If Michael Brown had made it out of Ferguson and onto college, he’d be a sophomore this year.
A member of the Class of 2018.
Twenty years old. Finding his major. Making friends. Having the time of his young life—how many students spend their time on college and university campuses nationwide.
It seems easy to imagine because it happens for hundreds of students at Doane every year. It’s happening right now for sophomores like Kennerly Benraty ’18, Aspen Green ’18 and Jordan Zonner ’18.
But reality is far more sobering. And far more complex.
Brown didn’t make it out of Ferguson, Missouri. He was killed in August 2014, a few months after graduating high school, minutes after stealing Swisher Sweets from a neighborhood convenience store in the north St. Louis suburb. He was shot—several times—and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in an altercation in the middle of Canfield Drive.
Months after his death, a grand jury decided not to hand down a criminal indictment for Wilson. The resolution set Ferguson on fire, a tinderbox equal parts racial tension, agony and accountability—all ignited by police brutality.
Brown became a martyr in a movement far bigger than himself.
Across the country, his name alone has become another log on the fire in a red-hot conversation burning through 24-hour news cycles, social media and the 2016 presidential race.
He was, sadly, just one more name in the kindling.
Oscar Grant, Oakland, California, January 2009. Trayvon Martin, Sanford, Florida, February 2012. Eric Garner, Staten Island, New York, July 2014. Tamir Rice, Cleveland, November 2014. Freddie Gray, Baltimore, April 2015. Sandra Bland, Waller County, Texas, July 2015.
The conversation reached higher education’s doorstep with full force last fall when black students protested racial discrimination at the University of Missouri, ultimately leading to UM president Tim Wolfe’s resignation.
Enter Aspen, Jordan and Kennerly, three black students on an overwhelmingly white, small college campus in rural Nebraska, caught in the crossfire of what it means—and the courage it takes—to be black in America in the 21st Century.
Ask Jordan what race means to her and she’ll tell you it’s history.
“Race to me is the experiences that I have had that basically make my skin color. So it stains who I am,” she says. “If you can picture me as a blank, white canvas, experiences from years back—like the history that my mom went through, my grandma, everything, even my dad—all of that stuff stains my skin into who I am. It painted my own skin color.”
Jordan is a scientist—a biology major who has already won awards at science conferences and spent a summer researching at Iowa State University—and a contemplative one at that. She mulls over questions before answering. Takes time to find the right words and steps back to capture the big picture. She sees details, too, but looks at what is in front of her like it’s an organism—made up of this and that, and something whole out of many parts.
Her view on race is no different. It’s cause and effect. Jordan acknowledges the moment she was conceived by a black mother and a white father. Growing up in Dallas and graduating from a diverse high school bigger than Doane, she can see why she and Aspen—even as “light-skinned girls”—stick out in Crete.
Ask Aspen what race means to her and she’ll tell you that it’s new.
Like Jordan, she identifies as biracial, born of a black mother and white father. But she’s spent most of her life “interacting white” with both sides of her family—the way they speak, the way they act, their educated language, she says.
That’s how it was back in Parker, Colorado, the southeastern fringe of the Denver suburbs where she started high school. Even with her lighter skin complexion, she was “the blackest girl” at school. White was the norm.
The thought of identifying as a white woman crossed her mind.
But when she moved to Lincoln and spent two years at North Star High School, she found herself in a community of more diverse students—kids black like her.
It felt like an epiphany. Even coming to Doane—where, according to 2016 institutional research, just 13.3 percent of current reporting students identify as minorities and 2 percent are black—she met more black students, including Jordan, her roommate to this day. Their conversations continued her fascination with her race.
“It’s empowering, almost, to start to realize this is a whole other side of me that I’ve never discovered,” Aspen says, “and now I’m starting to really get into it.”
Ask Kennerly what race means to him and he’ll tell you it’s everything.
It’s where he comes from: Portsmouth, Virginia, a majority black city.
It’s who made him: “Beautiful, black majestic matriarchy”—a mother born during the civil rights movement to grandparents who grew up in the Jim Crow South.
It’s what came before and what is now: “I’m still waiting on my 40 acres and a mule,” he says, pointing back to the famously hollow promise that freed black slaves were to receive land plots after the Civil War only to become sharecroppers during Reconstruction.
It informs his very existence.
“Race, it’s my link, it’s my blood, it’s what fuels my fire. It’s me. I’m black and I’m bold and I’m proud and I’m not afraid of anybody.”
Kennerly—studying political science and Doane’s new law, politics and society major—will tell you everything about him is influenced by the skin color that binds him to history, his family, his place in the world. It almost seems as if all of his waking thoughts are poured through a filter of how he fits into a world that sees him as an exception—not the rule.
He’s seen highs, and he’s seen lows.
Like the expression on the face of his grandmother, who lived through the civil rights movement in the Deep South, when she saw Barack Obama inaugurated as the nation’s first black president in 2008.
“That gives me chills just thinking about that day, to watch my grandmother see a black man become the president of these United States,” he says, beaming. “To see her face, to see the proud in her chin, to hold it up high, to know that everything she did came to fruition in some sense. No, we ain’t there yet, but damn—we making strides.”
But he’s experienced the other side of the coin, too. Ignorance. Intolerance. Apathy. Don’t try to tell him that whites and blacks are on a level playing field or pipe dreams of a “White History Month.” He rests his case with history.
“Your past has seen a mark of equality,” he says. “I wasn’t even a person—I couldn’t even vote—until the 1960s.”
Race isn’t just history. Race is now—and it isn’t just stirring up conversations in Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Oakland, Sanford, Staten Island, the University of Missouri and Waller County. Race is everywhere.
And it’s here, a pressing issue at Doane.
Ask Professor of Education Dr. Marilyn Johnson-Farr what race means to her and she’ll tell you about a check box.
“For some people, the box brings along neat little privileges with it,” she says. “For some of us, the box creates more obstacles.”
She’ll also tell you about her “racial antenna;” how it turns on the instant she wakes up and how it stays on all day, whether she’s walking her dog, into her classroom or simply past someone—and feeling them squirm just because of her passing presence.
“Race is always in the room,” she says. “It’s just that some people are not racially conscious.”
In her 22 years at Doane as one of the few black professors on the Crete campus, she’s seen students conscious of race join together in many iterations of support groups for underrepresented minorities.
They’ve come and gone, different names for the same thing with little traction or progress.
But there’s something different about a new group on campus: it was born at boiling point on a cold night.
Michael Brown’s face was on CNN in a Sheldon Hall dorm room Nov. 24, 2014. Aspen and Jordan returned from volleyball practice and stayed glued to their TV for hours. What happened next was a whirlwind; they were angry, confused, downtrodden, frightened, alone. They jumped and yelled and screamed—and couldn’t look away.
The roommates watched from 500 miles away as Ferguson descended into chaos, riots and protests after the grand jury announced no indictment for Darren Wilson.
“However long they were filming it, we were watching it and talking about it and just really angry and wondering what we could do,” Jordan remembers.
They thought about organizing a protest on campus the next day. Numbers deterred them, but the potential sting of social stigmas factored in, too.
“We couldn’t get a lot of people to come with us, to make it actually something,” starts Jordan. “There’s not enough people here that look like us that could hopefully feel the same way, you know?”
“We didn’t want to be known as the ‘angry black women’ on campus,” Aspen adds. “I remember saying that.”
But the seed was planted.
Working as a student journalist, Aspen met Dr. Johnson-Farr in February 2015 for a story interview for The Doane Owl. After their meeting was over, she shared what had long been simmering in her and Jordan’s minds: seeking change through race conversations at Doane.
Dr. Johnson-Farr saw a chance to foster growth in two “incredible” young women, and with campus chaplain Rev. Karla Cooper, empowered them to turn their energy into a powerful voice.
“They’re not afraid, at this point, to say what they believe is right,” Dr. Johnson-Farr says. “I think that’s been the missing piece. People have been trying to speak on their behalf without asking, and that’s the problem.”
If diversity is part of Doane’s plan, they want a seat at the table. So after months of conversations, Aspen and Jordan formed their student group at the start of the 2015-16 academic year under the acronym IDEA: Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access. With Dr. Johnson-Farr as its advisor, the organization is rallying around the notion that diversity doesn’t “happen” overnight. Or on documents and in speeches. Or without minority constituents having a say.
“We have to understand, there’s so much power in our hands,” Jordan says. “We have to go out and get it.”
It can only start with action—and this generation, more than any in the last 50 years, is predisposed to do so. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s 50th annual survey of first-year college students, 2015 respondents exhibited greater expectations for student activism, civic engagement and promotion of racial awareness. The report, published this year by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, revealed:
• 8.5 percent of all students reported a “very good chance” of taking part in student protests during their time in college, the highest mark
since the category was first recorded in 1967;
• 74.6 percent of first-year students placing an emphasis (a “‘very important’ or ‘essential’ personal objective”) on supporting others in need;
• And 63.8 percent of black students rating “racial understanding” as a “very important” or “essential” personal objective.
IDEA wants to build that kind of culture within the Doane community, integrating multicultural education and race conversations. In the end, the group hopes to help Doane improve retention of minority students and keep the campus racially conscious.
The group hasn’t lacked action.
Last November, IDEA organized a trip of a dozen students and participated in a Black Lives Matter rally at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s city campus. Jordan and Aspen have spoken to the Alumni Council, Board of Trustees, American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska board member Luis Sotelo and Rev. Robert L. Polk ’52, the college’s first black graduate. As IDEA president and vice president respectively, Jordan and Aspen occupy a seat on Doane’s Equity and Inclusion Action Committee led by Dr. Johnson-Farr, which also includes 16 faculty and staff members.
In February, IDEA revealed the results of its social injustice survey, administered by faculty in classes on the Crete campus, at a public forum in Common Grounds. Aspen, Jordan, Kennerly and six other group members acted as a panel and facilitated a Q&A covering everything from white privilege to gender roles to religious perceptions. When the event started, they had an audience of 20 individuals, a mix of faculty, staff and students. It doubled in less than 30 minutes and tripled by the end of the hour-long event.
In March, they hosted their first guest speaker, communication instructor and Director of Forensics Nathaniel Wilson, in a presentation on privilege and its many forms.
“The future is bright for how much we can grow,” says Kennerly, who joined IDEA in November. “It depends on how hard we’re willing to work, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Now they want help from leadership.
Aspen, Jordan and Kennerly came to Doane as student-athletes but traded sports for academic pursuits.
In place of volleyball, Aspen immersed herself in media communication studies as a photojournalist while Jordan committed to research. Kennerly left the wrestling team to spend his weekends traveling the country as a member of Doane Forensics, qualifying to compete at nationals in events like poetry, one of his passions.
All three of them stayed at Doane for the education, but it leaves them on a campus where, frankly, they’ve felt pressure to fit in in a white community. They expected as much in rural Nebraska, but didn’t know just how much it would affect them—how they’ve learned to be “comfortable being uncomfortable” away from family, friends and home.
Still, they adjusted.
“It’s innate ability to shift your societal norms to appropriate for the culture around you,” Kennerly says of his daily life on campus. “I did it my freshman year. I knew I was black, but I didn’t want to be seen as the outcast.”
There’s fear in being different. Anger, too. Aspen recalls negative notes about diversity she’s seen on Yik Yak, a geo-specific, anonymous messaging app popular among Doane students.
“We get a lot of feedback from Yik Yak,” she says. “It doesn’t matter much, but people say things like ‘I’m white, so it doesn’t matter why you’re doing this’ or ‘We should stop getting multicultural emails because it doesn’t pertain to me.’”
IDEA’s message is simple: Race does matter to everyone. The group’s platform is sustaining a dialogue that encourages peers and Doane to consider minority viewpoints. They want to reciprocate the discomfort of being “the onlys”—sticking out as a minority—constructively and help find common ground for students, no matter if they grew up in diverse communities or small-town Nebraska.
“We want that comfortable place for people to say things that they don’t understand and talk about it,” Aspen says.
Deep down, they wish more minority students chose Doane. Dr. Johnson-Farr feels the same way; in her classes with a greater diversity of students, the conversations are richer and the depth of learning is enhanced.
“You create a platform that people feel empowered to go out and do the work,” she says.
IDEA is also pushing for racial representation at all levels of the institution: faculty, staff and leadership. A campus milieu as reflective as it is inclusive of its minorities.
“What this group can do for Doane is to bring to light that if you want to attract students and make your campus diverse, it starts on the inside,” Kennerly says. “There’s nothing you can do—not a piece of paper you can sign or money you can get or job you can hire—to increase your diversity rate. It’s about you as an institution and what you offer.”
That runs counter to the status quo. Doane currently has no minority representation in administrative leadership positions, and the number of black faculty and staff can be counted on two hands.
The college has made diversity an initiative in its last two strategic plans but hasn’t completed a hiring process for a cabinet-level officer for “equity and inclusion.”
IDEA wants to see that domino fall.
“Now is the season of figuring out how we fill that gap, and part of it has to be something that embraces staff, faculty and students,” says Dr. Johnson-Farr, noting that the Equity and Inclusion Action Committee has only been able to do so much.
“There are steps, which are good steps, but nobody is coordinating those steps so they are systemic.”
Hiring someone to gauge the cultural climate on campus, like a chief diversity officer, is a start, the group says.
Internally, IDEA is still looking for strength in numbers and Student Congress representation. Given that its leadership (Aspen and Jordan) and most vocal member (Kennerly) still have two years left before graduation, there is a window for IDEA—and Doane—to be different than what its advisor has seen before.
“We have been in the struggle and now we’re waiting to breathe some progress,” Dr. Johnson-Farr says. “I’m not saying there hasn’t been progress, but it hasn’t been as significant as it could be. Now has to be the time if we really want to change—the intricacies of this campus, the guts of this campus—to be significant. I believe this group has the moral courage to do it. They’re not going to give up. They’re not going to get shattered.”