A Task Force of Her Own: Interview with Refuse the Silence’s Morgane Richardson

Morgane Richardson

Morgane Richardson has a mission to change higher education for women of color as we know it.

A 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, Richardson started her work supporting women of color as an activist and mentor on campus. Throughout her college years, she made herself available to women of color as they navigated issues of race, class, and gender. Determined to change the campus climate, she also sat on Middlebury’s Task Force on the Status of Women, which continued the work of earlier task forces on issues of gender at the college from 1990 and 1997 respectively. The original 1990 report, which came to be called the “Gender Report,” was “undertaken in the aftermath of an incident in which a mutilated female mannequin was hanged from the front of a fraternity house during a party at the close of the 1987-88 school year.”

Upon graduating, Richardson became inspired to change the climate for women of color at elite liberal arts colleges, institutions whose histories of tradition and privilege generate cultures of racism, sexism, and homophobia, leaving women of color erased from the conversation, both academically and socially.  Today, Richardson is collecting the stories of women of color at elite liberal arts colleges to create an anthology made up of narratives, letters, essays and videos, which will be titled Refuse the Silence. These stories will be used to design a set of actions that will be sent to leading college presidents and administrators to create the kind of change we’ve long been waiting for.

Let’s talk first about your time at Middlebury.  From your website, it seems as though your Middlebury years were ones during which you became increasingly politicized in terms of issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  How did you become politicized at Middlebury? Or, did it happen before your time there?

I have always been a political person, always an activist. As a woman of color, I think I have always been politicized. When I was younger, I used to run around saying, “I know my rights, I know my rights!” any time my mom threatened to spank me because I was driving her insane!

But yes, there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.

About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word “Nigger” written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.

In response to that event, my roommate said, “Well, maybe if you don’t keep fighting these things [by protesting, speaking out, etc.] you will feel more a part of the campus.” I couldn’t handle the conversation and moved out soon afterwards. But her ghastly reaction really shattered me.

My dean apologized to me months later, saying he just hadn’t known how to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, at that point, I had already begun to feel different from everyone else around me. Then it seemed that there was a snowball effect with one event following another.

At the start of my sophomore year, a crime alert e-mail went out to all students, referring to a suspect as having “nappy hair.” In my junior year, the college honored Justice William H. Rehnquist, who voted against the expansion of school desegregation and the establishment of legalized abortions. And all throughout, I watched as friends were asked to be the “Black,” “Asian,” “Latino,” etc., voice in the classroom.  I mean, the list of events that caused me to become an activist goes on, and on, and on.

I quickly realized that my position as a woman of color was not going to allow me to close my eyes to the issues of racism, prejudice, and ignorance that was rampant across our campus.

I searched for a group where I could have a voice but, at the time I found none. The Women of Color group then was incredibly separatist. It was being run almost like a sorority; it was comprised of upper-classmen who didn’t want to change anything about the organization. I felt that this group needed to grow and transform and I fought for that. I fought to create a space where everyone, not just African Americans or even women, could come and talk about issues pertaining to all women of color in elite liberal arts institutions.

How did you conceive of the project?

I went back to visit Middlebury a few times after I graduated, and I noticed that women of color students who were entering college faced some of the same issues I had as a student. Among other things, there was an immense fear of fitting in and feeling as though the college didn’t understand who they were. Just like I had, these women felt as though the college had brought them to this elite institution and then abandoned them. I saw a pattern and realized that a long-term plan needed to be implemented on college campuses; a plan that would allow the college to hear what these students were saying as individuals.

Yes, in fact, your website says, “It’s as if they have invited us to their venue, even invited us to speak, but neglected to provide a microphone so we can be heard.”  If you had a magic wand, what would you have wanted to say if that microphone had been provided?

I could write a whole book on what I would have said had a microphone been provided! You know, as a student, I wasn’t thinking about policy changes on a big level. I was thinking about the day-to-day, “How do I survive here?,” “How do my fellow women of color survive here?,” “What can we do to make this a little more comfortable for us?” Ultimately, I wanted the college to hear our individual struggles. They made such a big deal about diversifying the school, but there was no integration, no real questioning of how we were doing day-to-day. As for when I wanted them to hear us, the answer is always. I always wanted them to hear us. There should always be a place for students of color to speak out and be heard, not just amongst each other.

When you served on the Task Force on the Status of Women, what had you hoped would be the action-oriented items that would come out of that work?

To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about the action-oriented items that would come out of the Task Force. In my mind, this was a new step the college was taking to assess the problems and see what issues needed to be dealt with to better the environment for women on campus. It was only as a graduate that I realized we were pawns collecting more data that would go to board members, who would then say those problems didn’t exist, or that they had been rectified, etc.

The college needs to have better resources available for students who come to college with their children, advanced policies to deal with sexual assault and rape on campus, [and] they must increase the number of women of color on the faculty and staff.

Given that colleges and universities respond to data rather than narrative, how do you plan to shift the dialogue so that the voices in your anthology are heard and so that those voices inform real change without getting neglected for “hard numbers”?

In anthropology, we have a method for scoring narrative data. We look for patterns in the stories that can be quantified. That being said, once I have gathered a substantial amount of stories, I will sit down with a team of students, graduates, activists, and academics and use this method to draft a suggested plan of action, based on the stories I receive, to better assist women of color in elite liberal arts colleges.

In essence, I never take away or remove the voices from the data. The narratives, “hard numbers,” and a suggested plan of action will be made available as a book for the administrators of these schools. Hopefully, administrators will have the action plan implemented in one form or another.

It really would be wonderful if Refuse The Silence became a virtual and physical forum that women of color students and their academic institutions always have access to! In my dream world, I would love to see leaders in higher education knocking down doors trying to get their hands on Refuse The Silence so that they can implement changes on their college campuses.

A step down from that, it would be outstanding if Refuse The Silence encourages administrators, faculty, staff, etc., to begin, or in some cases continue, asking their student population of color about their experiences. That being said, no matter what I do, we all know I can’t force all college administrators across the country to read this anthology. At the end of the day, that is really up to you all. It is up to students, teachers, activists, and parents to express their concern with the way campuses deal with the diverse populations they have invited to their institutions.

How do you plan to approach colleges and universities? In other words, how do we make sure that you get a seat at the table once this anthology is published and how do we make sure you get a microphone once you are seated?

That’s sweet of you! Unfortunately I have no idea, but I would love some suggestions! I say this because my main focus right now is on these young women and their stories. I am giving them a microphone by providing them a space to give voice to their experiences. I don’t know what the “results” of this anthology will show me and so I’m not at a place where I can generate a plan of action until the anthology has really taken form.  So much of academia is about the plan. Right now I want to make it about the people. I would be just like these institutions if I focused on the plan instead of these women.

Since this is a blog for feminist educators, what advice would you give to teachers who want to be a part of changing and shifting the dialogue in their schools? What suggestions do you have for teachers who work with young women of color in high school to prepare them for their entrance into elite colleges today?

I think a lot of change can happen within the classroom, whether it‘s in fifth grade or in college. Teachers and professors should talk about race, class, and gender issues in their classrooms. I really urge instructors to not focus solely on textbook curriculum. Let students ask questions about race issues and talk about what is going on in their personal lives. Address racial, sexual, etc., slurs in a positive manner; don’t just tell them not to say them, tell them why they shouldn’t say it, or what it means to groups of people, and tell them about real life, your life, what you have experienced. Many of the issues we see in elite college institutions are created because students and teachers are not open, and they don’t feel comfortable to talk about the truth from the beginning. However, at the end of the day, there is nothing that a teacher can say that will fully prepare their students for the experience they will have entering an elite liberal arts college.

Why do you think there is nothing teachers can do that will fully prepare students of color for entrance into elite liberal arts colleges? What should be done?

Be honest with your students! It might not be right for them to go to elite schools just because it looks good on paper and/or they got a scholarship. Tell them what it would be like. Put them in contact with students of color from those colleges. The truth is, even if it’s the best school in the country academically, it doesn’t mean it’s the most progressive, open-minded, or accepting.

I, myself, went through a college prep program through the Posse Foundation, whose main mission was to help me succeed and feel comfortable and supported at these types of schools. I went through two years of training—one in high school and one my freshman year of college—and four years with a mentor and a group of people who were assigned as my “Posse.” It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be doing this project if [Posse] had worked 100 percent.

It does start with you, secondary educators, preparing your students academically and emotionally to attend such rigorous schools. It is equally important that secondary educators provide a space for their students to come back to them as college students and ask questions. Students need to know that there will always be some kind of a support network at home.

Tell your women of color students who now attend elite liberal arts colleges to submit their stories by September 1 to Refuse the Silence.

Follow Refuse the Silence at http://twitter.com/refusesilence and Morgane Richardson at https://twitter.com/Morgane_R

8 thoughts on “A Task Force of Her Own: Interview with Refuse the Silence’s Morgane Richardson

  1. Pingback: A Task Force of Her Own: Interview with Refuse the Silence’s Morgane Richardson « Feminist Teacher #edu #education « Parents 4 democratic Schools

  2. Thank you for conducting this interview and reminding us all of the important movement to allow all people not only to ‘have an invitation to the party and to speak’ but to have a ‘microphone’. I think that is an incredibly powerful image and as an Asian American who went to a prep school I completely agree with Morgane that it is important at the earliest level to help children become aware of these issues and how to deal with them. I went back to my school years after graduating to speak to a ‘diversity group’ that met once a week to talk about the issues they were facing on a daily basis (I was 1 of 4 in a class of 150). My most important lesson to them was that they must remember that the world IS a diverse place and where diversity is lacking is an opportunity for them to start a dialogue and open up the space for people to learn, exchange information and see what we all share, regardless of our race, religion or color. The other point I made was that there are ALWAYS a group of like minded people out there, ready to support a good cause and make a difference, it just takes one moment to step out of your comfort zone and say YES to you, no matter how many NO’s you hear around you.

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