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The Carletonian

Carls Talk Back sparks campus dialogue

Liday, February 9, four students led a multifold movement involving a poster campaign, social media campaign, silent protest during Convocation, and a demonstration in Sayles-Hill Campus Center.

The movement, known as Carls Talk Back, aims to “eradicate systems of oppression that are currently affecting marginalized communities on this campus,” as described on their website.

The group has released a list of about 35 demands to the administration, each of which has a specific deadline.

The demands pertain to themes of accessibility, student resources, diversity, admissions, curriculum and accountability. The full list and timeline can be found on the movement’s website. The demands list was emailed to nine members of Carleton’s administration, including President Poskanzer, Dean Livingston, and Wally Weitz, Chair of the Trustees of the College.

Demands were also communicated via posters, 500 to 1,000 of which were hung up across numerous campus buildings late Thursday night, including academic buildings and dormitories. The campaign involved 28 distinct black-and-red poster designs. Some featured individual demands printed across images of administrators’ faces, some included lists of demands, and some read “This is bigger than Friday.”

A group of students held up signs in a silent demonstration during Arno Michaelis’ Convocation talk. Most of the signs communicated individual demands, while some featured quotes from Carleton’s website about the school’s presumed promises to its student body.

Meanwhile, another group of students read out the list of demands over speakers in Sayles-Hill Campus Center. A few students stood outside the doors of the Board of Trustees meeting and distributed printed demands lists to Board members.

Also on Friday, many students changed their Facebook profile and cover photos to show their alignment with the Carls Talk Back movement.

As stated in the group’s mission statement, Carls Talk Back seeks to “demand institutional change on campus by way of radical demonstration” and is led by students who aim to “transform Carleton College into a place that is accommodating to all students who attend, regardless of identity or need.”

“Our administration has neglected so many issues pertaining to the overall health of the student body and the consequences of that neglect primary affect marginalized groups in our community,” reads the mission statement. “But we refuse to be silent any longer. This demonstration will act as a catalyst for a continued fight for institutional reformation.”

Timing and origins

The movement, which currently has about 150 members on its email list, is led by Bethany Bobo ’20, Apoorva Handigol ’19, Gaby Tietyen-Mlengana ’20 and Alexis Tolbert ’20.

The four began discussing plans over Winter Break, said Tietyen-Mlengana, as soon as they received the email from Kerry Raadt announcing Michaelis’ inclusion in the coming Convocation series. “Immediately we were texting each other,” said Tolbert. The four held an open meeting on Monday, February 5 of Midterm Break. About one hundred students attended. There, the group generated a list of demands and arranged themselves into committees.

The timing “seemed like fate,” said Tolbert. “It seemed so perfect that Nyle Fort came before Arno Michaelis, and then it was also Midterm Break so we had Monday off to be able to meet.”

Nyle Fort, a black minister, organizer, and scholar, gave a Convocation talk the week prior to Michaelis’. His talk, sponsored by the Office of Intercultural and International Life (OIIL), was titled “Black in America: Race, Protest and Democracy.”

“When we found out that the Board of Trustees was coming at the same time, it was like the icing on top,” added Bobo. “We were going to demonstrate anyway,” said Tolbert, “but that made it so much more pressing. They need to see this.”

The name “Carls Talk Back” was suggested by Kenneth Laster ’20. “There were more ideas, but I don’t remember them,” said Tolbert. “When you think about Carl Talks, that’s Carleton telling new students what to expect and what this institution is about. And this is us telling the institution what we need as opposed to what they’re giving us.”

“We come here, and the institution prescribes us what we’re gonna get,” echoed Bobo. “This is us not accepting what they gave us.”

Not a target but a catalyst: Arno Michaelis’ role

Carls Talk Back sees the College’s choice to host former white supremacist Arno Michaelis for convocation despite some students’ expression of concern as a catalyst for their movement.

“Michaelis was more of a symbol than a target,” said Tolbert. She expressed discontent over the administration’s choice to host the ex-skinhead “despite the work students of color have been doing to reject this notion of forgiveness as the answer to oppression. “Our voices were not listened to or prioritized,” Tolbert continued. “I always say that Arno Michaelis could’ve killed my Dad. That is an entirely true statement. Even twenty years ago, this man standing here could have beaten me and left me for dead, because I’m black. The fact that they paid this man for being a decent person, or for no longer assaulting people, or for no longer spreading hate—was a slap in our faces.”

Michaelis acknowledged the protesters during his speech. “All the love and respect for every one of those kids who had posters out there today,” he later told the Carletonian. “I don’t think anyone had a personal issue with me, but it was about what they believe I signified. More power to them, it’s awesome. I totally encourage that.”

Michaelis noted that in all his university talks, he has never received a response of this kind. “It made my talk better—made me put more energy into it,” he explained.

Michaelis expressed skepticism about the group’s choice to focus their protest outward and not face him during the demonstration. “I couldn’t tell you what those signs said,” said Michaelis. “They wanted to protest me but weren’t concerned with relaying what they said to me… While it was definitely provoking of discussion afterward, it certainly had very little to do with discussion on the spot.”

“We really tried to make sure it was not focused on him at all,” said Tietyen-Mlengana. Carls Talk Back was not protesting Michaelis himself, said Tolbert, but the administration’s choice to hear from him. “Arno is gone, we’ll never see him again,” Tolbert said. “The administration is responsible for fixing these problems, not Arno Michaelis.”

Unity and longevity: Carls Talk Back as a movement

For Tolbert, Friday’s demonstration renewed her faith in Carleton’s student body. She had predicted only twenty attendees at Monday’s meeting. “But we were gonna roll with whatever,” she noted. “If it was going to be the four of us, we were on board. We’d always had that mindset.”

“A lot of people talk,” said Tolbert. “There’s always conversation around these things, but there’s never any actual action. For me it was like—we’re asking people to do things, and I don’t know how many people are actually going to do it.

“As the week progressed, I was assuming I was going to have to do everything,” continued Tolbert. “And then by Thursday I realized ‘Whoa. They’re doing it.’ People were planning meetings and taking initiative on their own to support our movement. I was so pleasantly surprised. That made me have more faith in the power of the student body to rally together.”

“Friday was not the four of us,” said Bobo. “I don’t think we knew what we were getting into until we were done. It was pure adrenaline and caffeine.”

“I had a vision of it,” Bobo continued. “I knew what the Chapel looked like—I knew what it would look like if someone stood there holding a sign—but to go out there and to see these people holding the signs… It was such a beautiful sign of people coming together and making things happen. For me, that was a sign of something much bigger.”

“Seeing people actually take that next step and do something—I don’t even have the words for it,” echoed Tolbert. “It was incredible. It was such a captivating thing to see.”

Tolbert emphasized the importance of unity to Carls Talk Back. “That’s what makes our movement so powerful and easy to get behind,” she said. “It’s easy to find one demand that benefits you. Even if only for that one demand, you’re pushing the entire movement forward for everybody.”

“I think a lot of people came to the meeting thinking it was just going to be about people of color,” said Tietyen-Mlengana. “But everybody found something they could personally fight for, whether it’s being a student worker, being LGBTQ… It was such a unifying thing.”

Sarah Rost ’19, member of the Carls Talk Back publicity and fundraising committee, emphasized the significance of presenting numerous demands: “If we had a realistic number of demands that were not actually pushing the bar, I don’t think anything would happen. It doesn’t give the administration the same kind of impact as if you ask for more than you want, and then you settle for less. And I think that’s what we really need to do, because they’re not listening to us.”

“If we say you need to hire three POC for the Academic Support Center, and they hire one, that’s a step in the right direction,” Rost continued. “A lot of this stuff is just not gonna happen unless people speak up.”

Rost also pointed to the importance of social media to Carls Talk Back. She noted that many Carls Talk Back posters have been taken down, including those in the Language and Dining Center, Center for Math and Computing, and Gould Library.

“That’s not as permanent a thing, but all of us posting on Facebook? They can’t stop us from posting on Facebook.” She added that the Facebook presence allowed Carls Talk Back to reach alums, many of whom have provided funding for printing and website costs.

As to the movement’s measures of success, Rost cited longevity, participation and communication. “It would be success if any of our demands were honored in the time that we specified,” she said. “If they show that they’re trying to make change.” Rost added that “getting a significant proportion of the on-campus student body involved” would also constitute success.

On Monday, February 12, Dean Livingston sent an email to the four Carls Talk Back leaders requesting to meet within the week. The same day, President Poskanzer sent an all-campus email communicating the fact that the “Tuesday Group” (the College’s senior leadership team) had reached out to the organizers.

The organizers replied to Livingston on Tuesday, February 13 explaining that the meeting “needs to be open to the entire Carleton community.” They thanked Livingston for reaching out and added: “Lastly, we would like to clarify that setting up this meeting is not a sufficient response to our demands.”

The meeting took place Thursday, February 15 in the Scoville first-floor conference room. In attendance were leaders of the Community, Equity, and Diversity Initiative (CEDI) and the Carleton Student Association (CSA). Students supporting the Carls Talk Back organizers gathered in Scoville to show solidarity while the meeting took place.

Looking forward, incoming Carleton classes will be critical to the movement, according to Carls Talk Back member Sharaka Berry ’18. “I think the question is how successfully are students going be able to articulate what Carls Talk Back is to the incoming first-years of 2022,” he said. “Whether students keep putting pressure on those demands and keep talking about them is really going to make the difference in whether this lasts. I think this could possibly be just a part of Carleton’s culture for the next few years.”

“A lot of movements just die. They demonstrate and then they die,” said Rost. “And I think that is where this one’s different.”

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