Off the Cuff with MRC Community Coordinators Caitlin O’Neill and Lorena Espinoza

Multicultural Resource Center staff members Caitlin O’Neill, Africana community coordinator and LGBTQ Community Coordinator Lorena Espinoza, sat down with the Review to talk about the recent acts of hate speech on campus — one of which directly targeted the MRC — and what’s coming up next.

Tania Mukherjee

After the MRC was targeted, how did the Center respond in terms of organizing or communication?

Lorena Espinoza: I was the one who found the sign at the Center. The first thing we did as a staff and a center was to group together and find the best way to address [the situation]. [We’re] condemning the act without allowing it to cause a lot of panic and discomfort among our students. We reported it to Safety and Security, and then, as a staff, we wrote the statement that was sent out to all our communities and put [it] up on Facebook. We want to say that we are standing strong and [are] there to support you. And [we’re] not going to let this take away from what we do every day. It was really nice to see the support we got from the students; to say that we are here to support you and be a resource for you, and this space is yours. They are standing strong with us, too, to make the MRC respected and be a safe space for the folks who need it.

In light of these incidents, there has been a response of great magnitude from the campus. The solidarity march and the sit-in at the Science Center were heavily attended. Are there future plans in the works?

Caitlin O’Neill: Most of the student groups have actively started to talk about these issues on campus. We are seeing people come together to create working groups to find ways to create change and awareness. Hopefully we’ll see a lot of positive things come out of that. A lot of groups are focusing on community healing, supporting each other, and these initiatives are spreading across campus. Also, the MRC is standing strong as a resource and would like to tell people, now more than ever, about their workshops like the Trans Allyship workshop and Safe Space workshop, and would like to bring them to spaces on campus where people would like to see these happening.

Many students involved have offered suggestions like mandatory educational training for first-years and expressed a concern about the administration’s responses, or lack there of, to these attacks. Do you hold these same opinions?

CO: I think that the best place to begin is around the conversation of mandatory trainings. There is something to be said for the tool kits around social justice and allyship, what that looks like, and [what they] mean. Doing anti-oppressive work is really important, and all those who are interested in being members of the country and, additionally, being global citizens should benefit from [it]. What is interesting about this is that some people are interested in participating because they would like to improve the way they interact with diverse cultures and backgrounds and that makes them better people and allies. Then there are some who aren’t quite there on that journey or haven’t had the opportunity to access some of these things, and there is a difference between the people who are ready to have a certain level of conversation and the people who are just mandated to be there.

Because of that, I think that we are more interested in having that conversation with people who are in that place or ready to make that change. Making mandatory training may not be the answer, but one thing that I have talked about is changing the “Many Voices: [Building Communities Diversity Panel]” that is run by the MRC and [Associate Dean of Campus Life] Adrian Bautista’s office and features students from a variety of different backgrounds and identities — athletes, artists, musicians — and gives them an opportunity to talk about what it means to navigate Oberlin as an institute while having these identities. We want to complement some other things that students have been talking about more pointedly, like allyship and what it means to be an ally. Sien Rivera, class of 2012, wrote a skit for The OC [a play about relationships and college life], organized by OSWell, on allyship and safe spaces using Disney princesses, and first-years tended to be really engaged with it even when they didn’t really get it. We got lots of requests to unpack the event. We hired someone for facilitation and student training who works with the Community Coordinators to make different trainings based on what the campus needs, like bringing the Allyship workshop into first-year dorms and having discussions about race in the co-op system in OSCA.

Many involved in the community response to the hate speech last week have emphasized that those attacks are not isolated incidents. How do these incidents, and their subsequent responses, fit into a larger narrative of biased incidents and resistance and activism on Oberlin’s campus?

CO: In the student and community forum that happened on Monday [Feb. 11], after the e-mails went out, there was a first-year student who commented that we don’t live in a perfect Oberlin, which is symptomatic of the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world. Oberlin is a special place, but as an institution it is rooted in American history — specifically, colonialism and imperialism and larger systems of oppression. Of course this incident is connected to a larger history of incidents in this country, but Oberlin’s willingness to engage in these questions is in a way that other institutions are not able to. Oberlin was the first [college] to accept women and black students, and it has a commitment to social justice. Even though one is critical of the history of biased incidents on Oberlin’s campus, the College continues to be invested in being inclusive and ecumenical.

Is there something else that would you would like to tell us?

Both: We’d like to remind folks that we are here for them during this time, as well as when there are no slews of hate speech. We have regular programming and have conversations about allyship and inclusion and bringing different aspects of someone’s identity or self when they come into a space and to be comfortable with it. We are also here when people need time to decompress or work through both macro-issues that are visible, as well as microaggressions that are a struggle for people everyday. We are pleased with the way students have reached out to each other and engaged in mutual support and coalition building. We hope that students can engage in community healing and actively build spaces that drive forward this movement that is forming.