A Seat at the Table

By Brittany King

This summer, protests erupted across the country demanding justice for Black citizens who were killed in acts of police brutality. The College is taking stock of its history and reimagining its future as more inclusive and supportive of Black and other underrepresented students, faculty, and staff in its continued effort to dismantle institutional injustice.


On May 25, 2020, in eight minutes and 46 seconds, George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed by a White police officer who dug a knee into his neck until he took his final breath. His last words are now distressingly familiar: “I can’t breathe.”

In the weeks that followed, thousands of protestors filled the streets in cities across the country, all affirming one thing: Black Lives Matter. But in the weeks and months since the country watched Floyd’s final moments, there have been other stories like it: Breonna Taylor’s, Rayshard Brooks’s, David McAtee’s, and others, their names memorialized via hashtag.


Those eight minutes and 46 seconds jolted awake a country that was already experiencing a global health crisis. Professional athletes have refused to play games, corporate America rushed to source Black and Brown talent, and institutions of higher education like Scripps have been working to enhance their efforts to give Black students, faculty, and staff more seats at the table.


Black Lives Matter protests in Netherlands. Photo: Joan Villalon.

A Look at the Numbers


On June 23, almost a month after Floyd’s death, President Lara Tiedens addressed the Scripps community in a written statement. In it, she acknowledged that “far too many of our Black students, other students of color, and alumnae, staff, and faculty of color have not felt the sense of belonging, value, and support that we intend to provide on campus. Worse, many have experienced Scripps as a place that does not care about or attempt to understand the challenges, frustrations, and pain that result from navigating an environment not designed for their success.”


Far too many of our Black students, other students of color, and alumnae, staff, and faculty of color have not felt the sense of belonging, value, and support that we intend to provide on campus.


For Jennifer (Francis) Gomes ’03, this sentiment hit home. Gomes, now the head of equity, diversity, and inclusion and associate partner at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, recalls that the campus wasn’t always the most welcoming place when she attended. “There’s this idea of a monolithic Scripps student, a particular Scripps way, but that’s not the way for everyone,” she says. “What we know to be true is that the Scripps way is rooted in the dominant culture, and that’s not right or wrong, we’re just not honest about it.”



Indeed, since the College was founded in 1926, it has remained mostly White. Today, Scripps has made some gains, but Black students still account for less than four percent of the student population.


Black faculty numbers are small as well: four percent of Scripps faculty self-identify as Black. But recruiting and retaining more faculty of color has been a goal of Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Amy Marcus-Newhall for the last few years, and 45 percent of the faculty hired over the last eight years have self-identified as people of color. For Laura Vausbinder Hockett Endowed Professor of Psychology Sheila Walker, who has been at the College for 25 years, even though Scripps has come a long way on diversity, it still has a ways to go. “What is needed at Scripps is a greater Black presence, that is, more Black students, faculty, and staff. The way to achieve that is for there to be a strong, unequivocal commitment to that goal from the top leadership,” she explains. “In addition, the messaging surrounding the efforts to increase the Black presence must be that having a greater Black presence is not a burden, favor, or a lessening of standards, but rather a way of enhancing the intellectual, cultural, and social environment of the institution. It is a way of rendering the institution more cosmopolitan and of preparing all students to live and work successfully in the world of today.”


What is needed at Scripps is a greater Black presence, that is, more Black students, faculty, and staff.


The Culture at Scripps


Beyond the number of Black and Brown people on campus is the climate they experience when they’re in lectures, at campus events, or at social gatherings.


“Scripps likes to present itself as very progressive and radical; in a way it creates this culture of [White] students imagining that all they need to do to be allies is to say that they are,” says junior political science major Uma Nagarajan-Swenson. “This leads to students believing they create a safe campus for fellow students of color. But in reality, there are so many things that students of color have to deal with.”


Both Gomes and Nagarajan-Swenson spoke of instances in lectures where a professor or student would unintentionally say something racist or offensive, noting that often these issues would go unacknowledged unless a student of color spoke up and said something, putting the burden of educating their White classmates and faculty solely on marginalized students.


One institutional structure in place to strengthen Black students’ sense of belonging and support is the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA). Founded in 1969, the office was created as a space to support, uplift, and amplify Black voices across all of The Claremont Colleges. OBSA offers Black students mentorship and networking opportunities, even after graduation. Beyond tangible resources, OBSA has served as a support system, with staff making themselves available to listen to Black students.


“One of the most challenging hurdles Black students face is that they are treated like they’re a monolith,” says Lydia Middleton, director of OBSA. “We give them space to embrace who they are. When they come to us, we affirm that their experience is valid. Students wish to be heard and for there to be actions behind statements of support.”


Washington, D.C., USA. A Man walks in front of a Black Lives Matter flag. Photo: Clay Banks.

What Comes Next


Following the killing of George Floyd and protests across the nation, administrators are regrouping and having conversations about how to strengthen the diversity and inclusion resources that already exist at the College. This includes to review and comment on the revised Scripps College Principles of Diversity, created in 2020; increasing mental health resources; and officially recognizing June 19 as Juneteenth—the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those enslaved in the United States.


Additionally, Scripps was recently awarded $1 million from trustee Gale Picker P’14 P’19 to establish the Racial Justice and Equity Fund, which aims to “support a multiyear comprehensive approach to advancing anti-racism and racial justice at Scripps.” This funding establishes the Racial Justice Equity Fellows Program, supports an expanded capacity for anti-racist curricular efforts, and enables Scripps to create a faculty associate dean position to develop strategies for hiring and retaining faculty of color and promoting inclusive pedagogy. This gift provides momentum for the College’s Racial Justice and Equity Fund.


“This gift enables the College to launch and strengthen a number of initiatives and programs that we previously did not have the financial means to,” says Vice President and Secretary for the Board of Trustees Denise Nelson Nash, convener of the IDEA Initiative to advance inclusion, diversity, equity, and access throughout the Scripps community. “We are experiencing a moment in our country of heightened awareness of institutional racism and systemic inequities, and the desire to address these issues is creating an urgency for support. Since 2013, College leadership and the Board have consistently and proactively committed themselves to deepening their understanding of internalized bias, inequality, and systemic racism. This gift demonstrates the commitment to support institutional change. While there is much work to be done, as a community we are making progress, and we’re continuing to learn, engage, and act.”


Although these efforts are historic and worthy of celebration, for a true cultural shift on campus, individuals will have to do some self-evaluation. Associate Dean of Students Adriana di Bartolo is using this historical moment the country is experiencing to check in with herself. “We were all sitting at home when George Floyd was killed at the hands of police, and, unfortunately, that’s what it took for the country to wake up. The gut-level insistence of my own understanding of my whiteness and White privilege deepened in that moment. I had to dig so much deeper and wrestle against my own internalized biases that I still carried because it emboldened my own privilege,” she explains. “It is imperative that we do this work. I had to let go of all the stuff I’ve been taught as a White woman so I can be a better administrator, better parent, better community member, and better person.”   


Lydia Middleton, too, is pleased to see structural change, strategic planning, and inclusion efforts taking place at the College. She challenges the White population at Scripps to do the inner work that goes along with this and to spend time thinking about what it really means to be an ally.


“If you call yourself an ally, wield your allyship in your families, at your jobs. Your black squares don’t mean much,” Middleton says, referencing the social media “blackout” in early June in which users replaced their profile pictures with, or posted new photos of, black squares—a gesture that is now largely regarded as a facile show of solidarity with Black citizens. “Please do your own work, do your own investigating; do not rely on Black people to be your caretaker and sources when it comes to these experiences you’re now waking up to. Pay attention to patterns of racism that have been happening across the US for decades. This is not new.”



If you call yourself an ally, wield your allyship in your families, at your jobs. Your black squares don’t mean much.


A protester in Washington DC holds a sign featuring George Floyd. Photo: Obi Onyeador.


Mindful that for too long the onus for institutional change has been on marginalized students and faculty, whose advocacy work is often at the student club or grassroots level and separate from the larger initiatives of the institution, the College is implementing a “change model” as part of its IDEA 2.0 Initiative. This model seeks to move diversity and inclusion initiatives from the individual level to a place of institutional, campus-wide change. “This change model is intended to address the systemic issues, and to avoid overtaxing and depending on individuals (often marginalized themselves), who drive culture shift mostly through working above and beyond their role. This structural change will allow Scripps to name, build on and replicate successes throughout the College,” according to the IDEA Initiative 2019–20 Year-End Report.


To that end, this fall, the College is implementing anti-racist learning modules; the Racial Justice and Equity Fellows Program, which will provide grants to faculty and students for research, internships, and service projects designed to advance scholarship and explore topics relevant to racial justice, inequality, equity, criminal justice reform, and related areas; educational community-building programs; enhanced mental health and wellness resources; and more. “Education is a crucial element of creating a more just and equitable society, and our community is eager to actively engage in conversations about structural racism and racial inequality,” said Tiedens in a September 4 letter to the Scripps community.


Scripps has also released the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Dashboard, which highlights data about the diversity of our community of students, faculty, and staff and key performance indicators of student success, segmented by gender, race, and first-generation status. “The dashboard is a way for the College to measure and communicate the progress of our efforts to address inequalities experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students, faculty, and staff,” Tiedens noted in the community letter.



“I still think Scripps is an amazing place, and I believe there is so much opportunity for growth and change. However, we need to acknowledge current students’ and alums’ experiences and reconcile the reality that not all students have felt as if they were included or belonged. This has been the experience of students for almost 100 years; therefore, we need to consider what needs to shift and change for us to be more diverse and inclusive in the future,” Gomes says. “Scripps has to be strategic; it’s not solely for the senior leadership team to devise a plan on their own. It’s about putting more seats at the table and more voices in the room. It’s about reaping the full benefit of diversity. Bring more people to the table, and if you find the table is too small, get a bigger table. Then, listen to them.”