And what's the "it"? Well, if I'm being honest, not just one thing. We learn at Saint Mike's that everything is connected--after all, that's the essence of a liberal arts education--and I can't think of a better example than this year's celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
I began last week with a roommate outing to see Selma, the new film starring David Oyelowo as MLK. It's a heart-wrenching and incredibly beautiful tribute to not only Dr. King but the hundreds of thousands of people who supported the movement that we study in our textbooks today. I highly recommend seeing it, for anyone who hasn't yet.
One thing that really moved me about this film is the soundtrack, and my roommates and I have been listening to the song "Glory" on repeat. John Legend and Common together is a beautiful thing, and even better are the thought-provoking lyrics, which draw parallels between the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and today's modern movement for racial equality. This song is important because it drives us into the present, and over this past MLK celebration week, I've been impressed at seeing what can happen when we interpret our past in a way that can help us reflect on now.
The week started off with the MLK convocation, which is an annual event held in the chapel where different speakers are asked to come give a keynote address to kick off the week. This year, the headliner was Kevin Powell, an incredibly successful activist, writer, and public speaker. I think what I liked most about his speech was the inclusiveness of it. While the main takeaway was of course to continue working toward racial equality, he made note that we're not done with this conversation until people of all races, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability and age are treated with the same amount of acceptance and respect, all around the world. His words inspired and ignited. The night continued with speeches from students, beautiful music, and incredible poetry.
However, I think the most important thing about this event was the theme. The name for this week's discussion was, "Who is Not Here?" and I think that's the best question we, as a student body, should be asking ourselves. This is what I mean by bringing Dr. King's words into the present, into this time and place.
It's no secret that a private, Catholic, liberal arts college in Vermont would draw in a specific crowd. We are a school of predominantly white, middle-class skiers and snowboarders from the New England area. Despite Saint Michaels' best efforts to increase diversity on campus, the majority of our students have the same background and have lived very similar lives. So we must ask, who is not here? And by their absence, what are we missing?
I remember as a first-year student taking my Race, Gender and Ethnicity in the Media class. I was excited for it, and then on the first day looking around the room and thinking, how are we going to have a conversation about race when the student body in this classroom only represents one of them? When the most racially diverse class I had here came my senior year, and that was because a whopping 4 out of 18 students were a race other than white, I had to take a step back and think, how have I isolated myself so much from being able to learn in a diverse community--and what am I not learning because of it?
That's not to say that it's not an inclusive community here. Looking around at my peers, I know that I am surrounded by intelligent, socially engaged people who are quick to strike up a conversation with anyone around them, no matter their race, class, age, etc. They're interested in everyone and everything, they aren't quick to make judgments, they're good listeners, and they care about the world and the people in it. They're like me. They were attracted to Saint Mike's for the friendly community as well as the rigorous academics, the challenges they knew they'd get here. They came here for those things.
And yet...and yet. They came here too, though, because they were able.
They were able to come here because they went through a school system that prepared them for college. A school system with enough resources to truly challenge them and to empower them into believing they would accomplish everything they set their minds to. Most of them had supportive families and friends encouraging them. Many of them had guidance counselors and other helping hands. Many of them had money. They took tests that favored literature they grew up knowing, written by men who looked like them, cultures that were familiar to theirs. They grew up comfortable, and that led them here.
Moise St. Louis, Dean of Students and also our Director of Multicultural Affairs, said something at the beginning of the evening that really stuck with me. He told us that sometimes, we do our best learning when we are uncomfortable. He told us not to bat off our discomfort, but to sit with it. If it feels like something's wrong, then something's wrong.
On an individual level, it's nobody's fault. But collectively, we don't have to accept this separate world we live in the way it is. And to begin that conversation, well, that does start with individuals. So, this is me acknowledging my privilege. It is my privilege to be here at this prestigious institution, because I was able to be here. I chose it because it was the best education I could possibly get, and that is my privilege--one of many. I support the diversity initiative here at Saint Mike's, but I'm arguing (and I think everyone would agree) that we need more. More needs to be done, and it needs to happen now.
That's all very good and idealistic, isn't it? So where are the real, concrete answers here? I'm going to be honest--I don't know. Even after sitting in the chapel and being so impassioned by Kevin Powell's words, by this beautiful collective moment of catharsis we shared...I walked out of there and immediately felt flattened back out. What do I do? What do we do?
The answers aren't easy to come by. That's why I needed this education in the first place. Sometimes I think that the only thing I learned here is that I know nothing. But, ironically, I had a professor who once told me that that was all I ever needed to know. Because if I know that I know nothing, then I'll keep searching.
Hopefully, enough of us will keep searching. If we do, we will find each other, and someday we will all end up here.
PS: On a related note, I want to take a moment to congratulate my long-distance friend Fatima, who has been awarded for her outstanding journalism on her city's response to the Ferguson verdict. You can read her work here, on her school's newspaper website. Keep reporting the truth, Fats, even when it's something other people might not want to hear.