June 2021

Higher education institutions across the nation are taking new steps to combat racism and build a more equitable society. New efforts at Minnesota private colleges include creating an academic department, offering meaningful trainings and setting up new spaces. And here are quick sketches of some key initiatives that Hamline University and St. Olaf College have undertaken.

Hamline University

Anti-racist Dialogue Circles and the Anti-racism Common Theme

Over the past year, Hamline University has seen increased demand among faculty and staff to engage with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion both in intimate forums that allow for deep discussion and as a larger campus community. As a result, faculty and staff had the opportunity to take part in Hamline’s Anti-racist Dialogue Circles, facilitated groups of five to six members that met five times via Zoom beginning in January. The groups were intraracial in order to remove barriers that might prevent people from being frank.

David Everett, Hamline’s associate vice president of inclusive excellence, was impressed by participants’ willingness to be vulnerable and their desire to continue and expand on the effort.

“They shared in a candid way what their experiences have been, what they think contributed to those experiences, how they see those experiences continuing to shape what we do as an institution, and ultimately what we can do differently,” Everett said. “They asked, ‘How can we start to see those experiences not as problematic but as informative? How can that help us look at the types of things that we can do and the opportunities that are presented to move forward?’”

Outside of the dialogue circles, staff and faculty had read Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist for their annual campus-wide professional development day. Their interest in continuing discussions sparked by their reading, combined with the fruit of the Anti-racist Dialogue Circles, led to a decision to make anti-racism Hamline’s common theme for the next two years. Conversations about anti-racism and chapters from How to Be an Antiracist will be woven into first-year seminar courses. In addition, this year Hamline’s annual Commitment to Community event, usually featuring a speaker who addresses first-year students, faculty, and staff, will be a screening of the play “A Requiem in Boston,” which addresses systemic racism in Boston.

The experiences that first-year students have with this common theme will have a ripple effect throughout the university, Everett said. “As those students become sophomores and juniors and seniors, they become leaders who cultivate this anti-racist philosophy and approach, which is exactly what we’re trying to do.”

George Floyd Endowed Scholarship

Following the murder of George Floyd last year, two of Hamline’s 2009 alumni approached the university with an idea: They wanted to help fund a scholarship to advance social justice through access to education at Hamline for those students with financial need who are first in their family to attend college, come from a historically disadvantaged community, or have distinctive perspectives on the experience of race in society. The two alumni made a significant anonymous gift to establish the George Floyd Endowed Scholarship, and additional donors have added their own contributions.  (Nearly half of Hamline’s students are people of color, and more than 40 percent are first-generation college students.)

The scholarship was created in June 2020. The first recipients, three seniors and two sophomores, were selected in December. Applicants were asked to answer the question, “How will the George Floyd Endowed Scholarship enable you to be a catalyst for good?” Everett noted that all five 2020-21 scholarship recipients wrote about wanting to be active change agents in their communities. “They see themselves not as students in isolation on a campus but as students who are citizens with the responsibility to engage when they see something that isn’t just,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes to how Hamline talks about these things but also how faculty members embrace and support students who have that type of energy and focus.”

St. Olaf College

María C. Pabón Gautier and Kay Kay Lewis
Left: María C. Pabón Gautier, Vice President for Equity And Inclusion; Right: Kay Kay Lewis, 2021-22 George Floyd fellow
George Floyd Fellowship for Social Change

St. Olaf College established its George Floyd Fellowship for Social Change to take concrete action against racism. The college committed $100,000 to directly support the advancement of its Black American students. Members of the St. Olaf community have provided additional funding.

The fellowship gives students an opportunity to dream big. María C. Pabón Gautier, vice president for equity and inclusion at St. Olaf, noted that racial and income inequities can limit a student’s dreams. “Being able to tell our students, ‘just dream of it, and we’ll make it happen,’ is such a powerful thing to do,” she said. But, she added, students who haven’t had the opportunity to dream big before may need encouragement. This includes intentionally recruiting students through nominations. “You won’t apply if you don’t see yourself as being able to do this,” she said. “Faculty and staff who see something in you that you haven’t seen in yourself yet can put your name forward.”

During the 2020-21 school year, St. Olaf had four George Floyd fellows, who engaged in projects that included financial literacy education designed to help group members become not only financially stable but financially prosperous, an exhibition focused on the beauty of Black hair, a community garden that gives participants a space to talk about their mental health, and a cohort experience focused on exploring spirituality, particularly through dance and music. The 2021-22 fellow will be Kay Kay Lewis, whose project, “Lovin’ the Skin I’m In,” will culminate in a fashion show featuring Black designers, models, makeup artists, and stylists.

All fellows receive leadership development opportunities and mentoring, but what they probably benefit from the most is carrying their projects through from start to finish. “If they need help, they can reach out,” Pabón said, “but the expectation is ‘this is your baby, so you see it through.’”

Co-Creating an Inclusive Community

St. Olaf also has launched an 18-month, campus-wide project called Co-Creating an Inclusive Community. The first phase was an anti-racism training program designed to bring the campus community together so that everyone was on the same page, whether they were just learning about anti-racism or they’d been talking about it for years. Following this, volunteer faculty, staff members, and students facilitated 95 co-creating sessions with more than 1,500 campus participants. These sessions allowed participants to discuss three questions: What at St. Olaf helps you feel connected, seen, and valued? What at St. Olaf gets in the way of you feeling connected, seen, and valued? What specific ideas do you have for making the St Olaf community more inclusive, so that people of all backgrounds and identities feel connected, seen, and valued?

Instead of bringing people together in random groups, the co-creating sessions were focused on groups of people who already worked and studied together, such as departments and affinity groups. These sessions, which ended in May, will be used to identify actions that the college will begin to implement in the fall. The final phase, which will consist of gathering information on the impact of these actions and reporting back to the community, will take place in 2022.

St. Olaf has already acted on some of the feedback, Pabón said. For example, in response to a desire for communication related to anti-racism, she has started emailing the community every other week, providing information and resources related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Co-Creating an Inclusive Community is co-led by Pabón and Jo Beld, St. Olaf’s vice president for mission, with assistance from two consultants. Faced with such a large and emotionally taxing task, Pabón said the support provided by the campus community, particularly the volunteer facilitators, has been invaluable. “We would have sessions at 8:30 a.m. and sessions at 8 o'clock at night. I could not have done all this without them,” she said.

By Kate Norlander