Race issues and others discussed at trustees forum
“I’m here to represent the Africana community and Afrikan Heritage House,” was the resounding answer from the vast majority of the over 20 students at Thursday night’s open trustee forum when asked why they had come.
Indeed, amidst concerns over the College’s supposed strategy to become an entirely residential campus and the dire need for a new theater space, the issue that took up most of the two-hour forum was that of what many feel is the misrepresentation and mistreatment of the African-American community.
The overwhelming presence of students who identified themselves as members of the Africana community was, in part, inspired by an incident late last month when the laundry room of Afrikan Heritage House became submerged in 5-7 inches of “gray water” initially thought to be sewage. When Facilities said it would not replace the damaged carpet, students began to recognize, and take action against, what they saw as unfair treatment across—the—board.
“We’re here to ask for your assistance,” said sophomore Darryle Johnson, who introduced the students standing before the trustees at the forum, “for improvements to better Afrikan Heritage House, and from those improvements the betterment of the African-American community.”
Johnson went on to explain Afrikan Heritage House’s long history as a cultural center directly linked to the African American studies department. He pointed out that when the department brings important speakers to campus, they are shown the House and eat in its dining room. It also has a dining hall and hosts monthly “Soul Sessions” which showcase student music, poetry and other forms of artistic expression.
Given the importance of Afrikan Heritage House both to its residents as well as to the community as a whole, Johnson spoke on behalf of his peers when he demanded that the House receive a full renovation.
“If this space is as important to the College as it is to us, we want to preserve it. We want a full renovation of this house and have it stand for what it has stood for for years,” Johnson said.
A complete renovation, he said, would include new carpets throughout the residence, as well as fresh coats of paint on the walls, updated entertainment technology, refurbished lounges and improved bathroom facilities.
“We’re here to push for the renovations to be at the top of the list so we can have a place to be proud of, to look the way we feel it should,” seconded junior Danielle Brooks, pointing out that dorms like Noah and Asia House are up for renovations this coming summer while Afrikan Heritage House has been waiting for its own renovation for years.
Johnson also called attention to the dwindling numbers of African American students currently on campus and said that when Afrikan Heritage House has its aesthetic makeover, minority recruitment efforts as well as minority retention within the residence could be more successful.
The conversation then transitioned into one of the larger issues of race relations on Oberlin’s campus, particularly the lack of awareness of racial tensions and the discomfort students of color feel being in what is currently a predominantly white community.
“There is no desire to repair or improve upon race relations because of the lack of awareness that there is a problem,” Conservatory senior John Orduna stated.
This portion of the evening, however, ended on a more hopeful note when it became clear that the dialogue had been effective. Trustee member John Elder, OC ’53 closing remark made it clear that the group had been successful in communicating the importance of raising awareness of race issues through such measures as making stronger efforts to recruit minority students, renovating the cultural gathering point for African-American community members and perhaps establishing forums for further debate and exploration of race issues as they exist at Oberlin.
Elder said, “I’m sorry about the flood and your carpet. I’m very sorry it happened, but if it hadn’t happened, this wonderful conversation wouldn’t have happened.”
But other issues of significance were also up for discussion last night, the first item of business relating to the worry that Oberlin is striving to become an all-residential campus in the face of financial woes.
Senior and student senator Marshal Duer-Balkind, who introduced the topic, said that the promise of juniors and seniors being allowed to live off-campus was one of Oberlin’s selling points the College had recently suggested it was planning to take away, as it did the Credit/No Entry grading policy. Duer-Balkind said it was a student’s right to live off-campus, citing the benefits of getting to know the residents and becoming more familiar with the community beyond the campus.
Class Trustee Adam Sorkin, OC ’04, acknowledged Duer-Balkind’s concerns by admitting that “[he] lived in East, and it did kind of suck,” but that after the completion of Union Street and phase two of construction behind Stevenson, there were no more plans that he knew of to expand “off-campus” housing for upperclassmen.
Class Trustee member Ni’Ja Whitson, OC ’03, also insisted that Duer-Balkind’s understanding of the situation was misleading.
“I don’t think the College has any intention to move to a residential campus. I don’t know where that terminology arose from,” Whitson said.
The SPACE committee, in another plea to the administration for funds with which to establish additional student theater performance and rehearsal spaces, reiterated the significance of the project.
“The desperate, immediate need for more performance spaces is still here,” said SPACE co-chair and College junior Jon Levin, “and if there is anything anyone can do to help to construct a student theater we can do anything that we can to make things happen.”
Members of the group went on to elaborate on the assets of such an undertaking, an imagined student-run and organized enterprise that would culminate in a student arts center for visual artists as well as performance artists, in addition to an opportunity for students to learn about art management.
Trustees greeted these aspirations with encouragement and approval.
A third topic for discussion which preceded the dialogue over Afrikan Heritage House was that of financial aid, introduced by College sophomore and newly-elected student senator Anthony Osei, who spoke his concern that financial aid packages were being reevaluated, larger loans distributed and students who were promised four-years of financial assistance are now struggling to remain at Oberlin.
“Students should be allowed to see where this money is being relocated,” Osei said, referencing the issue of financial transparency. “We should know why students’ financial aid is being reduced.”
“The way the aid has been distributed, loans are taken away or decreased. I do not agree that loans are aid; you did not give me that money.”
Whitson responded to these remarks by saying that President Nancy Dye, in the
past, had been more than willing to discuss issues of financial aid and
financial transparency with students, and that perhaps Osei and others could
organize a forum in which this topic could be addressed.