An open letter to Cornell College students affected by the tragic and insensitive acts on campus by a few members of the community in April of 2016:
It’s an honor to be saluting you, future change-makers of the world. I hold the memories of my time at Cornell College very dearly since I grew enormously, took skills that I will forever use and made life-long relationships. I am thinking of what/who I needed when I needed support and direction in responding to racially charged events on campus as a student. I’m trying to make-up for the void in my life I had at the time.
I am extremely impressed by the level of intelligence and analysis that I have seen come from the Cornell Diversity Task Force. I wish I was that well-versed and on-point when I was a student. It took me years to digest a lot of my learning at Cornell. I admire your courage and your unapologetic honesty. I understand that we may not agree in our strategy/methods/theories. That’s ok for me. It’s alright for there to be a multitude of voices coming from poc and to entertain different perspectives. As much as we are similar and united, that does not mean we are the same. We could still stand tall and side by side.
I am here now to support you as best I can in a time of crisis and grief. Among many projects, I currently (and have for the past 5 years) practice(d) as a Social Worker at my full-time job. The resources I share are the most valuable offers I have to make. Please take what you will from my humble intention as you see fit (or not). We are victims of a situation when we are powerless to attacks brought against us. We become survivors and empowered when we make a choice about how we respond to the world’s challenges.
For those of you that are interested in a perspective about how to support each other:
IN TIMES OF CRISIS
One of the biggest ways we can support our peers who are most directly affected/struggling with the situation is by being empathetic. How we listen, how we hold space for each other, how we treat one another, the things we say and do are important. When holding space for someone in crisis, the following tools can be powerful and they are skills anyone can practice.
WHEN YOU ARE SUPPORTING OTHERS
Listen: Allow that person to vent. We should ground ourselves in intention. What’s our intention when being there for someone? Is it to make ourselves feel better? Is it to express our feelings? Do we want to be there for them? What does that mean? Are we in the right space to listen responsibly? We could ask ourself and others what we need. Hold each other capable and able for making requests from each other. Do not make assumptions. Most of the time, people don’t need advice, they just need to be heard and held non-judgmentally.
Listen to understand with an open mind and positioned as a learner. This can be challenging because it’s easy to often wait for the person to stop talking before inserting one’s own opinion. If the intention is to support and hold space for the other person, the focus needs to be on them until they are ready to hold space for us if we need it. Let them own the spotlight. We need to refrain from getting into a “me too, I experience that too.” There is a time and a place for it. Be sensitive around it, it is not a competition.
Set emotional boundaries: These are imaginary and temporary barriers we place around our heart when we hold space for others. We identify what feelings are ours and what feelings belong to other people. If someone else is sad, we don’t need to be sad with them. They would most benefit from our position if we were standing in a safety boat tossing them an inner tube. If we’re both in the water and try to hold each other up, we will both drown. We need not be playdough in the presence of others’ suffering. As much as I can empathize with the students at Cornell who are feeling harmed, I need to maintain a healthy and detached position to best be of support in the ways I can.
Tolerate: We don’t need to agree with people to be empathetic. Their truth might be different than ours and their experiences and feelings are still valid and real. We all come from different backgrounds and beliefs. There is tremendous diversity even within groups with shared characteristics. Focus shouldn’t be so much on the rationalization of the others’ experience, rather temporarily suspending one’s ego to sit with them in the space they find themselves.
Others are learning and working through things as much as ourselves. This doesn’t mean they’re invaluable. I bet some English majors and native English speakers are sneering at my grammar. I still have a lot to offer. That’s partially what it means to me to stand in my power. I am not perfect, I own my calculator of my self worth and I’m still a well-meaning person who deserves respect and does what she can to be conscious of the impact her actions have on others. We need to be gentle with one another. Our true character shows when we’re under distress. Enough suffering is being experienced.
YOUR PRESENCE AND THE SPACES YOU HOLD ARE POWERFUL
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker
Speak your truth responsibly: Tell those who ask what they can do for you. Your feelings and your experiences are yours. There is tremendous power in owning them. In their own discomfort, others can and will say things to challenge personal experiences, to minimize, deny, detract, or justify the actions of perpetrators. Although well-intentioned, these people often don’t know what to do or say instead. We live in a society that is disconnected, opinionated and individualistic. These skills are not inherent, they are learned. Many have not had the privilege to learn them yet or ever will.
Do what you need to do for yourself in voicing your experience. Be careful not to impose the violence that has been imposed on us and ended up leading our community to be in this position. It’s an easy way to go, but we are better than that. We are not cowards that lurk in the dark to hide ourselves from being held accountable. Don’t speak for others or their feelings. Just talk about your own personal experience.
We need to be impeccable with our words. The Four Agreements, anyone? When we’re distressed, we tend to make large, general, blanketed statements like “all”, “never”, “nobody”, “always”… etc. We use passive language as if the “other” was a big scary monster that is elusive, omniscient, should be ever knowing, thus making it easier to consider oneself a victim.
Be specific about who is doing what. At Cornell, it’s been a few students who have been doing super messed up things and yet we have given them the power to shake up our entire community. Not all of Cornell sucks. There are many non-poc and staff (dare I say, I believe it’s the majority) that are not in support of these actions. If non-poc are reading this, make sure the poc and offenders hear your acts that deafen those of a few. Imagine if every single person on campus that was against these acts take some sort of action? Imagine if that effort is collective?
Sublimation: An option is to use the experience and energy motivated by these events to turn it into something positive. This is a psychodynamic tool of resilience. For years oppressed and marginalized communities around the world have resisted domination by transforming and adapting in unison. The Mexican Revolution against Spain was one by the Creole and Mestizos who United with the other castes as one to dispel colonialism.
At Cornell, these terrible, ignorant, selfish, etc. acts were carried out in hope of eliciting strong emotions and reactions. How do we deal with pain, anger, and discomfort? What will we make it mean for us personally? For people who have been historically marginalized in this country, this could be an opportunity to figure out what their role is in being part of these group beyond life at the hilltop.
(Racial) identity development is a life-long journey. Some will choose to ignore this experience and pretend it’s not “that bad” to avoid facing harsh realities. Some will make peace with the status quo. Some will choose to dedicate part/most of their life’s mission to learning how they can participate in creating personal/social change. I heard some students went around and drew hearts around the chalking. That’s a perfect example of sublimation.
Self Care: Often, some want to be there for others when they cannot care for themselves. We need to be conscious of how this is showing up for us. I was so burnt out on fighting this war when I was at Cornell that for years I disengaged from conversations about race after I graduated. It wasn’t until the assasination of Michael Brown in Ferguson that I started using my voice again. As a result, while I was silent, people missed out on my insights and what I had to offer the world.
Are we sleeping, eating, and exercising well? Even if we don’t normally participate in these activities, now is a great time to start; even if we only pick up the habits until the waves have passed. The community needs us at our best. We cannot be at our best if we are not healthy. Take care of yourself because others cannot take care of your basic needs. Encourage others to do so too.
Some people feel better and need to do some of the following activities ritualistically to feel balanced: meditation, prayer, yoga, sports, art, writing, socializing, spending time alone, taking walks, spending time in nature, etc. Living in such small quarters with so much social agitation can have long-lasting impact if we don’t know what to do with our feelings. Some people ask me how I can work with people who have inflicted violence on others, listening to traumatic stories everyday, and leaving client problems at work. My answer is, “Practicing emotional boundaries and self care”.
Ask for help: Some of us (I know at least in Mexican cultures) have a lot of baggage around asking from others what we need for ourselves. We might believe we’re imposing on others either because we were acculturated and socialized to believe we should have superpowers and be independently invincible. These beliefs can be damaging for ourselves and for the greater community. Don’t be ashamed to reach out to the resources offered.
There are leaders and professionals on campus equipped to hold space for students that will do it with pleasure and grace. I know that it might not feel safe or comfortable to ask for help. When we are uncomfortable, we could ask ourselves to clarify if the experience is either unsafety or discomfort (More on this below).
Is our community worth the risk of accepting a lending hand? Could we step out of our comfort zone and focus our energy on challenging ourselves personally to become vulnerable? I believe we are all strong enough to take risks and overcome the fall-out. Relationships are a give and take and we know that going into them.
Also, we need to consider our own capacity as well as the limitations of the people trying to help. Again, sometimes well-meaning people (of color and not) don’t say the most helpful thing. Be wise about who you ask for what. Bless them. Their heart is in the right place and at least they’re trying and willing. I know it’s exhausting and we already experience microaggressions on the daily. But what are you going to do? The majority of people outside of the hilltop (poc and non) aren’t going to be as aware as these things as you. Being away from Cornell, I learned the hard way! Some won’t even be bothered to try. Let’s accept their offers gracefully (or not, either way, let’s be honest as to why we aren’t willing to accept their help). We will never wake up to an enlightened world or to people that will fully satisfy our expectations. It’s our work to learn to coexist. Be courageous, give feedback honestly, kindly and responsibly. Bets are that we would like others to do the same for us. Together we are building more resilient communities.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK AND GO TO CLASS!
Yes, that’s right. Staying present might be challenging. You might be distracted. Your mind might be spinning. You might be exhausted from not having slept the night before. You might feel scared to leave your dorm room because someone might say something mean to you in the hall, ped mall, Commons or classroom.
Our very presence alone is powerful. The function of oppression is to break you down while the oppressor flourishes. Resist, my siblings! We shall rise above. “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” We can be a pawn in the scheme, as others have behaved. As poc who have been conscious about oppression our whole lives, we know better.
Get straight A’s, show up to class strong and take every ounce of credit you deserve for overcoming the insurmountable obstacles set against you. Stats say we’re less likely to do a bunch of things. You came to Cornell to defy those odds. The chances that you’re traumatized just for existing in this nation as a poc is really high (and so are most of U.S.eans for all sorts of different reasons). Don’t forget your mission. Reconnect with whatever lands/people remind you of this.
Impact of Exposure to Violence and Trauma on Educational Prospects
“The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” -Toni Morrison (Shared on Facebook by former Cornell professor, Dr. Sarah Clunis)
FACE YOUR INTERNAL DEMONS (BUILD RESILIENCE AND SELF AWARENESS)
Depression, frustration and hopelessness might tell you that you don’t feel like doing anything else but sulk, ruminate and sit in your anger. Feelings are natural reactions to our experiences. It is also up to us to change whatever narratives are fueling the anger. Violence lives in our thoughts. I tell my clients that “it’s ok to be angry”. It’s a normal response. I also tell them it’s up to them how long they want to hold on to those burning coals. Experience anger, acknowledge it, thank it (anger serves an important survival function within each of us) and then practice letting it go or turning it into something different.
An interesting characteristic about depression and all those other monsters that live within us is that they are programmed to self-preserve. They blame, they are defensive, they justify, and sometimes even convince us into believing things that aren’t true. Be careful with this. Those feelings can cloud your judgment. Yes, horrible things are happening on campus. Yes, people are ignorant and will probably continue being so. Yes, the college could respond differently. What is created by my fear and anxiety and what is a true attack towards me? When do we feel uncomfortable vs unsafe? Sometimes we can’t distinguish this because we are so upset.
The term unsafety is powerful, has become a buzz word these days and is used by some to avoid situations that are “uncomfortable”. The result is that people use it to avoid accountability/action and it loses meaning for people who are legitimately feeling unsafe. Is it possible that by participating in this behavior we are in turn contributing towards creating our space unsafe for others? What are we losing out when we don’t choose to be assertive and direct? Who am I serving? At whose expense?
Help each other out. Call each other when we’re in an emotional place and be open to being called out by those who care for us. We might be thankful later that someone from a detached place helped us see more objectively so we don’t regret the consequences to the actions we didn’t fully consider. In the end, it helps us have less things to hurt about. I have certainly been there in times of frustration on campus and I am so thankful to my allies for having the courage to share their insights with me that challenged my beliefs (yeah, I’m talking to my objectivists).
Five Reasons We Can’t Let Sensationalism Hurt the Mission
Gently orient yourself and others by being open to hearing what is threatening and what is not. Was the paint over the kiosks after 24 hours a malicious act? What steps are the college willing to take and offer? Are our expectations realistic? What, specifically, are our expectations? Are we willing to hear different points of view? Have we given people those opportunities? Are we using our power responsibly? When we get blinded by our emotions, we tend to distort our truths. That’s why it’s so easy to be angry and strongly believe something at the moment, only to change our minds once we feel so centered. It’s like our feelings possess us temporarily. How are we reacting to our feelings? How are our reactions hurting ourselves or our community as a whole? I want to jump right into action mode. What would it be like if I sat with the experience using other aspects of myself (see Glenn Singleton’s video below)?
White supremacists can turn our own feelings against us. Our feelings often reinforce their ideas about being dramatic, non-credible, and blowing things out of proportion. We shall not become targets and prey or sitting ducks spread out in the open. I’m not saying that these critiques are correct at all. I’m not saying these responses and reactions are not justified or valid. I’m saying let’s not give others more ammunition and lets make sure we’re engaging our whole selves when we engage, not just disconnected factions (see Glenn Singleton below). We shall not give up our power. We shall resist and rise.
Unite, don’t divide. Oppression works through divide and conquer. Instead of seeing each other as allies in working towards a common goal, the deceitful man wants to see us fighting each other. Boycotting the office of Intercultural Life is shooting yourself in the foot and biting the hand that feeds you. What are we doing to this woman of color (@ICL)? If we end up fighting against each other and ourselves, white supremacy wins.
UNDERSTANDING OUR MINDS BETTER
Defense Mechanisms (source)– The following concepts are defense mechanisms that are kicked into gear by our psyche. Defense mechanisms are distortions of reality that enable us to minimize anxiety. They are experienced by all people and may or may not produce social functioning. They distort reality because they provide us with a conscious perspective in a particular situation that is biased toward preserving a sense of security.
Splitting is a defense mechanism often used when the person is feeling overwhelmed by the compexity of a situation that they can’t make sense of or when they are confused. It is used to simplify situations and turns the thought process towards “black and white” thinking, or “us vs. them” thinking (Othering can be a result of internalized oppression). This is dangerous, particularly in a community like Cornell’s since this thinking promotes division rather than unity. That is not an empowered stance (see photo of empowerment cycle below).
Social change is created in the most resilient communities by working together. Take a step back and ask yourself what is the strategy that you’re implementing to promote change and whether your actions will guarantee you the results that you want, question their effectiveness, consider potentially unintended consequences, weigh the costs on those involved and whether they’re weighted justifiably, and if your actions are appropriately directed. Sometimes we resort to using the same power dynamics that have been used against us. That is internalized oppression, not resistance. I know that when I become defensive, I can be quick to strike back. I’ve learned to practice self-control and respond when I’m no longer in that place.
Earlier I said that yucky feelings are self-preserving. Those feelings have enough strength. Instead, exercise eliciting happiness and joy to overpower the relentlessness of those other feelings. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate the power in our community. As an admin for the Cornell College POC Alumnx, I find so much awe and power at the thoughts and unity that has pulled us together. Heather ‘Byrd’ (’09) is an incredible human being. It’s so great to be working by her side once again (we co-admin the FB group).
We are with you! You are not alone! Thank you to all the alumnx/staff/faculty that have come out in solidarity! I am planning a trip to Cornell soon. I can’t wait to meet you. Let’s celebrate.
Treat yo self! Throw parties, gather, play games, eat together, tell each other stories, give each other massages. Masturbate and have a bunch of (safe) sex. Leave town. Splurge on food and money. Have sleepovers. Make courageous-space celebrations. Go camping. Go to a professor’s home for lunch/dinner/snacks. Explore northern Iowa. Go on a picnic. Have a movie night. Have a dance party in your dorm. Make new friends. Get together with people from nearby campuses to resist isolation. Teach each other how to 2-step, salsa, cumbia, bachata, etc. Share readings by other poc’s who have had similar experiences. Celebrate with allies. We come from peoples who have an extraorindary amount of resilience built into our cultures. Evoke those powers!
¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!
Check back for updates (I will most likely make changes to this posting or make additional postings if enough people find this helpful). Ask me for specific topics about support. I can’t promise you I can reply to everyone and I’ll do my best. There’s a lot of great resources on the internet that a quick search will reveal.
The following resources might be helpful (they’re not necessarily specific to the college setting so adapt them for you):
I invite you all to look at the other links on my site in the Links page. There are more resources that I have been collecting there that may be helpful. This blog is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of everything. If you need me to elaborate on any points or beliefs, I invite respectful inquiry. Any non-respectul comments will be dismissed because at this point in my life I’m most unfuckwithable from those who hide behind their computer screens.
I AM SORRY
I apologize sincerely for not having been more involved over the years as an alumnx, advocating for change to occur at an institutional level to do everything possible to shield you from the acts that have been committed against you. We all have personal power and a responsibility to our communities and for what we choose to do with it. Ken Morris, one of Cornell’s Directors of Intercultural Life told a group of us during an ICL award ceremony that with our education comes great responsibity. That has stuck with me over the years. Since my graduation, I have invested in many communities as a change-maker, but not in this one. No hay mal del cual bien no venga. Sometimes we need something terrible to happen to come together. I am here now.
PLEASE TAKE THE FOLLOWING INTO CONSIDERATION
I am aware that some messages college officials have relayed have been interpreted to mean that these events are permissible to create dialogue, without sending a strong message about not being acceptable behavior and without taking accountability for their role/lack of past action. Although I am encouraging dialogue, I DO NOT agree with the permissibility students might feel to incite reactions from marginalized communities. I also don’t know that it’s the message the college is delivering.
There are many positive, meaningful, and healthy ways to create dialogue that don’t need to be at the expense of people who are already victimized, vulnerable, marginalized, discriminated and oppressed. It is not fair for students of color to come out to the middle of Iowa to be used as pawns for their white counterparts to learn from.
PoC are tokenized, exploited, objectified, exoticized, and mystified enough. The trauma we experience by being socialized as “different” and “inferior” is inhuman and unjust. It is not ok that I am writing a piece on helping warriors of recurring attacks to build resilience in contrast to being able to direct my efforts towards those in a position of privilege.
People who are accepted into the Cornell community should be expected to have a level of communal and self-awareness to the extent that they understand the difference between impact and intention. They should be held to the standard of knowing what their role is in participating responsibly in a diverse community.
Similar incidents have now become patterns over the years. Therefore they have been evitable if the right measures were taken. Incidents are escalating by the day. It is the responsibility of the college to become informed about what needs to happen. We need not continue placing this burden on poc such as your students, poc such as myself and collaborators who have had to take countless hours of support to mitigate the damages of the school’s lack of responsibility over the years.
The school’s efforts shouldn’t scramble in reactions to crisis. It should be prepared to deal with these predictable situations accordingly and direct the majority of their efforts at educating those who live in a privileged position in relation to these students. Band-aid solutions are not a long term fix. I’ve been saying this since 2008. The culture of the institution needs to change on a fundamental level.
If we want Cornell to be a diverse place for us to get to tout it as a core value and on our resumes, we owe it to the people who are burdened and disadvantaged to make that space multicultural an diverse. Or else we can’t wonder why we can’t get people of color to work there or attend.
Your grateful and dedicated servant,
Claudia Pineda Reyes was a student at Cornell that attended between 2006 and 2008. She was an involved leader of extracurricular activities having participated on the soccer team, with the Organization for Latino Awareness, Eyes of the World, the Council on Multiculturalism, the Office of Intercultural Life, the Cornell Coalition for Change, and the Spanish and Latin American Studies’ departments. Claudia graduated from Cornell College in 2010 and double majored in Latin American Studies and Ethnic Studies. She has since completed the graduate Social Work program at the University of North Dakota and works with youth and families in individual and group settings and as an independent consultant. See more here. Thanks for reading!