By Craig Robinson, National Director of KIPP Through College
There’s a watershed moment happening on college campuses. From large universities like Mizzou and Yale to small colleges like Amherst and Claremont McKenna, students are speaking out against systemic racism in higher education.
The origins of and responses to these conditions have been debated, as should be the case in a healthy and vibrant campus setting and society. But like so many others, I am proud to bear witness to yet another moment of students empowering themselves to be the change. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
As the national director of KIPP Through College, I’ve spent the past week on a number of college campuses, and have seen how deeply students are reacting to what’s going on. I want to offer a few thoughts for our KIPP alumni in college, and to other students of color currently navigating these waters.
First, what you’re seeing and feeling is real. Resist any attempt to minimize or explain away your experiences. You have a right to voice your own experience, and you are far from alone.
Between 1986 and 2012, the proportion of students of color on college campuses increased from 20 to 34 percent—a very positive sign. However, over the same period, diversity in college leadership has stayed roughly the same. And, as of fall 2013, only 21 percent of full-time college faculty identified as people of color. These are systemic concerns, and it is understandable and valid for you to be affected by them.
At the same time, evidence shows that a college degree is still the most proven path to a life of opportunity and choice. This is something we at KIPP grapple with: we do our best to prepare students of color for success in college, and then we see our alumni run up against the limits of a system that has historically not served them well. We’re working to figure out the best role we can play in changing that reality.
This brings me to my second point. Students: this battle is not yours alone. It’s deeper and more entrenched than just a single incident at a single school. You’re already standing on the shoulders of giants who have fought these fights for decades so that you could have a seat at the table. So on the one hand, your presence is a symbol of hard fought victories that have been won already and yet there is a constant reminder that the struggle continues. The challenge now is to build on the momentum of the past and to ensure that you leave a lasting legacy for future generations.
You’re fighting on two fronts: to raise awareness on your campus, but also to bring about a broader change beyond your campus community. That’s a lot to take in, and it can be easy to get absorbed in fighting institutional racism in a way that takes your eye off the ball for why you chose to be there in the first place: completing your degree and moving towards a higher purpose and plan. So use your voice to speak truth to power. It’s your right. But always keep marching towards your goal of graduation and the impact you intend to make in this world.
To me, this comes back to the whole premise of KIPP: Knowledge Is Power. This entire moment is about students identifying their own power and recognizing their place in society. How do we go about establishing power, validating it, and instituting it for the future? It’s important to have the knowledge and the preparation to harness your power—and earning a college degree while advocating for yourself and others is a big part of that.
A college degree will position you to advocate for yourself and your community for the long haul. If you want to invest yourself in advocacy, make sure you’re in a place to advocate successfully—and that includes keeping up with your studies and staying in good academic standing. It’s a challenging balance to strike and as we always say at KIPP: “We either find a way or make one.”
Also remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all discourse, and students of color are not a monolith. You may have questions or conflicts about how you identify as an individual, and specific things you want your advocacy to accomplish. Ask yourself how you can best contribute—attending a rally, writing an article, researching a historical or cultural issue, or working behind the scenes to elevate others’ voices—while continuing your own progress toward a college degree.
This is not something that you will win alone. The only way to make progress is through forming coalitions and reaching common ground with others. We’re already seeing powerful examples of students doing this, like KIPP Nashville alumna TeAndrea Jackson leading a rally at Boston University in solidarity with students of color at Mizzou. And we’re also seeing alumnae like Jerelyn Rodriguez and A’Dorian Murray-Thomas take the knowledge they acquired in college to launch nonprofit organizations in their communities.
As you prepare for the Thanksgiving break and the winter holidays—whether you remain on campus or go home—I hope that you will think about the space you want to return to after break, and begin laying the groundwork for that by staying strong in your studies and elevating the issues that matter on campus. I also hope that you will take some time to rest and renew from this challenging stretch, so that you can stay healthy while advocating for yourself and others.
Craig Robinson, pictured below with KIPP Gaston College Prep alumni Myles Nicholson (graduate of Morehouse College) and Jessica Boone (graduate of UNC Chapel Hill), is the National Director of KIPP Through College.