In America, and in our tiny patch of it here at Springfield College, the ambition is mighty.
We the People…created equal…liberty and justice for all…a nation of immigrants.
Educating students in spirit, mind, and body for leadership in service to humanity.
It is great to aim high. We should all strive to give voice to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” But pretty words in founding documents and mission statements are only a starting point. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding of our actions. (Or our inactions, since silence is a form of complicity, a vote for the dark side.)
How do we live? What kind of world do we vote for by the choices—even the tiny ones—that we make? Much of our humanity is measured, I believe, by how we treat others, by our whole conception of “other.” Do we legitimately strive to both honor differences and celebrate our bonds? Do we truly value diversity?
Over the 134 years of Springfield College’s existence we have had quite a journey with diversity. Some of that is a great story, the kind of story any college would be happy to claim.
We were born with a spirit of internationalism. Almost half of the students who came here in 1885 were not U.S. residents. At least as early as 1896, training school notes stated, “The ideal which these men of self-devotion must have before them and exemplify in their lives is the ideal of social justice.”
When our school was minted to give out its first 4-year degrees in 1906, the very first student to earn one was an African-American man named William Beckett.
During World War II, Springfield educated some Japanese-American students released from internment camps, including the future YMCA legend Fred Hoshiyama.
Perhaps the greatest student-athlete we have ever had at a place that prizes this status was Tom Waddell (’59), three-sport standout, Olympic decathlete, doctor, paratrooper, and founder of the Gay Games.
In 1963-64 we not only had our first varsity sports for women years before Title IX, we had a commencement speaker by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. – right at the height of his fame, right in the heart of the civil rights movement, amid some remarkable circumstances.
And even in modern times, we have seen so many impressive students fighting the good fight for a more fair and just campus, country, and planet through organizations like SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere), SSBD (Student Society for Bridging Diversity), and Team IMPACT. President Mary-Beth Cooper has identified diversity as one of the institution’s chief priorities. Some of my faculty colleagues have been pouring themselves into this work for years.
But sitting on a high horse is not a good look for anyone. Individuals and institutions are strongest when they are willing to take an unflinching look in the mirror. If we do so here at Springfield College, we would have to acknowledge that this is not a completely good story.
Even with some recent improvements, it’s pretty clear that on a campus that sits in a minority-majority city, in a country where people of color will soon outnumber white folks, we remain disproportionately white within our student body, our faculty, and our administration. Our retention numbers with students of color need to improve. Our international students are too segregated. Even with a strong female president, some powerful female leaders throughout the College, and a growing number of evolved men around gender issues, there remains too much of a culture of what we now call “toxic masculinity.” Our campus’s accessibility has improved—and it still has a way to go. Within some student residences there have been moments of intolerance that cannot be acceptable on this—or any—campus. And sometimes we have just not summoned the strength to act on what we know to be true.
We have a common cliché at Springfield College about “stepping out of our comfort zone,” but how much do we really do it?
This semester, for the first time, I taught a seminar class on the journalism of civil rights and social justice. Since our return from spring break, we have embarked on a project to explore the diversity journey at Springfield College.
Such an effort was bound to be limited. It’s a huge topic, and as we have come to see the “diversity of diversity”—the intersections of identities, the blasting apart of certain binaries that previous generations took for granted (two discrete races, two discrete genders, etc.), we knew we would only scratch the surface of the surface.
But these students scratched hard. They spent long hours at the archives. They dug into some deep and difficult interviews. They transcribed. They drafted. They revised. They edited. They filmed and designed. They engaged in real conversation. They sat with their own discomfort. They disagreed with me several times. I think we did a pretty good job of doing what people need to do: We listened to each other.
The imperfect, incomplete, but earnest result of all this work is this special section of the student newspaper and the multiple-day social media initiative surrounding it (see #SCdiversityjourney). We hope that it sparks some healthy thought, conversation, and positive action in the campus community.