Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010

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students try belly dancing at an international lunch last semester. Photo by Bob Handelman.

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Asking the Tough Questions

Asking the Tough Questions
Nathalie Etoke, assistant professor of French and Africana studies. Photo by Bob Handelman.

The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity is challenging the campus culture and changing the curriculum

By Mary Howard


David Canton has big plans.

As the new director of Connecticut College´s Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), the associate professor of history envisions space for faculty to conduct collaborative research and seeks to provide opportunities for faculty, students and staff to have conversations around issues of diversity.

“I´m not talking about discussing diversity for diversity´s sake. I´m talking about really understanding issues of structural inequality,” says Canton, who specializes in 20th-century American social history.

“I´d like people to walk into the Pink House (740 Williams St., CCSRE´s home) and find workshops going on in meeting rooms two to three times each week,” Canton says.

Before his three-year directorship is up, Canton hopes to plant seeds for a program where students can earn a certificate from the Center by completing a two-year program of coursework, a summer internship and a senior integrative project.

Canton took over the reins of the College´s fifth and newest academic center last summer, and his dynamism and vision have won accolades from students and faculty alike.

“David is great for this position,” says Elizabeth Garcia, dean of multicultural affairs and a member of CCSRE´s steering committee. “His energy and new ideas have already generated so much great programming.”

Canton follows David Kim, associate professor of religious studies, who was the Center´s inaugural director from 2005 to 2008, and Sufia Uddin, associate professor of religious studies, who served as interim director during the 2008-2009 academic year.

As part of its mission, the Center educates students, faculty and staff on issues of race and diversity through seminars, student programs and a yearly symposium. Last semester, the Center sponsored lectures on topics like Egypt, social entrepreneurship and global sustainability, and Rush Limbaugh and the NFL.

In early March, the Center held a symposium on race and health care with keynote speaker Dr. David Satcher, former U.S. surgeon general. The symposium, which took place as this magazine went to press, was designed to get faculty, students, staff and the community thinking about “what we all take for granted — our health,” Canton says.

Discussions focused on the history of the racial gap in health care and the debate about whether health care is a human right. Events included a panel discussion with Connecticut medical professionals and scholars and a lecture about racial disparities in health and health care led by Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, professor of medical humanities at George Washington University.

This semester, Canton is teaching a course through the Center, Theorizing Race and Ethnicity. He´s taking a hands-off approach to the class, he says, allowing students to initiate discourse on themes of whiteness, constructions of race and assimilation of ethnic groups.

Visiting speakers — like Sunil Bhatia, associate professor of human development and director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, and Assistant Professor of Sociology Cherise Harris — provide more grist for the mill.

“Basically, it´s 30 students sitting around talking,” says Canton, who´s excited about the conversations his students are having. “During our first class, we discussed the nation´s demand for cheap labor during the colonial and industrial era and how some racial and ethnic groups were exploited in the building of America.”

Canton won´t take all the credit for the excellent programming offered by the Center this academic year. He meets monthly with a steering committee — made up of faculty, staff and administrators — who help come up with program ideas to advance the Center´s goals. Students also take an active role in initiating conversations on campus.

“Our speakers program is largely student driven,” Canton says.

Last semester, Jason Cordova ´10, a CCSRE student fellow, coordinated two events for the Center, titled “Using Social Entrepreneurship to Respond to the Challenges of Global Sustainability” and “Building Culturally and Ethnically Diverse Leadership Teams in the Age of Economic Globalization.” The latter was part of the Common Hour lecture series.

For the last two years, Cordova has led a student-run seminar through the Center, where students explore topics on race and ethnicity. The seminar meets weekly for two hours, and students receive two academic credits for participating. This semester, he´ll work closely with Canton, building on themes that arise in the Theorizing Race and Ethnicity course.

In its fifth year, the Center is relatively new compared to the College´s other five centers, and Canton feels it is important to build a brand and “get the word out” on campus and beyond about CCSRE. To that end, he´s assembled a “street team” of students to raise the Center´s visibility.

Devon Butler ´10, an American studies major with a concentration in comparative race and ethnicity, is part of that team.

“We meet every two weeks to come up with ideas to facilitate discussion among students on diversity, race and class,” says Butler, a New London native. Along with Christina Sacripanti ´10 and Allison Christian ´11, Butler passes out fliers and informs fellow students about campus events that address race and ethnicity.

“It´s difficult,” Butler says. “Diversity is an uncomfortable topic and students are sometimes hesitant to get involved. Connecticut College is committed to diversity, and the administration is doing a great job, but we can´t truly be a diverse campus unless students get on board.”

CCSRE also offers support to faculty members working in race and ethnicity matters. “We help them navigate tenure, fund conferences and provide support around publishing,” Canton says.

Nathalie Etoke, assistant professor of French and Africana studies and a member of the Center´s steering committee, has benefited from the Center´s assistance. With partial funding from CCSRE, Etoke attended a conference on sexuality in Africa last month, and last semester the Center helped her bring the French writer Léonora Miano to campus, where she spoke with Etoke´s students on ethnicity and race.

“CCSRE, for me, is a very important component to the College. It provides a space for a different kind of dialogue, where people are thinking about race and ethnicity in multiple ways,” says Etoke, who teaches about issues of race and ethnicity in France and the world.

Prior to joining Connecticut College´s faculty, Etoke was a visiting assistant professor of francophone studies at Brown University for three years. She says CCSRE was one of the deciding factors when she accepted a position with the College.

Shanshan Lan, CCSRE´s Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, was also attracted by the Center´s mission, which meshes well with her own research interest in inter-ethnic relations. She´s teaching a seminar this spring on “Comparative Racial Formation: Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos.” “I hope it will make a significant contribution to the Center and the College,” she says.

“That´s what we want,” Canton says. “We want (potential candidates´) eyes to light up when they hear about us.”
While a lot has been achieved in the Center´s five years, there is still much more to do, he adds.

“It takes time to build and develop programs,” he says. “And this work will be done over time, not overnight.”


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