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Student-initiated summer book club takes on anti-racism education

Student-initiated summer book club takes on anti-racism education

Book club co-organizer Sahib Bhasin ’21 holds an e-version of the club’s first selection, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

September 18, 2020

Inspired by conversations she was having in May about police brutality and killings of Black Americans, Sobechukwu (Sobé) Uwajeh ’22 knew she had to take action. On the lookout for literature to educate others about racism, she posted to her Instagram account a “starter kit” of recommended books about how to be an anti-racist.

Hailey Wilson ’22 saw Uwajeh’s post and immediately and enthusiastically texted her with another idea - they should start an anti-racist book club at CMC.

Their spontaneous dialogue culminated in a summer-long book club that engaged hundreds of CMCers, including students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as trustees. The “Anti-Racist Summer Book Club” at CMC ended up surpassing all expectations, sparking a dialogue about systemic racism in the U.S., and reflecting the commitment of the entire community to educate themselves about how to actively be anti-racist.

Once Uwajeh and Wilson began to collaborate on the project, they learned that Sahib Bhasin ’21 had a similar idea. The three decided to join forces, consulting their contacts at CMC to see if they could corral resources. They met via FaceTime, across continents and different time zones, while juggling their work schedules.

Eventually they gathered the support of the CARE Center (where Uwajeh is a CARE fellow), the Dean of Students office (DOS), the Office of Civil Rights, Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, and the Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College (ASCMC).

With support in place, Uwajeh, Wilson and Bhasin selected three books: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi (a recent Athenaeum guest), Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

They invited their friends to join, sharing the Google sign-up sheet via their own social media platforms. The CARE Center team also helped to spread the word. Trustees, alumni, staff and faculty were also invited to join the book club sessions.

Their timing was perfect. Sign-ups totaled 300, including 100 first-year students.

“The students provided an opportunity for the community to engage together during this challenging time of being physically distant,” said Nyree Gray, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion and chief civil rights officer at CMC. “They selected books that were meaningful to them and encouraged a space for open discourse and the exchange of ideas."

The book club debuted on June 20, with Kendi’s Stamped, which offers a historical perspective on racism in the U.S. and helped to lay the groundwork for the remaining sessions in July and August.

To help support the discussions, the CARE Center, in partnership with alumnus John Lenssen ’71, trained facilitators. “We wanted to provide a helpful foundation of how to go about facilitating these types of dialogues that center around diversity and inclusion,” said Vince Greer, associate dean of students for diversity, inclusion, and residential life.

Some who participated in the Zoom sessions acknowledged that the conversations were at times uncomfortable, but necessary. And, there was a ripple effect that emanated as club members shared the books and discussion topics with their own families and friends.

“The conversations exceeded my expectations,” said Wilson, who is majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies. “We all gathered to educate ourselves, to focus our dedication to be anti-racist, and to think critically about how we are interacting in our community.”

“The conversations were so real, so applicable,” said Uwajeh, a public policy major currently based in Chicago. “I was so happy at the turnout and the wide array of people who attended.”

“For me, this experience shed light on the diversity of the CMC community, its practical attitude, and its commitment to taking further steps to dismantle racist practices and institutions in our community,” said Bhasin, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major, who collaborated with Uwajeh and Wilson from his home in Budapest this summer.

“I was especially appreciative that so many members of the Class of 2024 took the necessary action to enter CMC committed to educating themselves on how to be actively Anti-Racist,” Bhasin added.

With the fall semester underway, Greer felt gratified by the outcome of the summer discussions for the overall CMC community, many of whom found it empowering. “The book club allowed many folks within our community an accessible way to join the conversation around power, privilege and oppression,” he said. “I am hopeful that this experience will empower some of our everyday folks who may not historically have been involved in these types of conversations to find their voice for these issues.”

Now, Uwajeh, Wilson, and Bhasin are mulling their next actions to build upon the book club’s momentum.

“I am so proud of the CMC community coming together,” said Wilson. “This is the first step that we can take to ensure that we are advocating for students of color. But being anti-racist doesn’t stop with reading a book or having a conversation.”  

Uwajeh reflected on what she found most impactful about the summer’s discussions. “I think the most important thing to take away is that allyship is key to our progress,” she said. “Racism is a real-world experience, so anti-racism has to be something that you implement into your daily life.”

Anne Bergman

Anne Bergman

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