A small group of students at the University of Dubuque is holding some difficult conversations about race. A new initiative there is designed to get young people thinking about racial differences in order to bring the campus closer together.
At the start of a three-hour session on a Sunday afternoon, Roger Bonair-Agard reminds the dozen or so students what he expects from them as they begin a series of writing exercises.
“I want you to keep thinking about those values we threw out on the first day, right, safety and bravery, sense of self, sense of truth, sense of honesty, belonging,” he tells them.
Bonair-Agard is a Chicago-based poet and native of Trinidad and Tobago. He’s also the developer of the Baldwin Protocols, named for the influential black writer James Baldwin. Through poetry and essays, the project takes on the emotional issues surrounding the race gap on college campuses. Whites are the overwhelming majority in higher education and minority students often feel marginalized. Bonair-Agard’s class is a mix of black, white and Latino students, and discussion among them is sometimes hard.
“These young people also understand that wrestling with the difficulties of talking about race is part of the process they signed up for," Bonair-Agard says. "So they know that once we get there that’s not something they’re supposed to be polite about, that’s not something there supposed to shy away from.”
In one writing exercise, Bonair-Agard asks students to reflect on family heritage. He gives them three minutes to jot down thoughts about their oldest relative. He figures the more they know about each other’s backgrounds, the more they’ll care about each other. Senior Aniecia Hart recalls her great grandmother Eva Mae in the form of a letter.
“Eighty-three years of beauty and strength and love. I miss seeing your beautifully beaded hat sitting in the front row of your sacred place,” she reads.
Hart is an African-American from Milwaukee. She’s a minority at a school, which actually has a pretty
good track record for diversity. Around 12 percent of the student body at the University of Dubuque are kids of color. Nearby colleges report a much lower percentage. Hart says the Baldwin Protocols have helped her open up to different opinions from different cultures. She adds, however, so far the project is reaching a small number of students.
“Not everybody is here in this program, you know what I’m saying, everyone is not here in this room," she says. "They don’t know what we’re talking about, and they’re not open to the same ideas we’re learning to be open to, in this program we’re trying to take what we learn here and apply it out there, outside of this building.”
The poet-in-residence at UD, assistant English professor Lauren Alleyne, says it’s not just students who could use a few lessons on the nation’s racial divide.
“It’s wonderful to start this work among students, but ideally we’d figure out a way to expand it to the administrative, faculty, staff levels on campus,” she says.
Dubuque-native Colton Fleege, a senior who is white, says he was drawn to the Baldwin Protocols because of a desire to grasp human psychology.
“I’m interested in working with people much different from myself," he says. "And to reflect on how I’ve developed my identity, as well as how other people have developed their identity, and the multiple dimensions of that and how complex the interactions of all those things are.”
It’s uncertain where the project goes from here. Bonair-Agard will return to Dubuque for two more three-hour sessions before the end of the semester. He hopes the dialog started by his concept continues.
“Bit by bit, over years, over three, five, six, years, what you have is a growing diaspora, if you will, of students who are impacting the culture of the rest of the campus,” he says.
Bonair-Agard notes the work of building racial harmony is never complete.