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Outreach or sanctuary? Minority students ponder the role of identity-based clubs
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Outreach or Sanctuary?
Minority students ponder the role of identity based clubs
by Barbara Melville and Susan Rosenberg

It’s a big discussion within Ujima right now: some say, ‘We’re proud to be a black club—it’s what we are’; but others object, ‘We don’t want to be seen as exclusive.’” And Tiffany Islar ’08 isn’t the only club president facing that dilemma at Skidmore.

Raices, a club for students from Latino backgrounds, also seeks to raise all students’ awareness
of Latino cultures—“all our meetings are in English,” says Marleny Diaz ’07. According to Shubha Gokhale ’07, the same openness goes for Hayat, a recently chartered club exploring the cultural bonds threading through historically Muslim countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. (Hayat means “life” in several of the region’s languages.) The former Asian Cultural Association even changed its last word to “Awareness,” to emphasize that it is not “an Asian club” but “a group organized toward a greater understanding of Asian cultures no matter what the members’ backgrounds,” according to Kim Ngeow ’07.

The pressures on Skidmore’s minority students are nothing if not complex. Recently a Scope
article about Ujima’s fashion and talent show hit a nerve: one student bridled at the labeling of Ujima as the “black students’ club” when its membership and events are open to anyone, and another worried that focusing on the show perpetuated a stereotype—interest in dance, music,
and clothing—while ignoring the club’s more serious, weighty events. In an effort to take the
pulse of student diversity on campus, Scope worked with SGA diversity officer Fred Braunstein
’08 to convene a small discussion group.

Am I my brother’s teacher?

Minority-culture clubs face a question unique among the dozens of Skidmore student groups: Should they provide safe spaces for their own members, or should they educate the wider community about their different cultures? The answer is yes.

Last year these clubs, along with Students Opposed to All Racism, presented nearly thirty campuswide events—films, speakers, food festivals, art, music, and dance—in just three months. Skidmore Pride Alliance hosted five speakers including Sabrina Sojourner, the first openly lesbian African-American woman elected to the US Congress; Ujima mounted a powerful Case Gallery exhibition exploring stereotyping; ACA offered a wide lineup of cultural programs. Just this past fall Hayat presented a week of Ramadan-related events, Ujima and Raices helped co-sponsor a lecture by anti-racist activist Tim White, and Raices produced a Latino Heritage festival of nearly twenty events over five weeks.

Diversity clubs are educational tools, says Gokhale. “Hayat’s goal is to share our experience with the community, but first we have to define our experience. Most students here know little of Hinduism or Islam, so for us it’s always ABCs, always teaching.”

Some hesitate to accept that role. “It’s not Ujima’s job to educate but more to expose the Skidmore audience to our culture,” says Islar. As Diaz defines it, “Of course it’s my duty to educate and help
if you have a question. But it’s your job to come to me with it.”

“We’re separating the two ideas too much,” says Ngeow. “In ACA, we do basics—the Asian-American experience and identity—in the first few meetings of each semester. Then we move
on to more depth, so we’re not just educating others; we’re also having significant, deeper discussions.” “So you’re going through the ABCs, but your core group wants more,” says Pride Alliance’s Greta Spoering ‘08. “Who do you cater to?”

Catering to both takes real commitment. “My major should be ‘co-curricular,’” Spoering jokes. “It takes days to prepare a letter inviting faculty to an event, then nobody comes.” Low attendance is a frustration shared with others promoting events in a crammed calendar, and club leaders say they appreciate the faculty members and academic programs, like First-Year Experience, that include club events in syllabi or offer class credit for attendance. And they happily blister those faculty who say they’re too busy to attend and those students who say they don’t want to feel uncomfortable as perhaps the only white person or who preemptively dismiss a diversity-oriented topic as “not my issue.”

“It gets tiring,” Islar murmurs. “When you do so much to raise people’s awareness and nothing happens, you almost think, Why try?” “We don’t have a choice,” says Gokhale crisply. “It’s important for us to educate: we want and need to dispel myths about ourselves.“ And even if
Ujima would rather be known for more than great parties and cool clothes, Islar recognizes
that events like the fashion show are what draw crowds, perhaps because they’re easy, attractive points of entry.

Seeking safe harbor

Even as they throw open their events and meetings to the wider community, identity-based clubs serve as sanctuaries for their members, providing what Hayat’s Hager Youssef ’08 calls “a cultural safety blanket.” Minority students “do need a safe harbor, a place of their own,” according to Anita Steigerwald, Skidmore’s associate dean of student affairs. “They must acclimate to a majority culture every waking hour of every day here.”

“Acclimating” is a judicious word, because while overt, in-your-face racism may be rare on
campus, the club leaders describe a pervasive, low-grade discomfort, such as they feel when walking into a classroom where no one looks like them. At high school, Raices co-president Allison Canas ’07 recalls, “I was never made to feel nonwhite,” but Ngeow says, “Oh, at Skidmore you feel it.”

“Last time we put up Raices events posters, someone wrote on every one of them ‘Go back to your own country!’ and ‘Learn English!’” Diaz reports. “What’s wrong with these people?” And she laments, “Why is it that when someone asks a Hispanic-related question, everyone looks at me?” In her classes, Spoering admits, she sometimes falls into the “classic role of ‘raging angry lesbian.’” With a shrug, Gokhale says, “Many here have never met a person from India. Right
away they ask me to recommend Indian restaurants.” Laughing at each other’s tales of woe, they seem admirably cool, but Spoering says it helps that “we all have someone we can call up and vent to.”

“I knew what I was getting into when I came here,” says Islar, and she determined early on, “I didn’t want to be run out, to change the life I worked so hard to have because I can’t handle the atmosphere. I’ll stand my ground.“

That’s a lot easier when you have company. The SGA diversity committee that Fred Braunstein coordinates has begun pulling together all ten identity-based, religious, and international clubs to work toward mutual top priorities: a replacement for the full-time multicultural-activities director who left several years ago and “a permanent, dedicated place for interclub overlap,” he says. “We have an Intercultural Center but it can be booked by anyone; you can’t just hang there. And a lot of colleges have a director and even an assistant director.” Skidmore’s current diversity coordinator, Katherine Simpson, provides moral and logistical support, but she is part-time. She says, “Many of the students’ concerns need to be addressed at an institutional level, not left up to them to deal with on their own.” Pat Oles, dean of student affairs, gently advises hard-pressed student leaders to “get a good education here and invest some energy to put pressure on us for progress. Give what you can, but don’t have it break your heart.” Good counsel for club officers who are—and want to be—independent, but who also, as Spoering says, “need administrative continuity because each year the student leaders change.”

Time, the all-changer?

Constant student turnover is very much the rub, the sore spot where the students’ sense of immediacy (measured in four-year spans) collides with the more deliberate pace of the strategy Skidmore has been pursuing since the 1990s to make the college more diverse. In the short run,
the club leaders say, even the tools traditionally used to attract minority students—the admissions viewbook, Web sites, and brochures with numerous pictures of students of color—paint too rosy,
or at least too multicultural, a picture.

Still, Islar says she’s noticed that “things have changed since my first year here.” There have
been more students of color on campus every year, up from 6 percent in the late 1980s to almost 15 percent today (and 19 percent in this year’s freshman class). And more progress may be on the horizon: Skidmore’s newly launched fundraising campaign earmarks millions to enhance student diversity and provide more support for students from academically disadvantaged backgrounds,
and a new director of student diversity programs is likely to be in place by this summer. Associate dean Steigerwald predicts the new director may come in with a vision to expand the office and maybe, ideally, with a PhD—lending the kind of scholarly authority needed to “take diversity programming beyond the social,” says Oles.

For now, club leaders are exhorting their classmates to “go to different club events, even just once
a year,” as Ngeow suggests. “You learn so much.” Gokhale notes, “Now is the time. In the real world, there will be no such opportunity to go and see and ask questions.” And they’re doing
their best to schedule plenty of attractive events like last year’s Alma Moyó concert of African and
Puerto Rican music, or this past fall’s Hayat sale of Indian snacks and henna tattoos, or the annual fashion and talent show coming up in February—it’s Ujima’s fifteenth, and it will be packed.