You came to Colby from Berea College. Are there big differences between the two?
I think there really are distinct differences. The mission of Berea is very targeted toward students from the Appalachia region who have limited economic means but great promise. It has an historical commitment to interracial education. So I think there’s a distinct difference because the mission is so different, but I think there are lots of possibilities at Colby. I think that Colby has an opportunity to live up to people like Lovejoy, Mary Low—all of those kinds of people who have had activist kind of spirit, changing the world.
Do you invoke their names?
I’m starting to now. I realized that sometimes students just don’t know. They don’t know who I’m talking about. As an historian of education I have to tell them. Colby does have this fascinating history and this fascinating story. And they, too, are now part of the story. They’ve got to leave a legacy. I’m learning too. Initially when I saw the Lovejoy Building I didn’t immediately make the connection in my head. And then when I saw the Lovejoy Convocation poster I said, “I know all about this person.”
With the background of Kentucky and Berea, were you daunted by the prospect of coming to Maine?
Everybody keeps telling me it’s going to be horribly cold and all of that. I just didn’t believe it. And look. It’s not so bad this year. I think I bring good weather wherever I go. But I wasn’t daunted. What people will learn about me is that there isn’t much that daunts me.
Your mother is from Tortola and your father from Anguilla.
Yes, and it’s really interesting when we think about place and belonging and home. I was born and raised in Orlando, Florida, but Tortola is what I really consider to be home. And place, especially for students who think about why they come to Colby, as they think about belonging to the Colby culture, what makes home? What makes place? For me it was my grandmother, who lives there [Tortola]. My grandmother is a hundred and three. So I’m always going to see her and visiting with her. My aunt lives there. Most of my summers I’ve spent there. I see myself constantly moving back and forth between these cultures. And since I’ve been here, I’m now identifying more as a southerner. I never really identified as a southerner before. There are distinct cultural differences.
Well, people [here] won’t say hello. I think people think I’m very strange because I’m constantly, “Hi, Hi,” and I may not know the person. I would say people move faster here. … I think people also understand race relations very differently here.
In what ways is that different?
I think that when you are devoid of certain cultures and certain people you can operate very differently. And you can think you’re very progressive until someone shows up and is like, “Well, I’m feeling it a little bit differently.” Coupled with a culture that maybe doesn’t talk about things in the same kind of way, maybe because it’s so cold or whatever and people are just moving through their lives, creating a space to have those conversations seems very different here. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad or good, it’s just very different.
Does anything specific come to mind?
I think like for MLK Day—it’s a huge thing down south. Everybody is involved. Here it’s just kind of quiet. I’m saying, “You have to have a huge adventure around this.” It’s a day for us to reflect, rejuvenate, and keep going forward.
Can you change that by next year?
I think it will be one of those things that is a significant culture shift. People understanding that it’s a day on, it’s not a day off. That it is an opportunity for us to think together and to break bread together, not just to say we did it, but to continue to move forward and to think of all the other things that Dr. King needed us to consider—around war, around poverty, around people’s right to work, and so forth. That’s the kind of space I’m interested in creating.
You’ve mentioned the Pugh Center’s mission—“Engage, Explore, Educate.” How does that play out?
Well, we’re definitely engaged. Students are exploring the different possibilities in the Pugh Center, different programs that we have. I think the education part is still a work in progress. Part of what I want to see happen is students helping to educate their peers, doing more classroom engagement kind of work. I’ve been able to do some of that, but not to the level I’m comfortable with at this point. But I think the spirit is there. I definitely see that with some of the efforts already going on with Dr. [Joseph] Atkins and CCOR. In terms of the students, I do see them engaging in ways that are meaningful to them, particularly the students of color. They’re constantly involved in a lot of different kinds of things. I’m surprised sometimes when they send out notes to their peers—“You should really come to this,” or “Why weren’t you there?”—feeling comfortable that they can do that.
Can you explain the seamlessness you talk about for the Pugh Center?
For me the work of the Pugh Center should not be this kind of thing where “those people” go—whoever “those people” are. It’s about the fabric of the institution, weaving it all together so that there’s no feeling of, “Oh, because I’m Caucasian I can’t engage.” This is all part of your experience. This is how you should learn and you can learn. We all have to access it. There are certain philosophies, there are certain perspectives that we’re going to promote in this particular space. But that doesn’t mean everybody can’t access it. And everybody should access it.
How have you tried to make that happen?
I think at this point what I’m trying to do is, number one, just keep the doors open so people understand you can come in, build community. The idea that people come in, I say hello to them. I’m here, encouraging students to say hello, reaching outside of the center to different organizations, saying, “You should have your meeting in here.” Or, “I’d love to come talk to your group. How can we partner?”
People are receptive?
How could you not be? Honestly, I haven’t seen a plethora of situations here where people have said, ”No, I’m not going to change, I’m not going to try something different.” They may be thinking it, but they haven’t said it to me.
Tashia Bradley, director of the Pugh Center, right, with Ralph J. Bunche Scholars Cassie Smith ’15, Shadiyat Ajao ’15, Kelly Carrasco ’14, and Eleni Choephel ’13 as they plan an upcoming symposium.
Are there different challenges here?
If I had to compare it to other schools I’ve been to, I would have to say that Colby has a very different student population. I would think that, if we played into the stereotypes, a lot of students are not the “ninety-nine percenters.” I think that makes a big difference, because the activism work here is often centered around people who have significant funds. So how does a person who, especially at this age, considers, “I have all of these resources, I’m the person who these people are talking about. I can make a choice of engaging, but I don’t want to walk away always feeling guilty, or I can just lay all that stuff down, like the disciples. I have only these two choices.” I feel like I need to create an alternative number three for students. Because activism doesn’t mean you have to give up everything. It doesn’t mean that you have to feel guilty to the point where you can’t do anything.
How do you describe the concept?
I’ll use a Teach for America kind of model. Most people think of Teach for America as, you go into the classroom for two years. But really Teach for America is about what happens in those two years so you can learn, so you can effect policy later. And you can effect change. So what if for the four years that you’re here at Colby you think of it as your learning environment where you’re learning about all the ways we intersect and don’t intersect, all the relationships that are good and bad and so forth? And then you go out and do whatever you do, but you take a commitment to apply that to the work that you’re doing so you can make different kinds of decisions.
So this is the classroom.
Yeah. Pretty much. People ask me, “Why don’t you teach in a classroom?” I’m like, “I teach every day.”