College campus reflects changes in race relations

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(Host) It’s Martin Luther King Day. All over Vermont, programs and activities will honor the great civil rights leader. Middlebury College began its observances on Friday with a concert of spirituals and readings from Dr. King’s speeches. They continue today with the college’s annual Martin Luther King prayer breakfast, which Governor Douglas is scheduled to attend.

VPR’s Susan Keese spoke recently with a Middlebury alum who now serves as senior advisor to the college’s Office on Institutional Diversity. He says observances of the Federal Martin Luther King holiday have made a difference.

(Keese) Coming to Middlebury as a student 20 years ago, LeRoy Nesbitt was thinking more about the great outdoors than about race. He knew Vermont was a predominantly white state.

(Nesbitt) “In terms of what I might face as a student of color, sure I thought about that and I thought there were challenges and there were challenges.”

(Keese) But Nesbitt became attached to Middlebury and Vermont. After earning his law degree at Howard University, he returned to his alma mater as an educator on issues of diversity.

Nesbitt believes education about differences of all kinds is slowly but surely changing our society. He notices it especially in the generation that has grown up with the National Martin Luther King Day Holiday.

(Nesbitt) “Eighteen-year-olds coming into college now have spent some time thinking about or engaging in the topic of diversity. A lot of students know the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But they also know the ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail.'”

(Keese) That letter was a response to white clergy who criticized King for promoting demonstrations.

(Nesbitt) “I think those students understand why he said it was important to have the kind of action that forced conversation about inequity and difference in people’s experience.”

(Keese) Nesbitt says the young people he meets are more sensitive to injustices. They’re readier to grapple with differing perspectives and demand change where change is necessary.

(Nesbitt) “So when things happen on campus around race that are difficult or bad or there’s a bad incident, there’s a different response in the community than there was 10 or 15 years ago. There’s a desire to do whatever we can to make sure we learn and grow from it.”

(Keese) Nesbitt is hopeful that more and more Vermont communities are confronting these issues openly. Minorities may still be a small percentage of the population here, he says. But in a fast-changing world, that must no longer be a pretext for putting off the conversation.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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