Sunday, May 22, 2005

Back Story 2: Me versus the Mosaic Floor

Calvin College has never been a school known for its diversity. It consists overwhelmingly of white Dutch students, and very few faces of color can be seen on the campus. As multiculturalism becomes more and more something that is valued in today’s world, the administration has been doing a lot to try and change Calvin’s image.

One of those efforts is the “Mosaic Community” or multicultural floor. The idea is to take one floor in the dormitory housing, and turn it into an intentional diverse community where students can study multicultural issues.

The thing that made me, and a lot of other Calvin students uneasy was the perception that Calvin was taking most of the minority students and concentrating them all on one floor. Also it didn’t help the perception that the dormitory selected for the Mosaic Community was the dormitory furthest away from the campus center. I think this was done because this was the newest dorm, and had the nicest facilities. Be that as it may, the location only increased the perception that Calvin was taking all the minority students and sending them to the outskirts of campus where they wouldn’t interact with the rest of the student body.

Membership in the Mosaic Community was of course voluntary, but the promotional literature for the Mosaic floor that the college sent out to incoming freshmen gave a lot of people the impression that this was the floor where minorities were supposed to live. The pamphlets all but said, “If you are a minority, this is the place on campus for you.” Many people were concerned that the college was promoting segregation.

By simple virtue of the fact that the floor was voluntary the people who applied to live on the floor were generally people who agreed with its mission. But even among residents and alumni of the floor, I occasionally heard grumblings of dissent. One spring I was talking to someone who lived on the floor, and he was recapping his year there. “It was a good year, and I’m glad I did it,” he said. “But I have a lot of concerns that the floor is isolating minority students. I’m planning on writing a letter to the college and suggesting, that instead of a multicultural floor, they have a multicultural class instead. That way students can take what they learn in the class and bring it back to their different dormitories, and the message of multiculturalism can be spread a lot further than just one floor.”

At another time, I remember talking in a group with a couple students who lived on the floor. Someone in the group said, “The Mosaic Floor is just Calvin’s way of segregating the minority students.”
It was said half as a joke, but the members of the Mosaic floor present, (both minorities) responded, “No, that’s true actually,” and then launched into their complaints about the floor.

But what sticks out in my mind most is some of the conversations I had doing dorm cleaning. I spent 3 summers cleaning dormitories as a summer job. Because this was an “on-campus job”, I worked with a lot of international students who didn’t have work visas to do off campus jobs.

One student in particular from Africa was an incoming freshman. She had moved to America a few months early, but she had not started classes yet or been assigned to a permanent dormitory. During the summer she received the promotional material for the Mosaic floor, and came to work the next day very disturbed.

“Just because I’m black, I have to live on this floor?” she complained. “Can’t I live on any floor I want to just like a normal student?” I and Buma and a few others who were around tried to explain that membership in the Mosaic floor was not mandatory for black students, even though the college made it sound like it was with the promotional materials. Despite our reassurances, she remained quite upset by the whole thing. Then another African student, a sophomore, said he had signed up to live on the Mosaic floor the year before for the same reason. He had assumed, from the promotional material, that, as a black student, the floor was the only place he would be welcomed.

Jump ahead to my senior year. I was in a modern American history class with Bork and Buma. The professor began the class by showing us a film about Kent State. The premise of the film was that the film maker, a baby boomer who had been profoundly affected by the Kent State shootings, went back to the Kent State campus in the 1980s to see how attitudes had changed, and then made a movie lamenting the current climate of apathy on the campus.

A large part of the film focused on how black students at Kent State felt isolated from the rest of the student body, and the white students were too apathetic to care. Walking back from class with Bork and Buma, we agreed there seemed to be parallels with Calvin. And to me, the biggest problem with isolating minorities seemed to be the mosaic floor.

There were a lot of people on Calvin’s Campus who felt uncomfortable with the Mosaic floor. There was a lot of talk in private conversations. Chimes had done an excellent spoof on it a couple years previously. In the spoof, a minority student was seen walking around another part of campus, and people wondered what he was doing away from the multicultural floor, and assumed he had been lost.
But I thought that because of student apathy and laziness no one was actually doing anything about it. Despite all the grumbling about the Mosaic Floor, I doubted if anyone had ever gone through the trouble of officially complaining to the college.

It was my, perhaps naïve, belief that because of student apathy the administration was simply unaware that these concerns existed. If someone would just write a letter to them pointing out these concerns, maybe the administration would do something.

On the way back from that class I said to Bork and Buma that we should each write a letter to the administration about the Mosaic Floor mentioning our concerns. Bork and Buma were somewhat less enthusiastic about the idea than I was. I tried to convince them, but in the end we agreed that I would write the letter, and then they would just add their signatures.

I really liked the idea my friend had mentioned previously about having a multicultural class instead of a multicultural floor, so I asked him what had ever become of his letter, and would he mind if I used his idea. He said nothing had ever come of his letter, but he gave me the names of people in the administration I should send my letter to.

I finished the letter, then went over to Bork and Buma’s place to get their signatures. A couple other people were in the room at the time and indicated a desire to sign the letter as well. My girlfriend, who was also present, mentioned that a lot of her friends on her dorm floor had the same concerns, and she wanted to bring the letter back to her dormitory to get their signatures. I gave the letter to her, and before long the letter was circulating the 2nd floor of the NVW dorm like a petition.

This was perhaps my greatest error of judgment in the whole affair. Writing a personal letter to the college expressing my concerns is one thing. Spearheading a petition is another. The minority community at Calvin seemed divided about the issue of the Mosaic floor. Some felt it was segregation, some felt it was educating about multiculturalism. Whatever the merits of either side, it was probably a debate that should have been dominated by voices within the minority community, and for me as a white student to try and lead anything was out of place.

Besides which I didn’t feel that the arguments I was making in the letter were dependent upon having a lot of signatures at the bottom. I was trying to appeal to the administrations good sense, not intimidate them with a lot of names.

Finally, even as a petition, it was a bit half-assed. It just circulated one floor of one dorm. I mean if you’re going to organize a petition, you should do it right and do it campus wide. Otherwise it looks like I could only get 60 people who agreed with me, and that somewhat defeats the purpose of circulating the thing in the first place.

When the letter finished circulating the 2nd floor of NVW, I made a half assed effort to add some balance to it, by getting Giessel and some of the other Young Republicans to sign it. I think it was the only time Giessel and I ever agreed on anything. He laughed as he put his name down, “If anyone reading this has been paying attention to Chimes, and knows who we both are, it is going to be a shock to see both of our names on the same letter.”

And then I sent the letters.

Shortly afterwards I received an e-mail from the faculty director of the Mosaic floor. She thanked me for the letter, and said that the Mosaic Floor was sending both my letter, and their response to it, for publication in Chimes.

I was horrified by this. For one thing I had written the letter to the director of the Mosaic Floor, not as an open letter to everyone on the Mosaic Floor. (I don’t need 80 new enemies, thank you very much). And I had certainly not intended it for publication in Chimes for the whole student body. This wasn’t an argument I wanted to go public on. And in the various clubs I was involved in, Social Justice Committee and Environmental Stewardship Coalition, I worked with people how lived on the Mosaic floor. But it was a bit hard to argue that it was a private letter after it had already been making the rounds through NVW and collecting some 60 odd signatures.

I was also not happy about the fact that they had full access to my letter and were able to respond to every point I made in advance, and yet the letters would still appear side by side in the Chimes. I thought that was a bit of an unfair advantage on their part, and I was worried they would absolutely destroy my arguments, and then hold me up to ridicule in the paper.

In fact, I had been hearing from Buma (who had some connections on the current Mosaic Floor) that they were eager for my blood. I guess with the letter circulating around the way it was, word had gotten back to the Mosaic Floor, and the members of the floor who believed in the value of the program were absolutely furious with me. Only they didn’t know who I was. According to Buma, they had just heard that someone who wrote regularly for Chimes had written a piece that attacked the Mosaic Floor. They were expecting the article to appear in Chimes, and I think were already planning their response, and were disappointed to learn it was only a letter. Which is probably why they ended up sending it to Chimes anyway. But given how mad they reportedly were, I was worried about being called all kinds of names in print.

I pleaded with Baxter to let me see the article before Chimes printed it. Baxter was very sympathetic to my position. “For one thing, we don’t print people’s letters without their permission,” he said to me. “For another thing, the Mosaic Floor does not dictate what we print in Chimes. They think they can just order us to print what they like, but we decide our own content.” I looked at their response, and was somewhat relieved. They had not destroyed my arguments as badly as I thought, and in fact they had left several of my arguments unaddressed. I told Baxter he could go ahead and run the piece.

If you read their response, you’ll note the crux of their argument revolves around the numbers. In reality only a small percentage of minorities live on the Mosaic Floor, and so I was making a big deal of nothing. I must confess I was surprised to learn that it was that small. My perception (and I think a lot of people’s perception) was that the percentage of minorities on the Mosaic Floor was a lot higher. I felt a bit stupid for going off about this thing half-cocked without having even bothered to check what the numbers were. (Although in my defense, I did not have easy access to the numbers and statistics that they apparently had access to.)

All that being said, they are not completely honest with their statistics. For one thing they compare the number of minorities on the Mosaic Floor with the number of minorities in NVW, thus comparing one floor with a whole dorm. But if you’ve got a sharp eye you can catch that pretty easily.

Slightly more dishonest is that they talk about the total number of minorities living on campus, and then compare that with the number of minorities on the Mosaic Floor. But “on campus housing” lumps together both upper classmen housing (the apartments) and lower classmen housing (the dormitories), where as the Mosaic Floor is part of lower classman housing. A more honest figure would take just the number of minority students living in the dormitories, and then ask what percentage of these were part of the Mosaic Floor.

And…because of Calvin’s image as White Dutch school, Calvin has trouble attracting minority students domestically, and a large percentage of the minority students, particularly the black students, are international students. And none of these are even factored into their figures, because they define minority student as an ethnic American, and put international students into another category.

So, after the article appeared in print, I e-mailed the director of the Mosaic Floor, thanking her for the response, saying I had learned a lot from it, but wanted to deeper understand the statistics. Could she tell how many minority students lived in the dormitories as opposed to the apartment? And could she give me figures on international students of color? How many of them lived in the dorms, and of that, how many lived on the Mosaic Floor.

She was very polite, but said she couldn’t answer the question and gave me the e-mails of some other people who could. For a while I was sent on the run around, which I thought was a bit frustrating because these figures on student demographics had seemed available enough when they were used to defend the college’s policies. Eventually someone in the administration respond to my e-mail saying, “I do have those figures, but I can’t give them to you without a good reason. You have to tell me why you want them.” I responded by explaining about the letter published in Chimes, and that I was curious about the figures that had been used in the responding piece. In return I got what I thought was a very short and coldly worded e-mail. “Here are the figures. I trust this will satisfy your curiosity.”

With the new figures added in I did the new math. I don’t remember what exactly it turned out to be (I’ve got it in my files somewhere at my parent’s house), but it turned out to be something like 1/4 to a 1/3 of all the minority students living in the dormitories were on the Mosaic Floor. Also I suspect, although I never figured this out, that the percentage would have been even higher for black students.

I e-mailed my figures back to the director of the Mosaic Floor, and said that based on these figures I still believe the issue was something to be concerned about. Instead of receiving a response back from the director of the Mosaic Floor, I received a long response from another administration member. I don’t remember exactly what the title of her position was exactly, advisor of multicultural affairs or something. Perhaps what was significant is that she was one of the few African American faculty at Calvin. Previously everyone I had been corresponding with, the director of the Mosaic floor, the director of student housing, etc, had all been just as white as me.

She said in the e-mail that she had learned I was bothering the Mosaic Floor Director, and that I had no idea what I was talking about. How would I know what it was like to be a minority student at a predominately white school? It’s very tough, and I had no idea what these other students were going through. Did I really think it was my place as a white student to get involved in these issues? Etc, etc etc.

I responded as best I could, saying I wasn’t trying to start anything, just bring these concerns to their attention. I never heard from either her or the Mosaic Floor director again, and so that was the end of that whole issue.

As far as feedback from other students, it was overwhelmingly positive. Granted that’s not a fair measurement, because people who hated my article would be less likely to approach me about it. But I did get the sense that I was representing a lot of people’s concerns. One African student thanked me for writing the letter. He said, in what was becoming a familiar story, that he had signed up for the Mosaic floor simply because he thought as a black student he didn’t have a choice. Then he had found the endless discussions on racism a bit patronizing, because as an African, and not an African American, he did not feel that his identity was defined by being an ethnic minority. He had ended up asking to transfer out of the Mosaic Floor.
“You need to write your own letter,” I said. “Tell the administration what you just told me.” He deferred because he felt he had caused the administration too much trouble already. Besides, he had made clear his reasons for leaving at the time, so they already knew his position.

Final thoughts
I was far from blameless in the whole affair. It was a complex issue and I tried to make it simpler than it was. I was guilty of a bit of rhetorical excess in my letter, and I shouldn’t have questioned the motives of the people behind the Mosaic floor. And I should never have allowed it to circulate like a petition. It should have just been just a private letter. But I was not impressed with the conduct of the other side either.

I wrote earlier that it was my belief at the time that the administration just wasn’t aware of these issues, and they just needed someone to bring them to their attention. In retrospect I think the administration and the Mosaic Floor was well aware that these concerns existed, which is why they reacted with such hostility when I brought them up again. I believe I had legitimate concerns, and that many of my suggestions (that the simply move the location of the floor, or that they tone down the recruiting literature so that everyone realizes the floor is optional) were rather mild. But by displaying the figures in a dishonest way they seemed more interested in shutting me up and putting me in my place then in exploring dialogue on the issue. And when I got a hold of the accurate figures, they responded by accusing me of being white. “I don’t think the fact that I’m white necessarily voids everything I have to say,” I said in the e-mail. But what else could I really say on the issue? I didn’t feel that I had the moral authority to argue with an African American woman on the issue of segregation. I made my position clear, and then just let it drop. Although I did feel that I was representing the concerns of many other minority students, if they felt strongly about it they would have to write their own letters.

I do remember thinking, however, that the following year the promotional material for the Mosaic Floor did seemed a bit more toned down, and did emphasize that the floor was optional for minority students. I’m not sure how much of that I can take credit for, and how much of that would have happened anyway, but I think it was definitely a step in the right direction.

Update March 3, 2016
Curiosity got the better of me this afternoon, and I was surfing around the Net to find out whatever became of the Mosaic Floor.

As of this writing (March 3, 2016) it has been replaced by a successor organization The Grassroots Floor.  I am so completely out of touch with the Calvin community nowadays that I have no idea what The Grassroots is or how it functions.

But it appears, based on a search of the Internet, that for some years after I wrote my initial letter, the Mosaic Floor continued to attract accusations of segregation.

Searching Google, I found an excerpt on Google Books from the 2006 book: God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America by Naomi Schaefer Riley (on Amazon here).

I'll quote the relevant section:
After some discussion of the race issue on Christian campuses, and the question of whether to emphasize integration or emphasize the "divisive racial" issue, Riley writes:

Calvin College seems to be leaning towards the latter with its Mosaic Floor in one of the dormitories.  Senior Mariano Avila tries to explain the theory behind this relationship to me as we zip around town in his compact car with a press pass from the local paper swinging from the rear view mirror: "It's one floor in a dorm where minorities are kind of invited to live, and you get a tuition cut if you live there.  Then, once or twice a week, you have to talk about racism." He estimates that approximately a hundred people live there, a significant population on a campus with only a little more than three hundred minority students.
Avila, who has some interaction with the students on this floor through his participation in the Latino student group on campus, was so upset by what he saw as institutional segregation that he complained to the school's president.  He relates to me what he said in that meeting: "This is like Apartheid." Since the dorm is on the edge of campus, Avila says no one who doesn't live there ever goes there. "That group becomes so strong as a group that they don't need to interact with non minorities."
When I ask him how often he goes to the Mosaic Floor, Avila sighs and explains that members of a number of different ethnic groups do their cooking in the same kitchen there.  
"Bottom line, that place stinks," he says.
But the biggest problem Avila sees is with the group's meetings. "The people are kind of hostile because they're forced to talk about racism once a week. So of course they're going to think they're being attacked by the racist white man."

End quote.
A few brief comments on this:
1. Interesting that Riley just takes Avino's rough estimate on the demographics instead of contacting the college for the exact figures.  It's sloppy research.
Then again, given the run-around I got when I was trying to get a handle on the exact figures back in 2000, maybe it's understandable.
2. I agree with the concerns Avino has about geographical segregation.  I have no problems, however, with the weekly meetings on racism.  On the contrary, as I wrote in my letter, I was hoping that making these racism meetings into a class instead of a dormitory would help to spread this message further than just one floor.

Okay, onto the next article.

Apparently, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education published an academic article on this whole thing back in 2005 entitled:

Are Black Students Segregated at Calvin College?

Unfortunately, I can't read the thing, because it's hidden behind the same firewall that all academic articles are hidden behind.  Without a subscription to JSTOR (and no private individual can afford such a subscription) it's impossible to get to.

(The issue of academic writing being inaccessible to the general public is another one of my pet issues, but that's a different rant for a different post.)

The best I could get was an excerpt from this site here.  But without reading the article, I can't even find the punchline.  Do they conclude that it is segregation, or not?

Calvin College is a small, Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It
is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination
founded in 1857 by Dutch settlers in western Michigan. As with most small
Christian institutions, blacks make up a very low percentage of the total
enrollments at Calvin College. The latest data shows that only 0.8 percent
of the more than 4,300 students at Calvin College are black.

Calvin College has established what is called a "mosaic floor" in one
dormitory which is on the far end of campus. Students who apply to live on
the floor and are accepted as members of the mosaic community are required
to take a one-credit seminar where they discuss issues of race and culture. …


lucretius said...

I think that your concerns on this issue were completely valid. The true tragedy of this story is that the one person who seems to have truly learned anything from this episode is the one person that was trying to agitate for the greater self-knowledge of the whole community. Well, at least you can say that you learned something.
Race is a double-edged sword, because one can be racist by ignoring its importance or by overemphasizing the same. However, the same could be said for many things in life. I'm proud of you for saying something about a situation that I certainly felt was unjust, and many others I talked to did as well.

Phil said...

"Accusing me of being white."

That's a great line.