by Warren Simmons
Adapted from remarks delivered at The College Crusade’s 2016 Believe Breakfast last month.
I went to Macalester College, not simply because I was a young, bright individual, but because the president of Macalester at that time, Arthur Flemming, decided it was time for that college, like many others – the Antiochs, the Oberlins – to open their doors to create greater equity and opportunity for students from the nation’s inner cities. And so a university led by a White, male Republican discovered that by opening its doors, they were not only improving the lives of disadvantaged, low income students of color and White students, but enriching the university, the community, and indeed, this nation. When you look at its graduates today, we have not only benefited ourselves and our families; we've benefited this nation and this society.
And yet, four years later Macalester felt its work was done, as did many colleges and universities. We began to close our doors. And many people in my own generation felt that our work was done. We had arrived. We had educated our children. We believed, with the election of Obama, that we might even be getting to the society that we had hoped and dreamed that we would.
Now, what I've seen happen is that many young people today are unprepared to deal with the racism and sexism and opposition and oppression in the way that my generation was, and they're at a loss for what to believe. They were raised to believe that they could succeed as individuals, and now they see the weakness of that and the importance of reaching out to form social networks, to organize themselves and mobilize themselves, to protect themselves. As I reflect on the work ahead, it is not simply political; it is not simply technical; it will not be solved by more research. What will solve the problem is organizing strong social networks and connections. It’s investing in leadership development. It’s helping a new generation push us aside, necessarily so, to build a kind of world that we had hoped to build but have failed in certain ways. And to build a kind of world that's more suited to their needs and aspirations and values than the ones we held so dear for so long.
In the face of what has happened in the election, I commit to do my part to mend the social and cultural fabric of the society, particularly for the young people to whom we had hoped to pass on a world that would be much more equitable and democratic and pluralistic than the one we were raised in. Today, that belief is questioned, but I believe that, while change isn't linear, it is inevitable. Macalester may have closed its doors, but it could not stop the change. And it, indeed, has reopened its doors, and it created a reconciliation that brought us together many years later (see pages 10–17), to reconcile the pain and conflict that we didn’t even fully acknowledge had happened during those four years we spent together.
I don’t know the way forward. But I do know that it is time for those of us who believe in social justice and equity to stand up, but also to stand together – for the generations that are yet to come, for the young people today who are searching for answers and whose belief in us has been shaken, if not shattered. I commit to listening and caring and supporting the young people who are facing a world that we didn’t prepare them to fully understand or give them the resources to sort through on their own. Leadership development, multi-ethnic coalitions, multifaith communities – these are the things that I want to invest my time in. And I hope we leave a legacy for our young people that they can be proud of in the way that my parents were proud of the legacy they left for me.
Warren Simmons is a senior fellow and former executive director of AISR and an adjunct professor in the Urban Education Policy master’s program at Brown University.