Photo by Matt Gills
After a tense town hall meeting in Mead Chapel on Wed., Nov. 8, students and administrators continue to work to address the issues that face the Middlebury Community. The town hall, which was co-sponsored by President Laurie Patton, the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Black Student Union (BSU), came in the wake of several racially charged incidents including violent graffiti in a classroom and a case of alleged racial profiling. SGA President Jin Sohn ’18, who helped organize the event, said she feels that the town hall was “able to serve its purpose for some people and not for others” because everybody attended the meeting with different hopes and expectations. “Some members of our community came to the meeting looking for answers Senior Leadership Group (SLG), while others came to voice their opinions and provide personal testimonies to the racial tensions on campus, and others may have come to listen and learn,” she said.
Sohn was heartened to see so many people in attendance. “The most important thing we can do as a community is to show up,” she said. “That is the only way that we’ll be able to actually learn from one another and try to understand what members of our community are experiencing.”
However, Sohn also acknowledged that not everybody could attend the meeting, both because of time constraints and because of the emotional toll that events such as the town hall can take. “I understand that some students couldn’t attend because of other priorities or simply because the nature of these conversations are very draining,” she said. “I respect both and other situations, and I still firmly believe that there are multiple ways to contribute to efforts and to engage in ways that might not be in the typical form of conversations.”
Vee Duong ’19 attended the meeting, and she agrees that events such as this one can be emotionally exhausting for students. She also pointed out that many students showed up to speak, despite the challenges. “We witnessed the brave vulnerability of students who are already facing intense emotional and mental burdens from the events of this semester and those passed,” she said. To Duong, this meeting was emblematic of the wider dynamic between students and administrators. “On one hand, we have strong and courageous students putting their emotional and mental health on the line in order to voice their opinions about the racialized systems that are repeatedly, relentlessly inflicting harm upon them,” she said. “On the other hand, we have ‘the College,’ who is beginning to hear these distressed voices, to slowly put real faces to the damage and hurt that is caused by a system that is hundreds of years old, and [who] can only approach the problem with a doubled sense of half-defensiveness, half-humility.”
Duong appreciated the thoughtful questions that students raised over the course of the town hall, and she spoke at the town hall about the burden that falls on cultural organizations to educate the student body.
“Students in these organizations have taken on the burden of peer-to-peer education in order to cultivate an understanding for the experiences of marginalized groups on this campus,” she said.
Many administrators also attended the town hall to answer questions and listen to concerns. Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernández said his biggest takeaway from the meeting was that the administration has to work harder to make all students feel comfortable. “I’d say that the message heard loud and clear is that the administration is not doing enough to improve the experience of students of color on campus and that there needs to be more training for all students, staff, and faculty,” he said.
Fernández reiterated that there are trainings in the works, but he also said that the administration alone cannot fix the situation.
“I understand the finger-pointing at the administration, but no matter how many people we ‘train,’ the administration alone is not going to solve all the issues. It has to be the work of everyone,” he said. “I’m not trying to burden students of color with more. I’m talking about everyone. At the conversation at Mead, we heard stories of inappropriate images, comments, or words in classrooms where the sole student of color waited for someone to speak up and was frustrated when no one else did. No matter how many training sessions we do, the administration will not be able to force those classmates to stand up and say something.”
Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor echoed Fernández’s desire to create an environment where students of color feel comfortable and included. Taylor mentioned several student advisory groups she has been meeting with to help incorporate student feedback into these efforts.
“To continue our shared work in a collaborative and transparent manner, we recently formed a student advisory group for the Dean of Students Office,” she said. “We have been meeting every Tuesday evening to discuss issues that are on students’ minds.” Taylor also said she is working with students to gather feedback on the college’s handbook.
Moving forward, outgoing Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College Katy Smith Abbott mentioned administrative efforts to enact restorative justice practices. “Over 50 students, staff, and faculty are signed up to participate in a three-day training in December and my expectation is that a steering group responsible for guiding additional trainings and implementation will emerge from that first cohort of participants,” she said.
Duong feels that our community needs to address the questions that students raised, and mentioned a questions few specifically, including: How do we increase transparency? How can we get actual timelines and dates made for the implementation of desired programs and initiatives? Can we create a better communication route between the greater student body and the college? She suggested several potential solutions for communication, including using the SGA to reach administrators and reviving the “We the MiddKids,” petition site.
The SGA created a form so that students can give feedback to the administration, which they emailed to all students after the event.
“This feedback form is crucial for student engagement on voicing their opinions and concerns about the initiatives by the SLG and for the campus climate at large,” Sohn said. “Students can voice opinions on areas of accountability, markers of progress, student involvement, and transparency for the initiatives. Once feedback is collected, the SGA will move forward with presenting the information to respective members of the community and SLG, with possible legislation and recommendations stemming from the collected feedback as well.”
Sohn also noted that the several members of SGA and BSU have been working on a resolution about a set of recommendations to the administration for institutional support for minority students on campus. This resolution is on the SGA website at go/sga.