The past couple of weeks have been heavy in processing what kind of a community Macalester is. The Nov. 3 sit-in was a powerful event where there was a sense of solidarity and an even deeper sense of concern in sharing the struggles many students face. It took courage for all those who spoke and empathy for those who shared the space with respect and support. However, thinking of the event as a wake-up call can be dangerous because it makes vulnerable events the standard for measuring accountability.
Many are uncertain in pinpointing what the next steps look like, both at a systemic level and at a personal level in our individual roles on campus as students, staff, administration and faculty. For those in our community who are privileged to not live through instability, I know there are some feelings of guilt or the need to ask how to best support all students. There is a discomfort in not knowing exactly what to do, but it doesn’t compare to the discomfort of having to cope with challenging circumstances with a lack of support. Many students were already aware of the issues on campus and rather than a wake-up call, the sit-in represented a reminder to continue to work to make our community live up to its ideals and ground ourselves in some introspection.
It is truly disturbing that it took this event and the reflections afterwards for some people in our community to see that we need to work towards being a more supportive and compassionate community. How can we do that more proactively rather than depending on the grief and hard work of students with marginalized identities? These students are forced to share deeply personal and vulnerable stories and are burdened with educating a whole community. Much of college is about being equipped to deal with real world responsibilities. When this intent is accompanied with distrust and an expectation to prove challenging experiences to be heard, it is very taxing on students and often is not fair towards understanding the complexity of identities. This has such a disheartening effect that navigating the challenges of an already complex world become even more overwhelming.
There is a need for transparency in accessing both the details of college programs and efforts as well as the thought process and work that goes into planning. It also comes with building trust and understanding that despite the variety of the responsibilities we have, we cannot function as separate entities at Macalester. The Strategic Planning Process is an important step and although it’s great that people are looking at senior leadership for change and accountability, that shouldn’t be the only place where our hope lies. This isn’t coming from a place of cynicism. In fact, it comes from a recognition that we all have potential to make things better and holding senior leadership accountable is only a part of that. In a previous article I briefly mentioned the power of student organizations as spaces of change. Leadership can take many different forms and highlighting the work of student leaders is vital to realizing the true value of supporting individuals outside conventional leadership positions.
There is the need for systemic change but we must also remember that it isn’t separate from considering our personal actions of complacency. This comes with reflecting what our social circles look like. College may not be the most diverse place folks have been to but is still a place where there is some deliberate effort towards representation. It can be easier to step out of the comfort of just befriending those who are similar to us and let us feel secure in the worldviews we hold. Social contexts and opportunities to make a diverse range of friendships tend to be harder to find as people move out of educational contexts. It’s important because, yes, it is not reasonable to expect people to know what every single person is going through. But it is reasonable to expect that we care about the most vulnerable in our communities and are at least putting in the effort to get to know folks personally and support them.
There is a lot that is easy to take for granted; political stability, safety and contact with family members, college experience just being about education, access to academic opportunities. But we must be aware of the privilege that comes with the experience, because it reflects on well-being and ability to contribute to a community. It also reflects the people who, by virtue of their circumstances, are lucky to have resources and mental capacity to devote to change making effort, thereby also offering a direction where responsibility lies.
Creating a culture of accountability and support is reliant on realizing actions at different levels on campus; from the personal to interpersonal to systemic. We must continuously reflect on how we are doing well, but also on how we are perpetuating systems of oppression and exclusion. There are many members of this community that question their positionality constantly and don’t get caught up in believing that we are entitled to this experience. Which is why creating and participating in spaces that regularly discuss the needs of our community is very important. It shouldn’t take a sit-in for us to work together as a community.
Instead, it must mean consistent, deliberate goals we set with long-term, sustainable impact as the priority.