A Great Cloud of Witnesses

December 5, 2006

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

Dancing at KwanzaaMany dedicated, energetic, and creative people have contributed to Mary Baldwin University’s Office of African American and Multicultural Affairs (AAMA) since its inception in 1996. In honor of those people, the ones who will continue the work, and the college that has the commitment to hold diversity as a priority, Mary Baldwin celebrates this year the office’s 10th anniversary with events surrounding the theme “A Great Cloud of Witnesses.” The theme was the same one employed for the first Black History Month celebration on campus.
Sankofa birdThe mythical Sankofa bird, a creature that flies forward while looking back with an egg in its mouth to signify the future, is featured as the celebration’s symbol. Literally translated, sankofa means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot,” and, in the context of the celebration, it illustrates that it is wise to go back in history to gather the best and most instructive parts of the past to move ever-forward.

In one short decade — and under the continuous direction of the Rev. Andrea Cornett-Scott, associate vice president of student affairs — AAMA has created and expanded programming that celebrates all cultures, including signature programs at the college such as the Ida B. Wells Society, Umoja House, and Survival Opportunities and Resources (SOAR). The office also spurred the creation of a variety of student clubs and organizations, including Latinas Unidas, Black Student Alliance, Anointed Voiced of Praise, and Caribbean Student Association, to name only a few.

The student population clearly reflects efforts to increase diversity: In 1996, 3.5 percent of Mary Baldwin students were African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Native American, or of another ethnic minority. In fall 2006, that collective number is more than 270 students, or nearly 37 percent of students who reside on campus — making Mary Baldwin one of the most diverse schools in the country.

‘Fetching the Forgotten’

Before the late 1990s, the small number of African-American and other minority students who made it to Mary Baldwin did not have a sense of “home” on campus. Many did not stay long, and even fewer graduated, Cornett-Scott said.

Lewis Askegaard, associate dean of the college, dean of institutional research, and college registrar, came to Mary Baldwin in 1983, just 10 years after the first African-American students graduated from Mary Baldwin. He does not mince words about the state of affairs before the multicultural office was created. “Empowerment often took the form of last-resort confrontations that resulted in anger, tension, and little consensus,” he said.

Shanice Penn ’00 said her class experienced lingering confusion and skepticism over the creation of the office, but she witnessed substantial changes by the end of her four years at Mary Baldwin.

Anointed Voices of Praise“In the early years, many students wanted to know if the office would further divide the community,” said Penn, an immigration paralegal working in Woodbridge, Virginia. “Students gained understanding without need to ask uncomfortable questions. The campus community was able to see, hear, feel, and taste our culture.”

“My goal when I arrived here was to have minority students feel comfortable being Mary Baldwin students and members of their cultural communities,” Cornett-Scott said. “We didn’t have much to start with, but we capitalized on our human resources. When a student came along with interest and talent in dance, the Greater Things Dance Ministry was born. When we found a student with background in theatre, Kuumba Players was born, and so on.”

Sarah Kennedy, associate professor of English, is witness to the creation and evolution of one such organization that produces Libations, an annual collection of creative writing, photographs, and artwork that gives voice to African American students. Kennedy has served as advisor to the publication for most of her five-year tenure. “The key to the creation of cultural outlets at Mary Baldwin has been having students as the driving force. I learned along with them as the publication matured,” she said.

Kennedy’s colleague in the English department, Associate Professor Robert Grotjohn, started teaching at Mary Baldwin in the mid-1990s, when the college was on the cusp of transformation in terms of race relations. While Grotjohn was becoming an established member of the Mary Baldwin faculty, the college was initiating campus-wide meetings about race relations and the possibility of setting up a strategic support network for minority students. He soon found a passion teaching a new course in African-American literature, helping with Libations, and mentoring minority students as he watched — and listened to — their impact on Mary Baldwin.

“Anointed Voice of Praise [the college’s student gospel and praise choir] used to practice in Miller Chapel, and I would raise my office window to hear them in the afternoon, then I would walk up and chat,” Grotjohn said. “Working with minority students has opened up new avenues for me personally and professionally, and I just can’t imagine what the college would be like without its diversity.”

Askegaard is known on campus as the “numbers person,” but he said the role of the office is best measured in non-numerical ways: “In the last 10 years, African- American students have taken campus-wide leadership roles too numerous to mention on Honor Council, Judicial Board, Student Government Association, in residences, and elsewhere. We have more minorities in faculty and upper-level administrative positions, our college president places a high value on diversity, we adopted an inclusivity statement, and the Quality Enhancement Plan — a major part of our guiding force for many years to come — stresses intercultural competence. These all attest to the dramatic shift in campus ethos over the years.”

‘Running Forward with Perseverance’

“Mary Baldwin has come further in 10 years than many colleges and universities have come in 30, when many of them held racial forums. While many institutions have kept up the rhetoric for at least 30 years, we have actually made significant progress in creating a diverse student body and activities,” Grotjohn observed.

Anniversary festivities kicked off during fall semester in conjunction with Continuing Education Weekend in October. Alumnae/i have been invited annually for the past few years to tour campus, mingle, and take specially-designed classes. The Harlem Renaissance Ball was the featured event at the beginning of the weekend. Period costumes were encouraged and worn by many revelers as they danced and reminisced to big band and jazz music. Anniversary-goers were invited to participate in several Continuing Education workshops during the weekend, including Turbulence in the Arts and Beyond led by President Pamela Fox and Problems of the Color Lines with Grotjohn. Also on that day, participants with a little spunk sang and danced in workshops with student members of Anointed Voices of Praise gospel choir and Greater Things Dance Ministry. Greater Things founding artistic director Jennifer Oliver ’03 was on hand to lead the sessions, which were preparation for the worship service Sunday.

Master percussionist and artistic director of Global Rhythms Srinivas Krishnan gave his second performance at Mary Baldwin — the first was during inaugural ceremonies for President Fox. Global Rhythms musicians were joined by young females who sang and danced in a concert titled Hands Across the World.

“In the beginning, we made the mistake of slipping in under the radar, and that created some suspicions and misconceptions over the years,” Cornett-Scott explained. “We want everyone to feel like a part of this celebration and that they play a part in making diversity successful at Mary Baldwin.”

Kuumba Players stage a productionWhen asked what it meant to her for the office to celebrate 10 years, Penn replied on emotional and practical levels: “It means there is a resource for the entire community to learn and gain appreciation for the individuals each one of us is. It means my class’ hard work in building relationships with administration, faculty, and students was not in vain. It means Mary Baldwin holds the distinction of cultivating knowledge not only in the classroom, but also through relationships and cultural understanding.”

The celebration of AAMA’s decade of success will continue in the spring in connection with Reunion events, Scott said. Freshman minority students will research and develop a profile about person who has made a significant contributing to the culture of diversity at Mary Baldwin. Mary Baldwin President Emerita Cynthia H. Tyson, President Pamela Fox, Anointed Voices of Praise founder Ranyne Herbert, and Kuumba Players founder Tonquise Jabari are among those who could be profiled. The projects and names will be presented at a ceremony during Reunion in March to create a Wall of Honor.

Continuing efforts to increase awareness about and strengthen multicultural student engagement on campus resonate with students, faculty, and staff. Building on the addition of a minor in African American studies several years ago, several new courses, such as Arabic, have made their way into Mary Baldwin’s offerings. Just two years ago, African Student Kollective was ratified as a student organization, on the heels of others, such as Caribbean Student Association, that promote multicultural enjoyment.

“Complacency can lead to reversal of all the things they’ve worked hard to change over the years. At this juncture, it is critical that we continue to recognize the value of our diverse strengths,” Kennedy said.

Fly on, sankofa bird, fly on.

This piece originally appeared in the Mary Baldwin University Magazine, Fall 2006.