invisible, … but I’m glad you’ve given me the opportunity to affirm that,” McCartney said.

Other students asked about specific issues on campus.

“I feel like Smith is advertised to low-income students of color … but when you get here, there’s not a lot of space for you,” said Aliya Bailey ‘19, tapping into a recurring theme of the forum, which Hamilton had recognized earlier as the difference between diversity and inclusion.

“The mere presence of diversity does not mean you have an environment in which all members can bring their full part,” Hamilton said prior, adding that students should not be “tokenized” or “asked to represent anyone other than themselves.”  

Hamilton said he’d like to see a “vertical” approach to diversity, akin to that taken to sustainability, in which every layer of campus valued sustainability and quickly supported change.

Changes such as multicultural housing, training for tenured faculty and a mandatory social justice class were suggested by both students and faculty members.

Zara Jamshed ‘17 said that while they understand the legacy of Smith housing, many students of color would like multicultural housing. “So much of the violence that happens on this campus happens in our homes,” said Jamshed.

Hamilton was hesitant but said he is researching the way Oberlin College organizes its campus housing. “I’m not quite there,” he said.

One student asked about diversity training for tenured professors. “We cannot learn if we are not in a safe space,” she said. “Just last week I had a teacher belittle me in front of the entire class because I mentioned the sit-in, and my want and my need to be there.”

Professor of engineering Kristen Dorsey came up to the microphone to say that faculty feel unprepared to talk about racism on campus.  

“And yet we don’t want to be silent on these issues because we don’t want to give students the impression that engineering can’t encompass these issues or that we as faculty members don’t care about it,” Dorsey said.

After several media reports from local and national outlets “inaccurately characterized the college as supporting restrictions on media,” according to a statement issued by the College last Friday, some students experienced severe online harassment, as one student testified.

“I have personally never felt a moment where I have had to run for cover like I did this weekend. and those individuals whose names are in every single publication from the Washington Post to Time probably feel the same way … [T]his media fallout … just makes it more difficult to function as a human and as a student. How are we supposed to write a paper when our email accounts are blowing up?” asked the student.  “I was wondering if there was a way to somehow institutionalize our allyship … so that we’re not alone in fighting off the media barrage?”

Walters suggested a “media strategy” workshop for student organizers.  “You speak and you don’t realize who you’re speaking to and what they’re going to do with your words,” she said.

McCartney acknowledged that there has been a “villainization of students” in the media that has been “cherrypicking” events.  

An Ada Comstock scholar shared that although her primary role on campus is to learn, she and other students of color “have to do jobs that [the administration and staff] are paid to do,” such as counseling and organizing around anti-racism.

“I’m trusting you, that whatever’s wrong with this, either you get it right, or you bring in people than can because we have to be students,” she said.

“I know that’s not why you came here, but I need you,” Hamilton responded. “I’m not asking you to do my job, but I can’t do my job without you.” Students from the audience suggested that if the administration relies on students to do this work, they should offer work study.

The student also recalled comments she heard at last week’s sit-in that questioned the validity of the experiences shared by students of color.

“If we are bold enough to come to the mic and share, it happened,” she said. “Don’t trivialize it. I’m trusting our leaders here not to trivialize it.”

 

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