MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, reggae soul singer Etana tells us how she's been cracking the glass ceiling in reggae. Yes. She says there is one. That's later in the program.
But first, you might have heard about what appeared to be a series of racial incidents at Oberlin College. That's in northern Ohio. Scrawls of racially offensive graffiti and reports of someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan-style robe have upset students and caused administrators to cancel classes there earlier this week.
Administrators say that they are getting to the bottom of all this, but this is all the more shocking because Oberlin has a strong tradition of embracing diversity. It was one of the first colleges or universities in this country to admit African-American students.
Now, though, many small liberal arts colleges are making a point to try to diversify their student and faculty ranks. But even apart from publicized incidents like the one at Oberlin, asking minorities even to consider studying or teaching in rural and - let's face it - not very diverse environments can be challenging. And once those folks get there, there's a whole new set of challenges, including where do I get my hair done?
So we want to talk to some people who have faced those challenges head-on. Shirley Collado is the dean of the college at Middlebury College in Vermont. She's also the co-chair of a national group called the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers. Also with us for additional perspective is Middlebury graduate Sheyenne Brown. She arrived on campus from The Bronx in New York with some challenging personal circumstances, including a family that spent some time homeless, and coming from a high school that had its fair share of gang violence. Sheyenne is now a graduate student at Columbia University, and she joins us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you both so much for joining us.
SHEYENNE BROWN: Thank you for having me.
SHIRLEY COLLADO: It's a pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: Sheyenne, congratulations to you on everything so far.
BROWN: Thank you.
MARTIN: How did you end up at Middlebury?
BROWN: It was one of those happy accidents. One of my teachers nominated me for the Posse scholarship when I was at Stevenson High School. And I did the interview process and ranked my three tops, which were Trinity, Brandeis and then Middlebury. And the gods smiled on me and said, you're going to Middlebury, and I got selected for that college.
MARTIN: And a Posse scholarship is designed exactly for students like you, right, to - what? To create a more supportive environment, right?
BROWN: Exactly. It's a leadership scholarship. They choose you based on what you've done in your time in high school. And when you get to college, you have a cohort. You have a support network of students from where you're from, so that the experience at the college is a little less difficult.
MARTIN: So you have a posse...
BROWN: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: ...with you. So, when you got there, was it a welcoming environment?
BROWN: I would say yes, it was. I mean, given the location of the school, obviously, there were times where it wasn't the most welcoming environment. But on the grander scale of things, I'd have to say that I did feel welcomed.
MARTIN: OK. Give us pluses and minuses. I'm not searching for pain, here. I just want kind of the complete - I just want the complete picture.
BROWN: Right. Pluses is definitely the environment of the school. It's a very beautiful - like, aesthetically, it's a pleasing school, academically challenging. Deltas, minuses - it's a little difficult to not see many people who look like you on campus, to be totally frank. In my class, I believe there were about six of us who identified as African-American in the class of 2009, and that was it when I got there. I believe the number has increased since then, but while I was there, it was a very limited number of us.
MARTIN: And did you ever feel that racial difference translated into friction in a way that made things uncomfortable?
BROWN: There were occasions, you know, whether it was people asking me if they could touch my hair because I had gotten it braided and it had magically grown so many inches, or having someone use the N-word towards one of my friends. Things like that occurred not too often, but they were there. It was infrequent enough that it couldn't be an issue, but it was often enough that it made us uncomfortable.
MARTIN: And, like, the N-word thing, do you just want to tell me a little bit more about that? How did that whole happen, and how was it handled?
BROWN: Well, there was an altercation between my friend and a white student our freshman year, and I'm assuming alcohol was involved. And the white student called my friend the N-word, and it resulted in a physical altercation. And it was a really big mess in terms of doling out who did what and issuing out the punishments. For my liking, I felt like the N-word being used toward someone else automatically should have resulted in some sort of disciplinary action, but I realize there are steps that have to happen. It just didn't happen the way I had hoped it would.
MARTIN: And that kind of left a sour taste in your mouth?
BROWN: Yes. It definitely did.
MARTIN: Let's turn to Dean Collado now. Dean, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, as well.
COLLADO: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: You're in the studios of Middlebury College in Vermont. How did you get there? I don't mean today. I mean, I assume you drove. But I mean, how did you wind up at Middlebury?
COLLADO: I joined the college in 2007 coming from Brooklyn, New York, where I was running in the New York City offices, the national office. I was running the Posse Foundation for six years as executive vice president.
MARTIN: And you were actually in the first group of Posse scholars. And talk a little bit more about why there was a feeling that there was a need for an organization like this.
COLLADO: Sure. Back in 1989, the Posse Foundation was founded, and I was a high school student. I matriculated in the very first cohort of five students coming from New York City down south to Vanderbilt University. And at that time, the program was literally an experiment, no track record. And Vanderbilt was the first university to take it on And without a doubt - and I think it's so wonderful to have Shey on the call with us this morning, because I think we both understand the power of a cohort and a program and mentors and thinking about ambitiously going to colleges like Vanderbilt and Middlebury when you're coming from places like New York City.
MARTIN: So, Dean Collado, could you talk a little bit more about why, all these years later, you feel there's a need for additional steps? I mean, so 1990 wasn't, you know, ancient history when dinosaurs walked the Earth, but, you know...
COLLADO: I hope not.
MARTIN: ...there's still a lot of - a lot of things have happened, you know, since then. What other things do you think are still needed? What are some of the things that you still think need - why there needs to be steps like you're taking with this group of diversity officers from liberal arts colleges?
COLLADO: Well, that's a great question. Certainly, we can think about all the disparities and the gaps that are still occurring in this country in K through 12, and I believe that top colleges like Middlebury around the country have a serious role to play in not only attracting, but to your point, retaining students in colleges like ours.
And it's no mystery why a student from an urban public high school might be missed in traditional admissions processes, but also, just on a personal level, the thought of coming to a place like rural Vermont on your own as a faculty member or a student can be a bit overwhelming. And Posse's one of the several initiatives that has allowed us, as a college, to think about shifting the culture and developing community.
MARTIN: Well, like, give an example, though. How would you go about doing that, dean? And, if you're just joining us, we are talking about efforts to diversify the campuses of small liberal arts colleges. Shirley Collado, whom we're speaking with, she's the dean of the college at Middlebury College in Vermont. She's also the chief diversity officer there, but she's also one of the cofounders of an initiative to try to address this issue at colleges across the country. Also with us, Sheyenne Brown. She's talking about her experience as a student at Middlebury.
So, dean, tell us a little bit more about - what are some of the challenges and circumstances that people talk to you about? So we've talked - Sheyenne told us a little bit about, you know, some racial friction, some - you know, as she, I think, very wisely put it, some alcohol-fueled interactions that don't always go so well. That could be students of whatever background.
But are there some things unique to being a person of a...
MARTIN: ...diverse background at a campus like that?
COLLADO: Sure. Well, you had asked this question of, you know, what do we do? What are things that are happening? And the liberal arts diversity officers' group, the creative connect - Creating Connections Consortium is one way. Posse is another. Both programs are getting at colleges working together and developing cohorts, communities, really moving beyond the numbers, but also getting individuals to these campuses and thinking critically about how we can create communities that are not only looked at as potential destinations for working as a faculty member of color here, for being a student here, but being places where you can thrive and really, really have a sense of connection - not just visiting.
MARTIN: Well, let me - Sheyenne, let me go back to you. I don't want to make too much of the hair thing, but hair is big. Let's just get - let's not get confused about this. For a lot of people, just feeling your best, you know, being able to look the way you want to look is part of feeling good. So where did you get your hair done? I mean, if there - how many students did you say who identified as African-American were there when you were there?
BROWN: About six or seven...
MARTIN: About six or seven.
BROWN: ...in my class.
MARTIN: Presumably, there's not going to be a black hair salon with six or seven clients.
BROWN: No, there wasn't one.
MARTIN: So what did you do?
BROWN: Well, my first two years, I came in with my hair permed, and I would just wait until I could make a trip back to New York to do something about my hair. But then my junior year, I spent some time at Spelman College in Atlanta, and it was there that I made the decision to just cut it all off. So I wore a Caesar haircut for my last two years of my education, and it wasn't an issue, because, you know, my classmate - I had a classmate who cut hair, and he would take care of that for me whenever I needed it redone.
But since I've graduated, I'm told that there's actually a salon 45 minutes away that's catered to hair for people of color. It's just that it's 45 minutes away. Getting there is the trick.
MARTIN: Is there something that would have made your life better? I mean I understand that you really jumped into campus life. I mean you just jumped into everything and clearly you didn't feel any difficulty in doing that, but apart from that, is there anything else that would have made your life better?
BROWN: Myself and some of my friends - we fought really hard to get an Africana studies major at the college because it was something that we felt was necessary. It deserved to be in the curriculum. If we had the classics, why couldn't we have Africana? And I just felt there was a great deal of resistance towards that and we weren't the first group of people to try to get this. Legacies of students of color have been trying to do that and it just did not happen and we fought so hard for it and it didn't necessarily come to fruition.
Thankfully, Shirley, you know, opened the Center for Race and Comparative Studies, I believe. Sorry if I'm saying that wrong, Shirley.
COLLADO: The Center for Comparative Study of (unintelligible)...
BROWN: Yes. Thank you. But while I was there, I really would have appreciated being able to take those courses to learn more, the things that just didn't come up in my education in high school. I had the playground to do it at college and here I was being met with resistance.
MARTIN: Dean Collado, could you talk a little bit more about some of the things that you think would make a difference? I mean you've talked a little bit about, you know, better preparation so kids are academically strong when they come onto these campuses, but what about when they're already there? And also talking about faculty and trying to...
MARTIN: ...attract the first faculty? Could you talk a little bit more about that?
COLLADO: Sure. Certainly. So you know, at Middlebury our model has really been asking the harder question, which is really, where do - how can you place these goals at the central veins of the institution where we're actually really strong, as opposed to just letting it happen on the fringes or on the margins?
The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity is one example, but also looking at things that are fundamental - right - like orientation, public safety, our residential life system, the curriculum, and definitely faculty. Those are the areas where we really ask ourselves and try to do the work - how can we be more inclusive for all students?
And so one very specific way, which is this consortium that we put together, was not trying to solve the problem alone. We know that there are other liberal arts colleges out there trying to do the same thing and we want to walk the walk and do the work, and it's not enough to say we're in isolated locations. It's not enough to say we're in rural Vermont.
And so we have partnered up with over 20 colleges around the country and two research institutions, Berkeley and Columbia, to really address the faculty diversity issue, and essentially what we're doing are building faculty cohorts, faculty posses, if you will, across three of the campuses initially through the help of a grant with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
And our undergraduates will also be pursuing undergraduate research opportunities at those (unintelligible) and the hope is that these liberal arts colleges will become destinations for teaching and scholarship, but more importantly, where you can actually have community with other faculty colleagues who have a whole range of experiences, and yes, care about where they're getting their hair done and where they're eating and where they're putting their kids in school.
MARTIN: Well, how about - can I just ask you this question though?
MARTIN: But how about educating some people in the majority community about, like, not touching people's hair? I mean, how about things of that sort? Just these kind of what I think people in the diversity field would call micro-insults or things like that.
MARTIN: I mean is that part of the conversation too? Because you're not going to move Middlebury from Vermont to the Bronx. You're not going to do that.
COLLADO: We are not.
MARTIN: But - and people who live there might reasonably say, you know, we have a strong tradition too, and if you're coming here to our place of tradition, then you should kind of jump into our community and tradition too. But how about making it so that all the burden isn't on those students who are going there and faculty going there to constantly reeducating the people there? Is that part of the conversation?
COLLADO: That's absolutely part of the conversation, Michel, and thanks for asking. The bottom line is we're not bringing posses or faculty cohorts through this initiative to come here and teach us the lessons that we need to learn. I mean obviously they need mentors, they need a community, but let me be clear. It's much bigger than numbers. It's much bigger than cosmetic or compositional diversity. We have to ask our faculty, our students, the curriculum, our programs, every sector of the college, how are we needing to change and what are the lessons that we're needing to learn to move on and create community so that all of us can thrive and learn? We're all benefiting from that, a value of diversity, on our college campuses. We're not doing anybody from the Bronx or Brooklyn a favor. It's a collective thing.
So places like the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, looking at orientation for all of our students when they're coming in, in their first year experience, what our staff and professional staff are doing on the ground and what they need to know - programming, training initiatives on that front need to happen, so that it's a multifaceted approach.
COLLADO: It can't just be putting us on campus.
MARTIN: Sheyenne Brown, I'm going to give you the final word. You are destined for the academy yourself. Do I have that right? You're planning to be a college advisor, teacher, yourself? Is this correct?
BROWN: Yes. In that vein, if I don't make it as an actress, then I will teach.
MARTIN: OK, OK. Well, there's a lot of people...
BROWN: And the hope is to go back to Middlebury.
MARTIN: ...a lot of people who do both. I'm just wondering if, now that you're kind of on the other side of it, is there one thing you would wish to kind of encourage your fellow faculty, future faculty to do or think about when they start teaching students like you?
BROWN: Oh, geez. I think I would want them to be mindful of the fact that in class a lot of times, if you're the only black person in the room, then you're automatically the voice for all black people in your conversations and just figuring out how to circumnavigate that or to make it so that it's not just me, black woman, speaking for everyone, but I'm having a conversation with my classmates who are of different races.
MARTIN: You're Sheyenne.
MARTIN: You're not the voice of the people...
MARTIN: ...unless you want to be.
MARTIN: All right. Unless you run for that job. Sheyenne Brown studied at Middlebury as an undergraduate. She's currently a graduate student at Columbia University and an aspiring actress and she joined us from our bureau in New York. Good luck to you, Sheyenne.
BROWN: Thank you.
MARTIN: Shirley Collado is dean of the college at Middlebury College. She's its chief diversity officer and she's one of the co-founders of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers Group. She joined us from the studios of Middlebury College in Vermont. Dean Collado, thank you so much for joining us.
COLLADO: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.