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Thursday, July 1, 2010


In the next few weeks we drafted a full-scale proposal for a graduate program in Afro-American Studies, complete with a massive volume of attachments as specified by the documents from the administration. September rolled around, and as usual, UMass began its new academic year right after Labor Day. At the beginning of the semester, Esther called a department meeting – one of the very few formal meetings held each year.

The meeting was held in a large classroom down the hall from the department office. We sprawled in the uncomfortable chairs with their writing arms, and gossiped as Esther got the meeting started. In addition to the six of us who had drafted the doctoral program proposal, there were several other members of the department present, including Femi Richards, a soft-spoken gracious West African scholar of African art and culture, and an expert on the design and creation of textiles,.
As the meeting proceeded, Nelson Stevens, who lived in Springfield, kept getting up and looking out the window to make sure that the parking police were not ticketing his car at a metered place down below. [I try hard to resist the temptation to paranoia, but it did seem that they paid closer attention to the meters in front of New Africa House than to any other row of meters on the campus.]

Nelson’s exaggerated concern triggered some comments, and then, slowly, something quite remarkable began to happen. Mike, John, Ernie, Esther and the others started telling stories about their run-ins with the Campus Police. Mike told about rescuing a stranded undergraduate one evening and being stopped by a campus policeman who saw only a Black man in a car with a White woman. Esther, who is perhaps the most widely recognized person on the entire campus, told of being called to a meeting in the Administration Building during one of the periodic racial crises, and being refused entry by a campus officer until a colleague – a White man – vouched for her. John talked about being called out in the middle of the night to speak on behalf of Black students arbitrarily rounded up by campus officers during post-game revels.

For a while, I simply listened, fascinated by stories of events so completely unlike anything I had experienced during my more than twenty years on the UMass campus. But then I grew puzzled. This group of professors had been colleagues for more than two decades. They were all natural story tellers. Surely, they had all heard these stories a hundred times. Why on earth were they rehearsing them yet again?
And then, of course, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized what was really going on. My new colleagues were telling me the stories, although they were apparently talking to one another. My arrival in the department had confronted them with a rather delicate problem of communal etiquette. On the one hand, I had been on the campus for twenty years, and courtesy required that I be presumed to know something of what routinely occurred there.¬ On the other hand, I was obviously completely ignorant of what it meant to be a Black professor at the University of Massachusetts. How to initiate me into the collective experience of the department and educate me to the elements of the racial reality of the campus without unduly calling attention to my ignorance? Their exquisitely gracious and tactful solution was to engage in an orgy of storytelling in my presence, so that, like a child permitted to sit up of an evening with the grown folks, I could become a participant in the on-going life of the community. I was deeply touched.

But that was not the end of the matter. Later on, as I thought over the stories I had heard, I realized something both startling and humbling. In two decades, I had not so much as spoken to a member of the Campus Police Force. My colleagues seemed to know many of them by name, and could tell you which ones were likely to give a Black student a fair shake.¬ It dawned on me that they and I had been inhabiting two entirely different campuses all these years.

This is not a novel or very profound observation. At some abstract level, I had long been aware of the fact that the privileged and powerful see the world differently from those who are forced each day to deal with the insults, constraints, and worse visited on those stigmatized by race. But this had always been for me a knowledge derived from reading or inference, not from ¬immediate experience. Now, by the simple act of walking across campus and transferring from one academic department to another, I had changed the ground on which I stood, and quite literally, my perspective changed as well. I was a Professor of Afro-American Studies – these were my colleagues, not the philosophers I had left behind in Bartlett Hall. I was beginning to stand beside my colleagues, if not in their shoes, and to see the world from their place in it. That world was starting to look strik¬ingly different.

While we were hard at work crafting a proposal to create a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies, I was trying to figure out how I was going to raise some money for IASH. I spent many hours paging patiently through fat volumes of foundation listings looking for money to support graduate scholarship in the Humanities, but to no avail. Then, more or less by accident, I heard about a little program being run in Springfield for Latino high school students. The organizers of the program were several staff members of something called the Bi-Lingual Collegiate Program, an office that had been spun off from CCEBMS to attend to the counseling needs of the growing number of Hispanic students at UMass. Originally, CCEBMS, as its name suggests, was designed to serve all of the non-White students. There were so few that one program could handle them all. But over the years, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American students had grown in numbers until, by the time I began to pay attention, close to 20% of the undergraduate body at UMass was non-White. In the early nineties, Benjamin Rodriguez was the Director of BCP and Dr. Lucy Nguyen, a scholar of Southeast Asian literature, had formed the United Asia Learning Resource Center, or UALRC. The three minority programs -- CCEBMS, BCP, and UALRC -- reported to an Associate Provost, and worked more or less in tandem to fight for budgets and a place in the university bureaucracy. All three organizations provided academic advising in addition to non-academic counseling, and from time to time even offered academic credit bearing courses for their students.

CCEBMS, BCP, and UALRC will make repeated appearances in these pages, as I recount my two decades long efforts to raise money for programs serving the academic needs of minority students. I learned some very important lessons from these efforts about the obstacles and challenges one meets in the trenches, at the very lowest bureaucratic level. The on-the-ground realities of academic institutions are very different from the educational theories debated at the level of Commissions and Presidential Task Forces. It is unusual for a senior scholar like myself to become involved in the day to day operations of academic support programs. Usually, the real work is done by low-level staffers, who report to Oversight Committees and Governing Boards of senior faculty. As I crafted programs and sought outside funding for them, I learned that unless I immersed myself in the minutiae of bureaucratic detail, I would have little success in actually helping the students.

The BCP staff brought tutorial services to a small group of Latino secondary school students in Springfield. Building on their work, I designed a much larger program that would pay high school teachers to provide after-school tutoring to African-American as well as Latino Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. The centerpiece of the program, for which I did succeeded in winning administrative approval -- was a guarantee. If the students in my program stayed in the tutorial program and earned passing grades in the courses required by the University for admission, then they would be admitted to UMass. Having learned from my South African experience about the importance of a good acronym, I christened the scheme the Springfield UMass Minority Achievement program, or SUMMA.

I asked for a meeting with the professional fund-raisers in the UMass Development Office and pitched my plan to them. Would they help me find money for it? Their response was decidedly lukewarm. They knew, as I did not, that the typical fund-raising effort makes applications to ten foundations or government agencies for every one grant actually secured. "Come back when you get your first grant," they said, "and we will help you with the second one." A little library research turned up the L. G. Balfour Foundation, a pretty big operation endowed by a man who had made his money selling class rings and other paraphernalia to graduating seniors. I applied for, and was awarded, a $600,000 grant to run my program. The next time I met with the Development Office, I got a little respect.

Getting the funding turned out to be the easy part of the plan. Negotiating the rapids and shoals of the Springfield School System was another matter entirely. Early on, I discovered that UMass did not have a good reputation in the secondary school systems of the region. There are two cities with sizeable minority populations in Western Massachusetts -- Springfield, twenty miles south of the campus, and Holyoke, midway between the two. In Springfield, a city of somewhat less than 200,00, roughly 47% of the population is Black or Latino, with the Latino segment the larger. In both cities, the UMass Education faculty had mounted programs ostensibly intended to help the local residents but actually designed to give the Ed. D. students appropriate credentials for their vitae. The professionals in the Springfield and Holyoke school systems were not amused by this, and initially viewed me as another carpetbagger coming down Route 90 to take advantage of them.

There is a great old Burt Reynolds movie about a con who comes out of the big house and heads for New Orleans to take a little revenge on those who set him up. The first thing he does is to go to see the local crime boss. As Reynolds explains, "When I was in stir, I learned that you have to ask permission. There is always someone you have to ask permission." In Springfield, this meant that my first stop had to be the Superintendent of Schools, a bright, ambitious young man named Peter Negroni. I took Esther along as my enforcer, and we pitched the SUMMA program to him. We made a good impression on Negroni, so he gave us permission to speak to the Principals of several of the high schools. But they were only the titular heads of their fiefdoms. The real gatekeepers were the Guidance Counselors.

You don't just waltz into a high school and talk to the students. The Guidance Counselor has to o.k. your presence. He or she then tells the classroom teachers to release the kids for a conference with us. Our program was obviously a potential boon to the Guidance Counselors, because we were promising guaranteed admission to UMass, but it was also an implied criticism, because if they were doing their jobs properly, they wouldn't need the SUMMA program.

The next step was to recruit the teachers who would serve, for pay, as after school tutors to the students, and that meant going through the Union. By an extraordinary coincidence, the President of the Union was one of Esther's dearest friends, Melanie Kasparian. Melanie, who died at a tragically early age, was a tough union organizer who made sure that our program in no way interfered with the contracts she had won for the union, but we managed to negotiate that potential hazard.

The last problem was one I had completely failed to foresee, and addressing it required altering the game plan for the program. Since we were dealing with high school students, some as young as fifteen, we obviously were going to have to bring the parents into the program in some way. I had anticipated that. But I very quickly learned that there was a big difference between the African-American and the Hispanic parents. The African-American parents were delighted by the prospect of their sons and daughters going to UMass, so the guarantee of admission to students who completed our program successfully was very attractive to them. But the response of the Hispanic parents was quite different. Family ties were extremely important to them, so much so that they were very apprehensive at the thought of their children going so far from home to attend college. In my mind, the campus was next door to Springfield. I had left home at sixteen to travel two hundred miles to college, after all. But the UMass campus might as well have been in Seattle as far as they parents were concerned.

This was only one of many instances in which my own cultural blinders misled me and had to be removed before I could see the world from the standpoint of the families my program was designed to help. The solution was to schedule regular visits to the UMass campus by the parents, so that they could see the dorms, the classrooms, the dining halls, the playing fields, and the laboratories where their children would be living and studying. Even with this programmatic adjustment, we were fighting deeply entrenched family ties, and a number of the Hispanic students who completed the program ended up attending STCC, the Springfield Technical Community College right in town. The students could live at home and attend college with no real change in the patterns they had followed as high school students.


KrisMcmillen07星美 said...


Chad said...

A completely random question, but how much racism do you think is REAL racism as opposed to self-fulfilling prophecies?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have a lot to say on that subject, but first tell me what you mean by "self-fulfilling prophecies." I am not sure to what that refers.

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