Winter Institute Academic Director Receives Unusual Summons

Earlier this year, Dr. Jennifer Stollman, Winter Institute academic director, received an email from a student. It wasn’t unlike emails she receives with increasing frequency, in which students, faculty, and administrators ask her to talk about race or discrimination in one forum or another. One element of the note, though, was very new: She was being summoned to Maine.

To Bowdoin College, specifically, whose 1,183 students are nestled in Oxford-sized Brunswick, in a state whose 97 percent white population makes it the whitest.

Why would a tiny liberal arts school in the whitest state in the U.S. reach out to the Winter Institute?

The story that answers this question goes a long way toward explaining the importance of the Institute’s work and, moreover, its necessity far beyond the University of Mississippi, our state, and the South.

In February, Alexander Thomas, a sophomore biochemistry/government double major from Atlanta, saw news on Facebook about the symbolic lynching of the James Meredith statue on the University of Mississippi campus. He read more about the incident, including the Institute’s response, which led him to our staff page.

Bowdoin disbanded its Greek system in the 1990s, replacing all fraternities and sororities with eight “College Houses.” Each of the houses receives an annual budget; with that money, each brings in three or four speakers annually. As president of Burnett House, Thomas found Dr. Stollman’s email and invited her there last month.

Thomas was interested in what Dr. Stollman could offer Bowdoin because of its own diversity push. “There’s a lot of discussion about race on campus,” he said, “but it wasn’t really getting anywhere.” He described fruitless and frustrating attempts at dialogue, with white people feeling affronted and withdrawing, and people of color feeling that no one was getting the point. “So there’s a double frustration.”

A similar dynamic was at play in Bowdoin’s predominantly white classrooms. Mark Foster, Bowdoin English and gay/lesbian studies professor and a faculty advisor for Burnett College, said, “If the professor doesn’t bring it up, then students of color decide not to.” Despite a general acceptance on all sides, a lack of tools for discussions of difference “can lead to friction and can impede productive engagement.”

Enter Dr. Stollman, who held two sessions at Bowdoin. At the first, she told an audience of 45 students, faculty, and locals (on a Friday night!) about the Institute, and about racism in Mississippi, which, both Foster and Thomas remarked, she helpfully related to difference-based division and discrimination in the Northeast. The second session imparted tools for discussing and addressing difference.

Stollman noticed the similarity between a session she might conduct on our Mississippi campus and to an audience in Maine. “The challenges of discussing racism and other forms of oppression are not restricted to the Deep South,” she said. “In fact, this generation of students is similar, despite regional distance.”

“It was an extremely effective talk. Lively and funny,” Foster said, adding that some of the details regarding the University of Mississippi were “sometimes shocking. She also made it clear that a lot of adults don’t have the tools to have these conversations, so they must seek them out. She was very engaging, spoke to us in a way that wasn’t from on high or one of mastery.”

The discussions of difference went beyond race. Thomas mentioned that some members of the college’s LGBT community had mentioned to him how much they had drawn from the sessions, as the issues applied to them as well.

Dr. Stollman said that this universality of appeal among students is common: “Our country’s students seem less interested in fracturing along race, class, sexual expression, gender and ethnic lines. The antiquated language about the inferiority and superiority of certain groups of people is, for the most part, foreign to this generation’s college students. In a post-9/11 society, our students are more interested in community.”

At Bowdoin, Thomas and Foster enjoyed that, unlike many guests, Stollman involved the audience in her presentations. “She was very engaging. The audience got to share their opinions and experiences,” Thomas said. “Which made sense, because they were starting the process that she was encouraging, right then.”

Since Dr. Stollman’s visit, the president of the Bowdoin student body and another student have started ADDRESS (Alliance for Discussing Difference and the Racial and Ethnic Spectrum in Society), which, working with faculty allies, is developing several one-hour sessions to continue to teach community members to discuss race, privilege, and difference.

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