photo courtesy MSAB
The Multicultural Student Activities Board (MSAB) works to educate the Calvin community about issues related to racism. Members of the MSAB picture here are: Jessica Ricciardelli, Marla Love, Eric Flores, Jena Cooksey, Christie Rebba and Peter Harkema.

By Erin Miller

For the past 15 years, Calvin has touted its desire to create a multicultural, diverse campus. In the course of pursuing that goal, it has begun programs like Entrada, a pre-college program for minority students; the Mosaic floor, an intentional community in Kalsbeek-Huizenga focusing on learning about different cultures; and the Healing Racism Institutes (HRI), an eight week program that looks at racism within American culture and within Calvin itself. Although not all of the original goals have not yet been met, Calvin has not given up on that goal.

A more recent institution is the Multicultural Student Activities Board (MSAB), a group whose self-defined mission is not focused on promoting diversity or bringing more minority students to Calvin, but to increase awareness of racism and further Calvin’s policy of anti-racism. Approximately 20 students are members of the MSAB, of which about one-third is white, one-half is black and the remaining students are Hispanic and Asian. Membership to the board is usually granted through a selection process run by the MSAB itself.

Senior Laura Jo Johnson, a three-year member of the MSAB, said that while racism can be difficult to define, the group has a working definition which they use.

“Racism, on an institutional level, is where institutions are set up to serve white people, set up by white people for white people,” Johnson said. “It neglects to include people of color. That perspective is very important.

“Anti-racism is a pro-active choice against racism. It also has to deal with white privilege, where white students have the privilege to choose not to think about racism because it doesn’t effect them,” she added.

Junior Jena Cooksey agreed.

“What we want to try to do is make Calvin more aware and hold them accountable for the anti-racist vision they have,” she said. “We want to push those visions.”

Another goal of the MSAB, Cooksey added, was to serve American minority students, referred to as AHANA (African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American), as they come into Calvin.

“We want to rehabilitate incoming freshmen, possibly through an AHANA orientation,” she said.

Looking to the future, Cooksey said, the MSAB hopes that Calvin will continue to promote cultural and racial awareness to all students.

“A long-term goal is to get an anti-racist curriculum in core,” she said. “I think [Calvin is] moving in the right direction, especially with the new cross-cultural core requirement. My freshman year, I never would have guessed they would have that class.”

This year, the MSAB was involved with several projects, including bringing lecturers to Calvin to speak about topics associated with racism, as well as the Festival of Lights celebration in October. According to mentor Jacqueline Rhodes, who is mentoring the board until someone is hired to fill the position of leadership vacated by Michael Travis in January, MSAB has had an active year.

“MSAB has had a great second semester,” she said. “The group is very self-directed.”

Rhodes said she believes there are some students, faculty and staff at Calvin who are making positive steps towards creating an anti-racist institution.

“I’m always thinking of Calvin as making strides, particularly the Calvin Anti-Racist Team (CART),” she said. “It’s been a team effort between CART, the MSAB and the Mosaic community. There are a few people doing a lot of work.”

However, when the majority of the Calvin community stands by and does nothing for anti-racism, that creates the very problems against which the MSAB is struggling.

“One of the problems is that people have the privilege to not even acknowledge the problem,” Rhodes said.

“Personally, I think Calvin students have made themselves immune to the words anti-racism and multiculturalism,” Cooksey said. “They ignore them. We get low turnouts for lectures. Calvin students aren’t concerned [and don’t show up].”

The problem with that attitude is that minority students are unable to be immune to the words or the situation.

“We have to be concerned with it because we live it everyday,” junior Christie Rebba said. “That’s a struggle in itself.”

She added that said reception of the MSAB’s message has been mixed.

“Some people are receptive,” she said. “I can’t say that everybody is. There are others who think we’re just complaining.”

Cooksey said she has seen some improvement in attitudes among students and professors.

“Since my freshman year, I think there has been a growing awareness and concern among the students, but mainly within the students I knew were [already] concerned,” she said. “There is still a lack of courage [to do anything or speak up].”

Many minority students at Calvin have classroom experiences in which they felt their situation was ignored or diminished by white students and even professors.

“I’ve heard some horror stories,” freshman Saraiah Powell said. “Students will get up for a presentation and make racist remarks and not even know it. [Hearing the stories] prepares me for when and if it does [happen].”

Another major purpose of the MSAB is functioning as a support group. Most members agree that the MSAB is more than just another board formed to sit around and discuss theory.

“We’re a family, not just a committee or a board,” Johnson said.

The MSAB is also fighting the belief that by learning about racism, people are stuck in the past. Cooksey said she believes that only by working through the past can progress against racism be made.

“We’re breaking through a revolutionary time right now,” she said. “I think people want to move on, [saying], ‘Let’s forget about the past civil rights movement, the war, the north and the south.’ The MSAB is saying, let’s go back to those things and reconstruct. We’re going back because it’s relevant.”

Next year, Cooksey added, the MSAB is hoping to sponsor an awareness week about racism and continue to educate Calvin students about the issues involved with a discussion on racism.

“Once you know something you can’t ‘un-know’ it,” Powell said. “If you uncover your eyes, you can’t cover them back up.”

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