Update on Student Senate’s Racial Justice Work After Conservatory Backlash

By now, most people have heard about the recent backlash the Conservatory received for its planned “Celebration of Black Artistry.” Many students and faculty chimed in on the situation, including myself, and nearly all parties — except the Conservatory — appeared to believe that something significant needed to happen in response. Thankfully, I and many others have been hard at work to develop an appropriate and constructive response to what happened.

First, I connected Peter Saudek with The Oberlin Review, and he wrote and published a fantastic open letter to white alumni urging them to support Black students and causes through their donations. He was also so kind as to compensate me for my time helping him — an action I hope the Conservatory and College can do for Black people consistently someday. 

As far as Student Senate’s response goes, we had to spend a lot of time the day the flyer was released, and even the day after, recuperating and figuring out the best course of action. No matter how we chose to move forward, we wanted to center Black people and Black musicians since the Conservatory could not be bothered to do so. We ended up having a series of meetings between several student senators, members of the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild, and some of the Conservatory Council of Students. We brainstormed a series of ideas for responding to the renewed calls for racial justice and Black students’ better treatment. From the few meetings the coalition had, we left with a handful of tangible action steps and points to consider. 

There was an overwhelming consensus that we, especially OCBMG, did not want to hold a town hall-style event in response to the flyer. Many other Black students have previously informed the institution of problematic patterns and behaviors that have largely gone unnoticed. Getting a handful of Black students together to do more free emotional labor in a space that would likely end up unintentionally dominated by white voices was not the solution. We shot down a walkout idea since it could be disruptive and get attention, but it might not start a helpful dialogue or create permanent change. No matter what path we took, we knew it needed to continue a conversation about a more significant issue than the flyer. We decided on the upcoming “Black Renaissance” event. As stated in the last Senate Weekly, “it will be a socially-distanced outdoor concert involving artists and performers across all mediums and genres, including musicians, poets, dancers, and more, to uplift and center Black artists at Oberlin properly.” 

I’m glad we’ve been able to do so much good work and get more action items done due to this nonsense. Still, it’s essential to realize this is just a first step in adequately combatting this institution’s overbearing whiteness. Despite our progress, it’s always important to recognize when we continue patterns like Black people having to clean up Oberlin’s mess — a mess we didn’t make.

A few weeks ago Isaiah Shaw and I met with Professor of Music Theory Jan Miyake, OC ’96, who is a member of the Presidential Initiative. Isaiah and I were alone in the meeting we attended with Miyake, despite Student Senate plugging the Zoom link to students in a Senate update email from OCBMG. In all fairness, Student Senate advertised the link the day of the meeting, but this still highlights a disconnect between outrage at Black trauma and taking tangible action to alleviate it. Had I not come to help, Isaiah would have had to take notes and attend this meeting by himself to fix a problem he did not create. Truthfully, if it weren’t me, it might have just fallen on another Black student anyway since that’s how Oberlin often functions behind the scenes. 

The meeting was just a minor part of Isaiah’s work and of the work OCBMG got thrust into without much choice. My solidarity is with them, my fellow Black Senators hard at work planning and managing so much, ABUSUA, and all other Black organizations and people on campus who recognize the resilience this takes. 

The fact we have to do this anti-racist work just to exist somewhat comfortably at this institution is part of the problem. The fact that only a handful of the students engaged in this work are consistently getting compensated monetarily for their labor is part of the problem. Having to gather Black Obie payment info independently to get performers compensated for their time and talent is all part of the problem. How long have we been trying to get an institutional standard to pay Black people for pro-Black and anti-racist work? It feels like forever by now, but at this current pace, we’ll probably still be fighting for it long after I graduate.

I am very excited about the event and hope to submit a video to perform before this piece is published, but I still have two fears about the response it may garner. First, I fear that the event will go well and that the Conservatory will try to use the event’s success to sweep its mistake under the rug. If the College or Conservatory does choose to acknowledge the event directly, it needs to understand that the event’s intent is not to give Oberlin better press. Student Senate, OCBMG, and the Con Council should not have to plan events like this independently at an institution that prides itself on progressive values. If anything, I hope someday we can feel comfortable trusting the Conservatory to handle some programming of this level without our intervention. 

The point is that if the event goes well, the Conservatory needs to be taking notes instead of taking credit. 

Last week, I also attended a Black Student Leaders meeting involving our Race Relations and Equity Liaison Darielle Kennedy, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Oberlin College Black Musicians’ Guild, ABUSUA, and the Dean of Students’ Office. The meeting was held to foster better connections between these groups and let faculty and administration hear what to do better. It went well, and administrators seemed very receptive to our concerns, criticisms, and suggestions at the time.

My other fear is that the event may spark only a temporary increase in engagement with Black student needs, events, and causes before the campus community disengages again a couple of weeks later. Only time will tell if this is true, and I would love to be proven wrong. Regardless of how things may go, I know planning my submission would be a more productive use of my time than worrying about what-if scenarios.