This has been one of the most difficult years that many of us have ever experienced, for many reasons: pandemic mitigation measures, illness and death due to COVID-19, ongoing violence against and murder of people of color, forced separations from family, and more.
It is in the spirit of empathy that I share these thoughts.
Last Friday, two Girl Scout troops collaborated on a kindness project that involved painting a rock in Tappan Square. After looking at the messages painted around Tappan, troop leaders located a rock next to the Tappan Square Memorial Arch and memorial space dedicated to Duante Wright. The rock they chose had been painted with messages in memory of two deceased Oberlin College students, which have been there for several months. One side had already been painted over.
Tappan Square has real and symbolic value. It is a common space shared by Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin. This partnership represents the shared history of the space. Lewis and Arthur Tappan offered Oberlin College the money necessary to keep it afloat with the expectation that the institution would be a safe harbor for abolitionists and Black people.
After the Girl Scout co-leaders applied the base coat to the rock, they found a clearly distraught friend of one of the deceased students. This student had pulled up and vandalized one of the signs inviting folks to get ready for the Girl Scout’s project with a request not to paint over it and was sobbing in front of the now-all-white rock. The Scout co-leaders respectfully expressed condolences, reminded them that the rock was a community space, and offered suggestions on how to create a more permanent memorial for their friend.
Later, friends supporting the original student proceeded to verbally abuse two African–American women, whose mother had worked at Oberlin for 20 years.
Community in Oberlin is often tenuous because of the power dynamic between the College and the City of Oberlin. The actions of the students involved in this incident undermined the hard work that students, staff, and administrators have engaged in this year and before in cooperation with the City of Oberlin. Even if the students involved in this incident were saddened to see the rock painted, remember that Tappan Square belongs to the entire community, not just Oberlin College students. Their actions showed a great deal of entitlement, disrespect, and were the worst possible way to memorialize their friends. Verbal abuse and verbal assault should not be the way you protect and honor their memories.
I am concerned about the emotional wellness of all of these students. However, the two members of the community who were disrespected deserve an apology. Not even 12 hours after a multi-racial group of girls between the ages of four and 14 shared an act of kindness with the community, the rock was painted over again with memorials. The girls are devastated, but are learning a valuable lesson. Bullying and berating members of a community working for positive change in support of little girls are not values that Oberlin College represents. When you move to a community, it is important to respect all members of that community.
I hope the students involved reconsider their actions. At a time when so many in our communities are being traumatized by violence, murder, and intolerance, kindness matters. My little Black seven-year-old was excited to spread kindness, which seems like a lovely way to spread love and honor those who have passed on before us. She and her fellow Girl Scouts are young girls who see Oberlin College students as sources of inspiration, but they will likely remember this display of uncaring or unconcern. All members of the Oberlin community have equal claims to public space. I ask all Oberlin College Students to pass through Oberlin with respect for all who live here.
Meredith M. Gadsby