This PROFILE piece is part of the Quest’s ongoing coverage of racism and anti-racism at Minerva. You can read other reports and perspective pieces on this topic here.
Note: This piece is the transcript of an anonymous interview between the author, Aspen Pflughoeft, and a student who participated in one of the anti-racism working groups this summer. The anti-racism working groups are also discussed extensively in this report on anti-racism efforts at Minerva by Aspen Pflughoeft and Maya Cohen. The interview was conducted in mid-November, before the December 29th end-of-semester anti-racism update by Ben Nelson on the Portal.
Before beginning their work, all anti-racism working group participants agreed to specific Rules of Engagement. Among other rules, these outlined that, “working group conversations and proceedings are fully ‘off the record.’ Neither the group, nor the individuals, should be quoted and there can be no resulting ‘media’ created from these proceedings.” Later clarifications from Ben Nelson identified the Quest as ‘media.’
In the process of compiling the information for the comprehensive November 25 report, the authors notified all working group participants via email of the upcoming report along with the Rules of Engagement limitations restated as the rationale for why they were not asked to comment. Pflughoeft and Cohen’s email ended with the following:
“If an individual chooses to come forward to express any thoughts and/or opinions on this topic, acknowledging that doing so may violate the Rules of Engagement, we will listen because censoring informants undermines journalistic integrity.”
In response, a student reached out to Pflughoeft about sharing their experiences on the working group as well as their thoughts about the initiative’s effectiveness and the Minerva administration’s overall handling of anti-racism.
The full interview included some information that would make the source identifiable. This information has been removed so as to protect the anonymity of the source.
On the Rules of Engagement
Pflughoeft (P): Did you know what the rules of engagement would entail when you agreed to them?
I knew what they were and I understood them. I think they made sense. The justification was to have these rules for people to feel free to brainstorm and have these conversations freely. But Minerva is such a small community anyways that it felt like a weird thing at the time; I thought, “it’s fine, I’ll just do that.”
P: Why have you decided to violate the rules of engagement and speak to the Quest?
From a utility perspective, the working group already happened and I don’t feel very bound by the rules of engagement. I felt like this was important because it sucks that the students and staff involved just couldn’t contribute to this [discussion] because of the rules of engagement. I feel like that just undermines their usefulness. So #utility.
On Your Personal Participation
P: Why did you choose to participate in the working group?
I was very interested in what Minerva is trying to do to address institutionalized white supremacy, beyond superficial work. Honestly, it was kind of a curiosity thing, kind of an accountability thing. I had a lot of time over the summer, so I thought, “Yeah, sure, why not do this?” Like building some structures that would potentially be implemented for future classes. I wanted to be sure Minerva was doing something and I was trying to be part of that doing something.
P: What about the time commitment?
It wasn’t that much time. We met once a week for about an hour or an hour and a half. Outside of that, I would work maybe 2 to 3 hours for the rest of the week. I probably could have done less if I was busy. If I was working full time or taking classes or during the semester, I would not have had time. So that was definitely a factor for people.
On the Working Group Process
“It sucks that the students and staff involved just couldn’t contribute to this [discussion] because of the rules of engagement. I feel like that just undermines their usefulness.”
P: What was it like to work with the staff? In what ways were the staff very supportive? Were there any ways that they were less supportive?
I think it was really great. The staff [members] that were in my working group were really passionate about the topic. I don’t think any of the staff had to do it; they were all volunteering as well. We were all working on different aspects so we met every week, and the staff were always there. They were as involved as the students.
It was nice to have insider knowledge, especially with [our topic] because a lot of things were changing this semester. So, with staff involvement, we could see what was being done already, what would be easy to implement, and what was not something we’re able to touch. I think the staff were also helpful because they gave us Minerva infrastructure for the organization, like a slack channel, a google drive, and those types of things.
I think it was similar in other working groups like the curriculum one. Having faculty on that team gave some of the knowledge that students might not have from just taking classes but faculty had from actually creating curriculum and teaching.
As a general challenge, I think that —and this is not about the staff themselves— the timeline was really short. It was something like five weeks from when we first met to when we were supposed to give the Senior Team our recommendations. So even if it was just a couple of days between when we sent an email and got a response, (which is normal, I don’t expect staff to respond to everything super fast), that slowed us down. Having that slow down made it hard to get recommendations finished by the deadline
P: Tell us more about the process of submitting & selecting your recommendations.
Over the five weeks, we decided on specific areas that we wanted to focus on, then assigned people to work on them. By the end, we had a full set of recommendations that were pretty well fleshed out, and I, as a student, wasn’t involved in anything after that.
Initially, we got comments and responses [on our recommendations] from the Senior Team through our staff lead. They were the go-between. I didn’t necessarily see the Senior Team’s comments as feedback but as “these are the things we’re going to adopt, and these are the things we’re not going to.”
But I didn’t think that this initial response necessarily lined up with the final Plan of Action because we had very specific recommendations but the plan of action isn’t very specific. So when they say, “we’re going to implement these things,” I don’t know if they will use the specific recommendation of our working group or if they will just generally modify something. They didn’t say, “as recommended…” or “we will do what the working group X recommended in regards to this.”
Basically, I’m not really sure how the Senior Team got from our working group’s recommendations to the plan of action because the two responses didn’t seem to exactly line up. Based on the response from the Senior Team directly to each of our recommendations, I expected that the plan of action would exactly or very closely resemble our recommendations. But instead, it didn’t seem like they were adopting our specific recommendations but more general ones so I don’t have clarity on how they were incorporated into the plan. They just presented all the things they were going to do. It was hard for me to see the connections between working group work and the Plan of Action, even if they were there.
P: I have heard from some others that the working groups didn’t feel like they could collaborate with each other. What did you think about the collaboration?
The working groups didn’t have any formal way to connect and collaborate, so the only reason I knew who was part of another working group was just because of talking with other students and asking. That separation was hard because, in some cases, group distinctions were confusing, like student life and student culture. What about SIs? Do they fall under student life or student culture? Should both work on SIs? Or if one works on it, is that overlapping the other? And what if we have similar ideas? Is that something we could collaborate on and find a better solution?
It could have been really helpful to have collaboration [among working groups] and to just have a community of people who are committed and interested and willing to spend their time working on this. A community of people for support or for coworking or organizing other kinds of student initiatives. I think that could have been really nice.
I’m not really sure why [the administration] didn’t encourage collaboration because it didn’t seem like they had any reason for discouraging it. Then again, I also didn’t really ask, so I don’t know.
On the Results of the Working Group
“I wanted to be sure Minerva was doing something and I was trying to be part of that doing something. “
P: In your opinion, how effective were working groups?
I think they had varying success.
As a whole, the working groups were good to start the conversation about concrete next steps that Minerva should be doing in the next year —and further in the future— beyond the initial four things they had outlined around Precedent since those were all pretty short term. Most of the working groups were trying to create more systemic change within Minerva to hopefully shape the institution. The working groups were good at kick starting this and getting a bunch of people who were interested in anti-racism working together and talking about it.
Obviously, some working groups had more of their recommendations adopted and initially worked on more. Some —like the student culture one— just didn’t seem like there was a plan in the final recommendations in Ben’s email. Of the recommendations, it seemed like the ones that were more staff-driven were very successful at getting rolling and started, at least from my working group. Which makes sense because the staff knew more of the constraints of the administration and what the Senior Team was more likely to accept.
One thing is, I know that there have been other Minerva working groups in the past, and the sentiment I got from people in those working groups is that you do this work and then nothing happens. I really hope that’s not the case for these [anti-racism working groups], but the more I hear nothing from Minerva since the anti-racism plan [in September], the more I feel that nothing might happen. Which would be sad but maybe not unusual.
In general, it seems that working groups are really hard at Minera. It’s hard to start things from scratch. At Minerva, you just have to start from scratch. You have to just do it —and that’s hard. So a working group, especially a student-led working group, feels like you have to build something from scratch then prove to the administration that they should pay attention to you. But for these [anti-racism] working groups that came from the Senior Team and have staff on them, I was optimistic that these would be effective. Also because there were just so many of them. So I am still optimistic that they’re not just going to die, but we’ll see.
P: How did you feel about the resulting plan of action?
I thought [the Plan of Action] was really confusing. It was just a wall of text that was so confusing to follow. There was the whole intro part, the whole first part was not necessarily addressing anything.
And then I kind of expected a bullet point list of “this is what we’re going to do” which is not what happened. I mean, I was happy that [the Senior Team] sent something because it wasn’t clear they were actually going to send any sort of comprehensive anything, but the Plan of Action included the working group documents at the bottom. That’s one of the reasons I was happy about the plan. I was concerned that the Senior Team would keep the working group recs private and that even the student body wouldn’t have access to them but they did send them out.
Also, I would have liked to have the Plan of Action be on something public-facing. Like publishing it on the website to say “this is our commitment to anti-racism.” But it’s good they at least sent it to Minerva students, alumni, staff. Actually, I don’t know who all they sent it to and that they included the working group doc in the bottom.
I feel like it gives a little more accountability to the Senior Team because we [students] can say, “oh look, you said you would do X, and have you actually done it?” Whereas if they never sent anything, then it’s as if we sent our recommendations into the void and never got anything back. So to me, the Plan of Action was good and bad, very mixed feelings, and very confusing to read.
P: Overall, what are your thoughts on how Minerva has gone about anti-racism efforts?
[The Minerva administration] still has a lot of work to do, as do most institutions. The conversation has kind of — in a student-facing way— died. I hope that that’s not the case within staff because I know for a student, especially in mid-semester, academics just get to be a lot so people aren’t doing anything else besides academics. Although I wish that the administration would give us more updates if they are working so we would know.
The tone of a lot of the anti-racism communications, like for a lot of other things at Minerva, has emphasized that the things the administration was already doing were addressing anti-racism. The administration can definitely acknowledge more about how they’re also contributing to this system of white supremacy. That’s something that doesn’t seem to be acknowledged or part of the anti-racism conversation and I think it should be. Because, in my opinion, if they aren’t anti-racist then they’re contributing to the system.
If you are interested in sharing your experiences with the anti-racism working groups with the Quest, please reach out to Aspen Pflughoeft ([email protected]).
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