English and Creative Writing Professor’s Artistic Journey Brings “Voices Into Dialogue”

When Professor of English and Creative Writing T.J. Anderson III is asked how long he spent writing his newest book, he says he always answers, “It took me 62 years.”

Of course, he’s joking. But as Anderson further explains, a profound truth lies in that reply. “First, I had to acquire language. I next had to acquire an aural sensibility because music is very much a part of my aesthetic. Then of course, I had to read a lot of books and a lot of poetry to get to this point.”

The latest literary stop on what Anderson describes as his life’s “artistic journey, a journey that is rooted in African-American culture and American culture” is Devonte Travels the Sorry Route, a collection of poems published in 2019 by Omnidawn Publishing. The work is his fourth volume of poetry following Cairo Workbook (Willow Books, 2014), River to Cross (The Backwaters Press, 2009), and the chapbook At Last Round Up (lift books, 1996). He is also the author of Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2004) and the spoken word CD, Blood Octave (Flat Five Recordings, 2006).

“I think the work that I write is me, and it’s also not me and it’s community,” Anderson said. “One of the things that I think is true, which is a way of thinking about the afterlife of slavery in regard to how we inhabit this historical time, is the sense of temporal engagement where the past, the present, and the future are not discreet and cut off from one another. Rather, we live in simultaneity of that entanglement. That’s my challenge as a writer: How does one narrate that? How do I bring those voices into dialogue?”

When describing his aesthetic, Anderson cites two core components. He employs fragmentation and compares it to making “a quilt where I’m constantly gathering various kinds of materials, different kinds of fabrics, some silk, some rough cotton, and stitching these things together so that these fragments are in conversation. There’s the use of space in my work, too, where there are things that can’t be said or I haven’t found the words for these things.”

Devonte Travels the Sorry Route is presented in four parts, and Anderson has also developed a process for making those divisions that aligns with his perception of the poem as a musical score. “I’ll print out all of my poems and go into a large room and lay every piece of paper on the floor. Then, I’ll walk around and read them. I’ll see what fits, what’s developing in terms of a narrative and musicality. First and foremost, it’s music. I’m orchestrating things in terms of how I hear them sounding and putting them into a particular order. They’re kind of musical sections.”

Anderson’s inspiration to begin writing the poems that would ultimately become Devonte Travels the Sorry Route stemmed from seeing a painting byDevonte Travels the Sorry Route Irish-American artist Brian Counihan called “The Sorry Route.” He was intrigued by the work’s two dominant figures – one man in a tri-cornered hat and another who appeared to be in shackles – and the way the painting evoked colonialism.

“All of a sudden I started writing these poems that came to me that embodied this voice of a character who called himself ‘Dickerson,’” Anderson recalled. “After I drafted a few of my Dickerson poems, I started sending them out to magazines and some were getting accepted, which was really pleasing. I began to see that somehow I was working on a series.”

Anderson learned that Omnidawn, which specializes in innovative and experimental writing and is one of the author’s favorite publishers, was sponsoring an Open Book Poetry Contest where anyone who has already published a book can submit an entry. He put the series of poems into a manuscript, changed the main character’s name from “Dickerson” to “Devonte,” and Devonte Travels the Sorry Route was created. To Anderson’s surprise, the manuscript was named a contest finalist.

“The publisher called to congratulate me and as I talked to him I realized that I had only 20 poems of mid-size length in the series. Now, that will get you what is called a chapbook, usually a small printing of poems that runs about 40 to 50 pages and has just a limited dissemination. So, I really tried to expand it by writing more poems and opening up more space.”

Why did Anderson change the name of his poems’ key figure? “‘Dickerson’ has a kind of harshness to it, so one point I was going to call the character ‘Dante’ as an allusion to The Inferno, but I decided not to do that. I chose ‘Devonte’ because it alluded to ‘Dante’ but it also was a distinctly African-American name and certainly sounded more poetic than ‘Dickerson.’ At the same time, I realized there was a young man by that name who was a victim of police violence.”

In the series, Anderson says his title character “traverses time. His sense of identity is constantly being cut by historical events, so much so that there becomes no discernable separation of past and present. I’m responding to the painting and shifts of identity within the African-American cultural and historical narrative. Devonte inhabits multiple dimensions, and in several poems, he encounters history on both a macro and micro level that doesn’t solely apply to dates and images. How do we deal with the ghost of history? Devonte resists and straddles all those attempts of containment by society.”

At its core, Devonte Travels the Sorry Route is the story of an artist for whom jazz is a profound force. “It is a spiritual connection that goes beyond consumptive entertainment and appreciation,” Anderson explained. “The idea of music – tonal sounds, tonal vibrations – and  what it does to the body, and how it can affect one’s ability to be in multiple places at multiple times, that’s of interest to me.”

The book’s second pivotal character, “more of an idea than an actual person,” is “Isabella.” “I see her as a representation of colonialism and its exploitation of the land that some people see as feminine. But Isabella is being used. She becomes a participant in White supremacist domination. It’s a gendered idea that’s problematic and I hope readers see that.”

Still, Anderson is comfortable with readers approaching his work differently from his own interpretation of it and even missing the allusions he makes. He recalls his own study years ago of the influential American poet Charles Olson and his seminal work Maximus Poems, a long serial poem that encompasses more than one thousand pages. “I read that entire book, I also read the criticism, I also read the biographies on him, and I didn’t understand everything. But later on, the more you allow things to ruminate and to simmer, I began to gain more of an understanding of his work. I think that’s the way I’ve always approached literature and particularly difficult literature. I don’t necessarily feel the need to ‘get’ something at first reading, that it’s important to go back and sit with something, and maybe 20 years from now you might say, ‘Oh, that’s what that line meant. Okay, I get it now.’ And that’s fine. The process for me, the process of literature, is an organic process.”

Watch Anderson’s presentation, Devonte Travels the Sorry Route: The Making of a Manuscript, part of the Faculty Authors and Achievers series sponsored by the Wyndham Robertson Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hollins Sociologist Explores How Black Mothers Talk to Their Children About Race

“I’m scared for you. I love you. I’m going to teach you how to be a gentleman. I’m going to teach you how not to be a statistic. I’m going to teach you the skills I know to make you successful in this world. The world already has three fingers against you: You’re supposed to already be in jail, you’re supposed to be a dad, and you’re supposed to be a deadbeat and not take care of your kids. I don’t want that for you. I want you to be able to go to college. I want you to succeed. I want you to have a family, I want you to love people, I want you to be able to show love, I want you to be able to cry. I want you to enjoy this world, but this world will never enjoy you because they are scared of you.”

Tamara, a 26-year-old mother of one son, was among the low-income Black single mothers who shared their hopes and concerns for their children with Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Turner as part of her dissertation, “#BlackMamasMatter: The Significance of Motherhood and Mothering for Low-Income Black Single Mothers.”

“It’s important that we talk about what it means to be Black in the United States and how that impacts Black mothers and Black motherhood,” Turner said. “For Tamara, the fear that her son would be stereotyped, criminalized, and/or become a target of racist state or vigilante violence manifested itself in this diary entry before her son was even born. This passage illustrates the significance race, class, and gender play in shaping the anxieties of low-income Black single mothers. Tamara recognizes that she will have to work hard to protect her son from the racialized class and gender discrimination that he will likely face for a lifetime.”

Recent statistics demonstrate why those fears are present for all Black mothers. A database established by The Washington Post to track fatal police shootings since 2015 shows that Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans. The journal Pediatrics reported in 2020 that Black children, especially those between the ages of 12 and 17, were six times more likely to be shot to death by police than White children.

Turner also cites the disproportionate rates at which Black children are punished in schools. “Scholars call the phenomenon the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline.’ Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests. They are three times more likely than White students to be suspended or expelled, and then three times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system in the year following. Later in life they are more likely to enter the criminal justice system. All of this shows us that Black children are not seen in the same way as White children. Black children are presumed to be bad or criminals at a very young age. Black mothers of all social classes grapple with how to protect their children from discrimination.”

In her research, Turner sought to learn more about how low-income Black single mothers talk to their children about race. “Racial socialization is a significant component of Black parenthood. Primarily, Black mothers are doing this work and these conversations begin with their children at a very young age. It’s not only talking with them about how to interact with police, it’s also teaching them how to interact with educators and other authority figures in the hope that their children will not be subject to racist stereotypes and/or violence.”

Turner also addressed what she sees as a deficit in Black parenting studies. “So much of the previous research on the racial socialization practices of Black mothers has focused on middle-class mothers, and I wondered, ‘What’s the difference here with low-income moms, and why isn’t there more focus on them?’”

Turner set out to build upon that previous scholarship. The literature shows that class status doesn’t insulate middle-class Black families from racism. They worry that their children, particularly their sons, will be mistreated by their White teachers and targeted in their predominantly White neighborhoods. These families also face racist stereotypes that associate Blackness with poverty. However, middle-class families are still able to draw upon their status to avoid discrimination.

“[University of Maryland sociologist] Dawn Marie Dow found that these mothers engage in what she calls ‘experience management,’” Turner said. “They encourage their sons to develop skills in athletics and the performing arts that will allow them to traverse racialized class and gender boundaries. They expose them to aspects of Black history, culture, and Black male role models that affirm positive messages regarding Black masculinity. They also pursue ‘environment management,’ in which they scrutinize their sons’ everyday social environment to eliminate discriminatory sources, and enact ‘image and emotion management,’ which involves helping their sons contain their anger, frustration, and excitement, and monitor their dress and appearance.”

Turner argues that these practices fall under the umbrella of “‘respectability politics,’ which essentially is an attempt to counter negative stereotypes of Black people as poor, lazy, and uneducated, emphasizing middle class values of hard work, education, dressing tidily, using proper English, and respecting authority figures.” Respectability politics has its roots in the early 20th century and the Black church. “The idea was, if we could try to dismantle those stereotypes about Black people, and achieve a proximity to Whiteness, we can avoid racial discrimination.”

According to Turner, previous studies of low-income Black single mothers haven’t necessarily examined their parenting concerns, but looked primarily at problems these women experience,  how they view and navigate motherhood generally, and/or the resources upon which they draw. “So, I really wanted to focus on mothering from the perspective of low-income Black single mothers and what it means to them to be a mother. I also wanted to study their parenting practices. I illustrate the work they do every day to negotiate their specific challenges to teach their children about issues they deem important.”

Turner interviewed 21 mothers from Central and Southwest Virginia in 2017 who participate in, or had previously taken part in, Social Services benefit programs. These mothers often face increased scrutiny and are stigmatized for seeking out food stamps and other social welfare services.

“The findings of my research suggest that the practices of low-income Black single mothers are heavily informed by social class,” Turner said. “As in previous studies, the mothers in my research often invoke respectability politics when racially socializing their children. Specifically, as previous research on Black motherhood demonstrates, the mothers in my study fear for their children’s safety, especially their sons, and they often discussed encouraging their children to behave in certain ways in an effort to prevent them from facing discrimination on the basis of their race, class, and gender. Unlike middle-class mothers, however, low-income Black single mothers are unable to assert their class status to avoid racism and discrimination. For these mothers, their employment of respectability politics seems to be more about helping their children surpass their current class status in order to achieve a level of respectability that may help them avoid becoming targets of racism, specifically racist state violence, and also to help them ultimately have a better life than what they currently have.”

The participants in Turner’s study echo similar concerns as those expressed in previous research indicating “that in a lot of ways, race may trump class, at least in some cases, when it comes to the experiences of Black mothers. That is, it appears that Black mothers of all social classes are united in their anxieties about raising Black children in a racist society. Nevertheless, low-income Black single mothers do not have access to the same social, political, and economic resources as middle-class mothers to help them protect their children from racism.”

Turner believes that this study “enhances our understanding of racial socialization by illuminating how race, class, and gender are interconnected in influencing low-income Black single mothers.” She is currently working in collaboration with a Hollins student on a paper that spotlights the racial socialization of Black girls.

“Racial socialization practices look very different when we’re talking about sons and daughters. Typically when socializing boys, Black families tend to emphasize racial barriers. But, when talking to their daughters, Black parents tend to instill messages of racial pride and self-esteem to combat the negative messages that Black girls and women are less feminine and less beautiful than White girls and women. They face disproportionate threats of becoming victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, and threats of sexual assault at the hands of police officers. I’m interested in the role that racial gendered socialization can play in helping Black girls avoid or deal with these threats, and how Black mothers are talking to them.”

Watch Turner’s presentation, “To Be Black and a Mother: The Significance of Black Mothers’ Racial Socialization Practices,” part of the Faculty Authors and Achievers series sponsored by the Wyndham Robertson Library.

 

 

 

 


Hollins Celebrates The Life And Legacy Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, members of the Hollins University community are paying tribute to the civil rights leader with two special video presentations.

“Imagining Peace” reflects King’s commitment to justice and equality through the voices of representatives from the class of 2024, including Keniyah Bullock, Kardera Page, Zoe Raba, Hannah Sandy, and Dymond Williams. Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton; Cultural and Community Engagement Graduate Assistant Caitlyn Lewis ’17, M.A.L.S. ’21; University Chaplain and Director of Spiritual and Religious Life Catina Martin; and Associate Dean of Cultural and Community Engagement Jeri Suarez are also featured.

In “Deeper Understanding for People of Good Will,” President Hinton honors King’s work by sharing “my thoughts on why we as a community at Hollins University have to move beyond good will in order to become a truly inclusive institution.”

 

 


Hollins Joins in Partnership to Advance Racial Equity in Higher Education

Hollins University is among the inaugural 55 liberal arts colleges and universities from across the country that have formed a new alliance to champion diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance (LACRELA) will, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, “collaborate on antiracism work, campus climate research, and virtual programming for administrators, faculty, and staff members on how to better serve students of color and address systemic racism.”

The creation of LACRELA was informed by the establishment of a racial equity leadership organization for California’s community colleges by the University of Southern California (USC) Race and Equity Center.

“Having Hollins be an inaugural member of LACRELA signals our proactive and ongoing commitment to ensuring we are at the forefront of inclusion work in higher education,” said Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton. “We are pleased to be in the company of these other leading liberal arts institutions in our shared pursuit of equity and justice.”

The USC Race and Equity Center will be offering LACRELA members a variety of resources:

  • Beginning in January 2021, a “Racial Equity eConvening Series” featuring a dozen live professional learning experiences will be held throughout the year, each covering a particular aspect of racial equity. The sessions will be presented by highly respected leaders of national higher education organizations; tenured professors who study race relations and people of color; chief diversity officers and other experienced administrators; and specialists from the Center.
  • A repository of resources and tools featuring downloadable equity-related rubics, readings, case studies, videos, slide decks, and conversation scripts will be made available online. Every employee across all levels at each LACRELA member college will have access to the virtual resources portal, which will launch in late spring 2021.
  • A trio of campus climate surveys will be conducted on a three-year rotational basis. The Center’s National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates (NACCC) will be administered in the first year. The NACCC measures belonging and inclusion, the frequency and depth of cross-racial interactions, students’ appraisals of institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion, and other related topics. The Center is developing a pair of workplace climate surveys for Alliance member colleges, one for faculty and the other for staff at all levels, that will be undertaken in years two and three, respectively.

In addition, presidents of LACRELA member colleges will meet quarterly to share strategies, seek advice, and identify ways to leverage the Alliance for collective impact on racial equity in higher education. The presidents will also occasionally come together to craft rapid responses to urgent racial issues confronting the nation.

Virginia liberal arts colleges and universities that have joined Hollins as LACRELA members include Randolph College, the University of Richmond, and Washington and Lee University.


“One Small Step on that Journey of Transformation”: Hollins Holds Its Inaugural Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day

More than 550 students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, and trustees joined together to explore themes of race and racial justice during Hollins University’s first annual Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice (EDJ) Day on October 23.

Classes were cancelled and administrative offices were closed to foster full engagement in the day’s program, which featured 35 in-person and online sessions presented by members of the university community and invited guest speakers.

“Leading EDJ is the result of an awesome collaboration between folks from across our campus,” Professor of Anthropology and Gender and Women’s Studies and Director of Faculty Development LeeRay Costa said in her opening remarks. “What began as an idea for advancing critical conversations around inclusion, identity, and equity on our campus became today’s event in the span of just 42 days.”

The “social unrest, violence, and an uprising of everyday people from all walks of life in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers” this summer, as well as everyday injustices experienced by Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, Costa noted, were among the catalysts for Leading EDJ Day.

“The call in the nation for social justice was loud and resolute, but it is not new. It was only the most recent iteration of a fierce and aching plea that has been voiced repeatedly by racial and ethnic minorities in North America for hundreds of years.”

Drawing Space Outside VAC
The Eleanor D. Wilson Museum hosted a space for drawing outside the Wetherill Visual Arts Center during Leading EDJ Day.

Costa added that Hollins, like other colleges and universities around the country, reacted to the deaths of Floyd and Taylor and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement “with a statement of solidarity and shared anguish over the suffering of our fellow human beings, and a promise to do more. And like so many other institutions, Hollins was called out by some for being generous with our words but repeatedly failing to live those words in ways that have meaningful difference to marginalized and underserved members of our community.” She explained that Hollins still needs to come to terms with its own history of racial injustice, including the use of enslaved people to support the institution and its mission.

“To say that Hollins University was built on the backs of Black and Brown people is not hyperbole, nor is it meant to incite,” Costa said. “It is merely to tell the truth.”

In her welcome, Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton echoed Costa, stating that “during this pandemic and moment of racial reconciliation, we must speak truth.” She cited Costa “for her original vision and bold suggestion” to create Leading EDJ Day, and paid tribute to the committee of campus community members that brought the idea to reality. “Perhaps a different group would have deferred. A different group might have said, ‘Let’s wait until it’s easier. Let’s look away. Let’s not do our part; perhaps someone else will do it for us.’ But this group, this committee for whom I am so very grateful, looked at one another and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And we did. And we did it because it is hard. We did it, in fact, because time is working against us and the need for justice.

“But most of all, we did it because our students and this institution that we love so dearly needed us to. Because we all deserve more. We all deserve better.”

International Women's Day Video Listening Circle
Students facilitated discussion to create an International Women’s Day video celebrating racial justice.

Hinton also praised the more than 40 Hollins students who planned and presented sessions during the day that “come from a place of care, a desire to belong, a need to be seen and appreciated for their experiences, both good and bad. Our students genuinely believe they can make us better, and we them.”

Makda Kalayu ’23 co-led the presentation, “Caring for Your Neighbors: Promoting Beloved Community,” along with Kiah Patterson ’23 and Tyler Sesker ’22. The session featured an exercise to encourage attendees to identify their own implicit biases, followed by a discussion on identifying and breaking down stereotypes of Black people that impact those biases.

“It was a great space to have these difficult conversations,” Kalayu reflected. “A mix between faculty, staff, and alumnae/i diversified the discussion and encouraged people to talk. And [it] also helped to direct the conversation in a really interesting way. Everyone was super respectful. A lot of [participants] came in with an eagerness to learn about the topic.”

“The New Vanguard: Pushing the Envelope in Revolutionary Discourse,” moderated by Leah Coltrane ’22 and Amy Duncan ’21, explored ways of not only transforming one’s own community, but also the way one interacts with their community and themselves on a daily basis.

“We carry a lot of trauma, and making space to take care of those things is important,” Coltrane told attendees. “If you’re not taking care of your spiritual self while trying to learn, trying to do this work, you will not be successful.”

Tia McNair, Ed.D., vice president in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., delivered conference’s keynote address, “Truth, Healing, and Transformation: From Equity Talk to Equity Walk.”

The renowned author and speaker considered two crucial questions: How do we prepare the next generation of strategic leaders and thinkers to break down racial hierarchies and dismantle the belief in the hierarchy of human value that fuels social injustice? And, how do we examine our own perceptions of equity, diversity, and inclusion to advance practitioner knowledge for racial justice in higher education?

“Our job as educators, as leaders of institutions, is to do the ‘people work’ first,” McNair said. “We have to understand our own mindsets, our own preconceived notions, our own biases, before we can even attempt to transform systems and structures. If we focus on becoming best practitioners that uplift the goals and values of what it means to be diverse and equitable and inclusive, [to be] justice-focused, equity-focused, and anti-racist-focused, then we can do the work to transform our systems and our structures.”

McNair encouraged attendees “to figure out the kind of institution you’re going to be, and stay true to that in all areas as we clarify our actions. To be equity-minded is a mode of thinking exhibited by practitioners who are willing to assess their own racialized assumptions, to acknowledge their lack of knowledge in the history of race and racism, to take responsibility for the success of historically underserved and minoritized student groups, and to not only build their knowledge about race and racism, but also to critically assess racialization in our own practices as educators and administrators.”

Drumming Circle for the Ancestors
A drumming circle on Front Quad enabled participants to encounter self-awareness and ancestral awareness through the vehicle of music.

Costa emphasized that the first Leading EDJ Day “is just one small step on that journey of transformation, to becoming a more equitable and just university, workplace, and in the words of [feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer] bell hooks, a ‘home place.’ A place where every single one of us feels like we belong. It’s an opportunity for truth-telling, for listening with our defenses down and our hearts and minds open, and for learning new ways of being together across our differences.”

Stressing Hollins’ “unique responsibility to create an environment wherein each person feels and is loved as they are,” Hinton expressed the university’s obligation as a liberal arts institution “to explore, to know, to honor, and to hold with care the experiences of those around us. To engage multiple perspectives that challenge our own. To open and free our minds to engage with ideas, concepts, people, and experiences that challenge us. That forces us to think critically and creatively. That demand we solve the complex problems of the day in conversation with others.

“The liberal arts demand this work of leading equity, diversity and justice. Indeed, today reflects the meaning and purpose of education and our collective responsibility and mutual accountability to all those we encounter.”

 

Top photo: Hollins’ Diversity Monologue Troupe, a team of student leaders who perform monologues to help the university community understand the diverse identities and life experiences of people on campus and to broaden the perspective on various stereotypes commonly reinforced in society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hollins To Hold Inaugural “Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day” October 23

Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton has announced that the university’s first annual “Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day” will take place on Friday, October 23.

The conference will promote learning and engagement around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

“Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day aims to create an intentional and meaningful space for all of us to reflect, learn, and facilitate action toward making Hollins a more equitable and just community,” Hinton explained. “This day will bring together members of our community and prominent local and national figures to learn from one another in various formats, both face-to-face and online.”

Tia McNair
Tia McNair, Ed.D., will be the keynote speaker at Hollins’ first annual Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day.

Hinton noted that given the urgency of current events and movements for justice across the nation, the inaugural event will center on race and racial justice. “This will allow us to explore both the legacy of historical racism at Hollins and how contemporary struggles for racial equity and justice continue to shape our learning spaces and experiences. Future conferences will focus on the many forms of diversity we see reflected in our community, all of which merit our attention.”

Tia McNair, Ed.D., a Roanoke native and renowned author and speaker, will deliver the opening keynote address, “Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation: From Equity Talk to Equity Walk.” She is the vice president in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.

In order to enable students, faculty, and staff to take part in Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice Day, classes will be cancelled and administrative offices closed on October 23. “We are taking these steps to create not a day off, but a day on, where all campus community members will have the opportunity to participate in the day’s events,” said Hinton.

 

 


President Hinton Joins in Dialogue With Michelle Alexander, Bestselling Author Of “The New Jim Crow”

Acclaimed author, civil rights lawyer and legal advocate Michelle Alexander understands that a lot of change can happen in just 10 years. A decade ago, Alexander had just published her first book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Some critics at the time considered the book’s subject dubious, especially since the nation had just elected its first Black president in Barack Obama. Still, The New Jim Crow would go on to spend almost 250 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list—transforming Alexander’s career as a legal scholar and author—and recently had a 10th-anniversary edition released with a new foreword by Alexander.

On Tuesday, September 22, Alexander “visited” Hollins (via Zoom) as part of the university’s Distinguished Speaker Series. The bestselling author had a virtual sit-down with Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton to discuss the 10th-anniversary edition of her book as well as a host of other issues including racial unrest in the U.S. and social activism both on and off-campus. “We’re grateful to have these timely and robust conversations,” said Hinton in welcoming Alexander to the videoconference, which was live-streamed exclusively to the Hollins community, with over 400 in attendance. “The text remains as relevant and resonant today, perhaps even more so, than when it was released.” (This video features highlights of their dialogue.)

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s been 10 years,” replied Alexander. “When I was researching this book, Obama hadn’t been elected president yet. Trayvon Martin hadn’t been killed. I felt desperate to sound an alarm about the crisis of mass incarceration, seeing up close [through my work] the victims of racial profiling and police violence. And now 10 years later, with all of the viral videos of brutal police killings and the uprisings, it feels in many that the whole world hasn’t changed. The [criminal justice] system continues to function in pretty much the same way as it functioned 10 years ago—or 15 years ago—or 30 years ago.”

However, Alexander was quick to add that she did find hope in the creation of new protest movements and increased social activism, in particular movements led by formerly incarcerated and convicted people. “There’s been an explosion of movement-building and organizing and leadership,” said Alexander. “And that’s enormously encouraging to me. Until we hear from the people who’ve been most harmed, transformational change is impossible. And as long as those voices are excluded from decision-making spaces and tables, transformational change is impossible.”

A graduate of Stanford Law and Vanderbilt University, Alexander has received numerous legal awards and fellowships, including a Soros Justice Fellowship, and clerked for legal luminaries such as Justice Harry A. Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Though just her debut book, The New Jim Crow has become so influential that it’s even been cited in some judicial decisions as well as read in countless book clubs and college classrooms across the country.

To that point, in advance of the Q&A on Tuesday, Hollins students were given access to free e-editions of the book (there was also a limited number of free hardcopies available). Students and faculty were then invited to meet virtually with Hinton to discuss and propose questions for the interview.

Following up on the book’s popularity on campus, Hinton said that colleges, universities, and, in particular, the liberal arts were good places where students could “rehearse what it means to have courage and have a voice and step up” before engaging politically in the bigger world off-campus.

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement that our democracy will not survive without robust liberal arts education,” Alexander replied when asked about the role of the liberal arts in relation to social justice. “That’s one of the main pillars of a successful, thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-faith democracy. It can help us learn more about our past and present so we can respond to our present moment with wise action and with greater concern and care for our fellow citizens. Without it, we are stuck in patterns of reactivity. We can be misled by demagogues and be inspired to resort to fear-mongering.”

Near the end of the hour-long discussion, Hinton asked The New Jim Crow author about finding courage to speak the truth in the era of Fake News and constant misinformation. “How are we ‘midwives to this next generation?’” Hinton asked, borrowing Alexander’s language, “How are we midwives as we look at the [transformational] change that’s so important?”

Alexander acknowledged the difficulty in answering that question. “It can feel overwhelming at times,” she said. “We’re at a moment where I think our democracy literally hangs in the balance. I think what’s important is for us to pause and think: How can we use our skills and our talents to their highest use for this moment? And how do we educate ourselves about history, our racial history, about the present, about how to do democracy? What’s important is not just being aware and awake, but being willing to act with some courage. Because if we see what’s happening but lack the courage to speak up or step out, we can be as awake as we want to be, but if we act without courage, it’s all for naught.”

 

Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.


President Hinton’s Statement On ICE Guidelines Affecting International Students

Earlier this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced significant changes related to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program that seriously impact the experience and opportunities for international students in colleges and universities across the United States. The Hollins community stands with our international students in opposition to this policy, and supports the Association of American UniversitiesNASPA, and the American Council for Education in speaking out against this policy. We decry the unnecessarily difficult position in which our students, and the more than one million international students nationally, have been placed.

Our decision to reopen the campus and offer a wide array of learning modalities enables Hollins’ international students to continue their education. We are actively supporting our international students and are incredibly grateful to the numerous students, alumnae/i, and faculty who have reached out to us to express their concern for our international students. Our international programs director, Ramona Kirsch, and Jeri Suarez, our associate dean of cultural and community engagement, have been in contact with our students, and we will keep these lines of communication open as we approach the fall term.

As our mission states, “Hollins nurtures civility, integrity, and concern for others, encourages and values diversity and social justice.” In this and every moment, we must continue to live up to our own ideals.

Mary Dana Hinton
President
Hollins University

 

 


“All Of Us Must Do The Work. All Of Us Must Begin Now.”: President-Elect Hinton Calls for “Lasting, Meaningful Cultural Change” at Hollins

President-elect Mary Dana Hinton shared the following message with Hollins University students, faculty, and staff on June 19:

 

Dear Hollins Community,

When we were together during my visit in February, none of us could have imagined the events of this moment. We are now planning for the resumption of college in the fall under the constraints of COVID-19, and each of us also has been called to use our voice to actively work towards justice and equity. I am grateful for President Gray’s support and counsel as I have worked with her and university leadership to navigate reopening and our inclusion efforts.

I have spent the past few weeks having difficult and, often, inspiring conversations with my family, with students I have the privilege of serving, and with members of the Hollins community. I have heard the hurt, concern, anger, and disappointment many of us feel. I have also heard the belief in our mission, the desire to do the work of transformational inclusion, the love for Hollins, and the choice to be and do better. It is with a spirit of hopeful action and a deep sense of honor for the Hollins mission and community that I write to you today.

Like all institutions across the United States, we must do the important work of facilitating and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, Hollins University has a special obligation in this moment as it relates to dismantling systemic racism. At Hollins our call must not only be in reaction to recent events, but also to reconcile our institutional past with enslavement; to ensure all of our students – including the voices and concerns of students of color – are heard, seen, and valued, and feel safe on campus today; to create an environment of inclusive excellence that supports rigorous teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition; and to develop a plan that guides our efforts to be an inclusive community. We must be accountable for equity regardless of what is happening in the world around us.

As a leader, I recognize that in the moment it is easy to react, to send out statements, and to develop plans that sit on a shelf. What we are compelled to do at Hollins University, however, is engage significant cultural change that demands far more from me, and each of us, than merely reacting. As a learning institution, we must grapple with these issues individually and collectively.

As President-elect, I have already learned that we need to reconsider building names and continue to reconcile our institutional history. I have heard students reference feeling at risk on campus and in the classroom. I know that faculty, staff, and administrators must do the work of inclusion education and professional development. The responsibility of explaining why Black lives matter, and what that requires of the community, should not fall disproportionately on community members of color. We need a committed effort to diversify our faculty and staff, and to ensure all community stakeholders have engaged in anti-racist training. I also know these items are just a beginning. The dismantling of systemic injustice also means the building of just, equitable systems. The work must be done with both urgency and deliberate process.

All of us must do the work. All of us must begin now.

I am asking that, as we navigate this critical moment for our world, our country, and our campus, we dig deeper and not only react but commit to substantive, transformative change for the campus. I implore us to look at our culture, programs, policies, and practices to determine how we can transform the institution to ensure we are always working in an equitable and just manner. I am pushing myself, and asking each of you to commit alongside me, to do the transformative work of culture-change and inclusion – which will be long, hard, and uncomfortable. Lasting, meaningful cultural change cannot be done overnight. However, this cultural shift will ensure we stand firmly by our liberal arts mission and our humane values as we put equity and inclusion at the forefront.

To that end, I will be hosting town hall meetings beginning in July for faculty, staff, students, and alumnae. These will be critically important moments as I continue to learn about Hollins’ history, as we acknowledge the challenges of our present, and as we begin to envision a pathway of action towards a shared, aspirational, and inclusive future. Out of these meetings will come deliberate, impactful action, starting now.

Over the next several weeks, in preparation for those town hall meetings, I will be in dialogue with many groups on campus including, but not limited to:

  • Black Student Alliance
  • Descendants of the Hollins community
  • Inclusivity and Diversity Advisory Council (IDAC)
  • SGA Roundtable
  • The Working Group on Slavery and its Contemporary Legacies
  • International students
  • The librarians
  • Jeri Suarez (Cultural and Community Engagement)
  • Dr. Idella Glenn (OID), Dr. LeeRay Costa (Faculty Development)
  • Hollins Alumnae Board leaders

These groups and individuals, as well as others, have been working on issues of diversity and inclusion, and I look forward to learning from and with them as we develop a process for transformation.

Critical to this moment is ensuring we have a public timeline and accountability structure. At this moment I anticipate that we will:

  •  Identify campus concerns and outline the plan of action (summer/fall)
  •  Engage/Implement solutions (fall):
    • In addition to addressing and acting on what is learned during the summer, a guiding vision will be developed and coordinated activity begun
  • Assessment (ongoing)
  • Inclusion audit completed and report to the community (December 2020)

While this timeline is subject to change as this intentionally dynamic process unfolds, I commit to updating the community regularly about our direction, significant learnings, and the action steps we are taking to develop an inclusive culture.

Even as I learn more about Hollins each day, I continue to hold close what first drew me to this institution and presidency: the mission, values, and integrity of the Hollins University community. What compels me daily, and affirms my desire to partner with each of you, is the vibrant future I know we have ahead of us.

The road we must tread together will not be easy. But as we commemorate Juneteenth this week, it has never been more fitting or more important that we commit ourselves now to working collaboratively, to being vulnerable to and with one another, to learning and leading, and to privileging hope over fear. I have every confidence we will do this work with excellence and become a stronger community because of it.

Levavi Oculos,

President-elect Hinton

 

 

 


Film Major’s LGBT Short Is a YouTube Sensation

A Hollins University student filmmaker is generating impressive online buzz with her unconventional approach to the LGBT movie genre.

Collide, a short film written and directed by Hannah Thompson ’20, has been seen more than 510,000 times since it premiered on YouTube in December 2016.

“I wanted to do something original that I could relate to,” says Thompson, a double-major in film and psychology from Warrenton, Virginia. “A lot of LGBT short films are also geared toward a straight audience by featuring two fem lesbians and portraying sexual situations. They can make more money that way, but it has always made me feel uncomfortable.”

Collide is the story of two young women who dislike one another intensely upon their first meeting in a high school classroom. But when their teacher pairs them on a project that focuses on conquering their individual fears, a friendship blossoms and they ultimately fall in love.

“Coming out is not a main plot point,” Thompson explains. “There’s no tragic story where being gay is their downfall. Their sexuality is never mentioned. It’s just something that happens similar to any straight love story. I wanted people to watch Collide and say, ‘Wow, I’ve had this happen to me.’”

Based on the more than 1,100 comments that have been posted on YouTube since the film’s debut, Collide has clearly touched many. Thompson believes it’s because the story “ends happily. We’re excited for what’s to come, and people understand that the two main characters are going to be together. Often, especially in popular films, it doesn’t happen that way. I wanted something that was easy for people to latch onto, and I’m grateful they did.”

Thompson says she’s been humbled by what people have shared. Feedback has often been along the lines of, “I don’t really see happy lesbian stories. I’m so glad to find something relatable instead of watching a heterosexual romance and hoping I can find something that’s meaningful to me.” Viewers overseas have expressed this common sentiment: “This isn’t legal here, but I’m so glad to see something like this. It makes me feel that maybe one day I can have this life.”

The film has also inspired fan fiction and even prompted Halloween revelers to dress up as the film’s characters. In March, Unite UK: An LGBT+ Blog Uniting the Community Together, interviewed Thompson and members of the film’s cast for a feature story, and last summer, Collide was an official selection as a semi-finalist at Canada’s Our Voices Film Festival.

Thompson’s journey of artistic discovery that ultimately led to filmmaking was by no means pre-determined. She attended art classes and camps from an early age, “but I couldn’t find the thing I was best at. I did theatre, studio art, photography, and I was mediocre at all those things. I never really found what I loved until I took a film class at Hollins.”

Growing up, Thompson was familiar with Hollins because her grandmother is an alumna. In her early teens, at her grandmother’s urging, Thompson attended Hollinsummer, the university’s educational camp for rising ninth through 12th grade girls. “I was scared because it was my first sleepaway camp,” she recalls, “but I loved the campus. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home that I wasn’t homesick. I felt like it was sort of my place.”

That impression still resonated with Thompson when she was applying to colleges a few years later. “Even though I had been at Hollins a lot, I went ahead and did a real campus tour. I remember turning to my mom and saying, ‘This is it.’”

Thompson initially thought she’d major only in psychology, but her artistic drive persisted despite her previous frustrations. Since film was a genre she had not actively pursued previously, she decided to enroll in a video production class her first year. “I was nervous because it was the first film class I had ever taken. I worried, ‘What if this doesn’t go well for me?’ I don’t like not being good at things.”

Fortunately, Thompson quickly found an ally in Amy Gerber-Stroh, associate professor of film and chair of Hollins’ film department. An accomplished filmmaker in her own right, Gerber-Stroh helped Thompson build her confidence and realize film making was the artistic outlet she had been seeking.

“Amy has changed my life in so many different ways. Coming into Hollins, I was afraid I wasn’t going to find the thing I could pour my entire heart into. I felt like I had so much to say and I didn’t know where to put it.”

With guidance from Gerber-Stroh and other faculty as well as the support of her fellow film students, Thompson says she “has a home in the film department. It’s this place where I can be myself and share my art. Sometimes you have to do that when your work is incomplete and therefore at its most vulnerable, but I’ve learned that’s okay because students and mentors are always there to help, especially when you’re flustered and your ideas aren’t working out.”

Thompson now has four films available online. Another short, August and the Rain Boots (2017), is similar to Collide in that it tells the story of a friendship that grows into a romantic relationship and ends on a celebratory note. The film boasts more than 192,000 YouTube views and was recently selected to appear at the Oregon Cinema Arts Film Festival.

“Hannah has become such a superstar through our film program,” Gerber-Stroh says. “It’s remarkable how often she gets requests from advertisers, actors, and others from the film industry asking for a chance to work with her. She epitomizes this new era of how students make films and videos and how they show their work.”

Thompson plans to go to Los Angeles after graduating from Hollins. “I want to be a director for the rest of my life, telling my stories and working with amazing people.”

 

Photo caption: Hannah Thompson ’20 shoots a scene for her 2017 short film, August and the Rain Boots.