Two years ago this week, the Collective for Change on the
Hill brought St. Olaf College to a standstill. Read on for
what’s happened since.


“Where the inequity lies”


Between Sept. 4, 2016 and April 29, 2017, nine racist
messages were discovered on the St. Olaf campus. The
last two notes directly targeted two black students, and
catalyzed a movement that would call attention to
institutional racism at the College. (
Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)

“Where the inequity lies.”

By
Avery Ellfeldt
May 3, 2019

 

With bullhorn in hand, Krysta Wetzel ’18 stood on the
second level of the St. Olaf College dining hall April 24,
2017, looking over the space.

“We as students of color feel unsafe on this campus, and
we will continue to make noise and disrupt your lives
until ours are made safer in a really strategic and
structured way,” Wetzel said, positioned above the buzz of
the dining hall. As Wetzel spoke, students craned their
necks to identify the voice disrupting their evening meal.
Meanwhile, Wetzel’s friend recorded the speech on their
phone. The recording was later posted on Facebook –
The Carletonian reported
May 5
that the video was shared more than 500 times.

Over the next week, a group of 21 students – the
Collective for Change on the Hill – successfully brought
St. Olaf College to a halt; student organizers slept on
the floor of Buntrock Commons, forced the College to
cancel all classes May 1 and brought national attention to
the unrest taking place in Northfield, Minn. – a sleepy,
midwestern town whose motto is “Cows, Colleges and
Contentment.”

“The biggest importance that I would attach to the
movement was the disruption that it caused – the rapture,
the fact that a place like this one could be brought to a
standstill, necessarily so,” Collective member Abdul Wake
’19 said.

The movement was spurred by nine racial slurs found
scribbled in public spaces throughout the 2016-17 academic
school year. The incidents varied in location, timing and
discovery – in one instance, the N-word was found written
on a whiteboard in a residence hall. In another, the slur
was scrawled on a sheet of paper and dropped into an “Ask
a Muslim anything” submission box. Later, the words “Build
the Wall! Deport the Illegals! Trump won!” were found
written on another college whiteboard.


After student organizers and some initial protestors
blocked the entrance to the Cafeteria, hundreds of
students began to gather in Buntrock Commons April 29.
Throughout the night, students of color spoke to the crowd
about their experiences of racism at St. Olaf, and
eventually demanded President Anderson come to campus.
When Anderson and Assistant to the President for
Institutional Diversity Bruce King later arrived, students
asked them questions in front of the crowd. (Avery
Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)

While the first seven incidents involved anonymous,
racist messages written in public spaces, the eighth and
ninth directly targeted two black St. Olaf students.

Don Williams ’17 took their dog for a walk around
midnight on April 23. When Williams returned, they found a
note with the N-word scribbled on it attached to their
car.

The next day, Williams, with the help of others,
organized a meeting in the Center for Art and Dance (CAD),
where students of color filled the Link to share their
experiences of racism at St. Olaf. At the gathering, one
student said that after leaving her backpack outside the
cafeteria, she returned to find a note that read “go back
to Africa.” Other students spoke about St. Olaf professors
using the N-word in academic settings.

Collective member Jabri Whirl ’18 referred to the April
24 gathering as “the family meeting in CAD.”

“That moment made me realize that this [was] beyond my
individual experience with this, this is something that
[was] systematically happening to us, and systematically
over the years, people have had to deal with it alone,”
Whirl said.

[This] is something that was systematically happening
to us, and systematically over the years people have
had to deal with it alone.

Jabri Whirl ’18

Note number nine

 

On April 29, messages began to circulate via Snapchat and
Facebook that Samantha Wells ’17, like Williams, found a
racist note on her car. Tamira Fuentes ’19 said she heard
the news on her way to an event hosted by Presente, a
student organization that promotes awareness of Latinx
culture.

“I was going to help Presente cook, and then … some of
the students came up the Hill and were talking about Sam’s
note that was posted on Facebook,” Fuentes said. “So I
went back into Buntrock and students were already kind of
together.”

This time, the note was typed. It addressed Wells
directly, reading, “I am so glad that you are leaving
soon. One less n***** that this school has to deal with.
You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut
up or I will shut you up.”

Collective member Krysta Wetzel ’18 speaks during the
Tomson sit-in. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)

Early that evening Tia Schaffer ’20, Wetzel, Williams and
others walked across campus and spoke into a megaphone –
they urged students to gather in Buntrock Commons and
block the entrance to the cafeteria. The blockade later
developed into a
full-fledged
Buntrock sit-in. Over a loudspeaker, students of color
addressed a packed house once again. They shared anecdotes
of professors and peers patronizing them in classes,
feeling socially isolated from the general community and
being tokenized in the College’s marketing materials.
Organizers and protestors remained in the building through
the night and into the early morning. Meanwhile, student
EMTs were on standby and the Pause Kitchen reopened to
make pizza for the crowd. KSTO, St. Olaf’s student radio
station, used their equipment to stream the events of the
sit-in. News reporters arrived on campus, answering the
Collective’s call for national media attention.

Students who’ve had a strong presence, or students
who knew how to have these conversations were the ones
that were being recruited, being asked ‘Do you want to
be committed to this?’

Tamira Fuentes ’19

“That just happened because there was a need for people
to stand in solidarity with each other and for people to
be heard and to let people know we were afraid,”
Collective member Dillon Cathro ’17 said.
  “It was during that sit-in when there were 1,000 people
there that I was pulled in with about 20 others into the
Pause.”

Whirl, Fuentes and Wake characterized the formation of
the Collective as both organic and strategic. “Students
who’ve had a strong presence, or students who knew how to
have these conversations were the ones that were being
recruited, being asked ‘Do you want to be committed to
this?” Fuentes said.

The organizers divided themselves into subcommittees –
some would handle administrative tasks, others would
communicate with the press, alumni and faculty. Whirl, a
studio art major, built and maintained the Collective’s
website. Fuentes took meeting minutes and facilitated
communication among the group.

April 30, student organizers alerted the student body,
faculty and staff that the following Monday, there would
be a protest in Tomson Hall beginning at 7:50 a.m. sharp.
In an email to the community, Cathro urged faculty to
support student efforts by canceling classes, making
accommodations regarding assignments and attending the
protest themselves. The President’s Leadership Team (PLT)
ultimately cancelled classes for that Monday. Several days
prior, during the Buntrock sit-in, Assistant to the
President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King announced
the PLT would host a Q&A session with students in
Tomson 280 at 8:30 a.m. The Collective urged students not
to attend.

On the morning of May 1, students flooded the building
and began a day-long
sit-in. All three levels of the building were packed tight –
students camped out in classrooms and left standing room
only in the Tomson atrium. Members of the Collective tried
to bring their list of demands to Anderson at 8:45 a.m.,
only to find that he was not in his office. They
subsequently led students to Tomson 280 to request that
Anderson sign the “terms and conditions of
negotiation.”  Anderson delayed discussions in order to attend Chapel
service that day, where Paul Briggs spoke at 10:10 a.m.
After roughly six hours of discussion over the wording and
content of the terms, Anderson agreed to the revised
version around 3 p.m.

While the general community was well aware of the
organizing work the student leaders were doing, every
member of the Collective interviewed for this story
highlighted that behind the scenes, they also had the
responsibility of monitoring the emotional wellbeing of
their peers, co-organizers and friends.

“That’s what the true nature of a collective is,” Cathro
said. “You know, you might have a main role but the nature
of a collective is such that if someone needs a break, you
fill in.”

‘so much beyond that’

 

May 10, President Anderson announced via email that
the final note was ‘fabricated,’ the Collective
pushed back against subsequent delegitimization of
movement as a whole

Just nine days after the student organizers interrupted
all normal activity on campus, Anderson wrote in a May 10
email that the ninth racist incident targeting Wells “was
not a genuine threat.”

In a follow-up email sent later that same day, Anderson
clarified. He said the author of the note had confessed it
was “fabricated” in an attempt to draw attention to
student concerns about the campus climate. Due to federal
privacy laws, the PLT did not announce who the author of
the note was or what punitive action was taken against
them, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

The Collective promptly responded to Anderson’s
announcement in an email to the community – they
emphasized the focus of the movement was “transforming the
institution” as a whole, not just eradicating isolated
instances of hate speech.

Whirl added that institutional racism at St. Olaf goes
far beyond the incidents that sparked the protests.

Ted Thornhill, a former St. Olaf professor who studies
race and racism, echoed the students’ assessment of the
fabricated note.

“It doesn’t matter if it was [fabricated],” he
said.

“It changes absolutely nothing about the nature of the
institution,” he added. “Nor does it change the need for
St. Olaf to make significant changes to how it operates,
to create a climate on campus that is not simply diverse
and inclusive, but anti-racist at its core.”

This ‘not genuine’ incident does not invalidate the
experiences of others and does not invalidate
institutional racism.

The Collective, in response to Anderson’s May 10
email

While the Washington Post, Minnesota Public Radio and
Kare11 ran headlines highlighting the “hoax” in the days
following Anderson’s announcement, the Collective
continued their work in earnest. The organizers hosted a
town hall on May 14 and worked with faculty, alumni and
students to form the Task Force on Institutional Racism
before the end of the semester. The Task Force examined
the Collective’s demands over the summer and issued a
series of recommendations to the PLT.

The rest of the campus, however, fell into silence. Even
though eight other instances of hate speech had been
reported that year, the announcement of the fabricated
note called into question the legitimacy of the others,
and the movement as a whole. It seemed everyone, including
faculty, was just “waiting for the Collective to do
something,” Fuentes said.

The fabricated note’s chilling effect on the movement
demonstrated that the student body was disproportionately
focused on isolated incidents of hate speech, Chakravarty
said. The incidents themselves were only important insofar
as they galvanized the protests and testified to the
racist institutional structures and climate of the
College, he added.

“That kind of politics focuses on trying to sanitize and
sterilize the discourse, as if preventing every
articulation of the N-word in the future will resolve
every problem,” Chakravarty said.

Wake agreed. He wasn’t surprised when the announcement
brought the movement to a sharp – and silent –
standstill.

“People are always skeptical of the experiences of the
oppressed, so it’s nothing new,” Wake said.

“At the same time, I think there is an expectation that
the experiences of people, specifically black people, is
that we’re almost designated to be the recipients of this
kind of violence. That some people are just meant to take
it,” Wake added.

…I think there is an expectation that the
experiences of people, specifically black people, is
that we’re almost designated to be thee recipients
of this kind of violence. That some people are just
meant to take it.

Abdul Wake ’19


In the past two years, the College has initiated
programs, hired staff and taken other steps to address 10
of the 27 demands issued by the Collective. Others, like
those that involve faculty demographics and the GE
curriculum, are still in progress but set to be met in
coming years. Several have not been addressed at
all. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)

Anderson signed the Collective’s Terms and
Conditions of Negotiation May 1, 2017, committing to
consider the 27 demands proposed by student
organizers.

here’s where they stand today:

 

 

YES

up-for-debate

no

1A) Remove Arne Christenson from the Advisory Board of the
Institute for Freedom and Community.

1B) Implement mandatory racial and cultural sensitivity
training for incoming students.

1C) Mandate Sustained Dialogue participation for student
athletes, Student Government Association (SGA) executives and
the Student Senate.

Sustained Dialogue – formerly funded by the Institute for
Freedom and Community and operated by the Center for
Multicultural and International Engagement – was
discontinued and replaced by Better Angels, a program that
focuses on political and ideological diversity. While some
teams have discussed diversity and inclusion, St. Olaf
Athletics has not addressed these topics with “mass
trainings,” according to Athletic Director Ryan Bowles.
The SGA Senate and Executive Team has participated in
related trainings each semester, according to SGA Vice
President Abbie Haug ’19. While in the past some trainings
were affiliated with Sustained Dialogue, others have been
facilitated by professors or other staff.

1D) Hire a “third-party” who is versed in Title VI regulations
and able to facilitate dialogue about race relations.

The Working Group did not directly address this demand.
They did recommend the creation of the Council for Equity
and Inclusion, which was formally established in the fall
of 2018 as a sustainable campus body which will oversee
the College’s strategic equity and inclusion “plans and
metrics,” among other efforts,  according to the Council’s Progress Report.

1E) Acknowledge the institution is built on Dakota land.

While St. Olaf has not fulfilled this demand, the College
is currently in talks with the City of Northfield,
Carleton and the local Historical Society to designate a
permanent memorial regarding the native history of the
Northfield area. While not yet completed, Assistant to the
President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King said this
should be complete by Oct. 8, 2019 – Northfield’s official
Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

2A) Compose a 10-year plan to increase recruitment and
retention of Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Multiracial and
Non-American faculty and staff.

Those applying for faculty positions now have to provide
a statement regarding how their teaching philosophy is
guided by equity and inclusion, according to Assistant to
the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King. The
College has altered qualifications for faculty and staff
applicants to facilitate a “broader applicant pool.” The
Council on Equity and Inclusion is also in the beginning
stages of developing the new Strategic Plan which will
incorporate this demand.

2B) The College should not threaten jobs of faculty, staff and
administrators who support the demands of the Collective.

The PLT responded that “the College does not engage in
threats to faculty or staff when they disagree with
institutional policies or actions.” Ted Thornhill, a
former St. Olaf sociology professor who studies race and
racism, however,  disagreed. “I’m sitting here thinking right now through
my head about a number of faculty who either didn’t get
tenure or left because the place was intolerable for them.
It was racially inhospitable, to put it nicely.”

3A, B) Reconstruct the General Education (GE) system to
address the sociopolitical dimensions of race, ethnicity and
identity.

A March 2019 draft from the GE Task Force proposed a new
“Power, Inequity and Race” GE requirement. An introductory
course in Women’s and Gender studies was not included in
the draft as stipulated in this demand.

3C) MCD/G courses must require students to attend Diversity
Celebrations Committee (DCC) events.

The Working Group commended “all the ways in which
various courses already incorporate diversity in materials
and pedagogy.” At press time, this demand has not been
met.

3D) Courses on race/gender/sexuality/intersectionality should
be taught in diverse spaces across campus.

The demand was deferred from the PLT to the Task Force
and was not addressed by the Working Group.

4A) Establish a zero tolerance policy on racial, sexual,
homophobic epithets for faculty, staff and students.

The Task Force did not fully endorse this demand so as to
ensure it would not cause further barriers to reporting
racist incidents. When someone commits one of these acts
they are subject to the college’s conduct review process,
the Bias Incident Response Team wrote in an email to the
Manitou Messenger. 

4B) Redefine “hate crime” to more closely reflect the federal
definition.

The PLT responded by saying the College will maintain its
current definition of “hate crime,” because it is “widely
used among other institutions” and is based off federal
regulations.

5A) Create a more accessible Discrimination and Bias Report
Form.

The Discrimination and Bias Report Form was developed
during the summer of 2017 and updated in November 2018.
Those changes – driven by suggestions made by SGA Senate –
included asking reporting parties to provide “detailed
information” rather than be “concise” when recounting the
incident, according to the Response Team. Some faculty and
students have expressed, however, that it remains unclear
how information and data gathered from the form are
utilized or followed-up on. In a 2018 Student Senate
referendum, Jauza Khaleel ’18 and Tim Bergeland ’18, SGA
President and Vice President, respectively, called for an
equity audit to, among other things, “critically ascertain
how the bias incident reporting mechanism is used.”

5B) Ensure there is transparency between victims of hate
crimes and the administration.

When someone reports  an incident through the Discrimination and Bias Report
Form, it is sent to all members of the Bias and Incident
Response Team. Dean of Students, Rosalyn Eaton ’87,
typically reaches out to the reporting student
immediately, according to the Team. While the Team works
to keep the reporting student informed regarding the