In early November of last year, Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach for the Alabama Chapter of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), set foot on the New College of Florida grounds for the first time to hold a workshop on her organization and diversity. Three months later, she returned at the behest of a group of thirty-plus Novocollegians to help mediate an event, the first of its kind, a teach-in to promote community and inclusion on campus.
“[When I first came], I met with [thesis student] Analeah [Rosen] and I think it was maybe just six students, and they were all like ‘Ahh, it’s a mess!’ They were all these white women, and they were all so disturbed by [the intolerance on campus], and really felt it and believed it,” Brooks recounted in an interview during the Teach-In. “So when Claire called me, about two weeks ago, she said ‘You’ve got to come Lecia, you’ve got to be at the school on Thursday!’ and she called me, like, on Saturday. I said, ‘Thursday, really?’ ‘Well, maybe Friday, but we have to do it this week!’ and the fact that they were able to get the attention of the administration and put forward a resolution that was supported by the faculty, all in a week, it’s amazing!”
Throughout the interview, Brooks continually brought her words back to how much she herself has been inspired by the events that occurred Tuesday, Feb. 14, and by the group of students who fought for equality on their college campus.
“My first reaction?” Brooks announced. “I was super excited and proud, I truly was. I personally, as a black woman, need that and need those reminders to know that white folks are out there on their own, standing up to injustice and that kind of stuff. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is. They didn’t have to do this at all—I think maybe a couple of people that I met might have been members of targeted groups, but they don’t have a lot of experience being targeted. They’re not really the ones who we’re talking about, the ones who feel and live with the pain, the ones that feel excluded, ‘cause they’re not. They’re empowered; they’re an empowered group. But they care so much—how could I say, ‘No, I can’t come, sorry.’ How could you not? How could you not come? But they didn’t really need me. I think, maybe to add a little legitimacy for the administration, but they could have done this themselves. And they will. We will.”
As the mediator, Brooks trained students, faculty, staff and community members who chose to become small group discussion leaders, or facilitators, on how to stimulate conversations on diversity topics, as well as to get participants to see others’ view points, the Monday night before the Teach-In. She also led the large group conversations, most notably in an activity she coined “This I Believe,” in which eight attendees formed a square and faced inward or outward to denote whether they believed a statement that Brooks read aloud into the microphone.
“They were all based off of something, like the Constitution [of the United States] and some of the beliefs that I’ve found people hold on to,” she stated. “They’re ideals, and they’re out there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question them.”
Although more than 250 came to the Teach-In was people during its highest point, there was also a large void left by the numbers who did not, or could not, attend.
“It’s disappointing,” Brooks said. “I think that we could have had more, but I am so encouraged by the numbers that are here today, because that’s enough to create a critical mass to change the community. I don’t necessarily assume that people are not here in protest but, maybe they just don’t know, or they’re uncomfortable, or fearful or whatever. Whatever. Whatever it is that didn’t allow them to come, I don’t take it as a sign of purposeful protest. I take it as a sign of fear. You know, that this is somehow scary to them. Which makes me believe even more, you know, that this is necessary.
“But even those people who aren’t participating, when I went inside [Hamilton Center] I heard them talking in small groups,” Brooks continued. “Not everyone can handle a group process, but they’re still talking. That’s what’s important.”
Brooks believes that the outcome of that day will be two-fold. She explained that the administration will take the recommendations that she, the facilitators and the organizers received from the participants and they will make some sort of policy—by virtue of closing down the school, the administration will have to implement something.
However, the challenge will be the students buying into the notion that they are now responsible for the policy and they will be the ones who will need to keep each other in check.
“[The community] should commit to listen non-defensively and that’s the first step—just to be open to the idea that whatever you did or said was offensive and be willing to listen to that and learn from that, and adjust one’s behavior based on that,” Brooks explained. And to believe what people say when they say ‘Wow, that hurt me,’ and let go of whatever it is that they hold on to that is clearly offensive to other people. It’s selfish.
“It goes back to the care and concern of the community over one’s personal wants or desires, because that’s where the characteristic of a healthy community lies,” Brooks said with a hearty laugh. “Protecting the rights of the minority over the rights of the majority, cause that’s, you know, in the constitution. That’s what democracy is supposed to be, so, we hold each other accountable, or we don’t, regardless of whatever policies are in place.”