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Call and Response

Evaluating the progress of the Meeting in the Union one year later

One year since the Meeting in the Union, the College has adopted and addressed many policies and practices in response to student concerns. However, an overarching sentiment exists among administrators and students that while progress is being made, it will be made slowly and there is still work to be done.

The meeting was a student-organized demonstration that took place February 13, 2015. It brought to the forefront several social justice issues that impact members of the Bowdoin community, as well as the intersectionality between those issues. After the meeting, an Open Letter to the Community was delivered to former president Barry Mills, outlining 19 calls to action regarding race and diversity on campus.

Race and diversity issues continue to permeate the lives of Bowdoin community members.  “Race is a dividing line in our society, on campuses across our country, and at Bowdoin. Those of color in our community experience Bowdoin differently than those who are white; the difference can be profound and occurs in every aspect of our lives here,” wrote President Clayton Rose in a December 3, 2015 campus-wide email. 

“It can be daunting—it’s a lot to take on,” said Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion Leana Amaez. “We’re asking institutions that were built 200 years ago for a very different population to reimagine themselves, and that takes a lot of intentionality and examination of where are our traditions, where are our policies, where are our practices not meeting the needs of students today, where are they not reflecting the diversity of our world, where are they creating barriers to inclusion and equity.”

Amaez and the rest of the office of student affairs have been heavily involved in several efforts that directly address concerns raised in the open letter. Notably, additional programming during first-year orientation will specifically address race and bias; Bowdoin’s intergroup dialogue programming is expanding; and divisions of the College are adopting hiring and retention best practices in order to increase diversity among faculty and staff.

Residential Life (ResLife) has also taken steps towards educating their staff on how to facilitate conversations on difficult subjects by doubling the amount of training on race, gender and sexuality, as well as working with College House officers to improve the inclusivity and accessibility of College House programming. Additionally, ResLife has added a question specific to diversity to the College House application.

A year after the Meeting in the Union, the event continues to have a profound impact at the College, both on an institutional level and for many people individually.

“I think that was the first time I’ve really seen the activist boundaries being crossed in everyone working towards general betterment and getting many pieces together at once which I thought was really, really, cool,” said Maddie Lemal-Brown ’18. “I really liked the Meeting in the Union part; [it was] electrifying.”

One of the meeting organizers, Claudia Villar-Leeman ’15, had several negative racial experiences during her time at Bowdoin.

“For pretty much my entire Bowdoin career,” said Villar-Leeman, it felt [like the majority of campus] was either ignoring or kind of willfully oblivious to a lot of these issues because a lot of these issues are painful to talk about or uncomfortable to talk about.”

Participating in the event has allowed Villar-Leeman to now look back at her time at Bowdoin with positivity. 

“I was very encouraged that students were giving voice to their concerns in a really clear and powerful way, and that the message for me is that our students were really hurting as a result of the institution and its failures in certain places to live up to the Offer of the College,” said Amaez.

“That’s an important message, and an important check that can be hard to hear and sometimes painful, because I think my colleagues across the board are well-intentioned, they really care, so to hear that they might be might be missing the mark and that people might be in pain as a result is really hard, but really important for us as a community.”

Director of Residential Life Meadow Davis said that she has seen a shift in campus conversations towards topics of diversity.

 “A couple years ago it was all about alcohol, it was all about the hookup scene,” she said. “Now I’d say three quarters, a huge percentage, of people who are applying to ResLife are saying, ‘We need more conversations about diversity. We’ve had great conversations and we appreciate it—here’s how we want to do more.” 

Emily Jacques ’17, one of the organizers of the meeting, agreed, saying that she has seen a substantive change in campus discussions on race in the time since the meeting, both as a result of the meeting and other incidents.

“My first year you could avoid these sorts of conversations if you wanted to, but now it’s more present,” she said. “The stuff that’s been happening with locals in cars or the stuff on Yik Yak—I feel like the campus community is definitely more aware of various issues of injustice.” 

Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster echoed Davis and Jacques’ sentiments.

 “[The meeting] was really about the notion of inclusion and what that means,” he said. “Do all members of our community feel that this place is theirs? And the answer to me was no, they don’t. That’s what we should aspire for. That means a ton of work, not work that we can do in a day or a week or a month, or a year, but over many years.”

But for students who only spend four years of their life at Bowdoin, this long-term institutional approach can be frustrating. Michelle Kruk ’16, one of the organizers of the meeting and an author of the letter spoke to these concerns. 

“I know that the College wants to be very thoughtful about the way that it’s handling certain issues, especially with race,” she said. “But I think that we’re capable of working on both a short-term solution and a long-term solution at the same time. I think that we have enough energy.”

Another organizer, Lemal-Brown, still believes that many discussions fail to reach the larger community in both academic and social settings.

“Last semester I know I was a little disappointed that my professors were not talking about race,” she said. “My [sociology and philosophy] classes were places where it should have been brought up.” 

“I know that I was very frustrated with the aftermath of the sailing party—meaning that Bowdoin still [falls back on] discussing things which tend to become conversations in closed rooms by separate groups,” Lemal-Brown said.

Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan acknowledged the role athletics play in the racial climate on campus, both in its hiring and recruitment, and how the department addresses incidents such as the recent bias incidents involving the sailing and lacrosse teams.

“We certainly look at the events that have taken place and try to balance the learning opportunity,” he said. “Thinking about it along the lines of apologizing, educating and trying to leverage the learning opportunities associated with people making mistakes, then thinking about the ways in which we are able to positively impact the community. I think that approach was consistent in both the lacrosse and sailing incidents.” 

Ryan also said that athletics is placing an increased emphasis on diversity in recruiting both students and coaching staff.  

While the majority of the calls to action in the letter were accepted and acknowledged by College officials, some feel that there are certain demands that have not or should not be met.

For instance, following the meeting, members of Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA)—who played a large role in organizing the meeting—made a demand to former President Barry Mills to appoint a liaison to the Board of Trustees to communicate about the potential for divestment from fossil fuels. BCA does not feel their demand was adequately met, as Mills appointed himself the liaison, knowing he would be stepping down at the end of the year. 

“When we asked [the trustees] who to follow up with, as one does in official meetings, they shut us down and didn’t respond. Attempts after that to figure out how to move forward were similarly not moved forward,” said BCA member Allyson Gross ’16.

From an administrative standpoint, Foster disagreed with the necessity of a call to action that asked the college to “consider a student’s racial and socioeconomic background when making decisions about disciplinary action,” and “uphold consistent disciplinary policy for all students, regardless of parental interaction with the institution.”

“We try to consistently and thoughtfully uphold [community standards],” he said. “I think we do that, whether we’re dealing with the son or daughter of a trustee or whether we’re dealing with a first generation college student. I would say [we do] a very good job of being clear about our community standards and expectations and being thoughtful. I’ll stand behind the good work of the Judicial Board.”

The work of campus activists has not gone unnoticed by the administration, and the calls to action presented in the open letter have led to a real effort to shape the College into a place that is both diverse and inclusive. A year after the meeting, its message has not been forgotten.“Powerful,” said Davis. “That’s how I would sum it up.”​

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