Imagining Our Multicultural Center

By Guest Contributor

Exactly a week ago, PALANA house hosted PALANA Uncensored: “Multicultural Center or nah?,” a discussion in the Hillcrest Orchard. (This event is related to and in communication with other initiatives happening around the creation of a multicultural center). At the event, PALANA house members and attendees split the large audience into four groups, each of which was tasked with answering one of four questions: envisioning a multicultural center assuming we have access to unlimited resources; imagining how a multicultural center could be formed strictly from the re-purposing of existing resources; coming up with what the multicultural center should not be; and imagining why getting a multicultural center would be a bad idea. In the discussion that ensued, a number of interesting ideas were exchanged.

One person spoke about resources and how we distribute them; she argued against the idea that resources are scarce at Middlebury College and that a multicultural center must be formed strictly from the repurposing of existing resources. Clearly, she argued, Middlebury has certain priorities and is willing to spend the money to live out its values. The best example of this is environmental diversity: Middlebury has thoroughly invested in being the “best” when it comes to carbon neutrality and sustainability (even as Divestment continues to call the college out on investing in fossil fuels). What if Middlebury invested equivalent resources in supporting and fostering the “diversity” that it brings to its campus?  This student made a case for the importance of the multicultural center, as she has seen too many friends of color quietly leave the campus, and one has to wonder about the toxicity of this environment and the resources that we don’t offer for certain students.

Another preson warned us against assuming that “multicultural center” naturally means exclusivity, or that white and/or non-marginalized students are not “allowed” to make use of such resources; rather, while keeping the needs of the most marginalized at its center, the multicultural center can serve a diverse body of students. As it was imagined with unlimited resources, it would be a centrally located, spacious center with various programming, services and amenities such as a kitchen, a space for arts and media, a lecture hall for speakers brought to campus, offices for the various staff, programming around cultural appropriation for Halloween and reminders to avoid “culturally” themed costumes and parties. Students agreed that the center would conduct outreach, working with all other departments and offices on campus, would push the teachers to develop more inclusive curriculum and pedagogy, would continuously advocate for diversity measures in recruiting students, faculty, speakers and performers to campus, and in this way, would remain dynamic.

Many talked about the importance of comfort and safety, and creating a space that can be home-like for students who do not already have other means of feeling comfortable on this campus. We entertained the idea that the center would be open 24 hours to students who have applied for access. We realized that in terms of repurposing resources, it would be impossible not to hire new, highly trained and well-supported staff for the center, and that taking any faculty away from their current job would simply be to overstretch them and disrupt their ability to serve what they are already serving. Moreover, one student argued that it should not be the job of certain faculty, often faculty of color, to emotionally care for students; and it should not be the job of upperclassman students to be the primary mentor for younger students.

One student whom I corresponded with stated that for her, a multicultural center would be really important in both tangible and symbolic ways. It would provide more comprehensive resources and a safe, physical space for people of marginalized identities in particular. But it would also speak to Middlebury’s values and show that this institution responds to the needs of all students. She imagines that having a multicultural center, as long as it was designed and carried out in an effective way, would create a safer and more inclusive community here.

In hearing about the possibility of a multicultural center, discussing this possibility and imagining what it might look like, it is important to keep in mind how this need is symptomatic of an ongoing struggle to practice progressive racial politics and cultural inclusivity, waged in various ways such as AAL to ALL (Midd Included). It is also important to respect that some students on this campus have already given this Center an enormous amount of thought, while other students are just becoming aware of the initiative. I became involved in this initiative only a month or two ago, but am in full support of the Center. As a white woman, I argue that we all have a stake in creating a multicultural center. I support the construction of this Center because I realize that Middlebury is set up as a white space, familiar to some, but uncomfortable and unsafe to many; I recognize that Middlebury has not committed to progressive racial politics, as it is resistant to making its curriculum culturally inclusive. Middlebury continues to recruit primarily from extremely prestigious, predominantly white private schools and stands idly by as some students of color take leave or suffer from the toxicity of this place; I realize that racial microaggressions continuously occur and that there needs to be a larger, more structural way to address these daily ignorances and assaults. As power is institutionalized, fixed in structures and systems, it might be helpful for some to ask, how might a multicultural center disrupt the whiteness and upperclass-ness (exclusion) inscribed in the institution of Middlebury College? I would really like to see structural change that both creates infrastructure to addres racism on this campus (and would make extensive use of this infrastructure) and also invests in the well-being of my peers.

As a white woman engaging in this discussion, I must always remember from where I speak and consider what experiences or lack of experiences are influencing my opinion. This especially applies for those of us who make up any kind of majority on this campus: white, upper-class, straight, cis-gendered or gender-conforming, fit-bodied, etc. Listening and creatively imagining are crucial to engaging in dialogue, and what I have learned from listening is that creating a multicultural center would be a significant step in the right direction for Middlebury. As we continue to support initiatives to maintain diversity in the student body or increase that diversity, we must be set up to support students who do not fit the outdated “norm” of a student that Middlebury is designed to serve.

LILY ANDREWS ’14 is from Minneapolis, Minn. and was helped by many others involved in BEYOND THE GREEN

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