Work, Truly Our Own

Among workshops that Bates held on Jan. 21 to honor Martin Luther King Jr., one stood out by virtue of its subject: Bates itself.

Not the viewbook Bates where faculty and students scale ever-higher peaks of achievement. Instead, a more prosaic place where, in back offices, kitchens, and workshops, College staffers make the academic fireworks possible.

And it’s a place whose achievements, perhaps, reflect what Benjamin Mays ’20 had in mind when he exhorted mourners at King’s funeral to make the civil rights leader’s unfinished work “truly our own.”

President Hansen considers a comment during the King Day workshop on diversity efforts in the Bates workplace. At right is Ellen Peters ’87, director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen convened “Institutionalizing Unfinished Work” to illuminate those achievements. As Bates has striven to make the campus more diverse and inclusive, Hansen explained, she has been struck by the intensity College staffers have brought to that effort. For the MLK Day workshop, she asked seven College administrators to share challenges and revelations they’ve encountered along the way.

The King holiday, Hansen said later, afforded a plum opportunity “to explore all the places on campus where people really are trying to do the unfinished work of social justice and inclusion.”

We heard from Carmita McCoy, who is helping Bates develop a concept from the Benjamin Mays Initiative: “swing deans” who help recruit a new class for Admissions one year, then spend the next year as a dean of students mentoring that same class, especially members of underrepresented groups.

Something she hadn’t expected, she explained, was the concern some African American parents expressed that their children wouldn’t be able to maintain their faith practices at Bates.

Bob Pallone, who works in Advancement, wondered how to convince alums of color that today’s Bates is more welcoming than the one they knew. “How do we understand what they experienced?” he asked. “And how do we convey what’s happening now?”

The diversity of diversities resonated throughout the workshop. In realigning staff assignments for the new dining Commons, said Dining Services head Christine Schwartz, she has encouraged her people to try out for jobs they really want.

Implementing this enlightened policy, though, sometimes brought Schwartz up against the effects of old, harsh inequalities — such as a worker who had gone through public school labeled as a special-ed student on the basis of a single, specific disability.

The diversity of diversities includes job classification. As Carmen Purdy, a presenter and the coordinator of the affirmative action office, pointed out, Bates staff feel empowered simply to be heard.

The convener agreed. “I talk about Bates all the time, and I rarely have an opportunity to talk publicly about people who are behind the scenes,” Hansen said afterward. “Quite invisible but so important to the college, just kind of making everything else happen.”

Including, now more than ever, some unfinished work that just can’t wait.