“We have to fight for space for us to exist” – Topher Castaneda ‘20
“We have to pull our weight, it is not enough to have our presence in the classes at Bates, we need to be present in everything” – Bates Student
“There is a history of where Bates treat the faculty members as valued educators but treat the staff as disposable” – Mariam Kane ‘23
Coming onto campus in the fall and being a part of the Bobcat First program, a pre-orientation program for first-generation students, I was introduced to the Office of Intercultural Education, commonly known as OIE. The impression given to me about the OIE was that it was a safe space and resource center for students of color–––that within a predominantly white institution such as Bates College, there was one space guaranteed for the marginalized groups on campus. Speaking strictly for myself, I thought of the OIE as space to reclaim, space where I can belong to. The mission statement of the OIE is to “provide students with a sense of belonging in their social and intellectual communities, elevate students’ awareness of their personal power and effectiveness; catalyze and educate allies among students, faculty, and staff” (OIE Mission Statement). So far, I have not felt the mission statement to ring true.
So what happened to the OIE? This seems to be the pressing question on everyone’s mind. What was revealed to the students about the absence of the staff, given that part of the lack of communication is due to the legal disclosure of information, and was that three staff members resigned. As to why they left, it was known that the staff members received outside opportunities and it was also implied they had disagreements because of the different goals, ideas, and structures for the OIE. Word-of-mouth information suggested complications of the differing approaches for running the OIE and helping its students were not only between the staff members but also with the administration. Looking towards the future of the OIE, students want to investigate its resources for the people of color within Bates staff. One value the students want to incorporate into the OIE is the support for staff. Some individuals will say that what happened in the OIE was unexpected but others say there is a cycle of purging of OIE staff. It seems like this a continuous cycle, only with new faces every time. Apparently, a situation very similar to this one happened about 2 years ago. Although it most likely for different reasons.
With the recent uprooting of the OIE staff, concerns about the structure and rehiring of the OIE staff has risen within the students. Especially with the first-years, where a general concern of theirs was the lack of communication. Communication about the resignation of the staff and the absence of information about the next steps. First-years are left without guidance, in both their academic and personal needs, having to navigate their first year as a student of color in a predominantly white institution. Using myself as an example, there is only one other identified Native American within the 2023 cohort, the ‘most diverse cohort Bates has ever had’; so feeling isolated already, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I always had a place like the OIE. That the room tucked away in the back corner of Chase Hall was where I can go when I have my bad days or when I am feeling like the minority (which is most of my life).
Monday night on March 2nd, first-years Emily Diaz, Samuel Jean-Francois, Mariam Kane, and Lauren Reed, along with other students, organized an event about this issue. Titled “Taking Back the OIE”, the event’s purpose was to be an open-discussion about having transparency within the OIE. Organized within 24-hours, several students called out to everyone on campus to do something about the future of the OIE and to keep the conversation going. Over 80 students attended, most of which were first-years. The atmosphere of the event is indescribable, the way the students talked about their experiences with the OIE and the hurt they felt since the staff has been part of their academic journey. Some of the staff were the go-to person for the students, in anything ranging from financial aid to their class schedules. For me, one particular staff member meant a lot to me. This person was there for me when I organized an event meant to celebrate winter storytelling in indigenous cultures. This person was instrumental in the making of the event, making sure I had the funds and support to carry it out. Cooking traditional dishes, sharing stories, and participating in a sage ceremony, the event made me feel heard as a Native American student on campus. The OIE staff was in my corner from the first day I arrived on campus and made the effort to make it known that the OIE was my home.
While some of the feelings, thoughts, and opinions of the students that night were intense and vulnerable and for good reason, they were all eager to continue the conversation. Some framework questions expressed in the discussion were: How can we restructure the OIE so that it is both reflective and lead by student voice and concern? How can we hold Bates accountable for their role as an institution to protect, support, serve, and accommodate needs for their staff of color? How can Bates maintain cultural literacy as well as responsiveness when working with students of color (who are often lumped into one category)? While some of these questions are dense and complex, it is understood that most of these changes will happen long after the 2023 cohort. All we want to do is start, fuel, and pass along the conversation to both future students, OIE staff, and administration. Support systems are a critical part of any college experience, especially of students of color at a predominantly white institution. The new question should be: what is next for the OIE?