Act #173: Be bold enough to live your legacy.
One year ago, today, I packed up and walked out on a 20 year relationship.....with my alma mater. There are few things I genuinely love as much as Berea College - a remarkable, small, private, liberal arts institution that has been educating blacks and whites, and women together pre-civil war (since 1855), and where every student receives a full-tuition scholarship. Seriously, is this place even real? Well I assure you that it is, and I am living proof of its extraordinary impact - a graduate, its former alumni director, and a continued invested alumna.
Now that I've been away for exactly a year, I'm blessed with something I haven't been privy to for over two decades: outside perspective. And there is something so liberating, so transparent and so very refreshing about being able to look at something you are no longer a part of, with the same commitment, but with renewed clarity and honesty.
A couple of disclaimers: 1.) I support and have great confidence in Berea's ninth president, Dr. Lyle Roelofs. I was fortunate enough to serve on his search committee and have come to deeply respect him and his wife, Laurie for their servant leadership and for their genuine commitment to the mission of Berea. This is not addressed to him, but rather to all of us who have a vested interest in the future of Berea; 2.) I believe that places like Berea can literally transform the world; 3.) I'm an idealist; 4.) I recognize the complexities of the operations of institutions of higher learning and I certainly don't profess to have all the answers; and last but not least, 5.) I'm not complaining, or whining. I just really, really care. And down the road, if I'm not banned for being that annoying, radical alum, I'd really, really love to help in whatever way that I can.
In 1855, founder John G. Fee had the courage to stand up against popular notions like racism and sexism. He lived out his faith through the expression of impartial love, and dedicated his life to giving a voice to the oppressed. In this spirit, I offer a few humble thoughts on how my alma mater might consider remaining true to his founding vision. If he were alive today - and I mean this with every fiber of my being - I believe that he would want to see these things happen.
I certainly would.
1. An African-American Vice President.
It's past time, and not just because it's something the first inter-racial college of the south should do, but it's something it must do to be responsible, to be true to itself, and to offer real perspective and representation to the diverse student, employee, and alumni populations.
2. A reciprocal and nurturing relationship with surrounding communities and the Appalachian region.
The annual Appalachian tours, while wonderful, are simply not enough to bridge the divide. I think Fee would want to see real and genuine efforts to create more business partnerships, more joint education opportunities, more grassroots collaborative community organizing, and more shared pride in the shared history of the institution and the region.
3. A designated position for sexual violence prevention education and victim support services.
Like every other college in the country, Berea College students are among the most vulnerable populations likely to experience rape and sexual violence. With stigmas associated with rape culture and the propensity for victim-blaming, it is essential for every college, really, to demonstrate a firm commitment of intolerance by designating resources to prevent and address sexual violence.
4. Non-separate governance structures, opening convocations, and orientations programs for staff and faculty.
There's no better way to foster conflict or to discourage partnership, than to have different standards for, and to assign different values of worth, to employees. Sure it would be bold to explore ways to bring staff and faculty to the table as equal partners. Sure there would be challenges in finding spaces and schedules to do so. But there is something just so un-Berean about starting out every academic year with either an invitation for you and your spouse to the president's house for an evening catered reception (faculty) OR an invitation to the student center for some biscuits and gravy (staff).
5. A more authentic approach to fundraising and public relations.
Rather than communicating "to" alumni and donors with staged photos and polished student stories, instead, genuinely valuing them enough to work "with" them, in partnership to promote and highlight the institution's need and impact. Instead of the same 5 people sitting around a table every week trying to figure out how to motivate people to give, why not spend that time trying to help make Berea the kind of place that compels people to want to support it?
6. Opportunities for the board of trustees to regularly connect with day-to-day lives of real students and employees.
Berea is blessed with dynamic and generous trustees, but often times they are carefully guarded from what really happens daily on the ground. Berea would be remiss if it didn't afford the college's top decision makers the chance to truly understand the plight of those impacted by their decisions.
7. An environment that values a variety of thought and encourages open and free expression of different and bold perspectives.
Towards the end of my tenure, my immediate work environment, as well as my broader work across campus, seemed to slowly evolve into an environment that was more punitive than empowering. I watched those around me transform into loyal, passionate advocates for educational access to minimally-committed employees, silenced, and resigned to just "stay under the radar". Are we really going to allow the most radical institution of it's time, to go down in history books as merely agreeable, and safe?
8. A staff/faculty make-up that eliminates, as much as possible, those who just seek a paycheck, in order to make room for those who are truly passionate about the mission.
Berea is not just a college that churns out degrees, it is a powerful force that has the capacity to transform not only people, but entire communities through education, and by helping students see themselves as future contributors to the greater world. I work with social activists, community organizers, and social workers on a daily basis. I have been blown away by the collective power generated from passionate people who are committed to a cause. There are plenty of such individuals who would be honored to be a part of a mission like Berea's. Why not make room for them?
9. An investment in preparing students for life after Berea.
Sure Berea students graduate with complex and extraordinary world views, and astoundingly less debt than their counterparts at other institutions. But many also graduate with no professional networks (many are first-generation college students), unrealistic notions about the options and expectations of graduate school, and no apartment deposits or down payments for cars (they are not permitted to work off-campus). Imagine the impact of Berea's short-term continued investment to help them through that transition phase. Imagine those students being better prepared to then turn around to invest in other students someday.
10. A tough and honest approach in tackling the challenges of racism and multiculturalism on campus, and in the world.
Despite it's worthy founding mission, faculty are still tweeting racist tweets about students, students are still being called n****r when they walk down town streets, international students are still being called entitled and spoiled, and campus diversity initiatives are still reluctant to discuss diversity in a more inclusive way that embraces the increasing Hispanic population, or to anyone who is not black or white. The college was ground-breaking and bold 158 years ago. Can we really afford to stop now?