I was standing on the sidelines on a brisk October afternoon watching my three kids play soccer. Although I was getting progressively colder, and wishing I had chosen more comfortable footwear, the players were gradually shedding layers. My middle son, who had worn crocs for the occasion, lost a shoe more than once while kicking the ball.
What made this typical autumn event in Vermont unique was that the game was hosted by a group of Middlebury College students known as DMC: Distinguished Men of Color. DMC was founded in 2008 to campus to replace the defunct PALANA organization (Pacific Islander, Asian, Latino, African-American, and Native American), a support group for native-born minorities attending Middlebury. Although DMC’s mission is more specifically focused on helping men of color thrive at Middlebury College, its membership and events are open to every student.
Luckily for my kids, DMC has continued PALANA’s initiative to coordinate “community friends” events for families with children of color. With so few men of color in Vermont as role models, and without a direct college connection, my children’s ability to develop a rich, inclusive, and empowered sense of what it means to be a man of color would otherwise be limited to what my husband and I as their white parents tell them; what they learn from peers; and what they see in the media.
But as I shivered on the sidelines with the other parents and six or so DMC members who had opted not to play soccer, I realized that these college students may need us as much as we need them — many of DMC’s members have never lived in rural areas or experienced cold and snowy winters.
As we brainstormed future events with DMC’s president, many of the activities we discussed are ones our children love to do and would be able to introduce to DMC members. Aside from soccer and basketball, which are sports played the world over and enable people to transcend language cultural and age differences (although perhaps not gender), I noted that six of the eight children in attendance play hockey; all of them love to go sledding; all go snowshoeing; six love to downhill ski; and all know how to ski cross-country. With access to the college facilities, and a focus on developing an on-going relationship between specific Middlebury College students and individual children, our families of color would be another strand in the web of support that DMC provides. Our families could show them how to play in Vermont winters, explore its forested and agricultural landscape, and feel that Vermont, as much as Middlebury College, is also theirs. And in the process of sharing our love of Vermont, our families and especially our children will be able to build relationships that last beyond the three or four years the college students are on campus (many study abroad for a year as part of Middlebury College’s phenomenal international and foreign language programs).
By the way, I don’t feel a particular need to defend the purpose of an organization like DMC or my family’s participation in it, but I will attempt to explain it for those who question why it is an important option for some students. Much of my life I have lived in more ethnically, religiously and racially diverse places than environment, and almost everywhere there are both support groups of some kind for people who are in the minority and those who question why these organizations need to exist and if they are in fact “racist.”
Unfortunately, the statistics continue to bear out that men of color, particularly men who identify as African-American, Latino, and Native American, are much less likely to complete college than women of color or white students. Admissions officers realized long ago that they had to do more than simply admit more men of color; the result was programs such as The Posse Foundation, which sends inner-city students to college with a pre-formed group of peers, and Prep for Prep, in which outstanding middle school students are picked to attend elite preparatory schools. DMC has representatives from both of these initiatives.
The fact is that students of color are less likely than white students at Middlebury College to have attended high schools with rigorous academic programs. In addition, American schools are more segregated now than they were twenty years ago, so that fewer white students and students of color have had opportunities to interact prior to college. For many students, showing up on a campus where one is suddenly in the minority can be an isolating and lonely experience that affects academic success.
It is important to note that not all families of color in the Middlebury area feel a need to connect with other families of color or with DMC role models and mentors, just as not all self-identified students of color feel a need to be involved in organizations like DMC. These choices are highly individual, influenced by one’s own life experiences and personality, goals and aspirations, and sense of identity.
Despite criticisms from either end of the spectrum: that we should all live as a “color-blind” society or that a person is not “black enough” if she or he interacts only or mostly with whites, there is no officially appointed “racial border patrol” (as one friend refers to people who issue such comments). Freedom of assembly is such a cherished right that it resides in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. And organizations whose membership is open to all are a far cry from my uncle’s mid-Western country club, which because of its status as a private organization was able to bar Jews and non-whites and limited women’s access to tee times on the weekends.
I much prefer that people have the right to choose to participate or not based on an organization’s mission and activities, not on its exclusive membership policies.