This recent column of mine was published in the Claremont Courier days before Claremont McKenna College’s Dean of Students, Mary Spellman, resigned after students protested – complete with a hunger strike (albeit barely for 24 hours) - over the college not doing enough to make minority students, including gay and transgender students, feel welcome and at home. The tipping point came when Ms. Spellman said, in response to a essay in the student newspaper, that she would work to serve those who “don’t fit the CMC mold.” Read this, and you’ll see that change does happen but slowly and often with stops or steps back.
WOMEN BRINGING CHANGE TO THE WORLD, CLAREMONT
Sonia Sotomayor wanted to get up close and personal.
“I wish we could be closer to the audience,” the U.S Supreme Court Justice told Amanda Hollis-Brusky, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, as they began their conversation in Bridges Auditorium a couple weeks ago. “It feels so far away up here.”
They did look quite isolated and small as they sat in their chairs on a small area rug with a Pomona College banner as a backdrop among the potted plants on the huge, otherwise empty stage. It didn’t help that the orchestra pit separated them, like a mote, from the huge audience that had gathered there.
Justice Sotomayor got her wish. After Professor Hollis-Brusky engaged with her on several questions, the Associate Justice, one of the most important, most influential people in the nation, was “released to the people.” She excitedly explained from the stage that she was doing something that her security people doubtlessly didn’t like, and then there she was, walking among the audience, not unlike Phil Donahue. Except that she was answering questions.
The students and the questions they asked were pre-selected, so, yes, it was all a bit scripted and without surprise (no ranting and embarrassing, on-the-spot questions here). Nevertheless, there was something remarkable about this most powerful official who makes decisions that impact all of our lives, walking among us, shaking hands and touching shoulders, having her picture taken with those asking questions, like a dear, kind aunt, as she answered questions with patience and ease. She could have called a student “mija,” and this would have been no surprise as Professor Hollis-Brusky looked on in wonder.
Which was exactly the point. As she writes about in her memoir, My Beloved World, she comes from a very average background, which included everyday problems like poverty and diabetes. She also writes about how her life has been far from average – one could say it has been extraordinary – with her being a Hispanic woman from a poor neighborhood ending up on the highest court of the land. It is important to her, no doubt, that she be seen as a person like any of us. And that any of us can accomplish great things.
Sometimes, more often than not, accomplishing great things means simply doing one’s best, making the best of oneself, despite some or many ugly odds. And this is even more evident in a more intimate setting than the imposing Big Bridges, where it’s a bit easier to get up close and personal.
Like the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College, which this Fall has continued to feature women who get a lot done, making life better for themselves and others, even though being told they can’t or shouldn’t. That they’re sharing their stories and being cheered at what was once a men’s school, remembered if not still known as the more conservative, jock college in Claremont, is all the more remarkable.
I’m not just talking about women like Nina Tandon and Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. Ms. Tandon is one of those rare women in a important, top role in science, as the CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, the world’s first company growing living human bone for skeletal reconstruction. The other two, Ms. Perry and Ms. Stier, were plaintiffs, along with a gay couple, in the Proposition 8 case that wound up before the Supreme Court (a circle nicely coming to a close here in Claremont with Judge Sotomayor’s visit just over a week later). It could be argued that these women and their causes or paths are prestigious and not so surprising features at the Athenaeum.
I’m talking about women who are doing surprising, radical, perhaps uncomfortable work. These women are the last to be expected to speak out at a formerly jock school and are doing everything they can to work against such institutions and thinking.
One was Toshia Shaw, who not only runs W.I.N.G.S (Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully) but grew up abused, a victim of human trafficking and sexual slavery, like the women and girls the organization assists. She told her story, in very intimate and harrowing graphic terms – quite up close and personal, indeed - of being demeaned and harmed and repeatedly told that she was powerless and would come to nothing. She talked about fighting her way out of this nightmare and getting the inspiration and courage to help others who find themselves in the same situation.
Speaking out and making a lot of noise, a lot of uncomfortable, challenging noise, is what Olivia Gatwood and Megan Falley are all about. Performing as Speak Like a Girl, they unloaded an hour of sharp-edged, R-rated (some may say X-rated) poetry and rapping. It definitely wasn’t the usual, after-dinner Athenaeum fare.
Ms. Gatwood and Ms. Falley didn’t hold back at all in reciting their poems, alternating with one another and also doing so in tandem. Their in-your-face style mirrored their urgent, passionate lines about being judged on looks, about wanting and forever trying to be perfect or more perfect, about living in a culture in which rape is accepted as normal, even okay. There was at least as much humor, along with plenty of f-bombs, as there was outrage and desperation.
Like I said, it wasn’t the standard after-dinner, Athenaeum fare, and some might not see it, still, as the standard C.M.C fare. But sometimes it takes someone not being standard – a Supreme Court judge answering questions while walking among the audience, women telling stories and slamming about being raped and abused - to open our eyes and maybe make things better.