A Message to the Macalester Community

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Tulips grow outside of the Olin Rice Science Center. Photo by Katherine Irving ’22.

Sasha Lewis-Norelle, Contributing Writer

As graduation approaches, I have been reflecting a lot on my time here at Macalester. With this reflection comes an urge to leave a final message to the Macalester community. I hope my words will be heard by the community.

To those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sasha (he/him) and I am a senior graduating with a degree in environmental studies. During my time at Macalester, I have been involved in a range of extracurricular activities, both at Macalester and in the broader community. I have organized and helped run the divestment campaign Fossil Free Mac, organized with the Saint Paul hub of the Sunrise Movement, volunteered with MN350’s Pipeline Resistance Team and currently work as the Environmental Health and Justice Organizer for Clean Water Action Minnesota. Even if you don’t know me, you’ve likely seen me around tabling in front of the CCor marshaling protests. 

Through my work in environmental justice and activism I have grown immensely as a person, made many powerful connections and found the path I want to follow in life. I still have so much more to learn, but I truly appreciate everything I have learned during my time at Macalester, both inside and outside the classroom. This past year has really highlighted the lack of justice and equity in this country and in our communities, and has caused immense sorrow, grief and anger. We know that there is so much work to be done at every level and for every cause. The fight for justice and equity does not come easy, nor will the path always be clear. That is one thing I have learned as I grappled with feeling powerless and insignificant when faced with this terrifying, oppressive system. This year, and my experiences at Mac, have made it more clear to me than ever before: not only do we need drastic change, but it is our generation that is going to bring it about. 

To students, and mainly students who will still be around next year, my main message is this: stay critical and stay active. We know that Macalester isn’t perfect, far from it. There is a lot that needs to change about this school. As students, it’s important to remember that this is our school. Even if we are only here for around four years, it is still our community. Many students, especially BIPOC students, have incredibly valid criticisms of and issues with this institution. As a community, we must work together to center those voices and experiences, and fight for change. 

Fossil Free Mac’s current campaign will likely be coming to an end this summer, with no plans to continue fossil fuel divestment work next year. I want to acknowledge that FFM has been a significant part of the community consciousness around advocacy at Macalester the past few years. As it comes to a close (for a second time), I want to point people towards other amazing and important advocacy work being done around campus, particularly by BIPOC groups. Now more than ever the community must stand in solidarity with BIPOC students and support their needs. First, take the easy step and start following them on social media. BLAC, BLMatMac, PIPE and the various cultural organizations are all incredible and working to make Macalester better. 

As school activities go back to being in person next year, there will be so many opportunities to get involved, many events to go to and important content to learn. COVID has made student organizing difficult and stressful, and many groups are looking forward to reinvigorating campaigns. Even during the pandemic there has been some amazing work done by these groups, some of which I want to highlight. 

BLAC is working with alumni to pass a 21st century Expanded Educational Opportunities (EEO) program at Macalester. They are currently circulating a sign on letter — show your support for their efforts to bring more BIPOC students to campus! They also have an ongoing archival project that is working to immortalize the work of BIPOC organizers at Mac. You can read more about this and find out ways to contribute here.

BLMatMac, BLAC and fellow Macalester students have worked together to organize mutual aid efforts that are ongoing. This community support and care is powerful, especially during dark times. If you want to get involved with these mutual aid efforts you can reach out to BLAC or BLMatMac via social media. I would also challenge you to do your own research and reading on what mutual aid means and how it can apply to our community. 

PIPE is continuing to advocate for Indigenous rights, with more of a focus on activism, hosting events on various Indigenous issues and community building moving forward. They have already done so much work digging up Macalester’s horrific past regarding injustices against Indigenous people, and I would again challenge you to educate yourself on this history. 

This work is also very intersectional, and is largely rooted in big concepts, like transforming what student organizing looks like, pushing for more reciprocity from the school and supporting our BIPOC community. The more we look at that intersectionality and work together, the more change we can make happen. There are conversations about a student union, and other forms of student empowerment. People are advocating for more BIPOC faculty and staff, physical spaces on campus for BIPOC and cultural orgs, and much more. These are all rooted in making this community a better place as a whole and uplifting the voices and needs of BIPOC students. 

I also want to mention something that is often overlooked when talking about activism and advocacy work — everyone has something they can bring to the movement. It can be easy to feel intimidated by direct action, or like you aren’t able to effectively contribute, but a movement is so much more than just protesting (though that is also extremely important). Finding the way you can show up and support a movement is critical; whether it be cooking meals, creating art or graphic design, giving rides, redistributing wealth, educating yourself and your personal circle and so much more. We all have important roles to play in the fight for justice and liberation.

It’s also important to show up consistently. As Macalester students we are often busy and stressed, but creating change is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to show up during moments of crisis, but it’s also important to be consistently fighting for change. Substantial change comes from persistence. It’s hard fought and can be exhausting, but so many people and communities have been in their fights for years if not decades, and we can’t just show up when it’s convenient. It’s also not just about events or initiatives here at Macalester; we need to be thinking about how we can show up for movements outside of Macalester. It’s easy to stay in the Macalester bubble, but there are so many ways we can and should be showing up for communities around the Twin Cities and in greater Minnesota. 

To faculty and staff, I recognize that this year has been a huge adjustment for everyone. Professors have struggled to fit the content of a semester into seven-week periods. I truly hope that next year will provide a better academic environment for professors and students, but it would be naive to claim that the pandemic and module system are the main issues in academia at Macalester. I encourage all professors to show strong solidarity with students, both in activism and self-care. We continue to experience traumatizing events and are not always given grace with our workloads. When traumatic events occur, check in with students. Cancel classes, provide space for processing or reflection for those who need it. Communicate with students about their needs, especially for BIPOC students. This doesn’t just apply to during a pandemic or uprisings, but should be a constant practice. This also isn’t just about individual classes or professors. Departments as a whole should think critically about how they are supporting students, especially BIPOC students. There have been a number of letters and comments about how various departments can and should do better regarding this, and I would encourage you and your department to revisit them and think critically about how you will work to better accommodate students of color, first generation students and students with disabilities. In particular I want to uplift The Mac Weekly article written by students and alumni in STEM. Even if the letter wasn’t addressed to you or your department, there are still lessons that can be learned by every department here at Macalester. 

To the administration, I truly hope you take my words to heart. I won’t sugarcoat it: a lot needs to change with how you run this school and interact with students. There is a lot of distrust between the student body and the administration, and justifiably so. Students have felt ignored and alienated, communication has been unhelpful at best and completely absent or harmful at worst, and many have resorted to forms of community support and care that don’t rely on the institution. There are so many examples I could draw from, but one that has been an important topic this school year is the reaction to some of the horrific events that have occurred, like the murder of Daunte Wright. It is possible to cancel classes and still have professors provide space during the regular class time for those who need it. By choosing to not cancel classes multiple times or only doing so after student outcry, you increase the stress many feel during and after already traumatizing events. Listening to students, especially those who are most affected by these events, and actually acting on what they are explicitly saying they need is the most baseline support you can provide. Even that has fallen through multiple times. 

There need to be more direct conversations with the student body about these issues, and these conversations need to be accompanied by clear action steps the school is taking to resolve these issues. Students are tired of hearing sympathy expressed with no actual action being taken. At that point you may as well have not said anything. When students, especially BIPOC students, bring an issue to the attention of the administration, take it seriously and engage with them around the issue. Tell them your plan on how you’re going to address the issue, or tell them why certain changes can’t be made. This is just the first step in rebuilding some of that community trust and showing Macalester students that they are being heard and not just listened to. 

And for the board of trustees, I have a similar message. Actually engage with the community and listen to student issues. Don’t wait for students to reach out, especially when your contact information isn’t even on the website and can’t even be found on Mac Direct anymore. Students don’t know who you are or what you do, yet you hold so much power over this institution. So again, actively engage with students, listen to the issues brought forth and communicate what you plan to do about them. Hold forums, meet with student leaders, educate the community on who you are and what you do if you’re actually serious about engaging with Macalester students. It will take time to build that kind of relationship with the student body, but you can’t properly understand student issues and concerns by reading The Mac Weekly or waiting for students to reach out. 

I have been truly inspired by the many ways Macalester students have stepped up in these difficult times, and I strongly encourage you all to stay involved. I sincerely hope that those in positions of power at this institution think critically about what has been said here, and work to repair some of the relational damage. There will always be more to fight for, but I have seen how powerful our community is and believe that we will create change. 

Thank you for reading,

Sasha Lewis-Norelle

[email protected]