For more than 140 students, a conference at Maryville College this weekend was a rare opportunity to not be the person everyone turned to when topics such as slavery or terrorism came up.
Instead these multicultural students from predominately white institutions (PWIs) — including Maryville College and Maryville and Alcoa high schools — learned how to care for themselves while continuing to fight for racial justice and educating others.
“What do you do when your mere existence is a problem?” keynote speaker Colber Prosper asked students at the 10th annual GLIMPSE (Gathering, Listening, Igniting, Mending, Persevering, Surviving, Empowering) Conference.
The stress of that situation was evident from the questions posed by students, and Prosper noted that students of color experience more psychological stress at PWIs and are less likely to use campus mental health services.
Speak up when you see injustice, the leaders encouraged students, but choose the right method for the situation and give yourself a break, too.
During a panel discussion, MC graduate Daniel Gomez encouraged students to embrace their cultures. “There’s no reason to try to be like someone else,” he said.
Dr. Frances Henderson, the first tenured African American woman at Maryville College, encouraged the students to seek and accept help.
Quoting musician Bill Withers, Henderson also said, “Sometimes you’re going to have to settle for just all right.”
But, she said, “Don’t stop in all right.” Aim for more in the long term.
“Use your tool belt to respond to injustice,” said Dr. Kathie Shiba, a third-generation Japanese American and psychology professor at the college.
An introvert herself, Shiba told the students to put forth the effort to network. “This is really important as a person of color,” she said, “Your voice needs to be heard.”
When situations arise, Shiba encouraged students to pause, keep a neutral face and in their minds go through the available options for a response.
“Is it time for the person to be held accountable for their words and actions?” she asked.
Patricia Robledo detailed for the students how stepping up, volunteering and accepting opportunities led from her arriving from Colombia as a 17-year-old in 1980 and being a translator at the World’s Fair to Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero asking her to serve as business liaison for the City of Knoxville.
“People will believe in you before you believe in yourself,” she said.
Often business owners assume that her role in the administration is only to help Hispanics, and she has to educate them. She notes that she’s probably the first and only Colombian people here may encounter.
The panelists also acknowledged the frustration and exhaustion of the roles they play.
“It’s OK to be angry,” said Dr. Bentin Louis, vice chair of Africana Studies and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. “Anger fuels you to help change things.”
Louis shared his experience growing up as the son of Haitian immigrants on Staten Island, N.Y., in the 1960s and being called names such as “monkey” and “spear chucker.”
The first time African Americans were mentioned in school was the discussion of slavery, he said, and combined experiences took a toll on his self-esteem.
“We have to make the world a better place for people who look like us,” Louis said.
As they encouraged the students to step up, Henderson said, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
“I don’t want to leave that situation and have regrets, so I always speak out,” Shiba said.
For students such as Mykyla Hall, a senior at MHS, the message is timely. She plans to study political science. “I want to be an activist,” she said, and the message to take care of herself also was an important one.
Origin in strife
The GLIMPSE Conference emerged from a series of events at Maryville College during the 2006-2007 school year, which included a rebel flag flying on Anderson Hall, swastikas painted on parking lots and a football player finding banana peels outside his dorm room.
“We felt like the school was against us,” said Prosper, who was a leader in the Black Student Alliance.
As student leaders talked with then-Dean Vandy Kemp, she asked, “What do you want?”
One of the first things the students asked for was more faculty and staff of color.
In one conversation, Prosper replied, “I want a busload of black people on campus.” After attending a conference, Kemp saw how that could happen and GLIMPSE began providing a gathering for students from throughout the region.
Kemp, now retired from the college, attended for the first time this year, saying in the past she wanted to stay back and allow it to be the students’ conference.
“These are smart, thoughtful young black leaders who are trying to figure out and learn how to create positive change,” Kemp said.