How did you learn about Knox, and why did you choose to come to Knox?
My high school basketball coach referred me to Coach Knosher at Knox. I chose Knox because of its law school placement rate, relative affordability, accessible distance from my home in Chicago, and the opportunity it offered to continue playing basketball in college (if an injured knee afforded me another chance—which it did for a couple of seasons).
How did you learn about A.B.L.E.?
I learned about A.B.L.E. as a prospective student from Tim Fair, my admissions suite host, who also encouraged my involvement when I arrived as a first-year student at Knox. Tim later became president of A.B.L.E. as a senior, and I followed him in that regard and became a leading officer.
What were your most significant experiences with A.B.L.E.—as a student and as a member of the college staff?
When I was a student at Knox, A.B.L.E. provided a safe space for me to affirm and express my cultural identity on a predominantly white campus that was still somewhat ambivalent about my presence in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was elected President using racial slogans like "Let's Make America Great Again!" A.B.L.E. also offered me an opportunity to develop my leadership abilities as a student interested in social justice issues and as a student also deeply inquisitive about the range of ideas being expressed about the American experience by those both within the organization and outside of it.
I think that the meeting our leadership called for with then-Knox President John McCall during my senior year was one of the more significant moments for me in A.B.L.E. We challenged him to do more to diversify the faculty and administrative staff at the College than was presently being done.
As a staff member at Knox both in the admissions office and later in the Dean of Students office, I served as an advisor to A.B.L.E. and worked with students and faculty like Penny Gold on the then newly created President's Council for Racial Concerns to push Knox for more diversity and inclusion. We not only increased and diversified African-American student enrollment but eventually forged the creation of an Office of Minority Affairs and a Black Studies program. I eventually served a brief stint as the associate dean for intercultural life and worked with faculty and staff like Fred Hord and John Strassburger for further campus climate change.
What were your experiences with A.B.L.E. House?
In the 1980s, the original A.B.L.E. House (on Academy Street) was a home away from home which allowed African-American students like myself to let down our hair; conduct our own meetings, think our own thoughts, play our own music, sing our own songs, dance at our own parties, cook our own foods, laugh at our own jokes, and speak in our own voices as we carved out an island oasis within what the late Lu Palmer (former ACM urban studies professor) termed "a sea of whiteness" at Knox and her sister campuses. We shaped our own majority space at "The House" and allowed others to enter as respected minorities who had to adjust to a different set of prevailing norms.
Among my responsibilities when I returned to work at Knox in the 1990s was to serve as the director of the renamed A.B.L.E. Center For Black Culture (on Tompkins Street), and I worked with A.B.L.E. officers, student leaders, and faculty/staff to build the new house's infrastructure (i.e., library, cultural artifacts and programming) so that it functioned in a public-facing way for communities both near and far. Befitting Knox's former standing as the national headquarters for the Association for Black Culture Centers, we launched outreach efforts like the Umoja Community Gospel Choir with Jesse Dixon, the A.B.L.E./Knox Math Club tutorial program with Jameta May '97, African storytelling and poetry workshops with Fred Hord, a community Kwanzaa celebration and other cultural events; while allowing "The House" to continue many of its vital student in-reach efforts. I trust that many African-American students still consider the "A.B.L.E. Center" to be a home away from home.
How do you see Knox having changed since you were a student?
Current African-American students may not realize it, but Knox has changed considerably since my time as a student. It's much more diverse from the time when only four of us entered as First Year students in 1981! There are also several tenured African-American faculty members when there were none when I was enrolled.
The existence of an Africana Studies department and major also validates the experiences of people of African descent and fills what once was a gaping intellectual hole at Knox with the culturally rich nutrients of interdisciplinary and paradigmatic analysis, discourse and theory about African humanity and related phenomena that is explored within the discipline to the benefit of all. I'm proud of A.B.L.E.'s ongoing and institutionalized role in pushing for Knox's continuous evolution in that regard.
Like SNCC, the Black Student Union, and other student organizations who inspired it, A.B.L.E. continues to serve Knox as a progressive force when gradualism and status quo-ism sets in on campus. Whether A.B.L.E. members are disrupting faculty meetings, sitting down with the Knox president over lunch to discuss change, or taking over the president's office, the organization continues to serve as a catalyst for progressive change and inclusion on campus.
What do you see as the role of Knox alumni, either through BAN (Black Alumni Network) and BAAKC (Black Alumni Association of Knox College) or individually, in bringing about changes?
BAN and BAAKC have to continue to provide Black alumni support for A.B.L.E. and Knox. However, ambivalent some may feel about our experience as students we owe a measure of support to those who follow us to campus and to those who have stayed behind to support them, like Mary Crawford '89. That support may take a variety of forms-from monetary contributions to student mentoring, from student recruitment to career networking, from faculty and staff support to board advisement.
I am absolutely thrilled about and supportive of the proactive engagement of BAN being led by some younger alumni like Esther Wilson Crawford '99; and I remain supportive of BAAKC's efforts to remain a source of support whenever called upon. It's not surprising that the most active members of both alumni organizations were leading officers of A.B.L.E. as students.
What do you think the members of A.B.L.E. should be working on, today and for the future?
In addition to continuing the push for more diversity and inclusion at Knox, I think that A.B.L.E. members should be mentoring African-American students coming behind them both on and off campus. A community service outreach to African-American students at Galesburg High School and in local elementary schools is a must, alongside being Big Brothers and Big Sisters to incoming First Year students at Knox. A.B.L.E. members should also be joining other student organizations like The Knox Student, Union Board, and student government to provide their perspective on relevant issues and activities on campus.
What advice do you have for students-both in A.B.L.E and those who are not in A.B.L.E—at Knox today?
My advice for A.B.L.E. members is to embrace your cultural identity but to also keep the doors of your heart swinging open to those who are different as you learn about yourself and the world around you at Knox. For the diverse array of students at Knox who are not in A.B.L.E., let me encourage you to learn as much as you can from the organization and those who comprise it. There is no one African-American voice or experience on campus, but A.B.L.E. manages to express one of the finest thrusts of our cultural group in its pursuit of liberty and equality.
Attend an A.B.L.E. meeting or event and learn something new! Join forces with A.B.L.E. on a social justice or a community service project! Step out of your comfort zone and lean into the discomfort of not being in the majority for a valuable change of perspective on being "hue"man! You may also be surprised to find out just how much you have in common with someone who appears to be very different from you!