How did you come to choose Knox?
Tim Johnson was the admission counselor, and he came to my high school, Kenwood Academy, and he gave me the sell for the liberal arts education. I was in everything, president of student council, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, drama, all that. I don't want to go to a place where I can't still do everything. Taking into account that I got into Golden Apple, because I knew I wanted to be a teacher. That's why I turned down other scholarships.
I didn't look at the racial demographics of the school or Galesburg, honestly. It came down between Knox and Monmouth, at one point, and one of my English professors said, I have friends who go there; you're too smart for Monmouth, you need to go to Knox. They'll kind of let you be yourself. And one of the concerns of family and friends and mentors was that I'd get lost at a bigger university, so Knox is the way to go. It was less about the demographics and more about the school itself. Three hours from home, to a Chicago kid, I was close enough to my family that I could come back home.
When you arrived at Knox, what was that like?
Day one, because I was an athlete, I go there before everyone else. My mom had to get a friend to drive me down, I had to come in earlier than everyone else. So I spent my first day on campus alone, in my dorm room, getting set up and taking stock. I didn't leave my room. I think I ordered Alfano's Pizza first time then, because I had no clue where to go, no one to show me around. Then cross-country practice kicked in, and I was almost the only Black person on cross-country, so I do remember that. I had Pam Bell '09, and Selene [Gonzalez '08] was Latina, so there was some representation. And they were the people who really took me in.
My family was my pledge father in FIJI. And there was a running gag that we kind of turned FIJI in a blacker fraternity because we all started recruiting everyone. It was interesting because it was the first time I had extended exposure to people who hadn't been around Black people. But again, those first few weeks, it was all cross-country athletes. It was a lot of hanging out with the cross country team, meeting people from the football team, with the seniors and juniors who had been around, who knew the ropes.
At the time I was there, people didn't care about athletics. It was something you did in your free time. Now it has more of an emphasis, but at the time, I got more out of the athletic experiences in training when I was in high school. I was a better athlete, and it played a bigger role in my life in high school. I stayed on because it was where a lot of people I already knew were. I guess it brought me closer to some people. When all your friends are in cross-country or track from 4 to 5, and if you don't go to cross-country and track you're not going to see anybody until then, you might as well do it.
How did you learn about A.B.L.E., start becoming involved with A.B.L.E.?
I got into A.B.L.E. initially because they had the welcome back barbecue. It took off from there. I volunteered at events, I was around. Maurice McDavid '10 was in some capacity then. Everyone knows and loves Maurice. He is my eternal nemesis and one of my best friends. I decided to spend a whole bunch of time making his life miserable, so we started doing more. My engagement really picked up when Tianna [Cervantez '06] was hired. That was huge. That was someone who came in with a plan and a vision for what we could do. And I love making things happen, and getting things done. I remember how Lo Nuestro and A.B.L.E. would throw parties and events. It was great to say, "We could really do something with this, if we tried hard enough."
Had you done anything like A.B.L.E. in high school?
Yes, I worked on the Youth Innovation Fund Challenge as a high schooler. It gave out grant money and did those things. I consider some of the work I did for the school newspaper and the Hyde Park Herald as a high schooler to be part of that—citizen journalism. A lot of my work involved organizing and that was some of what I brought in with A.B.L.E.
What's the most significant on campus event with A.B.L.E. that you can recall?
It was something really simple. We got everyone together at the house and made dinner. We'd do that regularly, but I remember one where I remember Maurice McDavid, Christian Mahone '11, some underclass kids, we were all there. We sat and hung out and laughed and complained. We were able to provide a safe space. And that is something that—it's small, but it's not, and it stands out to me.
The biggest "events" in my mind are when we would go over to A.B.L.E. and hang out. Watch TV, we had some wonderful speakers come in, planning, co-host some events, participating in I-Fair every year. Those were really cool, and I'm glad we were part of that. As I think about my longevity, what I remember most, are those nights where I had a really bad class, found myself defending my blackness or my perspective or my history. And if I didn't get a space where I could just let it out, I'd explode. So I could go over to the house and not have to carry that. That's what I remember the most.
Reading about the founding of A.B.L.E., it seemed to me that the academic experience was a big part of what they were concerned with—recruitment of Black faculty, recruitment of Black students, having more Black interest books in the library. Maybe even more concerned with these academic issues than the big political issues of the day, like the war or the draft.
I do think the College has a role in addressing those national issues. If you know that you can avoid the draft by going to college, but you didn't find a college option that spoke to you, whether or not you're trying not to get drafted, you're not going to go. During all those [national] issues, we're still looking at equal and adequate education, education that's going to lift people out of poverty. What we know about the armed forces is that low-income people, people of color, join for career stability for them and their families, the next generation. Knox is getting more representative, providing more opportunities, yes, it's bringing diversity into the College. That's how they're supposed to address the bigger issues. That's their obligation. So, maybe taking a stance on the war was not the College's way. But you have to look at bigger issues and the role you play in it. So if people are complaining that the draft overwhelmingly impacts people of color, what is another alternative for people of color? From what I can tell, it wasn't college, because these people were going to end up failing, and end up in the military anyway, or fighting on campus because they're going into hostile environments. Those were some of the things I felt sometimes.
The number of times that someone asked me how I got into Knox, the implication that I was an affirmative action admit, or people asking where I went to high school. When I said "Chicago," it was like, "This must be hard for you, you guys didn't read this stuff in school." Actually, I had been in AP and honors classes since I was a freshman. I was one of the top students in every possible class. This wasn't new. The number of times I said, "I'm going home, want to visit over break?" and they'd say, "My mom won't let me go to the ghetto." I didn't live in the ghetto. I lived in Hyde Park. A nice neighborhood. But it was in the city. I remember at one point, FIJI had a party, and a brother of another fraternity said, "Why's this party so boring?" And he says, "There's too many niggers here." And we fought, obviously. People said, "Oh he's just making a joke." That's not a joke. That's not something that's fun, that's not something we're going to let stand. No. That's not something we're going to gloss over. So, when I think about the College's job, there are people there, with this freedom to flourish and this commitment to social justice, change and all that, there are still people who can look at that and be confused about why he got beat up.
There was a time when someone in a different fraternity did something stupid, set a couch on fire. And when police showed up, he ran. Every Black student I talked to, especially from Chicago, we were not surprised that he ran when police showed up. Because I run; I ran several times when police showed up, because I know Galesburg. Working in District 205, traveling around, running through town for cross-country. People said, "Why would you run? Police are here to help you." Well, not in my experience. I had the luxury of living across the street from John Schlaf for a year, when I worked in 205, lived in Galesburg. I love John, one of the greatest guys ever, all the work he did with campus safety, talking with A.B.L.E. But what we also took note of was that every description, whenever there was something that happened to student or in Galesburg, Maurice and a few of us used to laugh, because we'd say, I guess we're not going out to a party tonight because we all fit the description." A large, dark-skinned male between 5'6" and 6'3" wearing dark clothing. Those little things. We'd sit in the living room of the FIJI house, and we'd say, "Do you really feel like going out tonight because that is a problem."
I worked with Carver Center, I volunteered there. One of the things I got annoyed with was, in the course "School and Society," students did volunteer hours for the class, and there's this challenge, explaining racism at Knox to people. The best way I can put it is that there are racists who want to save the world, and by saving little black and brown kids, they are saving the world. They don't see a problem with that. But what are you trying to save these people from? They think that they can put in a few hours and institutional or structural racism doesn't exist. They'll say, "They can't read, I don't understand why their parents don't care and don't try." And you've made no attempt to understand that a lot of these people were moved down from the projects in Chicago. I know because my family knows people who were sent to Galesburg when the projects got knocked down.
People will say, "I don't see race. I want to help all the kids." Knox has a race problem, in the fact that it wants to be so liberal that it doesn't see race; it doesn't see these massive issues that surround the students who go there and the town. When I worked in 205, one of the Black parents at Silas Willard School said to me, "I'm so glad you're here." I said, "I didn't do anything." And the parent said, "Maybe now they won't write up the Black kids so much [for disciplinary issues] because they'll have someone who can actually talk to them [about their home life]."
Knox is where they're training to be teachers. So you have these notions, putting down black and brown kids who are poor in Galesburg, they're poor in Chicago or wherever else they are—those are the prejudices that they bring to class. And now they're reinforced by issues in the town. And in class, no one's "checking it."
Did A.B.L.E. have an effect on the College?
In my four years, we saw a lot more Black students come, more recruitment, and I like to think it's because A.B.L.E. students provided more support. We were in TRIO, we were everywhere, trying to be ourselves. We tried to be mentors. It was hard to get people to show up at big events. It was also important to let people come into spaces where they can be home. I've seen some of the students who protested, or students who were in A.B.L.E., [after I graduated], so I'd like to think that A.B.L.E. bringing people in, and keeping people there—those efforts were successful in some small way.
The number of times I sat down with friends who said, "I'm going to leave." I'd say, "Where are you going to go?" or "Why? You've put in two years, we're here, at least stay with your support system."
I didn't know BAN [Black Alumni Network] and BAAKC [Black Alumni Association of Knox College] existed until Robin Mahung [Kolbeck '12] sent me a message-one of my favorite people. She told me about some of the issues still happening at the College, and that there was an alumni group. Consistency-one of the things that the fraternity world has, the alumni committees that help run the house. Help with executive functioning, because once people graduate, you still have people who've been there five or six years who can help with any number of things. The alumni network is really there to let students know that, yeah, it was kind of like that when we were there, and here's how we dealt with it, and no, that's something completely new and it's a cause for concern, and here's how we can be support. Truly, Dr. Eric Z. Williams '85 was one of the big supports for me.
The advice to "get your degree," that's straightforward "Black advice." Because I was first-generation, and I thought about leaving Knox a lot. And the number of alumni and upperclassmen who said "Just get your degree ...." Alums who came back maybe once in the four years I was there, we spoke maybe once, would say that "Even if you never come back to Knox, you'll still have a degree." And that's what matters, that's what will help you. And if you want to come back and help other students, then that's cool, because you know how bad it is. But some things are just a part of the College, so just make sure you get your degree. Sometimes the best thing that we can do for current students is to give them the hard, straightforward advice that, as much as you want to change the institution, you can change it in little ways, you can add to it, if it's going to come at the expense of your mental health, at the expense of your grades, or you possibly not graduating, you have to make the decision. Sometimes, if you're close enough, just shut up and graduate and do what you need to do with your life and your career, and remember these experiences.
A.B.L.E. House is everything. One of the reasons we have that study lounge is me, I'll take the credit for that. One day as house manager during spring break, I was cleaning and found the plaque for the Fred Hord Library. Putting physical work into A.B.L.E. House is one of my greatest joys. When I think about coming back to Knox, I think about going to GDH because that's where the ed studies department is, Diana Beck, TRIO and the CTL, because that's where I worked for four years. But first of all, I think of A.B.L.E.. I think of living there, playing in the grass outside with my friends. I think of a place where you just got to be. Especially me, as a Black student. Some of my best memories where when I didn't have to worry about being a Black student, because I was at the "Black house." I could do stuff there and relax. I still remember every inch of the place.
A.B.L.E. as multicultural organization
Right now in class, I'm teaching my students about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers. One of the things we talk about is the platform, "All power to all people." So as long as people don't have power to control their destiny, their economic health, we're gonna have conflict. First and foremost, A.B.L.E. helped other organizations come into formation. A.B.L.E. being able to flourish and stand helped Lo Nuestro get a house, helped AAINA, helped the I-House. A.B.L.E.'s longevity is a testimony to how important these houses are, if students are going to keep coming. Its existence helps show that power on the Knox campus where only the fraternities have their own house. I think that's basic. The fraternities and the cultural houses are the only houses. The exec members for A.B.L.E. also were exec members for other organizations. No matter what, students of color will be a minority, and when support each other, we'll provide that retention and recruitment.
A.B.L.E. getting recognition helped other organizations get recognition.
A.B.L.E. and Lo Nuestro, especially, that's what they focused on, was family. That's what we need to bring, that's what we need to maintain, that's our culture, our history, that's the only thing that will keep us together.
What should A.B.L.E. students should be focusing on right now?
I'm not going to tell them what to do. Whatever battle is at Knox for Black students, that's what they need to be putting their weight behind. There was a student who knelt during the national anthem. As an alum, I signal-boosted that, sent to all my friends-this girl is awesome, go for it. I also know the backlash she got for it. It was absurd. The push then for me as an alum is to challenge some of the people I graduated with. You say you're all about truth and justice, you went to law school, but you're really quiet on this, her first amendment rights. They're killing us and still killing us. Wherever they feel they need to put their resources, that's what I want to see them do. I want them to know that they can reach out to the alumni.
Any other thoughts?
Until Tianna [Cervantez '06] asked me to talk about A.B.L.E., I don't think I realized that I had been on A.B.L.E. exec for four years. That hadn't fully sunk in, that every year of my Knox career, I was on A.B.L.E. exec, a member of A.B.L.E., I was up cooking chickens for I-Fair, talking to prospective students. For two years, I was president. I don't think that fully hit me until I got to talk, the successes, the failures. The things I did well, and the things I look back, I was a stupid 21-year-old kid in charge of an organization. It is, upon hindsight, one of the biggest honors I've had. It's an interesting position to be in.