St. Mike’s studies inform justice activism for sisters

After attending Maine rally for racial justice, Megan Schneider '22 hopes to continue education, action on issue with College support once back on campus, as offerings take shape

June 16, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
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Megan Schneider ’22, second from left, with her sister Kayla Schneider, second from right, and friends at the June 3 Portland rally

When the Schneider sisters of Wells, ME — one a current student, one an alumna — read on social media a few days prior about a June 3 racial justice rally planned for Maine’s large city of Portland 30 miles or so from their home, their prompt decision to attend with parents and friends felt partly guided by values formed in their studies at Saint Michael’s College.

“I’ve seen other people from St. Mike’s posting that they’ve been going to these rallies and protests at well,” said Megan Schneider ’22, a media studies, journalism and digital arts (MJD) major who is sharing the family home during the coronavirus pandemic with her sister, Kayla Schneider ’18, and their parents. The family and some friends made plans and went together to the Portland rally held in front of city hall there, attended by close to 1,500 people who carried signs and heard speakers for nearly three peaceful but spirited hours in the late afternoon.

While both sisters are set to work as COVID-cautious waitresses this summer to make some money, Kayla is readying for return to graduate school in higher education at Merrimack College while Megan hopes she still can take a planned study trip this coming year to South Africa led by her MJD Professor Traci Griffith once she returns to St. Mike’s in August as planned.

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The rally in Maine (all photos but top image by Megan Schneider ’22)

Megan said the rally that she and her sister attended in Portland was organized primarily by two veteran activist women in her home region whose intent was to focus on black youth in Maine. She said the day’s issues were something that she had been thinking a lot about since taking a class last semester with Griffith to prepare students who had signed on for the hoped-for coming trip to South Africa.

“In that class we learned all about apartheid and made comparisons with what happened in America, and while it was so much more explicit and encoded in South Africa, many people are not aware of, in some ways, similar systemic racism that exists just below the surface if not always as in the open in our country,” she said. “And at home this summer I was talking with my parents and my sister, and we realized both of us took Peace and Justice for our first-year seminar with Professor Moise St. Louis, who also directed the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs — and we talked about how that’s the first time we learned the words ‘systemic racism’ – we didn’t learn about it in our education in Maine prior to Saint Michael’s.”

“That class opened our eyes to all this stuff that is going on,” she said. “It’s a very white-dominant area in Maine, like Vermont, so it was cool to see at this Portland rally that the organizers wanted the people who spoke to be people of color so you could hear their stories — and those speakers filled three hours, so that it wasn’t just a bunch of white people coming up to say things – we were there to listen and stand up with them.”

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Attendees at the Portland rally hold signs.

She said some of the speakers “spoke about education and their experience of perhaps being the only black person at their Maine schools and people would say racist things and they didn’t know what to do – so that was sad to hear, but interesting as well. I know that at my public high school in Wells, you could count the number of people of color on your hands.”

Megan and her family were nervous about the virus during the June 3 protest in Portland, “but everyone I saw was wearing a mask, people were handing out hand sanitizer, and they did a good job to be sure you weren’t squished in,” she said, adding that she underwent a COVID test after a bout of bronchitis in recent weeks — “and it’s nerve-wracking.” Happily the test was negative.

Megan hopes when she returns to campus in August to act on her growing feeling that to just talk or make social media posts of support of racial equality initiatives, without deliberate concrete action, is not enough. In support of such student hopes, said Dawn Ellinwood, the College’s vice president for student life, the campus Diversity and Inclusion Council (which includes students along with faculty and staff members) has been meeting via Zoom regularly up through June in order to plan faculty and staff experiences “that will allow introspection, including the likelihood of August training opportunities for faculty and staff on issues of race on our campus and in our nation.”

On the student side, she said, Margaret Bass, interim director of the College’s Center for Multicultural Affairs, recently had a “drop-in session” via Zoom and made herself available to students who, when at Saint Michael’s, are active with the Center and might have wanted to discuss and seek community support around the racial injustices that are present in our country and specifically to the recent killings by police of Black people in several cities.

Between the pandemic and growing urgency surrounding racial justice activism in society, “our students are fragile, tired and just need a place to be,” Ellinwood said of such conversations, adding the Diversity and Inclusion Council has compiled a long list of books and other materials to use in educating people about these important justice topics. “We hope early in the fall to have opportunities for students to come together to discuss these important issues, so we have been planning for faculty, staff and student experiences,” she said.

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Attendees hear a speaker and show support in front of City Hall in Portland during the rally.

Megan Schneider said she is a dedicated member of the Active Minds group on campus that engages student mental health – something she sees as very relevant to the present news inasmuch as the news “creates anxieties, fears, feelings of helplessness, so we’re trying to combat that as a club.”

She hopes the COVID pandemic does not distract too much from the also-urgent demands of addressing systemic racism. “It’s hard to get people to know that racism is also a public health crisis,” she said. “In our Zoom meeting for Active Minds leaders, we were talking about putting out a statement saying we stand by Black Lives, knowing that we might not understand, but we will listen and give resources, maybe as partners with the Bergeron Wellness Center for a hotline if people need anything, while trying to show we’re there for all our students.”

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