Barry Mills: Demonstrating Community

Barry Mills discusses the reality of intolerance and the power of a Bowdoin community that is pushing back.

Spring break is now over and the College is back in session. There are about seven weeks remaining in this semester, and these last few weeks of the academic year are going to feel much like skiing down a double black diamond trail at Sugarloaf!

We had a student-led rally here on the Thursday before break, organized by members of the group, “I am Bowdoin!” On that Thursday afternoon, about 200 people—mostly students but also several members of the faculty and staff—gathered at the polar bear statue outside Sargent Gym. Those in the group placed duct tape over their mouths and walked quietly into Smith Union’s Morrell Lounge where they formed a large circle. One by one, as others gathered on all levels of the union to be a part of this demonstration, each person ripped the tape from their mouth and declared their identity as a unique individual. An example: “I am black, Hispanic, and from Los Angeles, and I am Bowdoin!” Person after person identified themselves in the most personal and genuine manner, ending each statement with, “I am Bowdoin.” The union was filled that afternoon with an entire cross section of our community—the powerfully diverse and committed Bowdoin community.

"I am Bowdoin!" Rally (Photo © James Marshall Photography)

I have to admit I was moved beyond words by these positive expressions of identity and commitment to our College. The rally was organized by our students as an expression of their commitment, but also their frustration. It was a well-organized, yet spontaneous event in its message and power. Looking around the room I was enormously impressed by the participants, by the fact that this community now genuinely represents our society and country, and by the message that these students, faculty, and staff were conveying: that they are not simply numbers representing the extent of our diversity, but rather, individuals demanding our respect and their mutual respect for their rightful place on our campus.

The frustration giving rise to this demonstration has been generated by actions on and around campus over recent months and by the community-wide conversations that weren’t happening. This year, some of our students have been harassed verbally in the town of Brunswick and on our neighboring streets. This has happened to a number of students and even to me as we cross the streets bordering campus. Given the words screamed at our students, it is no surprise that some are afraid for their safety. Particularly reprehensible words have been directed aggressively at some of our black students, leading these young women and men to question whether they are welcome here or, even more importantly, whether they are safe.

…harassment happens everywhere. But at Bowdoin, we are committed to the common good, and the common good starts with a sense of mutual respect and civility.

Now, I would never suggest that our town is not safe for everyone. And I truly believe that Brunswick is an open, welcoming community. But the reactions of our students to the actions of a few knuckleheads are genuine and valid. I have personally met with local town leaders, the police, the local Rotary, and religious leaders to discuss these issues. I will meet soon with local school leaders. Everyone reacts with shock and can’t believe this happens in our town, and they are eager and enthusiastic about helping us raise awareness on the issue.

I understand the reaction from those of you who say, “Come on. Tough it out. This is the real world and stuff happens.” I know full well that this kind of harassment happens everywhere. But at Bowdoin, we are committed to the common good, and the common good starts with a sense of mutual respect and civility. It is our responsibility to work aggressively to foster such an environment in our own home town. It is also our responsibility to create a sense of security for those at Bowdoin who come to Maine to study, learn, and live on our campus. It has to be unacceptable for us, as members of this community, to have others feel at risk.

It has to be unacceptable for us, as members of this community, to have others feel at risk.

The frustration motivating the “I am Bowdoin!” demonstration is also generated by events on our own campus. The most widely known incident was when truly offensive language about race and sexual orientation was written on a whiteboard outside the room of a group of our students. But more subtly, some students just don’t respect each other sufficiently or understand the reality of difference on our campus. This silent and not-so-silent bias plays out in so many ways. People make assumptions about each other without truly spending the time to pierce the convenient narratives. This bias goes to race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, and to what people do or say on campus, whether they are liberal, conservative, religious—even athletic.

I believe the frustration that our students feel is generally not grounded in actual acts of bias, although these do occur. Rather, I believe the frustration stems from the perception that—here in our educational community dedicated to the common good—we allow these acts to take place without a concerted effort to challenge assumptions about people, and that we don’t even discuss it.

The conversations do take place, and they are ongoing. The “I am Bowdoin!” demonstration came on the heels of an open meeting on the subject held on a Sunday evening and attended by over 200 people, including many faculty, and staff—a meeting described by Dean Tim Foster as one of the healthiest discussions he’s seen at Bowdoin. The very next day, our faculty issued an unambiguous statement condemning acts of racism and hatred. But I understand the perception that not enough is being said or done proactively, and I applaud our students for pushing the issue.

Bowdoin is by no means alone as a college dealing with these issues. They are common to all colleges. However, we can take pride in the way our students are confronting these issues here.

Residential colleges are unique communities. Never again in life will people come to a community where someone else chooses their neighbors and says to the residents: “Live together.” This is particularly relevant to Bowdoin, where the community is so intimate geographically and in numbers. After college, most people create communities for themselves, and live and work with people of their own choosing. In this way, Bowdoin is not a bubble, but a cauldron of difference for people to enjoy and experience. This community is our intentional way of creating life learning for and from the individuals living on our campus.

Bowdoin is by no means alone as a college dealing with these issues. They are common to all colleges. However, we can take pride in the way our students are confronting these issues here. We should encourage our students to continue to grapple with all of this, and it is essential for the leadership of the College to be a part of the effort. Our faculty and staff are also critical participants, but I am personally motivated to encourage our students to take the lead role. We, as a College, should not try to socially-engineer away these tensions, nor should we take over for our students. If students take the lead and continue to push on these issues, the likelihood for positive progress is much greater and the leadership lessons will be profound.

I hesitated to write on this subject for fear that the discussion would be viewed as reflecting poorly on Bowdoin. But I am convinced the these efforts are very positive for our College and reflect accurately what is happening on campus. And, in a society that is powerfully judgmental, a college that is questioning bias and personal assumptions should be celebrated.

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In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at mills@bowdoin.edu

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on here or on the Bowdoin website.

Comments

  1. Mary O'Connell says:

    I am extremely proud of the Bowdoin community and Barry Mills’ article on “community”. We live in a diverse global world where all should be accepted and no one should live in fear. As President, Barry is truly an impressive leader at Bowdoin and in the Brunswick community. I am proud to be a Bowdoin graduate class of ’76 and to say ” I AM BOWDOIN”

  2. Don Doele '59 says:

    Just a note of support, and a wondering thought, is there some way the Brunswick “community” can make a similiar expression of support?

    Don Doele ’59

  3. Aryeh Tench says:

    How interesting an application of our country’s great founding beliefs.

    The ultimate, founding case of intolerance in our country is without a doubt the intolerance of English society for people of other faiths. It was specifically because of that intolerance that our great country was established, and together with its founding, part of it, became the concept that our citizens have freedom of religion.

    Now along comes a newly knighted crop of leaders who decide in the name of ‘tolerance’ to obliterate religion and assign its people of faith to sensitivity training to retrain them out of their belief, and potential exclusion from the college experience specifically because they are people of faith.

    Hmmmm.

    Is this ‘tolerance,’ grumble the founding fathers.

    It is not.

    The Constitution of the United States and its amendments allows me to believe in my faith. With all my heart.

    If that faith includes excoriation of some activity in the strongest and clearest of terms, it is my complete right as a citizen of this country to believe those verses to the bottom of my faith.

    And it is, in parallel, a complete wrong of any institution–especially, in all hypocrisy, an institution founded and originally committed by faith to the support of our great country–to deny me that right.

    Thank you very much for prying open your mind the tiniest bit to allow people of faith to practice their religion and believe in all of its obligations and prohibitions in complete freedom.

  4. Workn4ALiving says:

    Thank you Aryeh for pointing out the hypocrisy of so many admonitions for tolerance in today’s culture. The message usually is “be tolerant of these special groups, but intolerant of those who don’t share our beliefs.”
    To Bowdoin’s credit, its sense of community that Barry Mills speaks of is more tolerant than most in the Ivory Towers.

  5. Mark Lesser says:

    It is easy to speak out against racial and religious intolerance, at least for now. In the years of the Weimar Republic many also did so. It was not so easy to speak out in the fearful months right after 911, when jingoistic flag waving “knuckleheads” rode the streets of Maine, Brunswick included. It was not so easy after the Weimar Republic fell. I doubt if racism and its religious counterpart are primary diseases in our communities. Rather these are latent symptoms brought on by the real primary diseases which are not so easy to speak out against, or even to identify. Shame induced by income and opportunity inequality, lack of education, anti-intellectualism, commercialism, official mendacity, cynicism in high places, oppressive class barriers imposed by defenders of the conventional, class related bigotry, devaluation of divergent thinking, false optimism,…..the list of possibilities goes on and on. The truth has never been simple and never sounds good. The truth does not comfort. It’s much too easy to ignore the diseases and focus on the symptoms.

  6. Jason Rodman says:

    I am so proud right now of those 200 students and faculty! And to be one little prong in the alum network of an institution for the common good led by someone like the Barry Mills who wrote the above, balanced, thoughtful, and honest essay. In some ways, it’s just a little thing, thousands of miles away. But in other ways, it’s one of the most important things in the world to my life, our world, and the world for our children and our people’s common future. Thank you!

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    @Areyh, hmmm. I appreciate that you are putting your arguments out there, but I find it interesting that those are the exact same arguments used by some family members of mine who have shunned me for almost a decade now for being honest about my sexual orientation. To me, such arguments seem really less about individual conscience–and more about preserving the right of fundamentalist clerics (Catholic, Shiite, Mormon, Mennonite, whatever) to dictate from on high precisely who deserves the greatest worldly privileges. (For example, under the still-powerful money-driven regime of Christianist Dobson, it’s effectively heterosexually-married white males who by “God’s law” should rule on Earth — in the family, the workplace, and beyond.) Or who should be treated as at least a de facto underclass. (For example, numerous former mega-church insiders have admitted that their families preach against homosexuality so aggressively primarily because it brings in tons of money.)

    I cite a tiny Mennonite church as the place where, as a five-or-so-year-old Indiana country boy, I learned independent thinking for the first time. So I feel like I understand a little bit about what “Freedom of Religion” inherently means. To me, it means expressing–and attempting to live by–your own beliefs about what the world can be. And I don’t see why it should matter which group(s) of self-searching living (and/or long-ago-deceased) mentors influenced your development in those hopeful, deeply-felt beliefs.

    Your above comment says “If that faith includes excoriation of some activity. . .” This language seems to indicate the belief that you think being gay is a “choice.” But, overwhelmingly, science just does not support such a claim about “choice” (see http://www.truthwinsout.org/ as one starting point to learn more). What’s more, deeply-believing such a fundamental judgment against gay people can seem like in itself a swing of the hatchet towards the head.

    Interestingly, multiple pyschological studies and other evidence suggest that these deeply-held and reason-resistant anti-gay beliefs are currently remarkably gendered: They are primarily a male thing, believed more by men and particularly focused on fears of the development of boys.

    Still, if I force myself to somehow try to look at your above arguments charitably, at best I see in them a paranoia about bisexuality. As if heterosexuality ought to be so highly worshipped that the thought of a rare middle-of-the-road-Kinsey-scale bisexual (or even a slightly-more-common primarily-gay but slightly-bisexual male) ought to experience the full coercive pressure of institutions and peers to not be his own man. Or as if the documentedly more numerous (but still small minority)of men who are primarily-straight but ever-so-slightly bisexual are only not pursuing relationships with men because they have been taught to hate that tiny (and for them, highly-unlikely) possibility within them. [See Savin-Williams as one source for the above estimations on quantities of males with varying levels of bisexual-like attractions, regardless of activity or identification.]

    But is male heterosexuality REALLY that fragile? That in need of coddling or else prone to breakage? Is male heterosexuality REALLY so inherently insecure?

    Not from my experience with heterosexual men who I have respected at Bowdoin and throughout my life.

    What’s more, suppose that for a small minority of men, their heterosexuality IS that fragile? What are the benefits — and what are the costs — of our society going to lengths to act as if their sexual preference (and for this small minority, it might amount to preference) MATTERS so much?

    Overall, fellow-alum Areyh, I suspect that your concern might really be about an unexamined belief in the importance of upholding a slew of gender-based stereotypes. And not really about religion, except to cite religion as a cloak. To the extent to which I’ve been exposed to genuine religious conscience, it has been actually quite-versatile, loving, and accommodating–and not so doctrinaire. Maybe you can explain how I’m wrong about that?

    Kind respect to all,
    -J.S.R.
    ’00

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