Alumni swap stories, discuss inclusion during Multicultural Alumni Weekend

Academically, Frank Thomas ’71 felt right at home during his four years at Grinnell College.

“I loved the College and enjoyed being a student very much,” Thomas said. “But you couldn’t separate the academic from the social, and the social was tough. Iowa had a lot of problems recognizing blacks at that time.”

Thomas’ story, which included a near fight at a local drinking establishment and being a founding member of Concerned Black Students (CBS), was just one of numerous accounts exchanged during Grinnell College’s first Multicultural Alumni Weekend. From Friday to Sunday, about 100 alumni returned to their alma mater to discuss their experiences and gauge how things have changed since they graduated.

A theme for the weekend was “the power of your individual story can create change,” and vivid examples of the theme played out in alumni conversations all weekend long, said Sarah Smith-Benanti, Grinnell College multicultural reunion coordinator.

The fact that the College hosted a Multicultural Alumni Weekend in the first place could be a catalyst to additional transformations in the future, said Reina Matsuura ’19.

“Events like this are the first step to making change,” she said. “As a student, I appreciate the College holding these important discussions.”

Kathi '90 and Reina '19 Matsuura
Kathi '90 and Reina '19 Matsuura

Smith-Benanti said students were able to make personal connections with alumni.

“They realized they weren’t the only ones,” Smith-Benanti said. “While every experience is unique, I think it was nice for students to hear that others went through similar situations and to find out how they dealt with it.”

Diversity and inclusion have long been core values of Grinnell College. The College’s current student population consists of 26 percent domestic students of color, 18 percent international students and many students who openly identify as LGBTQIA+. Additionally, 15.3 percent of students are connected with the Disability Resource Office. Lakesia Johnson, assistant vice president for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said every College employee has an obligation to think about diversity and inclusion.

Johnson and Maure Smith-Benanti, Grinnell College associate dean of students and director of intercultural affairs, told alumni about the numerous steps their offices have taken to support diversity and inclusion on campus. Johnson established the Grinnell Equity Advocate Program to help faculty search committees avoid bias and employ best hiring practices. As co-conveners of the Council on Diversity and Inclusion, Johnson and Smith-Benanti are working with students, staff, and faculty to produce the College’s diversity plan.

“We encourage students to be their whole authentic selves,” Maure Smith-Benanti said. “But we recognize it’s not always safe to do so.”

According to this fall’s campus climate survey, 67.7 percent of all respondents say they are “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate at Grinnell College, up 4.7 percent from the 2009 survey. However, the percentage of those feeling comfortable or very comfortable was below 60 percent for people of color, transgender people and people with psychological conditions.

“Not surprisingly, there is still isolation based on race and gender identity,” Johnson said.

The weekend opened with the Multicultural Organizations: Working Together Then and Now panel. Alumni and students reflected on successes and mistakes they made as members of student organizations. Lester Aleman ’07 said the biggest lesson he learned was that organizations are stronger when unified.

“How good of a community are we if we are not there for each other?” he said. “No matter what your identity is, we are all fighting, and we’re stronger as a larger community.”

Also during the weekend, alumni toured campus, visited classes, interacted with student organizations, participated in panel talks about family legacy and intersectional identities, listened to a speech by Carlos Andres Gomez, an award-winning poet, actor, speaker, and writer; and attended a concert celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Grinnell College’s Young, Gifted and Black Gospel Choir (YGB).

Saturday’s festivities concluded with a gala dinner honoring trustee Dr. Robert Austin ’54 for his lifetime of service and Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology, with the inaugural Diversity Champion Award.

Trustee Dr. Robert Austin
Trustee Dr. Robert Austin ’54

Austin is a retired Houston pediatrician with a long, distinguished record of mentorship. He has served as a Trustee since 2003. This is his final year on the board.

During Saturday’s dinner, Austin asked students of color to stand and be recognized. He gave them copies of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom and read a couple of poems from the book.

“Dr. Austin has long championed the College and our institutional mission,” Johnson said. “He’s put our mission into practice by urging Grinnell College to become a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, and he has committed himself to mentoring and supporting students.”

Scott is an internationally renowned diversity trainer/consultant and writer. In over two decades, she has given hundreds of workshops both here and abroad. She was the first black woman to receive tenure at Grinnell College and was inducted into the Iowa African-American Hall of Fame in 2016.

Kesho Scott receiving an award from Lakesha Johnson
Kesho Scott being presented the inaugural Diversity Champion Award by Lakesha Johnson.

“Kesho has been a fierce advocate for students on campus for a long time,” Johnson said. “She’s been a voice for students, faculty and staff who may not have been experiencing Grinnell the way a majority of students were experiencing it. She brought a spirit of activism to the campus and worked tirelessly to support students.”

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For you information:

If you missed the weekend, view a copy of the printed schedule.