Tequia Burt

The Year of the Grinnell Woman

Meet our candidates running for public office.

Microphone on stage at an event

Tequia Burt ’98

In 1992 widespread anger caused by the humiliating treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing by an all-male, all-white panel of lawmakers ushered in the “Year of the Woman.” According to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), that year 29 women filed for U.S. Senate seats, and 11 won their primaries; 222 filed for U.S. House seats, and 106 won their primaries.

Though that doesn’t seem like many today, these numbers had surpassed previous records by leaps and bounds and have had a long-lasting impact on our electoral politics. The 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in November 1992 was the largest number of women elected to the House in any single election. The U.S. Senate saw the first black woman elected and tripled the number of women overall in that chamber.

As of August 2018, 107 women hold seats in the U.S. Congress, comprising 20 percent of the 535 members. Twenty-three women (23 percent) serve in the Senate, and 84 women (19 percent) serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Five women nonvoting delegates also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in the House.

But there is still work to be done — the United States is far from having equal gender representation in local, state, or federal government. According to recent data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 102nd in terms of women’s representation in government. For comparison’s sake, the United States’ neighbor to the south, Mexico, currently ranks ninth.

The United States is poised for another seismic electoral shift. In this powerful #MeToo era, women are taking to the streets to protest what are seen as attacks against basic rights. They are also running for public office in unprecedented numbers, with a few high-profile women shining in the spotlight, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated an incumbent congressman in her primary, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, the first black woman nominated for governor by a major political party in the United States.

According to CAWP’s most recent figures, there are 468 women running for the U.S. House and 51 running for the U.S. Senate as of this writing; these figures well outpace previous records. Moreover, an NBC analysis found more than 40 percent of Democratic House nominees are women, compared to less than 10 percent for Republicans.

“It makes sense that there are more Democratic female first-time office seekers out there right now,” says Barbara Trish, professor of political science. “Given that Republicans dominate state and local offices — with Democrats taking a big hit over the last decade — the door is open for Democratic challengers to those incumbent-held Republican seats.”

So it follows that there are extraordinary numbers of Democratic women throwing their hats in the ring for local, city, and statewide offices for the first time. And, of course, there are Grinnell College alumni among them; at least three have sailed through primaries and will know in November if they are victorious in the general election.

Kayla Koether ’12 leans on fence at a farm in Iowa

Women seeing themselves as contenders

Kayla Koether ’12 seeks to represent the people of Iowa House District 55 in northeast Iowa as a progressive Democrat (kaylaforiowa.com), and is running against an incumbent Republican, Michael Bergan, in November.

“I am running for the Iowa House of Representatives because, for years, I have been troubled by the trajectory of rural Iowa,” Koether says. “It’s become an expectation that young people will leave to pursue their vocations. It’s become more and more difficult to become a farmer or an entrepreneur here.

“For too long the rural exodus has been viewed as ‘inevitable’ and taken for granted by policymakers. But we rural dwellers are dedicated to our places, and we have a vision of strong rural communities. I want to bring that vision to the Iowa Statehouse,” she adds.

Koether says she thinks the reason for the groundswell of women running for public office across the United States is because we are at a crossroad in our country.

“Many people are feeling a call to duty. Those considering a run for public office realize — and have probably realized for some time — that we are nearing the edge of the cliff,” she says. “The need to step up and set a course toward progress on so many levels — economic stability for all, human relationships, health care access, environmental sustainability — hasn’t been so profound since the lead up to the Great Depression.”

Liz Johnson ’88, co-founder of VoteRunLead (voterunlead.org), a nonprofit that trains women how to run for political office, has worked with several Grinnell College alums over the years, including Koether. According to the organization’s recent survey, which polled 750 potential female candidates, 56 percent of those candidates said they don’t think as many women run for office as men because no one has ever encouraged them to run.

Johnson, who is currently a VoteRunLead board member, says this is changing — especially after the results of the 2016 presidential election. Women are no longer waiting for permission or encouragement to become civic leaders, she said. The number of women seeking training from VoteRunLead to run for public office across the country has exploded; the organization has trained more than 12,000 women to run for office since November 2016.

“The 2016 election was a real wake-up call for women across the political spectrum,” Johnson says. “We are realizing we can no longer sit on the sidelines of our democracy and think it will represent us well. And communities are looking for women to run for office, especially local office. The leadership of women incorporates our life experiences, providing a perspective in policymaking that is more inclusive and brings more people to the table to solve complex problems.”

Koether agrees with that sentiment.

“In the past, women in particular didn’t see themselves as candidates because they didn’t fit conventional expectations,” she says. “Now, they have seen that the stakes are too high and the system will not fix itself. They must step up so that we can reach our highest aspirations for a vibrant democracy.”

Laura Clymore Ellman ’87 at a speaking event

Finding the courage to run

Laura Clymore Ellman ’87, a federal compliance assessor at Argonne National Laboratory, is running for Illinois State Senate in the 21st District (ellmanforillinois.com). Ellman, a Democrat who lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Michael Connelly. Ellman is focused on helping the state of Illinois find its financial footing and fostering its economic growth. The state’s poor financial shape is among the worst in the nation.

She had never really seriously considered running for public office, citing a lack of experience, “but November 2016 happened,” and Ellman says she suddenly felt qualified. “At the time, it was more ‘why not?’ than ‘why?’ run,” she says.

“I never thought it would be me, and I have never been overly politically active. It was just never one of those things I identified myself with.” By Thanksgiving she knew she would run.

“I decided to run for a lot of reasons. For nearly 20 years, out where I live, the ballots were pretty one-sided: uncontested races, all the same party,” she says.  “I’d be frustrated for that one election day, but it never really went beyond that. As I talk to more people, the more convinced I am that we need alternatives; we need to have contrasting opinions on where Illinois is going. Having the same band of people representing us is not in our best interest.”

Grinnell College women up to the challenge

Erin Gonnerman poses by one of her campaign signsEllman was not the only Grinnell College alum who decided to run for public office after the 2016 election. Erin Hennessy Gonnerman ’09, who has already won her race and is now a Two Rivers (Wisconsin) City Council member, did, too. “It was three weeks after Nov. 8, 2016, that I picked up my nomination papers to run for city council,” she says.

Gonnerman, a mechanical engineer at NextEra Energy, says she thinks Grinnell College female alumni are particularly well-suited to running for office.

“Don’t hesitate to run, especially for local offices that can be done while maintaining your full-time job,” she says. “It’s a good way to get involved in the government and help you decide if higher office is something you’d be interested in. City councils and village boards need people with diverse opinions and backgrounds, and they also just need people who are willing to do the work, put the time in, can think critically, and who care about the community.”

Though Grinnell College women may have the strong critical thinking and leadership skills it takes to make good political candidates, they still can face an uphill battle while running. One only need look to the Barbara Lee Foundation’s well-known 2014 report “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women” to see just how difficult it is for women seeking public office.

The guide doesn’t hesitate to show female candidates the cold, hard reality of running. It points out that, when it comes to fundraising, women are often not included in the same well-connected donor circles as their male counterparts. According to the guide, women are judged on their looks, the way they dress, their families — and often have to be more qualified than their male opponents. “Women need to provide more evidence than men of expertise. The first way to relay that to voters is to make an excellent first impression — to hit the ground running and to maintain that momentum throughout the campaign,” the guide states.

Rita Rawson getting sworn inBut none of those factors has stopped Grinnell College women in the past. Rita Rawson ’90 was first elected in 2015 and is in her second term as alderman of the 5th Ward in Davenport, Iowa (voteritarawson.com). She is also the only woman of color on the city council. Rawson says the way women can win is by pinpointing important local issues that citizens feel have been ignored. Rawson has been successful in promoting urban revitalization.

“The older, core neighborhoods have been neglected for decades,” she says. “But after a lot of hard work, urban revitalization is now the council’s No. 1 goal. When I was running, I never had a thought of  ‘I can’t get this done.’ My goal was to always just get it done.”

Her advice to alums currently running for office is to have a vision that you can articulate clearly. “Being yourself and being authentic to your voice and vision, as well as being honest to constituents, is critical.”

Kim Butler smiles at the camera

Participating in our democracy effectively 

Kim MacDonald Butler ’83, a progressive Democrat who lives in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, is not letting obstacles get in her way of making a difference in her rural community. She is running for Wisconsin State Assembly District 28 against Republican Gae Magnafici (votekimbutler.com). Previously, Butler was set to race against incumbent Republican Adam Jarchow, but he dropped out of the race after losing a special election for the state senate earlier this year.

“I stepped up to run against the incumbent, assuming I would lose, simply to get the issues of jobs, education, health care, and the environment inserted into the discussion. That he decided not to run for re-election is a happy accident,” she says.

Butler initially decided to get politically involved after her children began high school. “Just voting and giving money every once in a while was not getting the results I wanted,” she says.

So in early 2016, Butler joined the Polk County Democrats; by late 2016 she was elected co-chair of the group. However, it was only after being chosen as a delegate to attend the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on behalf of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that she was truly inspired to run for state assembly.

“There was something about Bernie Sanders that really touched me. Largely it was his focus and speaking on income inequality,” Butler says. “So when he said, ‘Go join your local Democratic party,’ I did. Then he said, ‘Go to your local caucus and make sure everything was fair,’ so I went and eventually moved up and was elected as a delegate for the national convention. It was a really eye-opening experience for me, seeing so many people so passionate about politics.”

For Butler, campaign training has been instrumental in giving her the tools she needs to run for office. The first major training camp she attended was Camp Wellstone, a weekend-long program targeted to grass-roots progressive candidates. “You learn all the things you need to know to be a candidate; how to raise money and win your race,” she says.

After completing a couple of other training programs, she connected with Liz Johnson at a VoteRunLead training camp, which Butler attended to gain more knowledge about running as a female candidate. It was there she also re-connected with Koether, whom she had first met at Camp Wellstone.

Koether says that connecting with fellow Grinnell College graduates was the final push she needed to decide to run for state office.

“It was heartening to run into other Grinnellians, including Kim Butler and Liz Johnson, at the campaign trainings I attended as I was making the decision to run,” she says. “Feeling grounded and part of a supportive community was key in helping me find the courage to put my name on the ballot.”

She continues, “At one of those trainings, a woman told me that running for office is like ‘getting a Ph.D. in life,’ because you hear so many stories and see the world through so many different perspectives. Going out and talking with people in our communities — and helping people find ways to talk to each other — is exactly what I wanted to be doing during these troubled times.”

Ellman adds that you should not let running for office scare you — you have more to contribute than you realize, she says, and the time is now.

“A common belief is that those seeking office have loftier ideals than just normal folks. But maybe now OUR loftier ideals should push us to run,” she says. “If you have considered it but thought the barriers too high, think again. Once you get started and commit, those barriers become much more manageable.”

Derriere in chair

Tequia Burt ’98

Grant Faulkner ’87 says the best way to learn how to write a novel is to just sit down and write it.“Everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story matters,” he explains.

Encouraging people to put pen to paper and helping them find creative inspiration is his daily mission in his role as executive director for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which challenges participants to write 50,000 words — the length of a short novel — in 30 days.

The 30-day writing challenge, which takes place during the month of November, provides a community of like-minded individuals a variety of ways to collaborate, support, and encourage one another in person and online during the brief, but highly intensive writing period. The program has grown every year since its inception in 2000 when 150 people participated; last year, more than 300,000 writers signed up. Though NaNoWriMo targets neophyte writers, it is also designed to help seasoned pros and has yielded thousands of published novels and multiple bestsellers.

“What makes the program really effective is that we’re very inclusive. We make writing accessible and inviting, and that’s important because it can sometimes be intimidating,” says Faulkner, who has led the nonprofit since 2012. “Many people are blocked when it comes to writing because they hear their inner editor’s judgments, or they don’t believe in the value of their story. We emphasize the imaginative exploration and the creative journey of writing a novel.”

NaNoWriMo provides several other writing programs throughout the year to more than 500,000 people — including 100,000 kids and teens who participate in its Young Writers Program — but Faulkner says the 30-day writing challenge is a particularly galvanizing recipe. “The pressure of a constraint often holds creative benefits. It’s important to bang out that first draft and just get the words on the page, because you can’t edit a blank page.”

Giving writers advice on how to keep that momentum going is the motivation for his recently published book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.

“I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing,” he explains. “I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives.”

Studying abroad in France as a Grinnell College student — and spending many hours reading novels in cafes — is what convinced Faulkner to eschew becoming an economics major and to focus instead on English literature.

“My English degree equipped me to think critically about art and aesthetics, so I’ve brought Grinnell’s intellectual intensity to my reading and writing in many ways,” he says.

Though Faulkner has been writing since his mother gave him a journal on his seventh birthday, leading an organization like NaNoWriMo has taught him that no writer’s process is perfect.

“Writing is just so challenging, and every story holds new mysteries and problems to solve, so I’m always learning, always fighting the same inner battles, always experimenting with my approach.”

Human and Wildlife Trafficking

Ridding the world of both

People are sometimes surprised to learn that Steven Galster ’84 works equally hard to protect both humans and animals.

“When [my organization Freeland] first started out, we were looked at very oddly,” he says. “I used to go to meetings in the human rights community and there was this misconception that those who worked in wildlife only cared about animals and not about people.”

However, Galster says that while working on issues surrounding global security for other organizations, he realized that the transnational trafficking of humans and animals had some things in common: “corruption, organized crime, and just the commodification of life.”

Galster says he began to grasp that there was a real need for risky frontline work on investigations and solutions aimed at the intersections in trafficking. “While conducting an investigation in the Russian Far East on Siberian tiger poaching, I met criminals who were trafficking tiger body parts and women,” he says. “When I tried to get police involved and sensed they were not ready to take on the crooks, I realized we had a role.”

So he founded an organization in 1995 that eventually evolved into Freeland (www.freeland.org) by 2002. The nonprofit provides training and technical assistance to police and customs and environmental agencies, giving them the tools to reduce poaching, illegal logging, enslavement, and the criminal exploitation of endangered people and animals.

“The vision of the organization is a world that is free of wildlife trafficking and human slavery,” he says. “The mission is to collaborate with civil society and governments to protect vulnerable people and wildlife.”

Freeland has had many successes since it was founded. In 2015, the nonprofit partnered with the Thai police to dismantle a human trafficking network controlled by a military general. It battled poachers targeting Indochinese tigers in 2017, helping to bring the big cat populations back from the brink of extinction. Freeland also teaches organic farming in poor communities to make them less of a mark to traffickers, and it trains airline staff around the world to identify and report signs of human or wildlife trafficking.

Galster spends most of his time these days in Freeland’s Bangkok office, but the organization is headquartered in Green Lake, Wis., which is where it held the North American version of the Freeland Film Festival (www.freelandfilmfest.org) June 15–17 this year. The soon-to-be annual film festival, which began in 2015, has been hosted in Asia and is set to rotate through Africa and South America in coming years.

It might also seem a bit unusual that a wildlife and human trafficking nonprofit hosts a film festival, but Galster says good storytelling is critical for inspiring change. The more we understand each other’s perspective, he says, the more people will “wake up” and want to take action.

“Environmentalism and human rights issues can sometimes become very political,” Galster explains. “So our focus and our stories are what people from many backgrounds can agree on as everyone’s priorities. It is my hope that the inspiration that people find while attending the festival will bring new hope for people, wildlife, and ecosystems everywhere.”

Galster credits his political science major at Grinnell and Wayne Moyer, professor of political science, for sparking his interest in human rights work.

“He was so passionate about his work and took such a great interest in his students,” Galster says. “My mind opened up a lot at Grinnell.”

Originally published June 2018, Grinnell Magazine

Street-Based Sex Work

By Tequia Burt ’98

A biology and religious studies double-major at Grinnell College, Katie Hail-Jares ’07 looks back on Professor Tammy Nyden’s Philosophy of Science class as instrumental to the way she approaches her research on sex work. It was in that class that she realized that in order to grow, science needed to include more diverse voices.

Hail-Jares’ certainty that storytelling is essential to understanding research was the driving force behind Challenging Perspectives on Street-Based Sex Work (Temple University Press, 2017), which Hail-Jares co-edited. The book unites academics with the people whose lives are affected by street-based sex work (SBSW) to discuss policy and new directions for research.

“Our book takes academic chapters about SBSW and intersperses them with response chapters written by people whose lives are impacted by sex work, including sex workers themselves, police officers, public defenders, activists, and medical providers,” she says.

The book grew out of her experience working with Washington, D.C.,-based HIPS, a harm reduction program that provides safer sex and injection supplies to street-based sex workers. She found that sex workers often felt taken advantage of by researchers because most of their work focused on a limited number of negative narratives. They often voiced frustration to Hail-Jares that the programming and policies that came out of it weren’t really helpful and didn’t address structural barriers like housing, unemployment, or transphobia.

“Street-based sex workers have agency and are not pimp-controlled, drug-addicted caricatures,” she explains. “Many of the chapters authored by sex workers in the book discuss how they took on incredible advocacy opportunities to improve their communities. There are thoughtful discussions about pregnancy, gentrification, and the constitutionality of anti-prostitution statutes.”

Hail-Jares, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Griffith Criminology Institute in Queensland, Australia, says the unconventional approach of blending the activist, Everywoman perspective with those in the “ivory tower” was met with skepticism in academia. Some presses even urged her to not give authorship to nonacademic authors.

“We had a few presses that originally were interested in the manuscript that then passed when we refused to change the format and authorship to make those chapters more traditional,” Hail-Jares says.

After the book was published, it resonated so much with the community that it inspired an original play, Project Dawn, which has been performed in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo., in the past year.

The play explores the experiences of women in Project Dawn, a prostitution diversion court that really exists in Philadelphia. Two of the book’s chapters are firsthand experiences written by Project Dawn staff members. Hail-Jares’ co-editor, Corey Shdaimah, and the playwright Karen Hartman worked together closely to incorporate research and the voices featured in the book into the script.

“It is very unusual for academic research to influence the creative arts in this way,” Hail-Jares says. “We were excited about this opportunity to collaborate and reach a different audience.”

Hail-Jares’ work with underserved populations is not new. While an undergraduate, she received a national Harry S. Truman Scholarship for her work in coordinating the Grinnell College’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program. After graduation, she co-founded the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s Skylark Project to provide legal and social services and support to incarcerated survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

This book has given her the opportunity to merge her past work with her current research. “I am so overjoyed that most sex workers have responded positively to the book and are supportive,” she says. “I keep every one of those messages.”

Originally published March 2018, Grinnell Magazine

From ‘Alabamaland’ to Sundance

The family farm inspires this visual artist

After a bad breakup in 2007, April Dobbins ’99 landed on the doorstep of her grandfather’s Alabama farm as a single mother, feeling like a failure.

“Having to return to this place made me feel like I wasn’t able to cut it in life,” she says.

At that moment, Dobbins, an aspiring writer, would never have dreamed that one day she would be tapped by the Sundance Film Festival as a filmmaker with a bright future. But that’s exactly what happened late last year when she was selected as one of four 2017 Sundance Knight Fellows for a five-day residency during the annual film festival.

Recognized for her short-film work and her upcoming documentary feature, Alabamaland, Dobbins attended the festival in January and hobnobbed with film industry leaders at screenings, roundtables, and panels, established relationships with new mentors, and pitched her ideas to award-winning producers and directors from all over the world.

Alabamaland is getting all of this attention, and it’s not even done yet,” she says. “It’s stressing me out. All this recognition and going to Sundance is really life-changing. Now it’s got to live up to all of this hype!”

Dobbins hopes to finish Alabamaland in the next couple of years. Although currently she lives in Miami, she plans to ramp up travel to the farm to once a month to speed up production.

Though Dobbins had spent most of her life trying to leave Alabama behind, it was on her 688-acre family farm that she was finally able to find her voice as a storyteller. She began taking photos to document everyday life on the farm with her grandfather. Though she only had a point-and-shoot camera, Dobbins soon began to experience success as a photographer that had proved more elusive as a writer. She then decided to chronicle her family farm’s history — and its uncertain future — in a documentary.

“When this started out as a photography project, I thought of it as a journal. I’m talking about it as a documentary to high-level execs at companies like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon,” she says. “I was at Sundance pitching this quaint little story about a black family farm, but I was amazed that it resonated with so many different kinds of people.”

As a Grinnell student, Dobbins planned to pursue a theatre major and become an actress, a passion that Professor Sandy Moffett supported. However, after being typecast one too many times in student productions, Dobbins became interested in filmmaking because it gave her more control as an artist. Professor Katya Gibel Mevorach encouraged her to explore filmmaking, so Dobbins wrote and shot a few scenes that she presented at Grinnell’s Africana Studies Conference.

But it was just two years ago that Dobbins wrote and co-directed her first short film, Cutter. Since then she’s worked on numerous others, most recently producing the short film Paradise. Her films have been screened at festivals across the country, including the Los Angeles Black Film Festival, Key West Film Festival, Baltimore International Black Film Festival, and Filmgate Miami’s NoLA Film Festival. Presently, she is earning an M.F.A. in motion pictures at the University of Miami.

Most artists need a day job, so Dobbins is currently the director of prestigious awards and fellowships at the University of Miami. In her role, she advises students who are applying for internationally competitive awards and fellowships. Though she loves motivating those students, one day she would love to focus fully on filmmaking.

“Keep being a dreamer,” she advises. “Sundance is a celebration of artistic folks who took a risk and made a film. They come from all over the world. For some, it’s their first film. Others are established filmmakers. It’s like attending the filmmaker’s version of the Olympics. People are out here making inspiring art against all odds.”

Legacy of Activism

Concerned Black Students’ 50-year history at Grinnell College

Last fall, black students at dozens of colleges across the country protested against racial discrimination on their campuses, including demonstrations at Yale University, Claremont McKenna College, and Ithaca College. The most high-profile protests were held at the University of Missouri, which led to the ousting of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system.

As black youth organize via Black Lives Matter to speak out against police brutality, our nation finds itself amid a new civil rights movement. As it spreads, black student organizations have become lightning rods for controversy on college campuses, and Grinnell College has been no different.

In early 2015, racist slurs were posted anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak, specifically targeting black students on campus. In addition to calling for the disbanding of Grinnell College’s black student organization Concerned Black Students (CBS), messages harassed black student leaders by name. One post called a black student a “spear chucker”; another accused “blacks” of “ruining Grinnell.”

“The dominant narrative is that Grinnell is this great liberal place, that we’re all into social justice, that we’re a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Odom ’16, house monitor for the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center this past year. “But black students see the opposite side of this; we are often confronted with really conservative racist ideas projected on us. The school is radical until it comes to issues of race and black people.”

She adds: “I’ve had some of the best times in my life on this campus, but also some of the worst.”

As it has for almost 50 years, CBS serves as a home for black students during controversies big and small. It has also been a powerful vehicle for getting the administration and the Grinnell College community at large to consider a black perspective.

Origin story

Black students at Grinnell formed CBS in the fall of 1967 after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the college.

“We were just so inspired by Dr. King,” says Frank Thomas ’71, an administrator at the College for many years. “Plus, in ’67 there were a lot of things going on nationally — black student unions were forming in various colleges around the country, and there was a lot of unrest in various cities. So, the students at Grinnell, though not particularly ‘militant,’ still had concerns. We felt we needed to do something.”

Not much happened that fall, but the need to “do something” intensified in the spring of ’68 when King was assassinated in April. Before his assassination, multiple black students and faculty reported being verbally harassed and threatened with physical harm in town, according to The Scarlet & Black. Town-gown relations got so bad that a Grinnell College student, Lou Kelley ’68, was attacked and beaten up in his dorm room by a Grinnell townsperson. “The baddest black guy on campus was harassed and beaten up, so that was the impetus for us to decide, look, we’re really not safe around here,” Thomas says. King’s murder was the final straw, and black students got serious about organizing.

But things were relatively quiet until 1971, when black students chained the doors to Burling Library and locked themselves inside. The S&B reported that during the takeover, which lasted from 7:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., no white people, with the exception of a few administrators, including then-President Glenn Leggett, were admitted to the library. The chained doors were adorned with posters featuring such slogans as “Do You Deny Us As Black People The Right To Be Free?” and “We Are An American People Proud Of Our Blackness: We Want To Express Ourselves And Our Blackness In Our Academic Life On This Campus.”

Leggett met with a group of about 10 black CBS members in the president’s office, which was inside Burling at that time. CBS presented him with its “black manifesto,” a list of 10 demands designed to improve campus life for black students and faculty. Demands included boosting black student enrollment to “no less than 200” and establishing a larger black cultural center, a black library in Burling, and a black studies major.

“Campus opinion was widely split on the issue, ranging from full support to unspeakable bitterness and a parody ‘manifesto,’” stated the May 15, 1973, special commencement issue of The S&B. “CBS held meetings with students and trustees clarifying its position and undertook extensive negotiating sessions with the administration.”

Many goals of CBS’s “black manifesto” have not been realized — there still aren’t 200 black students on campus. Current students still contend the campus sees its share of racial unrest. So the question remains: What has been gained through CBS’s efforts?

Recruiting black students

Following the Burling takeover, Leggett, along with the trustees, agreed to establish a black studies major and an admissions board for black students. They also agreed to give black students space in the form of the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center, which has been affectionately called “The House” over the years.

However, the Black Admissions Board was doomed from the start. The faculty dissolved it in 1976 after the College received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare indicating that a separate black admissions board was “unacceptable.” Students were promised that the general admissions board would be sensitive to black needs, according to TheS&B.

Over the years, Grinnell College has had varying levels of success in recruiting black students to campus, but it still isn’t known as a destination school. For example, it failed to rank on Essencemagazine’s recent list of the 50 best colleges for African Americans, while similar private liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Wellesley, and Williams (all in Massachusetts) made the cut. According to Amherst, for example, black students composed 10 percent of first-year students this past year, the lowest it has been in the past few years. In comparison at Grinnell, average black enrollment has hovered at about 6 percent since 2003.

According to the latest figures from Grinnell’s Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research, during the 2015–16 academic year there were 96 African American students at Grinnell, who overall made up 5.6 percent of the student body. In 2014, the College for the first time reached a 100-student milestone. That may not seem like much, but Grinnell has never had a big black student population — in 1998, which had the lowest population of African American students in the past 25 years, there were only 35 black students.

“There were fewer than 30 of us when we formed CBS,” Thomas recalls. “As an organization, it was really important for us to be there to support current black students, but also to call for increased enrollment of black students.”

According to Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid, the College has made great strides toward increasing those numbers. On staff is a coordinator of multicultural recruitment, and each year the admission office revisits its goals and strategies for the enrollment of underrepresented students.

“We have a nationwide recruitment strategy with a special focus on [African American and Latino] populations,” he says. “Our outreach efforts include targeted school visits and building relationships with CBOs [community-based organizations]. And we underwrite the costs associated with trips to campus for underrepresented students to ensure that cost is not an impediment to the campus visit for domestic students of color who may be living in lower-income households.”

Those efforts have recently yielded an unprecedented number of applicants, Bagnoli says. This year almost 50 percent of the College’s domestic applicants identified as students of color. Additionally, domestic students of color currently make up almost 25 percent of the student body.

But Bagnoli admits that because of federal mandates that would discourage the College from identifying quotas, they address recruitment in terms of promoting broader diversity rather than focusing on how to specifically increase numbers of black students.

“We’re not just talking about [black students] as a group,” he said. “We’re talking about them as representative of various underrepresented students within that broader category. So, black students are often a part of our conversation. Latino students are often a part of our conversation, as well as first-generation college students and Pell-eligible students.”

Posse impact

Recently, Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington announced that the College was severing ties with the Posse Foundation. Grinnell had partnered with Posse since 2003, and it has been a significant source of black students for the College. In 2015, there were a total of 33 black Posse Scholars, making up 27 percent of black domestic students.

The Posse Foundation works to discover public high school students across racial groups with extraordinary academic and leadership potential, many of whom might be overlooked in a traditional college selection process. Once those Posse Scholars have been identified, they receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships to one of the organization’s partner schools.

“Posse has helped us to pursue our goals for diversity and student success and grow as a diverse institution,” Kington said in a statement. “Posse Scholars have brought great energy and student leadership to campus and given us a good sense of what close faculty-student mentoring can achieve. As we plan for the future we will seek to incorporate those ideas into our planning and engage Posse scholars and alumni in it.”

The decision caused a furor both on campus and in the alumni community. A letter signed by hundreds was sent to the administration asking for clarity on the memo announcing the decision.

“More troublingly for us, the memo provides very little insight into how the College will continue to recruit excellent students from urban areas and support these students. The memo alludes to a ‘more comprehensive approach to achieving our goals for diversity,’ but it fails to explain what this approach entails and does not specify the nature of the goals,” the letter read.

Bagnoli says he understands the frustration, but that the College is moving in the right direction in terms of getting more students of color on campus.

“When we entered into a relationship with the Posse Foundation, we were having a much more difficult time trying to attract the attention of underrepresented populations of all kinds,” he says. “Fast-forward to an applicant pool of over 7,300 students in 2016, when almost half of those domestic applicants are from students of color.”

He adds: “The Posse Foundation has provided Grinnell access to 20 finalists in two cities. We have loved getting to know the Posse finalists. They’re great people. But they now represent a small fraction of the total pool of underrepresented students who apply for admission. So, by virtue of an agreement that we reached over a decade ago, the seats we reserve for them are off-limits to a growing population of other talented applicants who don’t have the same opportunity to be considered for admission. Eventually, it leads to the question: Is there equity in the admission process? And it is increasingly difficult to answer that in the affirmative.”

Helping black students succeed

CBS has also done its share in helping to keep black students on campus once they’ve arrived. Grinnell formally tracks first- and second-year retention, which was 100 percent for black students in 2014. The most recent four-year graduation rates are 81 percent for black students, compared with 84 percent for white students.

For many of the more than 30 alumni interviewed for this story, being a member of CBS was key to thriving at Grinnell — and beyond.

“I joined CBS to expand my support network within the black community to better position myself for success in the classroom, in a predominately white community, [in] my profession of choice, and life after Grinnell,” says Darryl Dejuan Roberts ’98. “Being in CBS also provided a support system, which was essential to my survival at Grinnell, and it provided me with leadership opportunities, which gave me the confidence to participate in other campus organizations.”

For many students of color on campus, daily macro- and micro-aggressions can be an additional burden. These range from big assumptions that black students are only accepted to Grinnell because of affirmative action to smaller slights like comments about the texture of African American hair.

“If I listed all the micro- and macro-aggressions that I endured as a student, it’d be a long list,” says April Dobbins ’99. “It got to a point where it was literally making me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fond Grinnell memories, but to say that I fought to get to the other side of all the negative would be an accurate description.”

Dobbins did not originally join CBS. But being a black kid on a predominantly white campus took its toll.

“Honestly, I avoided CBS like the plague my first two years at Grinnell. It seemed like a really tight-knit group, and I didn’t want to try to get into their circle,” she says. “I came to Grinnell pretty exhausted from being bullied by other black kids all through high school for not being black enough. I was naive and I underestimated the need for CBS on campus. After being at Grinnell for two years, I came back from study abroad in London, and I just needed CBS. I needed a place where I didn’t have to explain my hair or certain struggles on campus. I needed a place [like The House] where I could watch Poetic Justice or something and not have to have a big dialogue. I found my spot there.”

Multiculturalism debates

For black students used to being both invisible and hypervisible on campus, becoming a part of CBS was a way to get their distinct voices heard. Over the years, black students tried to become a part of the conversation by advocating for a black perspective in the curriculum.

Starting in 1980, Grinnell began to offer “a special nonmajor program” in Afro-American studies. By the time the ’90s rolled around, though, the concentration suffered due to a lack of classes, faculty, and enrollment. At the same time, racial tension was ratcheted up on campus. It was then that students demanded that an African American Studies concentration be launched and a black faculty member be hired to helm it.

In 1995 student organizations of color, including Asian Students in Alliance (ASIA) and Student Organization of Latinas/os (SOL), lobbied the College for physical space in which to hold meetings and cultural events. While black students already had The House, CBS decided to lend its support to these groups.

Some white students were very unhappy about it. In 1995 The S&B published a column written by a student, a senior editor, claiming minority faculty were unqualified and that the College’s efforts to promote multiculturalism fostered reverse racism and segregation. “The College also pursues an ambitious affirmative action employment program at all levels of hiring with little regard to the quality of the candidate or actual cultural contributions he or she might make,” the column said, concluding: “Grinnell is degrading into a racial battleground. Minorities are arguing over who deserves houses and departments while the administration points pridefully at the number of colored sanitation workers and calls the school multicultural.”

Kesho Scottassociate professor of American studies and sociology, took issue with being called unqualified and wrote a letter to the editor in response: “I take your insults personally, for while I uphold freedom of speech, it becomes problematic when it is used to slander, especially when such slander is not based on any factual information; for example, there are no ‘colored sanitation workers’ employed by this institution, unless of course you were reducing those of us who teach here to sanitation workers.”

Racial tensions continued to escalate. First there was an incident at a basketball game where students used racial slurs and then, separately, two disc jockeys from KDIC were suspended after they used the n-word on the air. In response to these events, CBS staged a demonstration. Black students wore all black, taped their mouths shut, and stood in the back of their morning class with signs explaining they were protesting racial tension on campus. “Many [white] students were both shocked and offended by the demonstration, which was not widely understood,” according to The S&B.

But for black and other students of color, the protest was seen as an effort to talk about racial issues on campus that they dealt with on a daily basis. “That article kind of had like a Trump effect. It set off a lot of stuff that was simmering beneath the surface,” says Roberts. “Then we had the KDIC DJ using the n-word over the air. All these little incidents began to add up. It was almost like they ignited a fire and pulled the covers back to expose some things that had been going on on campus. Some white students felt it was acceptable to say things that were very hurtful and racially motivated, and we wanted to challenge that.”

After the protest was staged, CBS led campuswide discussions, as well as discussions with the administration. As a result, the College established an Africana studies concentration and hired Katya Gibel Mevorachprofessor of anthropology, to head the now-defunct program, which lasted six years.

Black studies history

Grinnell first began its foray into black studies in 1969 when it introduced “a special upper-class general education program” called African and Afro-American studies, similar to concentrations today, but with a much lower credit requirement (16). The program ended in 1971, according to Jason Maher, registrar of the College.

Members of CBS lobbied for the creation of a black studies major in the “black manifesto,” and College administrators responded by establishing an interdisciplinary major in black studies in 1972. It was a 36-credit major and included courses in anthropology, economics, English, history, music, political science, and sociology. The major was discontinued in 1979 due to lack of interest. At the time, The S&B reported that just 10 students graduated with majors in black studies from 1972 to 1979.

After the protest in 1995, Grinnell introduced an interdisciplinary concentration in Africana studies in 1997, replacing the largely ignored Afro-American studies program that was launched in 1980. For the first time, the program had dedicated introductory and seminar-level coursework, Maher says.

But despite bringing on board Gibel Mevorach, who created a nationwide conference and brought numerous and varied speakers to campus, the concentration was never very popular with students and was discontinued in 2005. From 1999 to 2005, there were a total of 20 students who graduated with an Africana studies concentration. In comparison, the very popular gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) concentration had 124 concentrators from 2000 to 2012. The program was so popular that it was turned into a major in 2010 that has since seen 87 majors graduate.

Africana studies wasn’t so fortunate. After seeing zero interest in upper-level Africana courses and limited interest in introductory classes, the faculty, including Gibel Mevorach and Scott, suggested dissolving Africana studies as an interim move toward something more comprehensive.

“The administration had nothing to do with this decision. This was not a problem of not enough faculty to teach a course — there were no students,” Gibel Mevorach says. “GWSS absorbed most students of color interested in diversity who were interested, as well, in gender studies; and more than a few potential recruits were sociology majors.”

Following last year’s Yik Yak incidents, black students in CBS once again began advocating for the establishment of an Africana studies concentration, despite the tumultuous history of black studies at Grinnell. “This is an issue of institutional amnesia,” Gibel Mevorach says.

In light of this history, some students are unsure if a new major is the best way to proceed. Some alumni say advocating for more black faculty might be a better way forward.

“There have been huge things we’ve accomplished since ’67. CBS’s activism has profoundly influenced campus,” says Dixon Romeo ’16, one of CBS’s leader’s last year, “Ultimately, though, I would much rather have a positive, healthy, and safe space for black students to support them academically and mentally until they graduate. Right now we’re trying to find balance between these two things.”

CBS today

Shortly after the racist Yik Yak posts appeared last year, members of CBS met with President Kington and presented a list of demands, including the creation of a mentorship program with minority alumni and a hate crime/bias-motivated incident team, increased diversity training during New Student Orientation, and improvements to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Romeo says, “No one that we were meeting with in the administration had any issues with supporting us. They were ready and willing to help.”

Since then, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been restructured. Lakesia Johnson, associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, was tapped as chief diversity officer to address diversity within the curriculum and help recruit and retain a diverse faculty. Leslie Turner Bleichner ’07 was hired as director of intercultural affairs and works directly with students on the cocurricular side. Yik Yak was also ultimately banned from campus.

Since Johnson and Bleichner were hired, the two have invigorated the Diversity Council, a board of students, faculty, and administrators. The Office of Intercultural Affairs is also developing a “diversity plan” to address some of these issues on campus. An early draft of the plan was released recently for feedback. It includes expanding the preorientation program for underrepresented students into a full first-year program; developing a local-host program to promote connections and ameliorate feelings of isolation for students; and increasing the number of staff who provide support for student success and diversity issues.

“I’m excited about the new structure because people are finally thinking strategically about the student-of-color experience at Grinnell,” Bleichner says. “We are finally getting the right combination of folks with the right skill sets who can help students really address what it means to be a student of color in the middle of Iowa.”

Following the Yik Yak incidents, CBS also helped to foster campuswide discussions to address what they feel is a hostile and unwelcoming climate, including an event last fall designed to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.

“The biggest issue we have is with white students who didn’t think the racist attacks were a big deal or who were defending what took place on Yik Yak,” Romeo says. “Our dialogue was not directed at the administration, but to white students on campus.”

Just like at Missouri, Romeo claimed the Yik Yak attacks were not isolated, but part of a larger pattern of racially charged incidents on campus.

“The Yik Yak incident was just the biggest one,” Romeo says. “Whenever people talk about this, they talk about it like it was just one incident. There were multiple incidents. Students were saying hateful things about CBS.”

For black students dealing with racist incidents like Yik Yak, joining CBS can be like grabbing a lifeline. In addition to providing them with the support to help them address the special challenges that go along with attending a predominantly white college, it also gives black students a unique and powerful voice on campus.

“After the Yik Yak scandal, we were in a room discussing our concerns with the president of the College and various deans within a week or two,” says Odom. “Whether or not people are satisfied with the outcomes, it is huge to know that we can begin these conversations. My hope is that CBS has helped to promote a campus culture that encourages transparency and honest communication between the students and the administration.”

 

Our New Best Place

Before moving into Matt Carmichael’s former house earlier this month, my husband and I had lived in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood for almost 15 years; it was our perfect place. We bought our Logan Square two-bedroom, one-bath condo in 2006 at the height of the real-estate bubble, unfortunately. Like a lot of young Americans in their early 30s who had just bought their first piece of property, the housing bust caused us to lose the little wealth we had accumulated. But we loved where we lived, and that lessened the sting a great bit.

And what’s not to love? Our adorable condo was a mere three blocks from the Blue Line (public transit) station and just a 15-minute commute into downtown, where we both worked. I love to cook and eat good food, and in recent years, a burgeoning gourmet scene down the street is what Bon Appétit now calls Chicago’s new restaurant row. I value eating locally and organically, and the co-op at the end of my block and the Sunday farmers market made that not only possible but also easy to do. When we first bought our apartment, we weren’t married.

Then life changed. We got married in 2008 and shortly thereafter had a son. While our living quarters were more cramped, we still liked living in our little Logan Square gem. We strolled along the wide and beautiful boulevards with our baby in tow; there were at least three great parks in walking distance. We found a good home day care provider who was already taking care of my 1-year-old niece and was located just a hop, skip and a jump away. But now, when we had only driven our car on the weekends, in the interest of saving time we drove our son to day care every day even though it was only about six blocks away. We didn’t sweat it, though, because the other end of the Blue Line train station was across the street from the babysitter, and it was still a convenient commute.

However, that organic meat-share I picked up from the farmers market every other month just wasn’t cutting it, and the astronomical prices of the co-op were not an option. While the neighborhood had a mix of bodegas and chichi locavore co-ops, it didn’t have a big grocery store. So we drove to one every weekend. But we persevered – we were in our perfect place.   Then life changed again. Our daughter was born and our 3-year-old son was now ready to begin preschool. What’s more, I changed jobs and was now working from home. Our two-bedroom was no longer livable. Even though we loved it, we realized we needed more space.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

So we began the hunt for a house. The first decision we had to make was where to look. Immediately, we narrowed to Logan Square – we wanted to stay in our neighborhood. Like most well-heeled young parents in Chicago, though, the thought of navigating the lottery-based Chicago Public School system had us second-guessing our decision. Logan Square has one decent elementary school, and we did not live in its district. The school across the street from our apartment was rated as below-average, and we didn’t want to send our kids there. So we narrowed further to the area surrounding the one good school in the neighborhood. Only problem was the houses were crazy-expensive there and we just couldn’t afford it. We were being priced out of the neighborhood that we’d helped to gentrify.

We did the unthinkable and started considering the suburbs. We struck out the far-flung ones like Naperville and the like straightaway and landed on Evanston and Oak Park. There are many good reasons to live in those suburbs. They are more city-like and racially diverse than others, they have excellent schools and even the restaurants are pretty good. But as a born-and-bred Chicagoan, I couldn’t do it – those places just aren’t my city. Plus, as city-like as those suburbs are, they are still suburbs.

My husband, who grew up in multiple suburbs, hates them. The one he hates the most is Overland Park, Kan., where he spent his middle and high school years and is incidentally on Livability.com’s list of best places to raise kids. He hated it because it wasn’t diverse – and not just in its racial makeup. It was, according to him, so homogenous that it made it hard for a kid like him who wasn’t a jock, who liked punk and ska, and whose family wasn’t conservative, to thrive.

We greatly value being able to raise our mixed-race kids in a city like Chicago, which has both urban culture AND urban diversity. But was our children’s education more important than our love of Chicago? I attended very good magnet schools here that were located about an hour’s drive away from my home. Would my kids test into schools like that and, most important, did I really want that for them? We thought long and hard and decided we wanted to invest in our city. Most middle-class people with kids our age flee to the suburbs, citing the poor academic performance of CPS.

For me, it’s more complicated. There are many examples of urban families here banding together to improve neighborhood schools both for their own children and disadvantaged neighborhood children. There are all kinds of communities to be had in a city, and we are in for the long haul. And then we found our perfect house, Matt’s former home. It is perfect for every reason he listed in his blog post. While he didn’t send his daughter to the neighborhood school, it is known for being a very good area school. And it’s in walking distance. And only 12 blocks away from our former hood. But best of all, it’s just a few blocks from my sister and her family. And now my children have a big backyard to play in with their cousins. We couldn’t be happier.

Our New Best Place was originally published at Livability.com on June 24, 2014

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