Last spring St. Olaf College cancelled classes for an entire day as hundreds of students and faculty gathered in Tomson Hall to protest the College administration’s inaction regarding a series of racist notes left across campus. As the protest gained local and national attention, St. Olaf’s alumni wondered how they could get involved. Out of this desire, several alums joined together to create Oles for Racial Awareness, Change and Equity (ORACE).
ORACE member Jane Burnett ’72 visited St. Olaf for Reunion Weekend later that spring, where she attended the panel on Race at St. Olaf and learned about the Race and Ethnic Studies (RACE) program.
“I hadn’t known the RACE program existed, and I got really excited,” Burnett said. She and Camilla Madson ’72 met with RACE program director Jennifer Kwon Dobbs several times over the summer to discuss the RACE program and learn how best they could help it grow.
“We learned about the strong student interest in courses, the limited number of courses they could offer each year because of their budget, which is still at 1989 levels,” Madson said. “And sort of what we started focusing on was ways to lift up that program, its existence, its role, its academic rigor and its funding needs.”
“The centerpiece is the RACE program, but we’re also very concerned about the general outlook of St. Olaf and its willingness to address racism on campus, and how the curriculum contains race and speaks to race and racism.” – Jane Burnett ’72
Over the course of these meetings they learned that there was no endowment for the RACE program, and decided to focus their efforts on fundraising for a RACE endowment fund. ORACE created a fund with the InFaith Community Foundation – known as the Challenging Institutional Racism at St. Olaf College Giving Circle Fund – this fund will hold smaller donations until they can reach the required $100,000 to establish an endowed fund. They have already received a $30,000 matching grant from Injustice Shuts Its Mouth. While the Giving Circle can currently only accept gifts of $200 or more when paying online, they are working on accepting gifts of any amount.
“The centerpiece is the RACE program, but we’re also very concerned about the general outlook of St. Olaf and its willingness to address racism on campus, and how the curriculum contains race and speaks to race and racism,” Burnett said.
“St. Olaf is proud of the fact that each year they’ve brought in a greater percentage of students of color and international students,” ORACE member Joanna Franklin ’72 said. “But I’m not sure that they’ve been proactive in providing for them the environment that fosters important conversations and fosters bringing people together from different backgrounds to better understand each other.”
So far ORACE has attracted many interested alums and community members, ranging from the class of 1945 to 2017.
“Over the fall we started planning meetings to do outreach to alums, but also to Lutheran churches and other friends of the College, to let them know about the RACE program, but in general the situation at St. Olaf, and the Collective on the Hill and their demands,” Burnett said.
ORACE members have also collaborated to submit a proposal to the Working Group on Equity and Inclusion, which calls for the expansion and permanent funding of the RACE program, and establishing a required course on understanding, recognizing and addressing racial bias.
“We don’t think that St. Olaf is ready to honestly say that it is a solid benefit of the College that you will get a race conscious education if you come here, but it should be a goal of the College that it should be a draw to students … that would come here because they want to understand race better, because they want to challenge racism wherever they are in their lives,” Burnett said.