SCSU seeks to teach toleranceby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Officials at St. Cloud State University are trying to determine the best way to respond to a string of racially biased graffiti that's appeared on campus in recent months. The school has hosted public rallies against racism and required students to attend campus wide discussions on race. But some say the best way to deal with racism is with a classroom.
St. Cloud, Minn. — At 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning 30 students file into a classroom and settle into their seats.
The class is Introduction to Ethnic Studies, taught by Kyoko Kishimoto. Kishimoto launches into a wide range of heady issues right from the top. The history of racism, racial identity in modern society, race in popular culture and slavery.
Honest talk in this class is expected of students. While many suffer from a case of bleary, Monday-morning eyes, they still take part in the discussion.
There are a lot of people who say SCSU is in need of this kind of talk on campus. Since late last year, nearly 20 swastikas have been found scrawled in public spots at the school. This comes after years accusations by faculty of institutional racism and anti-Semitism and several discrimination-based lawsuits.
After the 50-minute class ends, sophomore business student Mitch Ryan of Cloquet says the classroom is a good place to discuss race. He says the continuing news of swastikas on campus has been a topic in class.
"I defiantly think that opening up discussions about recent events here on campus, that we can better understand each other and better understand where where people are coming from and why certain events such as the recent drawings on the walls can be so hurtful to people," Ryan says.
The classroom discussions challenge some students beliefs on race, according to Kyoko Kishomoto. She says for some, it's a first.
"Many of them have never really talked about these issues in their lives. So this is the first time that we talk about the real stuff," she says.
Kyoko Kishomoto she says sometimes the discussions are tense in her class, because the course is challenging some students long held beliefs on race.
"I think my job is planting the seed of these issues. Maybe they'll make the connection tomorrow, or it might take them two months, it might take them five years, but I'm hoping they remember what we discussed in class sometime in their life,"
The issue of race is part of the curriculum on other Minnesota college campuses as well.
Inver Hills Community College is a MNSCU technical college based in Inver Grove heights. College President Cheryl Frank says they offer students several classes that deal with either race or global politics. The school offers courses such as Films of the Holocaust and Genocide in Global Society.
"I counted ours up and we have 54 courses that reflect global perspectives in one way or another," she says.
At the University of Minnesota - Morris, vice chancellor for student affairs Sandy Olson-Loy says the issue of race is taken up in a seminar for freshman.
"Students pick from a wide range of topics that they might enjoy participating in with a faculty member. (It is a) small group discussion on a more seminar-based format so it could be anything from storytelling to music as the language of diversity," Olson-Loy says.
But according to Jean Lacourt, who teaches American Indian studies at SCSU, they're the only college in Minnesota that requires that all students take a three-credit racial issues course in order to graduate. "It is a unique requirement to St. Cloud Statend I'm glad for it, I think it is helping our students," she says.
Lacourt works with faculty in a number of departments who teach a total of 13 racial issues courses on campus. She says every student, regardless of their major, needs to take at least one class on discrimination.
"In order to successfully send our students out into the working world, we have to have them aware of some of the issues that people of color face in this country," Lacourt says.
The courses became mandatory nearly nine years ago, in response to racial tension on campus that included graffiti containing swastikas.
The incidents were similar to what's happened on campus recently, prompting some to ask if the courses are doing their job.
Lacourt says they are, and the latest round of racist graffiti just shows how important it is to keep talking about race.
"Just because we talk about race doesn't mean it's going to go away. It means that the dialogue needs to continue, the dialogue needs to get deeper," she says.
Even so, Lacourt says there will always be racial tension on college campuses. But she's proud that her school is talking, and teaching about it.
- Morning Edition, 02/20/2008, 7:23 a.m.