“Can I say ‘what the hell?’” President of Noyes House Takunda Maisva ’19 looks concerned and points to the phone placed in the middle of the table, recording the conversation. Considering the topic of discussion, it’s an appropriate response.
“People find comfort in people who look like them,” he continues, “so when you get here and no one looks like you, you’re like, What the hell, who do I talk to?”
Maisva looks around the table at his fellow house team members, who are all nodding in agreement. It’s a hot and humid Saturday afternoon in Jetson Lounge, the heart of Noyes House, and two weeks ago, Jetson was packed with people of all colors, sharing, supporting and seeking comfort in each other and their stories.
On Aug. 28, the Sunday before classes began, Noyes hosted their first event of the year: “We Got You: a Melanin-Blessed Gathering.” Noyes Four-Central Student Fellow Tamar Ballard ’19 and Four-East Student Fellow Robin Corleto ’19 spearheaded the talk about identity, intersectionality and experiences as people of color on Vassar’s campus.
“We felt that in the house environment, there was a really big lack of support for people of color,” Ballard explained. “Our house team is 60 percent POC,” this brings smiles to the house team members at the table, “and we all agreed that we didn’t want this cycle to continue.”
However, this cycle is rooted in spaces far beyond the dorms. It starts as soon as orientation begins. Programming Director of Noyes Devon Wilson ’19 brings this up when he speaks about the first years who spoke of incidents of racism they had faced just within their first few days here.
One of those first years who is Ifeacho Awachie ’20. He said, “Me and my roommate, who is also from Georgia and identifies as African American, were walking with someone else, and they made a comment about me giving my roommate a piece of fried chicken. I wasn’t really in the conversation, but afterward I was like, what just happened?”
Awachie knew what that person had said wasn’t right, but in the moment there were no words to describe what had happened. “I didn’t say anything until three days later when I asked my roommate if he felt weird about that too.”
As it is now, first year orientation does not educate the incoming class about what people of color will face on campus. Instead, house team members are trained to address these issues only after the fact.
“During house team training,” Corleto explains, “we had a workshop about microaggressions, and they were giving us all this useful information but then leaving the first years to figure it out on their own.”
The only time Ballard, Corleto or Wilson felt like a program was catered to their needs was during Transitions. “But as soon as Transitions ended,” Ballard reflects, “the school was like, ‘new phone who dis?’”
Although the table laughs at this response, it’s clear this is no joke to them. This feeling of being dropped by the school set the tone for the year. The expression on Corleto’s face turns to frustration as he says, “I was fortunate enough to be in Transitions, but outside of those friendships, I felt like I had to change myself in order to make non-POCs comfortable. Suddenly, I couldn’t speak Spanish and talk about mi abuelita because that wasn’t acceptable.”
Maisva, equally frustrated, tells us that the class of 2019 is one of Vassar’s most diverse classes; yet only 6.6 percent were Black students. “I was the only Black male freshman up in this house.” He shakes his head and says, “That’s just ridiculous.”
“As soon as you get here and you’re white, and especially if you’re well-off, you have a support system,” says Ballard. “A lot of the resources on campus are more easily accessible for white students because they’re white-run.”
“If you go to these resources as a person of color,” she continues, “it’s automatically more difficult because most of the people there don’t understand where you’re coming from.”
Her words ring true in the classroom as well. Wilson brings this up when he shares, “In one of my classes last year, only myself and one other person, out of 27 people, identified as POC. During one class, there was a dialogue about a topic most people in the class couldn’t relate to, but of course they still gave their two cents.”
“It got to a point where my friend and I just turned to each other and acknowledged that this wasn’t a conversation about us, but a conversation over us,” he said.
It can be dehumanizing and emotional when POC experiences are treated as abstract topics rather than actual lives, but Wilson took this class as an opportunity to find support in a classmate of color. “We grew stronger together,” he concludes.
“When you do find support,” Ballard adds, “it usually isn’t administrative support, but rather fellow students, and you’re expected to be Black together or brown together.”
“And when you can find administrative support, it’s always from admins of color,” Ballard adds. “I mean, we can’t forget about Luis Inoa and the work he’s done for us.”
Maisva hypes up when he adds, “And our Colette Cann! You see, Vassar has these great people like the faculty of color and ALANA orgs, but as an institution, they don’t utilize them and ask them to address our needs.”
The mood turns to one of frustration again and Maisva goes on, “I feel like I’ve talked about this several times already but what Vassar does is try to fix things after they happen rather than try to prevent things from happening.”
“We Got You” was born out of a need to be proactive rather than reactive. “We wanted to make sure we had this event as soon as possible,” Corleto explains. “From my personal experience, I didn’t even know what a microaggression was until, like, February of freshman year. I’d been facing them my whole life without acknowledging it.”
For Awachie, the timing of the event was equally important. “It helped having it before classes because I felt like I was aware of stuff, but it opened my eyes even more. When I first came for FOCUS, it seemed super liberal and everyone was nice. I didn’t think I would have to deal with racist comments or microaggressions.”
He continues, “So it was good to have multiple people remind me that that’s what goes on here. It was also really cool to see how many people came and see who I could talk to later on.”
Ballard was overcome with joy by the nearly 100 people in attendance. “I literally almost cried like five times, especially when people from other houses kept walking in.”
Inclusivity is another mission for Noyes and they could not stress it enough. “This was not an affinity space to talk bad about white people,” Wilson emphasizes. “I was really glad when a first year brought up their experience of being half white.”
Corleto joins in, “It was good to see white allies who wanted to listen and learn instead of trying to claim or change our struggles…”
“They understood that it wasn’t their conversation,” Ballard finishes.
“Honestly,” Ballard continues, shifting the focus of conversation, “the best part for me was just listening to what people had to say.”
Everyone agrees and Maisva adds, “It’s nice to be affirmed in what you’re going through and what you’re surviving.”
“Not only surviving but thriving,” Wilson finishes with a smile toward Maisva.
Awachie left the event with the same impression. “Knowing that other people are going through the same stuff as you helps,” he reflects. “I took away a lot from what one of my friends shared.”
He explains further, “I don’t think of myself as someone who would do the things my friend described, but it’s good to be doubly sure that you’re not going to be prejudice against someone else’s culture, especially as a POC.”
“All in all,” Maisva concludes, “I feel like I’ve seen change come about from this. We actually made a difference. I cried a little–it’s no big deal.”
“And we’re looking forward to ‘We Got You, Too’ in December,” Ballard adds with a smirk. She just came up with the title, and her fellow house team members enthusiastically approve.
Corleto looks around the table, a contagious smile on his face. “Can we hug after this?”
“Is it a wrap?” Maisva looks expectantly at his fellow house team members.
It is a wrap, but the conversation never ends. And Noyes House Team wants to remind you: “We got your back, your left, your right, your front. We Got You.”