Full community spends day learning, reflecting on inclusion, equity

Keynote speaker Mohammed Soriano-Bilal charms and challenges a full house in Ross Sports Center; conversation continues across campus all day.

February 19, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

As nearly 1,500 Saint Michael’s people streamed into Saint Michael’s College’s Ross Sports Center on Tuesday morning, February 18, organizers and administrators said they could not recall this ever happening before in their experience: an historic gathering of the entire College community – first-year students through seniors, faculty, staff and administration — for a full-day’s special event with classes and campus offices shut down so all might participate.

audience coming in

Saint Michael’s community members file into Ross Sports Center for Tuesday’s morning program. (photo by Caitlin Lei)

The occasion was a campus-community “Day of Learning and Reflection” focused on issues of inclusion, equity, and disrupting racism, a time for acknowledging and confronting white privilege in a spirit of humility that honors the strong legacy of the College’s founders, the Society of St. Edmund, who have engaged these issues on campus and wider society for generations.

Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt has made it a high priority to advance action and awareness in these areas, with the goal of making them permanent priorities at the College, she told the group during the morning session for everybody that featured the dynamic words and insights of keynote speaker Mohammed Soriano-Bilal, associate dean and director of the Center of Inclusion, Belonging and Intergroup Dialogue at Stanford University. Earlier this year the president had charged a specially formed steering committee with organizing this significant day, in view of national and campus concerns that seem to call for such concrete and focused action.

After the morning session, participants split into two groups at lunch time – half going first to Alliot for lunch and a series of activities that drew awareness to the day’s issues, while the other half had a workshop discussion on “Seeing and Disrupting Racism” in Ross, led by representatives of Burlington’s Peace & Justice Center.

speaker in Ross

Mohammed Soriano-Bilal speaks in Ross Sports Center Tuesday. (photo by President Lorraine Sterritt)

A well-received talk

The full morning group responded warmly and most attentively as keynoter Soriano-Bilal brought eloquent energy to the start of his presentation by rapping in the Hip-Hop style that is his passion. He went on to set the context, saying, “We all live in a country trying to figure out how to come together.” Bilal told about his life growing up in a Black Muslim community in Washington, DC, and coming to love Hip Hop; of moving to San Francisco with his family and encountering other cultures, such as Asian-Americans for the first time, of coming to terms with his fears of encountering the “other,” of realizing the importance of body language in getting where people are really coming from. To help cope, he started writing a journal, writing about “uncomfortable connections” – something he recommended to students. He got a laugh talking about why this day he was slowing down some of his Hip Hop rhymes, used to enhanced his storytelling spontaneously a few times, for those who are “Hip Hop Impaired” —  a term he uses for his grandmother and others. He had stories of a childhood friend actually named Will Power, and about his first Hip Hop group with some friends called FRED: “Futuristic Rappers Enchantingly Deep.”

He shared how one time in San Francisco he got into a freestyle rap “battle” outside a club with a white stranger and they made a connection afterward over their shared passion, and he and that man become best of friends to this day, expanding the cultural awareness of both. Bilal urged the students to “get in the brave space” – that “learning edge” that is “uncomfortable but not unsafe.” He suggested the students “Do things not customized for your reality … Seek both sides of an argument – read both sides.” His “12 Steps Toward Equity” in his talk included realizing how we are all “homogenes,” (gravitating to and most comfortable around those most like ourselves); “know self,” “commonalities,” “learn to teach,” “judge not,” “break habits,” “make mistakes,” “travel,” “read,” “language” (it’s powerful and important and everyone should try to learn new ones),” “prejudice & dislike” (understanding the difference and implications of each), and “turn to light.”

The College covered the cost of lunch for everyone in Alliot Hall, with a variety of activities offered in rooms on both floors where folks could bring their lunches or visit before or after: These included a film screening of “I Am From Here “ directed by Bess O’Brien, highlighting Vermont residents and their experiences with injustices in Vermont; trivia hosted by the Civil Rights Alliance, a Commitment to Racial Equity poster-making session, African Drumming workshop, discussion cards, an interactive glass art exhibit, reflective paper wall and a Bergeron Wellness Center Informational Table.

Professor Bill Ellis of the Saint Michael’s Fine Arts-Music faculty played and sang an appealing variety of music as the community came into Ross before the 9:30 a.m. official start time.

Other speakers to open the morning session were event organizer Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for student life, and Student Government Association President Katelynn Briere. Father Lino Oropeza, S.S.E., ’11 of the campus Edmundite Community, gave a thoughtful invocation with the audience invited to respond “Have mercy on me, oh Lord, or “encourage me, Oh Lord” for the harmful behaviors of the white majority through history, and in individual lives. Several speakers during the day took a moment to call for silent reflection on the indigenous people who were Vermont’s stewards since time immemorial, noting the “discomfort of colonization,” and “what we’re benefiting from and at whose expense,” as workshop speaker Rachel Siegel put it.

The workshops with Siegel, Jude Smith Rachele, and Kina Thorpe from Burlington’s Peace & Justice Center allowed for questions and conversation, including some emotionally raw moments, prompting further conversations and an invitation to attend a follow-up restorative conversation to discuss and process. Traci Griffith of the media studies, journalism and digital arts faculty along with other community leaders were present to meet with students in an “affinity space” in Ross near the main workshop.

A2VT performs in McCarthy Recital Hall Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Denise Brault)

The Winooski-based hip hop group A2VT gave a well-received performance in McCarthy Recital Hall at 2:30 p.m. to wrap up the day.

President Sterritt spoke of where the community might go from here. “[We will make inclusion and equity a permanent priority] by continuing to seek out people with professional expertise to advise and support us as we do this work, by listening to people who experience harm and wish to share with us their experiences, and by being open to seeing our imperfections as opportunities to improve and put our founding principles into action. We must acknowledge that this is a process, and that this work is hard, and we must acknowledge equally strongly that it is necessary, and that it must be sustained.”

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