Multicultural dialogue takes on new form

By Matthew Stone

After a school year in which some on campus perceived multiple setbacks to multiculturalism, some students are taking a new approach to discussing multiculturalism and its place on campus.Students in two American Studies classes—a senior seminar and a first-year class—have come together twice this semester for discussions on the issue. One meeting took place in October at the home of an alumnus of color. The other took place last Thursday in the Cultural House, when members of the two classes each invited one guest to the gathering. The invitations expanded the circle of participants from 24 to 48.

“We wanted to open up the dialogue,” Kemi Adeyemi ’07, a student in the senior seminar, said. “We wanted to get people involved who might not necessarily be involved or might not have access to those discussions.”

Participants at last Thursday’s discussion initially divided into small groups to address ideas related to multiculturalism that seniors had been studying this semester and in other American Studies courses during their time at Macalester. A large group discussion followed in which participants focused on how multiculturalism presents itself on campus.

“We really mostly talked about how multiculturalism is not talked about in other disciplines—the sciences and history,” Zorah Johnson ’10, a student in the first-year class, said.

The discussions, participants said, are difficult due to what some see as the abstract nature of the definition of multiculturalism and how it should take shape on campus.

“To take everything we learned in a senior seminar and break it down in an hour is really difficult,” Adeyemi said. “It was confusing and not focused and maybe that’s what multiculturalism is.”

“Because [multiculturalism] is not defined and because it’s this empty space it does allow for conversation to happen,” Meghan Rockwell-Ashton ’07, another student in the senior seminar, said. “I think it is very difficult, and it is very complicated.”

Jane Rhodes, Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, teaches both the first-year class and senior seminar involved in the discussions. In her first year at Macalester last year, Rhodes said, she saw a divide play out between the way in which Macalester emphasized two of its chief pillars: internationalism and multiculturalism.

“I think the divide is historical. I think it has a lot to do with commitment of resources,” she said.

Speaking of the Institute for Global Citizenship, Rhodes said, “That was read as leaving multiculturalism behind.”

In the face of planning for the Institute and questions over whether voices from the Department of Multicultural Life were taken into account, Rhodes said that she began to see a need for “a greater interrogation of the meaning” of multiculturalism on campus.

Other events that created an impression of a second-class status for multiculturalism at Macalester, some say, included the circumstances that led to the February resignation of Dean of Multicultural Life Joi Lewis and the distressed resignation of María Elena Cepeda, Macalester’s only Latino Studies specialist. Lewis cited the marginalization of the Department of Multicultural Life. Cepeda resigned amid complaints of insufficient resources for her discipline.

“Multiculturalism needs to be more than a buzzword that’s used as a marketing device of the college,” Rhodes said.

According to Rhodes, a different approach to talking about the issue was needed, aside from the typical campus-wide symposium that would work to limit the number of students involved by attracting a predictable audience to every event.

“I think that the conversation usually happens among set groups of people who are always involved in the conversation,” Rockwell-Ashton said. “The intent was to bring other people into the discussion and have a forum for voices, who are not always heard in the debate, to surface.”

Rhodes said that the first two discussions are the beginning of a two-year initiative aimed at fostering campus dialogue on multiculturalism. The initiative will include more discussions of the type that happened this semester, at an Experimental College class on multiculturalism and occasional events and speakers on campus.

“I’m very interested in this being student-driven,” Rhodes said.

All the events will take place with the intent of spurring smaller conversations across campus that are self-sustaining, Rhodes said.

In interviews, students said that the goal of fostering additional conversation was a worthy one.

“In the sort of ‘each one teach one’ kind of model, expanding it on kind of an individual level throughout campus is going to be more effective because [multiculturalism] has become such a buzzword,” Rockwell-Ashton said. “I feel like in some ways I would like to see a similar sort of thing continue to bridge relationships across the classes and across disciplines.”