St. Mike’s postcards to Charlottesville kids say no to hate

September 1, 2017

Here’s the messages that Saint Michael’s College students wanted the children of Charlottesville, Virginia, to receive after “hate and violence invaded their city” in recent weeks, as one native of that city put it:

“”I love and care about you.” … “We stand with you! The fight is not over!” … You are loved all the way from Vermont to you!” …. “We are with you, Charlottesville. Always – Joey from SMC freshman.”

Thanks to a project organized by Dawn Ellinwood, Saint Michael’s College’s vice president for student affairs, those messages soon will be received by the Virginia children. They were written this past Saturday, August 26, a few days after first-year students arrived, on old postcards of a style once used by Admissions and donated by Enrollment VP Sarah Kelly. The card’s purple photo-side reads “Greetings from St. Mike’s Vermont” with campus scenes visible within the letters.

Ellinwood got the idea for the postcard activity, which drew close to 250 people to Ross gym Saturday afternoon — both new students and their Orientation Leaders and RAs from upper classes — after reading an email from the co-owner of a vendor for student-conduct software that her office uses. That vendor-owner, Aaron Hark, lives in Charlottesville where his company, Maxient, is based.

His note to clients about the violence of the weeks before noted that he served the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters in the region, and was resolved that “We cannot let the scenes [the local children]  witnessed in our community become their image of the broader world.” So, he launched the #DearYoungPerson initiative “to get postcard messages of self-wroth and hope into their hands” with Maxient paying postage.

“This wasn’t mandatory,” said Ellinwood, “but we invited our students to just fill them out, and I went through each one of them after and they’re really beautiful.” She estimated that half the new class took part in the overall Saturday meeting for the class on diversity. “Melanie Castillo, the secretary of diversity and inclusion for our Student Association, co-facilitated with me,” she said, describing how students watched videos from the widely praised Seattle Times “Under our Skin” series that feature vignettes on diversity and related topics. “Then they broke into groups of 7 or 8 and discussed prompts we gave them in light of the video. Every person had one minute to talk, or be silent. It was powerful and I heard some very good conversations.” Ellinwood said a number of students came up to her afterward and said “it was such a great experience.”

She explained that it is all part of a focused initiative this year to set a good tone on campus in response to some incidents of hate speech last year that were unsettling. In April, the diversity officer at Bennington College did trainings with O-leaders and RA’s, and then more in August right before school, with both sessions being new additions to standard trainings of past years.

“We were really intentional across the board with the new students,” Ellinwood said, “from the first-year class meeting to New Student Convocation speaker’s theme to the Common Read this year and the session we did on diversity/inclusion — It all was steeped in what it means to be part of this community and to be in dialogue and respectful of others, so there are no excuses for people not to know what we stand for.” The theme of Saturday’s student meeting in Ross, with O-leaders and RA’s working with students, was “practicing and learning the skill of dialogue vs. debating,” she said.

The good response to the postcard project  was just a logical activity flowing out of all that, she said, adding, “We’ve had a really good start, and I’m proud of it.”

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