Illustration by Brett Ryder

A Perfect Storm

By David Schimke
Carleton stakeholders are engaged in an essential series of impassioned exchanges around issues of inclusion, diversity, and equity. Over the next year a steering committee will determine what steps the college takes to positively alter the on-campus experience for the BIPOC community.

According to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, the concept of ujamaa initially appears in the speeches and writings of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere. An anticolonialist and African nationalist, Nyerere ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, during which time ujamaa came to represent a distinctly egalitarian political theory. “It was,” the encyclopedia explains, “to form the bedrock of efforts to institute profound social change.”

Strictly translated into English, the Swahili word also means “familyhood.”

Last summer, several Black student organizations on campus—including the African and Caribbean Association (ACA), Men of Color (MOC), and Black Student Alliance (BSA)—formed the Ujamaa Collective to “formally establish unity [among these groups] and the overall Black community at Carleton to combat systemic, structural, and institutional anti-Black racism.” Its moniker: “From many roots, we form one tree.”

Choosing the word ujamaa continues to prove fitting. Not only because of the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic blind spots that the umbrella group hopes to highlight and ameliorate on campus. But also because, since May, Carleton alumni, students, faculty and staff members, and senior leadership have been embroiled in something akin to a fiery family discussion. And like many such discussions, this one is informed by past turpitudes and untreated wounds; allegations of denial and hyperbole; a host of impassioned, diverging opinions; and a seemingly sincere desire on the part of nearly all involved to do what is best for the whole.

The deep-seated roots of anger and disappointment informing the conversation are not unique to Carleton, observe those who are unsurprised by its emergence at colleges and universities around the globe, and have for too long been camouflaged by the dry underbrush of unfulfilled promise, all but guaranteeing that an inextinguishable spark could set things aflame. That the catalyst arrived as an inferno only served to make the inevitable even more intense.

On May 25 Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, a Black man who allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes. He was not armed. He did not resist arrest. And yet officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Two other officers helped hold Floyd down while civilian bystanders, one of whom was recording the event on a cell phone camera, begged them to stop. Within hours the footage had circled the globe and street protests erupted on all seven continents. “I always burst into tears when I get pulled over by police,” says Jessica Brooks ’09, board chair of Carleton’s Multicultural Alumni Network (MCAN). “Seeing that video streaming online was, for me, that moment of realizing that no matter how hard I work, no matter where I went to school—the fact that I’m a Carleton grad—makes no difference in the way the world sees me. It made me sick to my stomach.”

On May 29, aware that alumni from colleges everywhere were pining for an official reaction from their alma maters, Carleton president Steven Poskanzer and St. Olaf president David Anderson issued a joint statement expressing anger and sadness in the wake of “another atrocious act of violence against a person of color.” They encouraged individual and collective discernment around issues of police brutality and acknowledged that while “we are always working to improve equity on our two campuses,” the moment made it clear there was “still much work to do.”

President Poskanzer also wrote “A Statement to the Carleton Community” on June 1. “I reach out . . . in a time of torment,” it began. The president went on to say that it was time to “look deeply at our own college and local community and commit ourselves to identifying and addressing the assumptions, prejudices, and racism that grow within institutions.” He concluded by encouraging readers to join a dialogue over the summer about how “Carleton can be true to its aspirations and best self.”

Similar expressions of sorrow and solidarity were released by elected officials, corporate leaders, and academic institutions of all sizes. And under different circumstances, the dispatches might well have been received in the spirit in which they were composed. As Trey Williams, director of TRIO/Student Support Services at Carleton, observes, however, the horrific details of Floyd’s death and the fact that it was captured on camera—and then broadcast globally over and over again—generated levels of public outrage and despair around issues of white supremacy reminiscent of America’s early civil rights movement. “Go back to the Sixties. Go back to Dr. King. What was the difference between Bloody Sunday and every other Sunday? The cameras were there,” Williams says. “Americans had to come toe-to-toe with what was happening.” He also points out that the ubiquity and reach of social media made the incident in Minneapolis even more indelible. “Even during Ferguson and after Freddie Gray, Twitter wasn’t as big as it is now,” he observes. “That footage was a breaking point.”

As National Guard troops were still patrolling a number of American cities in reaction to days-long protests and nighttime unrest—which was unfolding against the backdrop of a heated election season and economic instability—it became clear that many citizens, especially those who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), were demanding a new era of institutional responsiveness and accountability. It was no longer enough to say things needed to improve. People were looking for concrete changes in policy at every level of society.

At Carleton, as the summer continued to unfold in unprecedented fashion and college leadership worked to reopen campus for fall classes in the midst of a pandemic, Black student organizations submitted a list of specific demands and more than 2,000 alumni signed a letter calling for a 10-year plan for racial equality and equity. “If you wanted to write a book about the perfect storm,” says Williams, “the year 2020 would be it.”

 Illustration by Brett RyderIllustration by Brett Ryder


Having just finished a late night of studying during their first year at Carleton, Jevon Robinson ’22 and a group of friends lit out for a local convenience store in search of snacks. As they were about to walk in to scope out the chips and candy, a pickup truck flaunting a Confederate battle flag pulled into the parking lot and the driver revved his engine threateningly. “I wouldn’t have imagined that I would experience that sort of thing in Northfield. I thought I’d feel protected. I realized that wasn’t always the case,” says Robinson, a native of Long Island, New York, and now interim president of the BSA. “And even though these sorts of things happen a lot, Black students—for whatever reason—oftentimes don’t talk about it with their professors or their white friends.”

That there would be bouts of racial hostility in a small Midwestern town such as Northfield (which is 87 percent white) is not surprising, nor is it realistic to expect that a small liberal arts college could prevent such hatred from betraying its ferocity, especially during a time when people are emboldened by political circumstance to publicly share their ugliest inclinations. Still, says Rose Chahla ’10, assistant director at the California Social Work Education Center at the University of California–Berkeley, most bigoted incidents on and off campus aren’t nearly as cinematic. More frequently, BIPOC students are exposed to more nuanced forms of disrespect and hostility. And because these microaggressions are harder to quantify or succinctly dramatize, it’s tempting for people who are not affected by them to use denial as a defense. “It’s unfortunate, but in too many ways and in too many places, including at Carleton, people have to cut themselves open over and over again in order for people to see that there’s really a problem,” Chahla says. “And that’s not only exhausting, it’s not fair.”

In Northfield, for instance, it can be hard for BIPOC individuals, especially if they’re from predominantly multicultural US communities or other countries, to find food and clothing common to their upbringing. Black women have limited options in town to have their hair cut or styled, even while too many white students still want to touch it. (“I’m not an animal,” says Brooks, “so don’t pet me.”) And it’s all but impossible for BIPOC students to avoid “the white gaze,” which forces people of color to assume that their daily behavior—eating, shopping, socializing—will be observed, whether consciously or unconsciously, through a lens of cultural bias. These misunderstandings, no matter how slight, add up when they occur day after day.

“Carleton is great. I loved my Carleton experience. I got to study abroad. I had great professors. And I’m a super nerd who liked being in classes with other super nerds,” says Katie Jumbe ’04, who worked previously in Carleton’s admissions and Alumni Annual Fund offices and is now employed by a college-access nonprofit outside of Los Angeles. “But if you are a person of color at Carleton, you also have to expect a dual experience. You have to expect that there are times when you will feel unwelcome and misunderstood just because of who you are and where you’re from. Too many people think this is an unfortunate side effect. But as long as people have that dual experience, and as long as the college doesn’t see that as an earth-shattering dynamic, it will continue.”

Clayton “Chico” Zimmerman, who is Carleton’s Hazel Lillian Amland Professor of Classics and a member of the college’s Community, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (CEDI) leadership board, notes that there are also socioeconomic barriers to consider, since around 50 percent of first-generation enrollees at Carleton are BIPOC students, many of them from lower-income backgrounds and financially challenged high schools. “I had a student who got a great externship during winter break, but her supervisors assumed she had a car and could drive around the Twin Cities to do the work required,” Zimmerman says. “For plenty of our students, that’s not an issue at all, but for her, it was an issue. Now, I’m not saying that the college should give every student a car, but that’s an example of something that could feel like an unfair barrier.”

We, as Black students at Carleton, desire to see our institution speak swiftly, clearly, and forcefully about issues that affect the life chances of Black people and the well-being of Black students.” —from Black student organizations’ list of demands, June 3, 2020

During his 32 years at Carleton, Zimmerman has been involved in host of equity-related initiatives. His experience is that when issues of diversity and discrimination are raised, Carleton has done a largely admirable job of responding “tactically” in the moment, meaning that a lot of work takes place among administrators and staff and faculty members. And the programming and services that result are consequential: CEDI works to ensure that everyone on campus embodies Carleton’s Statement on Diversity, which is based on mutual respect, communication, and engagement; the Office of Intercultural & International Life (OIIL) sponsors programming aimed at creating an inclusive campus environment; the federally funded TRIO program provides academic and financial support to low-income and first-generation students and students with documented disabilities; and MCAN supports alumni efforts on behalf of BIPOC students and alumni.

The aforementioned are just a few of the best known among countless clubs, cohorts, and working groups. What’s more, Carleton’s admissions and financial aid offices both prioritize providing support to low-income, first-generation students, accentuating the college’s commitment to socioeconomic diversity. “It is sometimes astonishing to me how little alumni and even some students know about how much work goes on at the college [around diversity and inclusion],” Zimmerman says. Often the issue, he posits, is that tactical approaches “tend to be much less visible, especially to alumni.”

Along with doing a better job broadcasting progress when it happens, Zimmerman also thinks there is a need for larger “strategic and symbolic” reforms that, based on principles and ideals as much as specific programs, will further challenge entrenched assumptions and behaviors. TRIO’s Trey Williams agrees, and by way of example references the LTC’s Winter Learning and Teaching Conference, which took place online on the front end of winter break. As part of the virtual event, a robust discussion took place among faculty and staff members in a session called “Supporting and Recognizing Work for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity.” Attended by some 85 people, the 90-minute session revealed that most of them desperately want every Carl to feel heard and valued. They were willing to question preconceptions and change accordingly.

“I really enjoyed it, and I’m incredibly appreciative that members of our community were there,” Williams says. “But here’s the thing: Those who came are those who wanted to come. And those who want to come are probably the ones who want to be part of making change. I think what’s more telling is who wasn’t there, who chose not to engage. Now I know you can’t force anyone to do anything, but how do we ensure that everyone recognizes the importance of and the need for this work?”

Williams and others also observe that, in the past, too many well-meaning initiatives got “stuck at first base.” Efforts to go deeper to find avenues for significant reform were often decentralized and lacked enough pressure from leadership to ensure follow-through. When hundreds of millions of people watched George Floyd take his last breath, however, Williams, Zimmerman, Brooks, and others believe something fundamental shifted in the public consciousness that could prove to be more lasting.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says MCAN’s Brooks. “The world couldn’t look away, so now the world is interested. No one can say they don’t know.”

Illustration by Brett RyderIllustration by Brett Ryder


The first student petition came in the form of a letter penned by members of the BSA, ACA, MOC, and the Student Department of Advisors for Africana Studies. Delivered on June 2, it was addressed to the president and the college’s five deans. “We, as Black students at Carleton, desire to see our institution speak swiftly, clearly, and forcefully about issues that affect the life chances of Black people and the well-being of Black students,” it began. “President Poskanzer has indicated a willingness to begin to address these issues and to engage with several groups on campus, among them the BSA. We acknowledge your enthusiasm and firmly believe this is . . . a time to develop meaningful ways to shape better conditions and opportunities for Black students and students of color on this campus.”

After asking the college to explicitly denounce white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence, and detailing specific incidents of faculty and staff discrimination toward students, the writers outlined 11 demands, including a call for Carleton to “support and retain extant Black tenure-track faculty,” “see an institutional commitment to Africana studies and Black student life on campus,” facilitate “the immediate establishment of a Black center on campus,” and mandate “anti-racist training for incoming and current faculty, staff, and administrators.”

“If Carleton is sincere in its commitment to cultural and racial diversity, this institution must include antiracist and Black-centered programs, organizations, and structures to ensure Black students on and off campus feel supported and welcomed,” concludes the letter, which can be read in its entirety at carleton.edu. The signature line reads “Standing in Black Power.”

Throughout the summer, a series of official and unofficial meetings and conversations took place among various Carleton constituencies. Senior leadership established a $200,000 endowed scholarship in Floyd’s name and began to respond to student demands point by point. By July’s end, all faculty members, administrators, and staff members (including security personnel) received notice of upcoming mandatory antiracism training. The admissions office announced plans to expand its efforts to recruit Black students from a greater variety of Caribbean and African countries. And the college agreed that other demands—including a call for more OIIL funding and more grants for Black low-income students, as opposed to loans—would be pursued in time.

A number of BIPOC alumni felt that Carleton’s official responses still lacked a certain urgency and that many of the negative experiences being shared by current students mirrored their own and those of other alumni over the years. “It struck me as the same-old, same-old,” says Jumbe. “It’s a vicious cycle, and it happens every four or five years. Students raise the same concerns and the college says, ‘My God, what a surprise!’ Then people get upset, there are meetings and trainings, promises are made, and in the end, nothing really changes.”

In a show of solidarity, a group of nine alumni, including Jumbe and Chahla, wrote an “Open Letter for Carleton College” in August. The letter, first posted on medium.com and eventually shared widely on social media, documents the writers’ historical frustrations with the racial climate on campus and asks for the establishment of a 10-year plan for racial equality and equity. The bottom line? Until “Carleton lives up to its mission, takes ownership for its campus climate, and answers the call these students have put forth for systemic change, we, as alumni, choose not to be complicit. We will withhold our time, financial resources, and volunteer hours from Carleton until we receive a response that commits to partnering with all affected members of our community in a just, transparent, and mission-driven process.”

More than 2,000 alumni and students from the Classes of 1949 to 2024 signed the letter. “Our effort was designed to establish a record and create momentum in the alumni community,” says Chahla, who explains that the financial threat at the document’s core was not made lightly. But it was essential. “There’s a term in critical race theory called interest convergence,” she says. “It refers to circumstances when white interests and Black interests converge at the same time. And it is in those fleeting moments when real change is possible.”

Reactions to the letter exist on a continuum between unadulterated support and condemnation. Some saw it as long overdue; others felt as though the authors’ threat to disengage from the college was counterproductive, especially in the midst of a looming financial crisis due to the global pandemic. The general consensus among BIPOC students, alumni, and faculty members, however, is that—like it or not—the document upped the ante for all involved. “My decision to continue to be involved at Carleton is 100 percent because I believe it’s important to support the students,” says Brooks. “And, for me, if I chose not to be involved or donate my time and resources, then that means I’m not responding to the student demands for more attention and resources. But I don’t fault people who’ve chosen to withdraw their support, because it helped raise up student complaints and concerns. What they did helped move those issues forward in such a way that everyone noticed. The students made their demands, and there was a ripple. But when the alumni said, ‘Listen, you need to respond to these demands and you’re not responding adequately enough, so we’re withdrawing our support,’ then there was a wave.”

Whether that wave lifts up Carleton’s BIPOC community over the long term remains to be seen. As fall turned to winter, though, sources on all sides of the situation seemed to agree that the Carleton family was entering a period of watchful waiting. The Ujamaa Collective updated their demands in mid-August, primarily, says MOC vice president Raba Tefera ’21, to piggyback on the alumni letter and to “keep the pedal on the metal.” Conversations continue regarding those demands, and progress is regularly updated on Carleton’s website (go.carleton.edu/actionreport). And, in the wake of research conducted by CEDI during the summer and fall term to identify an appropriate approach and vendor, campus-wide antiracism training began winter term.

Most significantly, members of the Ujamaa Collective and a subset of alumni who wrote the open letter are encouraged that, with the support of college leadership, the Board of Trustees in late August endorsed the creation of a Community Plan for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (IDE) with a special focus on Black experiences. In December, as part of that process, a 10-member steering group—cochaired by Zimmerman and trustee Jeninne McGee ’85, and including Williams and Brooks—selected an outside consultant who will help faculty and staff members solicit and process input from BIPOC students, alumni, parents, and colleagues across the Carleton community. In the wake of this information-gathering process, the goal is to create an enduring, comprehensive action plan. “One thing is certain,” says Maya Rogers ’22, who is a student representative on the steering group, “we can no longer sweep under the rug things that make us uncomfortable. We have to recognize our inadequacies and failures. We have to start really listening and believing in people’s experiences.”

The question that’s likely to hang in the air a while is whether aggrieved students and alumni are willing to trust Carleton’s long-term commitment. As BSA’s Jevon Robinson notes, there’s already frustration among some of his peers that reforms aren’t happening fast enough and that a change in presidential leadership at Carleton (President Poskanzer’s presidential tenure ends in July) could slow things down even further. Williams, who worked with St. Olaf ’s TRIO program before coming to Carleton five years ago, says he understands that frustration. He is urging patience, however. “I’ve actually never seen an institution move as fast as Carleton has in the past few months. But we’re also talking about a tectonic shift, and it’s going to take time to develop an intentional plan. We can no longer look at the check boxes. We have to be intentional with how we move forward. And that’s going to take time and listening to a lot of voices.

“I’m hopeful. As a Black man in this country, I’ve only ever had hope,” Williams says. “Hope that it’s going to be better. Hope that I raised my child in a society that can be better. If I don’t have hope, I might as well live in despair. So, I am hopeful.”

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