On the evening of Sept. 21, a panel of ten led a two-and-a-half hour discussion titled "Being Black in Geneseo," the first in a series of dialogues planned for this semester.
Members of the student body, faculty and administrators filed into the seats of the Union Ballroom, including President Christopher Dahl, who initiated the year's conversation on diversity with his lecture two weeks ago.
Senior Maurice Brown, co-founder of the student group Fighting Against Racial Injustice, welcomed the audience and established the purpose of the convocation. "We hope that you all find this event helpful," he said, "and worthy of being replicated in many different forms." Before the panel came together, student Miranda Van Ommeren asked everyone to stand and join in "Lift Every Voice," the song known as the "Black National Anthem."
To further this celebration of unity and culture, student Sunaina Bedi danced in traditional Indian attire, and student Nathalie Pierre sang the traditional black spiritual "Our Precious Lord" in a voice that brought the audience to their feet in applause. Finally, senior Krystal Baird read a poem written by Carajah Dawkins, who described the plight of a black woman at Geneseo.
Before the dialogue began, senior Cortez Jones recognized the contribution of those who made the event possible, including alumnus Noemi Acevedo, co-president of the Black Student Union; junior Cassie Fields, BSU's treasurer; and English professor Maria Lima to the stage, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers in recognition of role as BSU's advisor. Her message to the panel was brief: "This place is still god-forsaken white, but with your help I know we can get a little better," she said.
When members of the panel took their seats, the room was already buzzing with the energy set forth by dance, music, poetry and Lima's enthusiasm. Among these individuals, members of FARI and BSU represented the voices of student activism, and African American members of faculty and administration, most notably Provost Katherine Conway-Turner, offered their unique perspectives. Jones assumed the role of M.C. "We all need to engage in this dialogue," he said, "so we can overcome these problems."
The dialogue began with the perspective of black women on campus. Conway-Turner saw both as an opportunity and an obligation to step up in matters of diversity: "I can understand and have cross-cultural competency around issues that may be difficult for others," she said.
According to panelist Fonda Fair, who graduated in 2006 and became an employee of Geneseo last June, "I haven't experienced what I thought I would have experienced having known my environment as a student."
According to sophomore Courtni Clark, Geneseo is hardly as welcoming as her community in Brooklyn. "I knew I was coming into an environment that wasn't relative to mine," she said, "but I was willing to open my mind."
The panel addressed other issues unique to black students, including what Calvin Gantt, director of the Access Opportunity Program, called "the fear of success." He pointed out that black students often perceive high achievement as neither an expected nor a respected quality within their peer group, which leads them to hide it from others or avoid it entirely.
Such pressure not only comes from fellow blacks, the panelists said, but from many students, irrespective of ethnicity. Senior business major and co-founder of FARI Donte Ray feels it necessary to show up earlier, work harder and contribute more in group settings to prove his competence among white students. "I feel like I have to do extra work so the stereotype doesn't exist," he said.
Ray encouraged the same diligence in fellow black students. "Do what you're supposed to do here so they can't say stuff like that."
The idea emerged that in their courses, many black students feel either alienated or singled out as the only ones of color. According to panelists, professors expect students to speak for their race in discussions of history. FARI co-founder Tarik Kitson, a senior, said that there is usually only one black person in the class, and when discussing racial issues, that person becomes the center of attention. Kitson, an anthropology major, said that even "the multi-cultural core requirement is not really doing its job." He said professors often lecture about human evolution rather than cultural knowledge and awareness.
Conway-Turner suggested a straight and honest approach to faculty, administration and policy that some feel inadvertently perpetuate injustice on campus. She encouraged students to "be assertive if you can" and to develop friendships with teachers outside of class, through which they can communicate grievances.
Minority faculty members also face issues, panelists said, which presents larger issues for the college itself. According to Gantt, "Staff members of color don't come to Geneseo, or they aren't reached out to, because they don't stay."
Motivated to combat this negative loop and to restructure diversity in the faculty, he now spearheads the Black Faculty and Staff Association, which serves to support and sustain Geneseo's employment. "You make your own niche," he said. "You don't wait for your niche to find you."
In the effort to face these issues among Geneseo's students and faculty members, the panel acknowledged the school's progress but demanded more for the future. Dahl agreed, saying, "We have to move faster and do more in the recruitment of diverse students and faculty."
According to Conway-Turner, "We've been working very hard to implement strategies to increase diversity on campus, but it's a slow process." The desire for immediate change, Conway-Turner said, must be supplemented by a commitment to long-term change.
At the heart of student activism, FARI and BSU are moving forward every day. "I'm in a position to raise awareness of the issues that black people face," Fields said. "We can grow as a community and become better people by increasing diversity."
Jones closed the panel discussion with his own call to action. "Before Geneseo is on the news, we need to start a movement. We need to go further than we've gone and form a unified front… What are you going to do when you leave here?" he asked. "You need to do something."