Pioneers

Pioneers

Colby's first posse leaves changed by Colby

By Gerry Boyle '78


 
Along with adjustment to college life was a fitful start due to unexpected turnover of Colby's Posse mentors—staff members assigned to work with the group on campus as required by the Posse agreement. The first mentor, hired by Colby for the Posse role, left the College after one year. A succession of mentors followed, some successful, some not. That upheaval stabilized somewhat with the hiring of Sammie Robinson, associate dean of students for multicultural affairs, and Atkins, though by that point Posse I members were beyond the two years of Posse-required group meetings and had decided they no longer wanted formal mentoring.

"Colby, while not always agreeing on what steps we should take next, has always engaged in that conversation and I really respect that,— said Langsam, at Posse New York. "I've had some experiences with other campuses where there is more of a denial about things not working so well.

"To me it feels like a respectful two-way relationship and I think that's really important for Posse to be successful. It's a relationship and it really needs love and care from all sides.—

Apart from the staffing issues, there was the simple day-to-day experience of students adjusting to a new minority role.

Posse students, usually with a resigned shrug, say they explained repeatedly to other students that Posse isn't a scholarship based on financial need or race. One student recalled being confused with another member of her Posse, whom she does not resemble except that they are both women and students of color. And beyond the specific slights and misunderstandings was the feeling that some initially had that they simply didn't fit in—that in and out of class their views were out of the Colby mainstream.

But for the most part, they hung in.

"They're fighters,— said McFadden. "They had to be fighters to get here.—

She recounted an incident three years ago in one of her classes that began when with discussion of chalkings and banners done in connection with Race Awareness Week, including a sign that said, "You only got in because you're white.—

The sign was intended as a satiric turn on a comment that students of color said they had heard. But it angered at least one student, sparking an impromptu and intense in-class discussion of race and difference that Posse students led—and McFadden let ride.

The difficult discussion led to new awareness among the students. And a white student who admitted he had no idea why students of color were angry, but was willing to listen, engaged others in the discussion. He ultimately was invited to the Posse Plus retreat, an annual off-campus weekend run by Posse for scholars and their friends. McFadden, who also took part in the retreat, said the student was so moved by the experience that he and others around him were left in tears. "What had happened to him in the course of that weekend was very powerful,— she said. "And I think that happened a lot in classrooms.—

"Four years later I'm looking back and I'm realizing that my voice would never be an average Colby voice. And that's okay, because the voice that I have now is the voice of George Anthony Williams, a New York City kid who attended Colby College. And that's all I could have asked for.—
Tracy Hamler Carrick, assistant professor of English and director of the Writers' Center, saw members of Posse I use the center's services—and later become effective peer tutors there. Carrick said the Posse students broke new ground for students of all backgrounds. "They made it okay to talk about what they didn't know and what they needed to learn,— she said.

Carrick and McFadden credit Posse students with being willing to have difficult conversations with others on campus, so that it has become acceptable to articulate concerns and conflicting views that had existed but had not been examined. Those conversations, which sometimes bumped planned lessons, often were intense and emotionally charged but ultimately resulted in new awareness among students and faculty. "This kind of change is painful and it's hard,— McFadden said. "They have really changed the place by creating that space.—

And how much has the climate for those discussions changed in four years?

"I think on an individual basis, kids talking to other kids, being roommates with other kids, there has been progress,— said Jairus Steed '06, an African-American Posse I scholar. "And not being shy about talking about difference, or just about asserting where I'm from and what I think is right about the world. They've had a tremendous effect.—

But he feels that effectively addressing the larger social issues on campus will require more of an institutional and cultural commitment from Colby.

"[Students] are here for four years,— Steed said. "There's only so much you can contribute. It's the professors and administrators who are here for the long haul. To what extent is the school really dedicated to promoting diversity?

"We talk about these issues in class and we throw these ideas around but is there the sense that this really matters? That these sorts of cross-cultural communication skills are the only thing that will save the world in this new century? Do we tell kids from day one, since you're part of this community you have a responsibility to do X, Y, Z? You need to be an ally. If someone makes a sexist remark or an anti-Semitic remark, as a member of this community we're expecting you to be an ally, to say something about it. Not that everyone has to be this big revolutionary, but there is actually some personal responsibility.—

As Steed challenged Colby to make awareness of diversity and difference a more fundamental part of the College's culture, the administration was moving in that direction. "We need to keep raising the bar in what we're doing making the climate on campus open and tolerant and understanding,— said President William D. Adams.

Adams said plans were underway to expand the initiatives and programs of the Pugh Center, which houses more than a dozen student organizations that promote intercultural understanding. He said the fact that 19 percent of the incoming Class of 2010 are ALANA students (almost double the percentage of previous years) underscores the need to broaden the reach and influence of Pugh Center programs. Adams said he and others continue to ponder ways for the Colby community to encourage vigorous intellectual debate while discouraging discussions that lead to "instances of public insensitivity— that have lingering and hurtful effects.

In the meantime the relationship between Posse and Colby has had positive results, administrators, faculty, and students agree. The College, Steed said, is "doing what their goal is to do, which is expanding the pool from which colleges like Colby recruit their students. How many kids in my Posse would have been overlooked by Colby's normal recruitment process? Or may not have measured up in one way or another to criteria but have succeeded here in amazing ways and have contributed to the school in so many ways? By being student leaders on campus, we created a different sort of dynamic that's more inclusive for everybody—not just Posse kids.—

Posse scholars, in turn, have grown in many ways. Steed, a classical violinist, explored American music through an independent major combining music, history, and American studies. Downs worked with Hardy Girls/Healthy Women, an organization in Waterville that works to empower girls, and entered an internship with Nestlé Waters in Manhattan. Antonio Mendez '06, a student leader on campus and supportive mentor to younger Posse students, was bound for Newark, N.J., to take a position with Teach for America.
 
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