Letter to the Editor: Rhonda Brown, CDO

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Feb. 1 marked my one-year anniversary at Occidental. I’ve always found that an anniversary is a good time to be retrospective, and as I listened to Rev. William Barber’s message, I thought about my expected and unexpected Occidental experiences. I expected to be welcomed into this community and to work with thoughtful students and colleagues who were concerned about societal issues within and beyond the boundaries of campus. I expected that truth would be valued and equity would be required. I expected to challenge and be challenged.

Most of my expectations were met and some, like me, are still works in progress. As I think of those works in progress, I’m reminded that the beauty of a liberal arts college experience is that students are encouraged to create their individual personas by defining who they wish to be and how they wish to exist. That is a tall order for four short years and it is understandable that at times students may find themselves frustrated, afraid and unsure. As educators it is our job to help guide students through the uncertainty so that they can become who they are meant to be, not replicas of ourselves. I came here because of a young woman I met during the occupation who had lost faith in Occidental. I think of her often and I consider her position every time I act. And so a year in, I want to share a couple of things I’m doing for her and all of you.

I’ve spent a great deal of time working with students to craft a statement for academic accommodations for reasons of faith and conscience. The statement affords each student two days of excused absences from scheduled class days for reasons of faith and conscience. The days must be identified during the first two weeks of the semester and faculty would be asked to make an accommodation for the lost class time well in advance of the actual absence. These days can be used for organized religious and cultural holidays, large planned protests or personal observation days. The statement is slated to be heard on the floor of the next faculty meeting and if passed will go a long way to support student voice and expression.

I am the contact person on campus for issues associated with immigration and related changes directed by the new administration. Many members of our community are anxious about what may come. I ask you to be courageous and thoughtful. Courageous — because while some of the values we hold dear are under attack, we can and will find ways to protect our lives and those we love. Thoughtful — because we must educate ourselves and support each other. That means reading current laws, literature and meaningful texts in order to prepare for whatever lies ahead. The Intercultural Community Center will hold evening hours this semester and I am open to hosting conversations on issues that concern this community.

The year has taught me that Occidental is like a myriad of untrained voices who have not learned the discipline associated with a choir. We tend to focus on a couple singular issues because they seem most vulnerable and by doing so we create disparate solo voices. We do not spend enough time blending voices and creating harmony and as a result much talent is either silent or muffled by the prevailing solo that enforces a “correct” narrative and vilifies any conversation that might offer a change to the narrative. I’m interested in building a choir that gives all of us voice. If you want to sing, I invite you to “open auditions” or office hours on Friday mornings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the ICC at 1501 Campus Road. I hope you will use this time to share your Occidental experiences with me and help me answer the questions that will shape the future of Occidental. I look forward to hearing from you.

Signed,

Rhonda Brown

VP for Equity and Inclusivity, Chief Diversity Officer of Occidental College