By Sam Barnette ‘19
Why do a considerable percentage of Bennington College’s minority students focus their studies on questions related to race, power, and structural inequality? At the discussion after the presentation titled Imaginative Scholarship: What’s Diversity Got to Do With It?, Sharon Batamuriza ‘16 wondered if “it’s an active choice that we make, or if it’s because being at Bennington as a minority forces you to think about yourself and the institution differently, and that carries over into your work, especially when you’re always asked to represent a certain perspective”.
“I don’t know any white people at Bennington who study white privilege and supremacy,” Sharon said.
Sharon was one of a group of students who attended the Imaginative Scholarship: “What’s Diversity Got to Do With It?” event at the CAPA Symposium on May 5. Members of the Bennington College community presented on how their work engages with questions of access, value, power, hierarchy, and representation.
After the presentation, Lydia Brassard, the College’s Coordinator for Institutional Diversity & Inclusion, invited attendees and panelists (assistant director of Student Life Jiray Avedisian ‘14, students Ash Haywood ‘18, Kirsten Vega ‘16 and Rebecca Reategui ‘16, and faculty member Kathryn Montovan) to think about how their identity and work at Bennington overlap.
Sharon’s perspective pointed to many questions about experiences of students of color at Bennington. What does it mean to be a “diverse” body in a school whose student body is at least 68% white?
What are the problems of institutional initiatives to bring more “diverse” bodies to the Bennington community without proposing to change the structures and the campus culture that is in place?
Do students of color perceive pressure from the College to do much of this work of “diversifying”?
Who bears the weight of this responsibility to transformation, and how do these questions become more complicated when placed in the context of Bennington’s small, tight-knit community?
These are some of the points that the President’s Task Force on Campus Inclusivity, assembled for the first time in April of this year, might seek to address and build conversation around.
As the head of the Task Force, Lydia Brassard ‘08 described her role: “I have the privilege of engaging with an array of community members who bring a variety of knowledges, experiences, and points of view to the questions of diversity and inclusion. Rather than treat these questions as ‘problems’ to be solved, our collective approach embraces ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ as ever present questions that not only invite but require ongoing engagement.”
Lydia also said that the Task Force expects to submit a vision statement by the end of this term.
The Task Force also includes students Brendan Tang ‘16, Rehana Hijri ‘19, Nam Phuong Doan ‘18 and Zoé Heegaard-LeGros ‘16, staff members Veronica Jorgensen, Lynn Parmenter and Nick Pello, faculty Susie Ibarra, Jonathan Pitcher and Michael Dumanis, and alumni Diane Barraclough ‘89, Rone Shavers ‘93 and Friederike Windel ‘15.
Friederike said that the Task Force is considering a variety of projects, including systematic data collection and the creation of cross-constituency groups that would attend to “instances that breach or perceive to breach community standards as they relate to inclusion, equity, and diversity,” perhaps similar to the model of the College’s Sexual Harassment Advisors.
What support could this model provide and what might it look like? Would “advisors” perhaps act as point-persons for students of color to seek support or rant to about microaggressions? Is the focus here on sparking dialogue within the student community, or on changing institutional policies, such as the lack of “diversity” amongst Bennington’s faculty or within the curriculum itself?
Members of the Task Force remained vague on these points, although they referred to the forthcoming Task Force mission-statement to clarify.
Perhaps the Task Force will begin to build both formal (institutional) and informal (relating to campus culture) support structures around the POC community at Bennington. As an international student, Friederike said that the student group Bennington Connects provided her with a structure of community support.
Rehana, a student member of the Task Force, said she is excited about the dialogue that the Task Force will initiate.
“The role will change as the Task Force evolves, but I am looking forward to being one of the facilitators at the Student Assembly from 4- 5 pm Tuesday, May 10th where we will talk about community life and curriculum in small groups! I encourage any and all members of the community to come and participate,“ she said.
Staff member Nick Pello also brings a unique perspective to the work of the Task Force. As the only member of the Task Force from the town of Bennington, he mentions the “stereotype” that surround “student/townie conflict”, and says that he brings a different outlook to the discussion table.
“I took the college for granted growing up here”, he said. “We never went near campus and the students never really wandered into our turf. But now everyone I talk to, when they ask where I work or what I do at the college gets an earful. I tell them how respectful and courteous the students are. I tell them that many people talk about changing the world, but Bennington students actually DO.”
Nick says that the Task Force plans to make the mission statement a model that administration can use in hiring new faculty and staff. He also said that the mission statement can be used by admissions.