How did you choose Knox?
I attended a college fair; DeVone Eurales was the rep. He painted a really good picture of the College and all of the different things it had, that it offered to students of color specifically. I knew about A.B.L.E. before I even made it on campus because it was part of what DeVone brought to me. That's what really set it apart. It seemed like a very natural part of the College, what he highlighted.
What was your most significant experience with A.B.L.E.?
I would say the most significant experience would be the presentation of Black History Month. In my experience at Knox, A.B.L.E. hosted Black History Month. The College didn't really do much to support Black History Month, with events or even recognizing that it's an important population. So it really fell on the students to celebrate ourselves as Black people. And that's when I felt the most consistent unity with A.B.L.E., during Black History Month.
There were times that less pleasant things happened, and we rallied behind a cause. When Mike Brown was killed [in Ferguson, Missouri]. I remember there being a lot of push for A.B.L.E. to respond in some way. A lot of students gravitated toward the house as a safe haven, a place to air our frustrations that Black people keep getting killed by the police in this country and there's not much being done about it.
Another big rallying point was when Ariyana Smith '16 walked off the basketball court. I was the house monitor at the time, and she was my resident. So there was a lot going around, making sure that our students who chose to protest were safe. In addition to when Tundun Lawani '14 was killed [in a traffic accident] on campus, I remember the first place we went, we made sure that the Harambee advisor was at Harambee and the A.B.L.E. advisor was at A.B.L.E. In addition to her sorority sisters, black and brown students were really grieving hard. The first place I wanted to go was to the A.B.L.E. house, because that was the place on campus where I felt safest, the most at home, and I knew I wasn't going to be judged for my feelings of frustration.
My senior year at Knox, students did a very big push to really reach back to alumni, and that's when BAN [Black Alumni Network] started to grow. Students felt that history keeps repeating itself, and the reasons that A.B.L.E. was founded are still issues on campus today. And so we reached out to alumni for any sort of support and guidance. I remember Randy Strickland '90, Arlene Mitchell '94, Esther Wilson [Crawford] '99, all coming to campus, along with other alumni, to talk with us, to coach us through the process. That unfortunately some things are the same, and that's how they dealt with them, and that's how they felt most comfortable.
What did you do at A.B.L.E. House?
As as student, I went to A.B.L.E. to study. I knew that I could find books and resources for my classes in the A.B.L.E. library. My sophomore year, I was the A.B.L.E. librarian, and I worked with Tianna [Cervantez '06] to revamp the A.B.L.E. library, because it was not being used. Making sure that books could be there that would help students, but also there to study. Eventually, my senior year, I lived in A.B.L.E. We had Sunday dinners. We'd invite students and our advisors as well-Mary Crawford '89 and Jessie Dixon '89 came to have dinner with us. That became a big drawing point, together, making A.B.L.E. feel like a family, because that year, 2014-2015 was a very heavy year, with all the events going on, between Mike Brown and Ariyana walking out, and A.B.L.E. being defaced, there were a lot of ways that being Black on that campus felt very difficult. It felt like a full time job. And having a study space, having those Sunday dinners to look forward to every week, really helped give something to look forward to, the motivation to continue. I've still got some great pictures from those Sunday dinners.
A.B.L.E. was defaced—what happened?
I was abroad at that time. Someone drew on the steps of A.B.L.E., I'm pretty sure it was the n-word, but I'm not certain, because I was not on campus. I do recall us all having a meeting with Teresa [Amott] and airing our frustrations and explaining what actions we expected. And there was a pretty big feeling on campus during the selection of our previous dean, because there was the same frustration that our voices were not being heard. The meeting with Teresa was extremely disappointing, which I'm sure is not going to be the headline of the article, but I do want to mention it, because it was the feedback from alumni that we were getting that encouraged us to finally sit down as a club, and not as individuals, about how uncomfortable we felt on this campus and how we felt that could be changed by way of the College doing more.
What do you think the College should do, to move forward?
At the time, our biggest thing was that as students, we are the backbone of the college. We felt mistreated, devalued, abused, and we were fed up. We felt like being Black on Knox's campus—we were made the poster child for the campus for not much reciprocity when it came to any resources. At the time, Tianna was on leave from the CIL [Center for Intercultural Life], and there was no replacement. She was gone for two terms, and no one replaced her, as if she was not an integral part of this College. That was extremely frustrating to us as students, because she was A.B.L.E.'s advisor at the time. Mary stepped in, but the formal advisor was Tianna. And we were very happy with the way that Mary helped, both academically and emotionally. But the fact that Tianna was not replaced even with an interim person was extremely frustrating. There was one term where she and Jamal Nelson '14, who had just graduated, and after that Jamal was by himself. And we didn't feel that we as students were being made a priority, especially as Black and brown students that Tianna's office specifically served.
We talked to Teresa about the fact that Ariyana was suspended from the basketball team for peacefully protesting. And that was unacceptable. We had a die-in at the MLK convocation and that was on the day of a student open house on campus, and they took all of the prospective students and guided them away from our protest as if it was something that was not happening, as if protesting was not part of the foundation of Knox College. So we felt that protesting is celebrated once you're years later, but in the moment, our protests were trying to be hidden from prospective students.
This is by far not a comprehensive list of the things that were discussed at the meeting. But every effort that A.B.L.E. made to celebrate Black history or promote Black people were ultimately co-opted by the College. And the College would slap their name on it, as if it was an event that they had planned and supported. And sometimes the College would offer to donate some funds, but they were not a part of any of the planning to help any of these events happen. And that was extremely frustrating to us, as students, to be the sole people responsible for Black History Month on our campus and celebrating Black students in general.
At the time, we were looking to fill the Dean of Students position, and students really wanted to have a voice in that decision.
And that same year, they announced that they were not going to do any sort of multicultural student orientation, that there would just be a general orientation for students. I graduated that year, so I'm not sure it happened, but it was definitely on the table, and we were not happy about that.
Knox has done so much to recruit students of color, but the disconnect is when students get to campus. The admission office is an entity of its own. They decided to focus on recruiting more students of color. And that's great. And they have a full-time person focused on that. But it's not the same when you get to campus, because you can be recruited by any number of the admission officers. But when you get to campus, everyone is funneled to Tianna's office, as the only staff member who actually deals with students of color. So, to have an entire admissions team actively recruiting students of color, but only one person managing students of color once they're on campus, and then, for my senior year, for that person to have been gone and not replaced, was extremely disappointing.
And, in addition to Tianna, we have cultural houses like A.B.L.E. that are student-run, but they're the main thing that is advertised when we're recruiting students of color. Hey, we have things like A.B.L.E., but there's no one on our staff or faculty who's overseeing that except for one person who's responsible for all the cultural clubs on campus. It's very frustrating, because there's this promise to support the students, but once you're on campus, there's only so much that one person can do. And Tianna is phenomenal, but there's only so much that she can do alone. And we as students, I remember sitting down with Teresa in the A.B.L.E. house, but I also remember talking to Deb Southern and to Lori Schroeder Haslem, sitting down and airing my frustrations to all of them. Because without Tianna, where are students supposed to go?
The administration looks to Tianna for solving all the problems of all the students of color on campus. And when she was missing, we didn't really have anyone that was appointed to us. We were very grateful that Mary Crawford stepped up, but that was mainly because Mary knew what it felt like to be a student on that campus without resources. And how frustrating that can be. Her guidance that year was extremely helpful, but as a College, as a whole, we need to do a better job of stepping up and supporting students once they're on campus. Because I've seen entirely too many students of color leave Knox College because they did not feel supported.
There's the other side to recruitment. What about retention?
Exactly. We even sat down, my freshman or sophomore year, when tuition was raised. And I asked if they felt that was going to be a factor in retaining lower-income students. And I was told that the financial aid department would handle it. Well, guess who had to max out on her student loans the following year, because that was my only option to be able to return to campus, was to take out more loans. But the financial aid department was handling it.
These conversations were all for show, and nothing ever came of it. But they were patting themselves on the back for trying. When in order to be a Black student on the Knox campus, trying is not enough. We have to try just to get out of bed in the morning and focus on the fact that we are supporting ourselves on this campus that claims to support all of its students. That claims to give us opportunities to have the freedom to flourish, when that's not a reality, if you were born into black or brown skin. Yes, trying is a noble effort. But students in order to graduate, to graduate with honors, unfortunately had to do more than try. And if we go to our professors and say, "Hey, I'm sorry I shouldn't be failing this class because I'm trying ..." They're less understanding. But our administration feels that trying is enough, and that's the part that's unfortunate.
There are a number of areas where Knox is trying to gather more resources, raise donations.
Yes, I will donate to Tianna's office, the Center for Intercultural Life, I will donate to A.B.L.E., but to the College as a whole, I will not donate, because none of that money is being allocated towards helping students of color. If I could guarantee that my money is going to focus on helping more students of color, I would be happy to donate. But when I'm on campus, I see [the signs that say] "This money was donated by an alum to help run this printer all year." But none of those signs were in the A.B.L.E. house. None of those signs were in Casa Latina, saying that this money helped to keep their lights on, or to fund any programming for us. That money was for a computer lab or for furnishing the Taylor Lounge. That money was not for the students. So I'm not confident that if the College gets more money that they would allocate in ways that are beneficial to the students that need it most.
Instead of continuing to put that money in the direction of getting prospective students, because when Teresa came on board she did a great job of making the campus look good. But aside from the looks, the College didn't really support its students. The more money we got, and the more they raised tuition, these same students are still not being supported. I was a house monitor at A.B.L.E., and I understand that's not even a position any more. A.B.L.E. has a resident advisor, but we've always had, on paper, a resident advisor, but a person that serves that house was the house monitor. So I'm hearing a lot of these things being cut due to money, but I'm not seeing much that's added, if Knox had more money. Or if we can fund-raise to get this and this, then our students or color will have this. It's all about the general student population and getting more prospective students on campus to fill seats.
What's your involvement with BAN [Black Alumni Network]?
I am a part of BAN, and I'm very proud to be a part of BAN. But my partner and I are pretty much the only alums under the age of 30 who are a part of BAN. And that's because most Black alumni go through a period where they have to be far away from Knox, before they're really able to want to make a change. They have to sort of let that resentment and that frustration of not being cared for while on campus, and not being made a priority, even though we pay tuition like everyone else, it takes a minute to get past that level of frustration before we are more likely to come back to campus and give back. Because honestly, the majority of Black alumni who are in this network graduated in the '80s, graduated in the '70s. It's not young alumni. And I honestly think that for some of us, it's just too fresh. We don't want to give our money to a college that has within the past five years proven that they were not going to help the students who need that money the most, that need those resources the most. So Knox can keep calling me, but most of the money is going to come from alumni who are far enough removed that they are happy to donate again. That's really unfortunate that we don't feel our dollars are going to be used in a beneficial way. So we resort to donating directly to A.B.L.E., directly to TRIO, directly to the programs that served us.
What is your challenge for Knox College?
It's a big challenge; it's not easy. My senior year, A.B.L.E. left a time capsule to be opened in 20 years from 2015, in 2035. And it's in the archives in the library. And there are some very strong letters from students inside, about what was going on, on campus at that time. I graduated three years ago. A lot of my frustrations are not as strong as they were three years ago. But the letters that are in that time capsule will speak volumes when it is opened. That capsule didn't get a whole lot of publicity. We did it for our A.B.L.E. students of the future. Not for the College to co-opt and claim that it was their effort. It was our effort as A.B.L.E. sisters.
Do you want to keep the time capsule a secret?
No. I want it to be something that students are excited to open, and that they know exists. There are two keys to the capsule. One should be in the house. It was more a ceremonial passing of the key from office to office, until it's time to open the capsule. Because we want students to be excited to open the capsule and see what's inside and to be a part of something big. That was the legacy we wanted to leave. That even though we are no longer on campus, there are people out there who care about you, who have been in your shoes and want to be contacted. I have personally reached out to several alums that I wanted to be aware that A.B.L.E.'s 50th anniversary is happening. There are so many alums who have not been back to campus for a number of reasons, but are willing to rally around an event like this. So if the time capsule is part of the 50th year edition of Knox Magazine, that would be a wonderful thing to have on paper somewhere, that a lot of thought went into setting something aside to be a legacy for Black students on Knox's campus. This is our gift to our future, in preserving our history at Knox.
People need to know [the history of A.B.L.E.]. People forget the true extent of the timeline when it comes to A.B.L.E. being founded. We forget that this was a pretty recent development, for Knox to have a house for Black students. And even more recent that Knox tried to take it away. And students had to demand a space to feel safe in. So I think that's valuable that we are able to speak to original A.B.L.E. members. Sometimes if feels like ancient history, like we're reaching out to George Washington. When that's not the case. These people are alive and they're an important part of our campus's history.
When I was the 2015 Commencement speaker, BAN wrote an article about it before Knox did. BAN reached out to congratulate me as a woman of color, to be the Commencement speaker, and helped me advertise it beyond and helped establish me as a young professional. Esther [Wilson-Crawford] has been doing a phenomenal job reestablishing Black alumni for students. Part of that was having a presence at homecoming and again at graduation, that retention piece. When Knox did the "100 strong," the goal was to have 100 Black alumni on campus. We didn't reach that goal, but we had a number of alums send videos that were played to the students at one of the Homecoming events.
Any advice for students today?
My advice to students on Knox's campus today is to stay strong, to continue to use your resources, and to finish. To not let the lack of resources lead to you leaving college without completing. Because regardless of whether it's a 15-page paper that's stressing you out or a trying to be the president of two different clubs at the same time, there is someone in our alumni group who's been there, who's done that, and who's come out on the other side. So there's nothing that students are facing that hasn't been faced before. It's all a cycle. The good thing about a cycle is the fact that it means there's someone there to support you. Whether or not that's someone who's funded and supported by the College, or someone who's just a concerned alum, like myself, there's someone who will listen and is willing to celebrate you when you walk across the stage. Because we need more Black students on Knox's campus, to not only attend Knox but to finish. Staying and finishing is the biggest part of my message to students.