“Being an anti-racist and welcoming place for students-of-color is a priority for the college,” claims Tony Cabasco, the Vice President for Enrollment at Bennington College. I can attest the same for The Beacon, which is why I met with the Admissions office’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team to discuss their work for the first addition of Anti-Racism at Bennington, a bi-monthly column that aims to account for the anti-racism policies and practices — or lack there of — in the college’s offices and disciplines. (This first edition will look slightly different than the ones to follow—see details below.)
The DEI team was created this summer to draw further attention to “issues of anti-racism and help identify and reflect on policies, practices, [and] behaviors” within the office, reflecting the national momentum; as well as “a new age where a lot of colleges feel that issues of DEI are really non-negotiable.” Heading the team is Associate Director of Admissions LaShawn Taylor, who, prior to Bennington, worked to promote college access and workforce development for students-of-color in south-central Los Angeles, guiding their teachers, counselors, and administrators on furthering inclusivity and creating productive pipelines for students. Currently, Taylor states that she’s “working on my doctorate in organizational leadership, with the focus on analyzing the effectiveness of implicit bias training — specifically for police officers — and utilizing that information to see whether or not it’s effective.”
Taylor says that the Admissions office “is the first place that students engage in the college process, so it’s one of the most important places to have concrete DEI initiatives and policies”—a notion on my mind when choosing their team to highlight for our first-edition. “I think Admissions can set the standard” for anti-racist initiatives and culture at Bennington, historically an overwhelmingly white school.
“The narrative that Bennington was a school for rich-white-girls from New York was huge when I was a student,” says Wesley Haaf, an Admissions Counselor and alumni from the class of 2018. “That definitely influenced the way that I looked at Bennington, my education, the community, and the ways that it needed to improve. That narrative, that history, is something that I hold very close to my work every day.”
This racially-exclusive history—and the fact that the community is still predominantly white today—may give prospective students of color hesitations about enrollment. “Outside of predominantly minority-serving institutions […] people of color are going to be the minority in these spaces,” Taylor tells doubtful students, “so it’s important that you find a college that makes an intention to […] focus on the needs of those students,” while helping them create “the space to feel comfortable on campus, while being able to have their voices amplified. It’s not going to be perfect in any space,” she admits, “but finding a college that is intentional about doing that work and including those students is really important.”
Part of that work involves furthering our empathy and education on the race-related trauma and oppression that prospective students may face before coming to college.
Carter Strong, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions, receives this education through certain media in which “whiteness is actively decentered and in which BIPOC voices are uplifted,” “with a really strong emphasis in particular on seeking out the voices of queer and trans people of color.”
A few of Strong’s recent reads include Queer and Trans Artists of Color (vols. 1-3) by Nia King, Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Strong also specifically seeks out student-made works, including “First in Our Families, a collection of video essays by first-generation college students, and the Zine Library and podcast collection from TRUTH. See more titles below that have, Strong says, “added a set of knowledge to my pre-existing experience that absolutely needed to be deepened and honed to continue this work at Bennington.”
Part of understanding the experiences of prospective students of color includes acknowledging how systemic racism and bias in pre-college education may cause BIPOC students to fall behind academically compared to their white classmates.
Cabasco points out that resources available to students are often impacted by socio-economic inequality and systemic racism. “We spend a lot of time talking about that context, understanding […] that for many students — whether they’re students of color or low-income students — there’s going to be differential access.”
This is why they use the “holistic review to seek out many types of skills, abilities, [and] knowledge beyond many traditional measures, like testing.” A couple of practices that the office uses to be more inclusive to students with fewer resources include being-test optional, and eliminating the application fee. “Those things lower the barriers to a Bennington education,” says Tabasco.
The context he mentions doesn’t just apply to the resources available to a prospective student, but can also regard a student’s priorities outside of school. “We’re not going to hold it against students if they had discipline issues because they were our protesting, for example,” Tabasco says.
Another common extracurricular responsibility is employment, which may be a necessity for the student’s comfort or livelihood. However, “we can’t assume that that student is supporting their family, or what their family situation is.” Haff tells me. “We can only get a story from what they give us. What we can do,” he continues, “is just be careful and not make any assumptions and really try to piece together [the student’s story.]”
“Personally, I think this is an area where I’m proudest of our office,” Haff says. “We’ve sort of developed a way of reading” applications: rather than “judging whether or not they meet our thresholds, [..] we want to understand where this student is at, where their educational experience was, and whether they feel that they’re prepared for Bennington.”
Tony agrees, stating the “fundamental question” they ask when reviewing applications: “does this student have the creative passion that we’re looking for?”
As much effort one may put into understanding social contexts, “You can never be culturally competent,” Taylor says. “You can only build cultural competency; it’s never something that’s a finished product.” She stresses, however, that they’re “very intentional about [learning and evolving] and we’re not afraid to have a whole day retreat to talk about [these] issues.”
In addition to retreats, the Admissions office attended a series of workshops with Delia Saenz, Vice President for Institutional Inclusion, Equity, and Leadership Development, to understand DEI issues, like microaggressions, and how to address them.
A few employees also attend the annual Guiding the Way to Inclusion conference, “a really refreshing conference with a lot of counselors of color.” Haff says, who attended in 2019, noting that “there were not a lot of other white counselors there.” He says it was a “great opportunity to help elevate and empower voices; to really spread perspective and get biases out into the open” and “address systemic issues in the college-going process.”
Other anti-racist practices include being “intentional in terms of our hiring practices,” Tabasco says. He and Tonya Strong, Director of Admissions, “reached out to various groups that have focused on issues of admissions staff of color or around inclusion groups to advertise and promote positions here.”
The goals of the DEI team for this year include ensuring the office’s practices, policies, and procedures “comply with our non-negotiable values;” continuing to “diversify the student body and staff” (though they note that they don’t work on a “quota;” and supporting the initiatives of the President’s Working Group.
“I really appreciate the time to be able to talk about this work that we’re doing.” LaShawn says. “I don’t know if, outside of this conversation, people would know what admissions is doing to promote anti-racism and anti-oppression work.”
“Not all of us will do it perfect all the time.” Cabasco admits, but that the important thing is “looking for continued progress,” and, in the end, “trying to transform Bennington.”
Carter Strong’s Recommendations: Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown; Ijeoma Oluo’s work on Medium and for the Guardian UK (and her book So You Want to Talk about Race); Trap Door ed. by Reina Gossett, Johanna Burton, and Eric A. Stanley; All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson; Bitch Magazine; She Shreds (magazine); Sonya Renee Taylor’s writing, editorial, and movement work with The Body is Not an Apology; Anti-Racism Daily; and Rest for Resistance (a project of QTPoC Mental Health).
Future editions will be co-written by Imara Glymph and Sarah Lore. Editions will also include the perspectives/interviews of BIPOC students on how the spotlighted office or discipline deals with anti-racism, including any injustice, discrimination, or neglection that these students may have faced.
Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re a BIPOC student and feel that there’s an area at Bennington that you would like to see discuss anti-racism.