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Breaking Down Race Relations On Campus: Open Forum Fuels Racial Discussions

Photo Courtesy Josh Gaines

Patrick Kenney

The door squeaked open, much like it had been doing the whole night, but this time people looked.

All eyes went to the entrance. They stayed glued to the man who walked inside.

It was a subtle entrance. Nothing out of the ordinary. No flash, no flare, but the atmosphere had changed.

On Sept. 28, Springfield College student Elijah Ryan ignited a campus-wide conversation on race, and when he walked in Alumni Hall during an open forum about race relations, the whole room went quiet.

Quiet not out of fear but out of wonderment. Here was this man who triggered racial conversations on campus. He had yet to talk about his experiences in public and he had shown up to offer some explanation.

Glossy eyes waited as Elijah gathered his thoughts. He could have said anything in that moment and people would have listened. When he did talk he was calm, appreciative and humble.

He only spoke for a couple moments. He thanked the crowd and said that he will make a ‘full statement’ later. Holding the controversial sign he had been carrying all week, “Springfield College Does Not Care About Black People,” Elijah pitched an idea to gather a group of people whose number one focus would be on lives of black and Latino people on campus.

He finished by saying that he was ‘at peace’ and then picked up his sign and slowly walked out of the squeaky door as all eyes followed him out.

“All the heads turned towards [him] because he started this [conversation] with his sign,” said junior Kharlin Miles. “It wasn’t awkward. It was more of ‘what do you have to say?’”

“What he is doing is a hard thing to do,” said senior Marissa Puchalski, who attended the discussion. “He is very passionate.”

It was because of Elijah that such a gathering was called that night. It was because of Elijah that some people wanted and needed to talk.

It was because of Elijah but it was not about Elijah. It was about something much bigger than him, than Springfield College.

As the sun broke through the newly renovated windows of the all male dormitory, a crowd of 40 to 50 students, faculty and alumni, representing a multitude of races, gathered to address racial relations on campus.

As the crowd grew in number so did the noise. The noise, however, was not loud enough to mask the anticipation of the discussion. It had been a long time coming for Springfield College and that time was finally here.

One voice was able to crawl to the top of the noise and break the room into silence. For those who have yet to meet Calvin Hill, the vice president of inclusion and community engagement, he speaks with a grace and poise that can only come from years of working with issues of inclusion on college campuses.

Even after Hill posed his first question, the thick blanket of silence covered the room yet the atmosphere felt free and welcoming. Thoughts were gathered and away the discussion went, with Hill acting as the voice of direction.

There was a mixture of emotions but the room was mostly filled with people who wanted to talk but most importantly wanted to listen.

People sat in groups around the foyer that had been transformed into a semicircle of chairs, couches and tables. Some onlookers crossed their arms in defense, some leaned forward with the intent to listen, while others sat more relaxed and looked open to all ideas floating around the hollow room.

In the beginning there was hesitation. Almost like people were skirting around the main issue: race.

“I loved that people were aware of what is going on around campus for black students,” said Ashley Glover. “Reflecting on it, I would have loved to have seen more students and heard their thoughts.”

Before wrapping up the discussions for the night, Hill thanked everyone for coming out and then he challenged everybody.

“Be the change,” Hill said. “It is on everyone to ask the hard questions and make a difference.”

Whether the words are Calvin Hill’s or Elijah Ryan’s, it is not about them. The words are more important. They are only means to keep the racial conversations going and developing into change.

“There were mixed emotions and feelings about numerous issues and solutions, however there was one constant,” said Puchalski. “Each individual who attended cares.”

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