An Open Letter to the President, Trustees, and Faculty of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
The emails kept coming. Like so many of us I was inundated by emails asking for financial support for various causes during this season of COVID-19. I read the articles about how the abrupt closing of colleges and universities impacted students with fewer resources who were also disproportionately students of color. I recall wondering how many current Trinity students were facing similar challenges. I regretted not knowing any current students of color. I would’ve rather sent someone I know $50 or spend 30 minutes on a call encouraging and networking and supporting someone specifically. I recalled thinking it was too bad no such effort to foster community or connection between students or alumni existed.
I’ve been told there is an African proverb that tells us to “dig the well before you need the water”. I believe I speak for most of my fellow Black alum and many alumni of color in saying Trinity College had done no such digging. I dare say that for too many there had been out right desecration of “the well” from which any such generosity from alumni of color might spring forth. For many there are painful memories of our experience at Trinity. Too many have had to endure isolation and micro aggressions at best and out right threats, bullying, blatant racism, sexism, and violence at worst. Over the years, I’ve read the articles about how racist Trinity is and I’d hear of campus issues involving racism from time… to time. But life went on as my years on campus faded further and further into memory. I hoped things had changed.
I’d joke with fellow alum about our time at “Camp Trin Trin” knowing that the joke means something different to my fellow white alum than it does to my fellow alum of color in ways both good and bad. Occasionally in recent years I’ve connected with mostly white alum who graduated much more recently than I. Most have expressed shock at some of my stories from my time “beneath the elms”. This mostly reinforced my desired belief that there had been significant change for the better. On May 9th, I was on a call of recent former SGA presidents at the invitation of Trinna Larsen ‘20. On the video call I took a moment to point out the diversity of the group and in doing so I noted the number of women and people of color. Apparently, I was only the second Black student to serve as SGA President and to my knowledge there had been no women to serve in that role up to my time. By the end of the call I was encouraged.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
I visited Trinity College in the fall of ‘96 and fell in love with the campus. My campus tour was led by a very friendly white female student. It was a beautiful fall day on campus. Students waived to us and stopped briefly and spoke to us on their way to class. We then received an enthusiastic presentation from Ron Cino ’95 of the admissions office. I was sold that day. The following spring I would be admitted.
I arrived on campus in late August of 1997 before freshmen orientation, for what was then the Black, Asian, Hispanic Orientation (BAHO). I met a diverse collection of amazing individuals. A number of which are my closest friends to this day. We had a lot of fun, learned about college life, and developed an awesome camaraderie. During this orientation we learned that the Umoja House, the Black house on campus, had been moved a few weeks before we arrived. “The House” was relocated from its original location between North campus dorm and the new Vernon social center to the bottom of Vernon street. Black alumni apparently were unaware of the move and frustrated by the lack of inclusion in the decision making process. The House was to be closed for at least the first semester of our freshman year for renovations. We also came to understand that a number of students of color who had been on campus the previous semester would not be returning that fall due to academic probation and lack of financial aid. As that first semester unfolded it became clear that the same college that had invested unique and targeted resources into recruiting many of us was not prepared to invest the same resources to ensure our cohort’s success.
As the result of graduation and the lack of retention much of the student leadership had been hollowed out among the multicultural student organizations. As a result I was able to immediately become secretary of Imani, the Black Student Union. By the spring semester I was co-president. I had potential but I wasn’t ready for the responsibility. Luckily, I had a community of students and a handful of faculty and staff who saw my potential. They encouraged me. They sometimes scolded me in a respectful way, demanding I step up and do better. The baton was already being passed and I quickly learned I could not drop the hand off.
I will always remember the beautiful fall evenings leaving the dining hall in Mather walking down the long walk as I returned to my freshmen dorm room in North campus. I’d often stop to take in the view of downtown from our pristine college on a hill. As fall turned to winter and spring of 1998, I would learn that this beauty far too often did not match the experiences of so many of my peers. I saw so much potential and believed my new community could be better. I and a group of leaders, mostly freshmen and sophomores at the time, began to set out to try create change.
I am a fourth generation African american college graduate. My father went to Amherst and my mother, Smith. My parents and all of my aunts and uncle‘s held masters degrees and graduated from a variety of mostly white colleges and universities; Yale, Columbia, & Harvard among the most notable. Perhaps most importantly my family was paying my tuition. This meant I did not have the financial pressure of many of my Black and Latinx peers, many of whom we were first generation or second generation college students. We were attending what was and remains one of the most expensive colleges in the country. Aid packages would remain flat as tuition increased. This required students to work sometimes as many as 40 hours a week on work study to cover tuition and literally make ends meet. On top of this some of my peers would endure callous comments from staff in the financial aid office. This was part of a culture of racist micro and occasional macro aggression’s on campus. This made my recent reading of the stories on the BlackatTrin instagram page all the more painful. I’d hoped things had changed.
Another advantage I had as a result of my parents Amherst and Smith education was a knowledge of their fight for black studies in the late 1960s and early 70s. They marched, protested, and took over buildings to demand changes to the curriculum and to demand a major for Black and Pan-African studies. This knowledge would prove invaluable in the months to follow.
At the end of my freshman year I was elected vice president of the Multicultural Affairs Council, a three or four-year-old position that had been created within the Student Government Association (SGA). During the 1998–1999 academic year, the college would form a search committee, of which I was a part, that would seek to hire a new Dean of Multicultural Affairs. This position would later be filled by Karla Spurlock-Evans. The Umoja house did reopen during the spring semester of 1998. The renovations were beautiful even though the location at the bottom of Vernon street left much to be desired. Being located next to campus safety tucked away in a corner of campus distant from most of the activity both socially and academically on campus, led many to speculate as to why the house was really moved. The future of the cultural spaces for LVL and AASA was in question as the house they shared was in significant need of repair on Crescent Street. The issue of retention continued to cause attrition even as an even larger cohort of students of color arrived in the fall of ’98. Even as our numbers grew, the challenges that students of color faced continued to seemingly happen in a vacuum.
I spent hours, sometimes whole evenings, emailing college administrators engaging in arguments as to why there needed to be more funding for The Office of Multicultural Affairs and cultural spaces. I’d regularly have to debate why students had the right and the ability, in partnership with the college, to have self-determination over the use of the Umoja House as well as the LVL and AASA houses similar to the privileges that white fraternities enjoyed. We didn’t even want to serve alcohol in our houses yet we were held to a hypocritical double standard. At the policy level, there was an indifference by some in the Trinity’s leadership. As the ignorance and condescension grew, so did the tension in these meetings with the college administration. Many of my peers experienced this same indifference directly from faculty in the classroom, from staff in financial aid, and occasionally from campus safety. Jesse Jackson came to campus that spring semester of 1999. Weeks later, Angela Davis would come as well. Dialogue on campus increased and so did the energy for change.
As April 1999 approached, the debates and meetings I and my fellow student leaders on the Multicultural Affairs Council had with the administration continued to go in circles. It became clear that running out the clock would be a possible tactic of the administration in an attempt to allow the energy for change to dissipate over the summer. The search for a new Dean of Multicultural Affairs who, as it then stood, would have no budget, staff, or authority was about to conclude. Incidents of racism began to be shared more regularly in our student meetings. Racial epithets anonymously scribbled on a white board on a dorm room door or spoken directly to students in Mather Hall still come to mind. Our community- Imani, LVL, AASA, and The Trinity College Black Women’s Organization (TCBWO) peaked in creating a safe space as we began to realize many of us faced the similar situations and were not alone in the bigotry we faced. We were young and the group dynamics often made things interesting to say the least but by and large we supported each other. There was unity. Soon, there would be clarity. We organized. We made our demands (page 5 after the “Liepod”). We gave then President Evan Dobelle a week to provide a comprehensive response we knew almost certainly wouldn’t come. We planned a protest for April 15, 1999.
Then on April 13, 1999, the same day our demands would be published in the Tripod, Aquan Salmon was murdered by Hartford PD.
On April 15, 1999, there were 2 protests in Hartford. One at Trinity College, and one downtown lead in part by civil rights activist Elizabeth Horton Sheff . Ms. Sheff was to join us at Trinity that day along with some local TV news media. Instead she understandably was only able to send her solidarity and encouragement to us. There would be no off campus news media.
Our protest was largely successful. Our march resulted in new cultural houses for LVL and AASA. We secured increased funding for the office of multicultural affairs and the promotion of the position to be filled by Dean Evans to that of a full Dean with adequate support staff. There were two key demands that went unaddressed in 1999 and are a part of the current demands of the Umoja coalition.
First, we demanded the creation of alumni organizations for Latino and Asian American alumni. As I search the College website not only is there no evidence of these alumni affinity groups but it appears that the Black Alumni Association is no longer active. It’s puzzling that the college has found this to be acceptable. One might ask why alumni in these groups have not organized to create and maintain such groups. To this I say too many have been recruited and not retained. Too many have graduated and vowed to never look back after enduring the racism, class-ism, sexism, and homophobia in the college culture. Too many of us who were student leaders feel that we thanklessly gave so much during our time “beneath the elms” that it is hard to justify sacrificing more particularly when an invitation with adequate support and resources is not being extended. Perhaps most painfully, many of us probably know that we will be facing an uphill battle to create and maintain a critical mass of interested and engaged alum because so many have had to bear the burden of being “other” at an institution built for the wealthy white men.
The second and most crucial demand that went unaddressed was our demand for the creation of a Multicultural distribution requirement as part of the curriculum. The week before our protest, I was elected SGA President. As 1999 turned to 2000, I recall being told that the faculty would have to make this change in the curriculum. I was told by the President, Trustees, and administration that they had no ability to make this change. I regrettably accepted this explanation which, while technically correct, let the president and trustees off the hook from leveraging other forms of influence to stand in solidarity with the students to work towards this change.
As SGA President, we gave the Trustee’s and Faculty a second chance in the spring of 2000 as we worked to improve the academic calendar by making changes to Midsession also known as Reading Week. Our initial proposal was not approved but was viable enough to force the Trustee’s to table their decision to the dismay of President Dobelle. We made a second proposal that included “Trinity Days” which be days when regular classes did not meet but where instead days for co-curricular and extra curricular learning. These days would include having lectures and symposiums on issues of diversity. At a meeting in midtown Manhattan in front of the whole board of trustees on April 14, 2000, almost a year to the day after our protest, we made our final pitch.
Our proposal which included Trinity Days and therefore more academic days than the faculty proposal won the day but as an amendment to the Faculty’s more straightforward proposal. We were shocked and so was the faculty leadership. They never imaged students would propose MORE academic days! That was how far we were willing to go to expand our educational experience at Trinity. Given the unpleasant and combative tone of that meeting, we knew the victory would prove temporary. The Trustee executive committee and the Faculty leadership ultimately agreed to a new academic calendar without Trinity Days and with no new space for diversity education (Page 5).
I hoped things had changed but it’s now clear Trinity has continued to fail in its mission, to “prepare(s) students to be bold, independent thinkers who lead transformative lives.” There is no transformation if Trinity College fails again to do this work to improve the curriculum.
In this moment I have prayerfully summoned a refreshing of my well when it comes to Trinity College. I do this to remember and honor this colorful mosaic of students that stood with me on that beautiful spring day in 1999. I do it to remember the faculty and staff who encouraged and taught me to stand in that moment. I do it for all of the students who like me arrived at the Trinity College full of hope and optimism only to encounter harsh economic realities and blatant racism, class-ism, sexism, homophobia, and exclusion that seemingly continues to permeate the culture on campus.
As in our nation I know so much has changed from the era when my parents had to take over buildings to demand Black studies. But also, as in our nation, so much of the exclusionary white supremacist culture, attitudes, and beliefs have remained a constant. Uprooting this culture is no easy task. Trinity of course has only had 50 years of co-education and not many more years of truly multi-racial education. So too America has only had about 50 years of equality under the law for people of color. The struggle in our beloved community at Trinity College is indeed a microcosm of the greater struggle we have here in the United States. This was clear in 1999 and is even clearer today. There is much to be debated and perhaps argued as to why we are where we are as a college and as a nation. The dream of the beloved community for students who attend colleges like Trinity is that we can be educated by a first class faculty, educate and be educated by a diverse group of peers, and grow into more well-rounded thoughtful individuals and critical thinkers in the true spirit of the liberal arts. Indeed, we are called to be bold, independent, and transformative as the College’s mission states. Indeed, Trinity College, there is work to do to achieve this mission.
I stand in solidarity with the Umoja Coalition. I say, “Right On!” to the demands of The Coalition and the response of the President and Trustees thus far. However, I cannot let the faculty of Trinity College off the hook again. It’s time to find a new approach to educating students in the areas of justice, inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. It’s time to require regular curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular education on the history of America in relation to the African, Latinx, and Asian Diasporas. It’s time to expand the curriculum to focus on Women’s Studies, LGBTQ studies, and the history of our Indigenous people perhaps starting with a quick history lesson on the roots of the name “Connecticut”.
The best classroom experience I had at Trinity was in my Freshmen Seminar on American Social Movements taught by Professor Eugene Leach. We had wonderful debates that would continue late into the night in North Campus. I had the chance to meet Ms. Sheff and learn the story of the Connecticut school desegregation case Sheff v. O’Neil. I still wish more of my classmates could’ve had a similarly rigorous experience in the classroom with debates about American history on issues of race, gender, and class.
In these unique times, Trinity has an opportunity to re-imagine how it educates students. I hope that the college will finally find the will to begin diversifying its curriculum. Perhaps then too my fellow alumni may have their well refreshed to stand in solidarity and in community with current students. Perhaps then my fellow alum may also find a renewed spirit of generosity to stand in partnership with the College as it does this important work.
In solidarity with the Umoja Coalition,
J. Russell Fugett ‘01
Imani Co-President, 1998
SGA Vice President of the Multicultural Affairs Council, 1998–1999
SGA President, 1999–2001