Panther profile: Ferdinand tried to make a difference
MIDDLEBURY — Chellsa Ferdinand, a resident of Queens, N.Y., and a spring graduate of Middlebury College, was a four-year member of the Panther volleyball team.
She graduated in May with a degree in political science and is now working as a corporate paralegal for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York City.
As an undergraduate she helped breathe life back into the college’s Black Student Union and served as a Middlebury Campus newspaper opinion editor.
This is an edited version of an interview conducted with a Middlebury College student-athlete by the college’s Sports Information Department and is provided courtesy of the department.
Q: Talk about your time on the board of the Black Student Union.
A: My time on the board of the Black Student Union (BSU) was quite meaningful. A group of friends and I decided to collectively join to revamp the BSU entirely. At the time we coalesced, the BSU had recently fallen into a state of disrepair. Its leadership as well as its direction were muddied; student engagement with the BSU was at an all-time low.
As a coalition of students with vested interests in our community, my friends and I took it upon ourselves to generate interest in the BSU once again. That meant pushing for a new round of elections to usher in a board of BSU leaders the Middlebury student community felt represented by. It also meant creating a sense of pride among Black students.
As one of the board members, I oversaw the creation of countless events, from movie screenings at the Middlebury Marquis of “Black Panther,” for example, to the installation of the “Night of Black Culture” –– an evening dedicated to showcasing the amazingly talented Black students who make Middlebury so great.
My close friend and I ended up doing a stand-up skit, integrating the tips and tricks we had acquired in our Black Comic Cultures class with Professor J Finley. Moments like these I will cherish the most. We made the BSU an organization that students could take pride in; it was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my time at Middlebury College.
Q: Since the Black Lives Matter movement has gained national traction, what has that been like for you? Are there things you are doing to participate in the movement?
Black lives have not historically mattered in this country. But the advent of the cell phone has proven to be the one of catalysts of change. With video recording, Black people now have the ability to document the general racism and apathy with which our Black lives are regarded. No more.
Americans are hurting right now. Especially Black Americans at the hands of police officers. We are a nation in pain. The onset of COVID-19 has exposed the flaws of our system that many claim to just now comprehend. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained such traction because we, as a country, are flailing.
If you are lucky, you are sitting at home, perhaps even working from home, left to the distractions only offered by your smartphone. Before COVID-19, it was much easier to be complicit in racism — life in capitalist society has a way of pulling one away from activities that aren’t directly related to either economic gain or economic consumption so that we can enjoy the capital provided by our toiling.
COVID-19 has completely changed the way the average American lives. We are home now; most families will have spent more time together during this quarantine than they have in past years. The horrors of systemic racism are circulating over the web, being viewed from phone to phone, and for once Americans cannot escape the grueling realities that Black people face every day in this country for having the audacity to exist.
And so, to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement, I am simply existing. It is exhausting to realize that in 2020, Americans are just now bearing witness to the racism Black Americans have experienced over the last 400 years.
I have donated to various GoFundMe campaigns to support the lives and deaths of the countless number of Black Americans who fall victim to police brutality and violence. I have also signed various petitions to arrest the police officers responsible for the racist murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Reed and others.
Most importantly, I have been focusing on enjoying my life. My existence is revolutionary; my success an act of God. There are so many incentives for the Black person to fail, to become yet another statistic. I refuse to let my story end there.
Q: You mentioned you were the only person of color on the volleyball team. What was that experience like?
A: Volleyball is a historically white sport; on most of my high school volleyball teams, I was one of either two or three other athletes of color.
It was this difference that often made me wonder just how disparate my experience on the Middlebury College’s women’s volleyball team would have been if I was situated in this world differently. If I were poor, for example, or if I hadn’t grown accustomed to operating in predominantly white spaces, perhaps my experience on the volleyball team would have been completely reimagined.
But I was fortunate enough to have the necessary “tools” to fit in with my team. I had the economic capital to splurge at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op or purchase the latest pair of designer athletic wear, and I believe that made the difference between being viewed as “other” and being viewed as “normal.”
Although I am different from my teammates because I am Black, I often didn’t feel that way. This can be partially chalked up to me being a lighter-skinned Black person. By that, I mean to say that my adjacency to whiteness worked somewhat in my benefit. I’m not sure if I would have been viewed as favorably or even held in the same regard if I were of a darker skin color.
Before my teammates met my parents (who are both light-skinned Black people themselves), I could tell there was a bit of curiosity surrounding my skin color. Was my mother white and my father Black, or was my mother the Black one and my dad the white guy? One teammate remarked that my hair appeared to be too “kinky” for me to be a mixed-race child. The colonial fixation on exoticism, on being mixed race, is strange — but I know that being this iteration of myself worked in my favor.
Nonetheless, being a part of the Middlebury women’s volleyball team was one of the most enriching experiences I had at Middlebury College. I got to play the sport that I loved with women I’d come to call my friends.
I am so grateful for my teammates and the times we shared together. I don’t think I could have survived college without them.
Q: Talk about your experience as an opinion editor for the Middlebury Campus. Do you have a favorite piece you wrote?
Working as an opinion editor for the Middlebury Campus was an activity I genuinely enjoyed during my time at Middlebury College. Every meeting was an opportunity to learn something new, to stay current with the political climate, to meet and work with so many driven and like-minded individuals.
In many ways, it was also a lesson in life. There, I learned that my experience at Middlebury was just one of many competing and complex lived experiences. The purpose of my position was to bring to light the very voices that made Middlebury the place that some of us had come to know and love. Oftentimes that meant looking outside of the scope of the student body; it meant collaborating with staff members and with local Middlebury residents.
Working in this role deepened my connection to the external Middlebury community. I am proud to say that members of the Campus worked tirelessly this past semester to support and cover the distress many workers felt over the yearlong workforce planning cuts. As an editorial board of equally invested community members, we felt compelled to support the local Middlebury community.
If I had to choose one piece, I suppose it would be one of the first editorials I wrote for the Campus. That week, as a board, we decided to write about the importance of supporting small businesses … At the time of the article’s publication, two stores in town had recently closed due to the competitive fierceness of e-commerce.
The article was a call for the Middlebury student population to bolster the community that would become their own over the next four years. It was then that I realized that billion-dollar corporations like Amazon completely decimate local towns, pressuring them to sell the businesses that have intrinsically been a part of the local town infrastructure and replace them with the next no-name corporation. That, among many other lessons, was just one of the many things I will take away from my time at the Campus.
The Middlebury College men’s basketball team dropped a pair of home games to teams in the … (read more)
The Middlebury College women’s basketball team split a pair of games this past weekend at … (read more)