By Louise Brown Smith
Last weekend a few hundred enthusiastic or, perhaps, trembling students began a new term at Cazenovia College. They moved in with backpacks, books, pillows, and new expectations. The college campus is situated right in the middle of our village. The quad is lovely and the buildings seem to blend right in with the variety of our old established buildings. The college provides opportunity for community members to swim and to use the college gym. The Cazenovia Forum hosts a public lecture series on a variety of important issues in the college’s Catherine Cummings Theatre. Caz Welcomes Refugees is presently renting one of the college’s buildings for a family from Afghanistan. The students bring a cohort of youth and vigor to our village. They also bring a diversity of color, ethnicity, gender identity, economic resources, and more, to our community. *
Why do we hardly ever see the students? Do the students feel welcome in Cazenovia? What is our responsibility to the students?
Cazenovia is a small beautiful community miles away from our closest urban area. It’s easy to know our neighbors. Our children go to a small and excellent school and many freely walk to school, the lake, and the library. We have small shops lining our main street, and we know their owners. We gather for our farmers market, civil remembrances, and fun parades. We have a local police department.
But, as Debby Irving says in the eye opening book, Waking Up White, if we are curious in our belief systems, we always need to ask whose voices are present, what messages are being sent, and whose perspectives are being shared. Two years ago ARC-C sponsored a Black Lives Matter Chalk the Walk and BLM yard sign sale event. Lots of people from our community came as did many students from Caz College. It was fun and inspiring to see the beauty, humor, and seriousness present that day on our sidewalks and in our neighbors. One short conversation stood out to me. A friendly college student who was Black said to me, “This sidewalk chalk event and the BLM yard signs that are all around make me feel safer in Cazenovia.”
Our town and village both have adopted Anti-Bias Policies which is definitely a good thing. Ibram X Kendi, in his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, champions creating anti-bias policies as being more optimal in developing racial equality than is trying to change attitudes. As many astute Cazenovians have mused, a policy doesn’t really do anything unless people act on it. The Town of Cazenovia is presently developing procedures that will promote anti-bias in its own actions and throughout Cazenovia.
There have been a few incidents of racist graffiti in our town. One in the little park behind the library and one at the trail head at Nelson Swamp. These incidents were dealt with promptly: photographed, erased, and reported to the Village Board and to the police. During a discussion to follow up on the library graffiti at a village board meeting, it was thought that perhaps a couple teenage boys were responsible and to preserve their feelings of worth they were mildly reprimanded. Is this possibly an indication of critical race theory right here in our small town?
Do we know our implicit biases? Everyone has implicit biases. When the Harvard examination of implicit bias was given to 30 white members of the Syracuse Peace Council, surprisingly, all but one member tested as preferring white people. What should we do with our implicit biases? How do we learn to be good neighbors to all? How should we act to be welcoming to everyone? A micro- aggression is a comment or an action that unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a biased attitude. Do we unknowingly commit micro-aggressions? Are microaggressions something we do or can they also be something we omit?
This week, the week that Cazenovia students have gathered here for another year, one business in our village displayed a ‘Welcome Cazenovia College Students.”
I wonder how the students would feel if “Welcome Students” signs were visible up and down Albany Street. If there were Caz College “specials” in many of the shops. If there were kiosks and pages on social media listing organizations and businesses as resources for the students. If there was a welcome student event such as a chalk the walk, or free apples near the old orchard where Frederick Douglas gave a speech. Might we need to ask the college students what would make them feel welcome. I wonder how we would do that.