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Establishing diversity through the years

The ICC continues its long tradition of cultural awareness after two decades

By Wei-Huan Chen
On March 5, 2012

"Now is the Time."

Its font was bold, its implications bolder and its call to action immediate.

"Now is the Time of an Intercultural Center," it said. The eight historic words demanded its readers to open their eyes and reconsider the all-inclusive nature of the Brandeis community.

It was the title for a proposal written by the Intercultural Center Push Committee, a group of students who saw a problem on campus—the isolation of minority students—and found a solution—creating an Intercultural Center that acted as a haven for African American, Latin American, Asian American and international students.

Now, exactly 20 years after the founding of the Intercultural Center, people like Director Monique Gnanaratnam cannot imagine Brandeis without it.

"Just turn around and look at the people behind you," she said, indicating a multinational group of club leaders and members conversing nearby. "This is truly a home for many of us."

Although Brandeis students have always accepted the ICC as a place for leadership development, intercultural learning and, yes, free printing, the years leading to its inception in 1992 were filled with conflict and frustration.

The Push Committee proposal, published March 26, 1991 in the Justice, summarized a five-year demand for a facility that would house diversity-related clubs and services. In 1986, a committee formed by then-President Evelyn Handler to address minority concerns recommended the creation of the ICC. But the proposed project encountered numerous obstacles and frequent opposition by members of the administration and student body.

"The diffuse nature of implementation, communication, and support of programs directed toward students of color at Brandeis has rekindled the call for an Intercultural Center/House on our campus," the Committee on Students of Colors wrote to Handler in a 1988 report. "Without a centralized location for the many programs and services provided, students of color still feel estranged."

The feeling of estrangement mentioned in the committee's report did not merely characterize the school's minority population in the late 1980s. It signified a decades-long era of unheard voices at Brandeis.

The true roots of the ICC campaign go back to 1969, when black students initiated a sit-in of Ford Hall in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

A History of Racial Conflict

The Ford Hall protest served as a turning point for blacks at Brandeis, prompting administrators to create an African and Afro-American Studies Department and to work toward higher black student recruitment and retention.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Brandeis took further steps to let minority students' voices be heard. Clubs like the Brandeis Asian American Students Association and the Brandeis Black Students Organization worked to promote multiculturalism on campus while the Transitional Year Program offered educationally disadvantaged students a chance to integrate into Brandeis. However, this wasn't enough for many students.

One student, Desmond Douglas '88, said he felt a "sense of isolation" at the University, according to an Oct. 21, 1986 Justice article titled "Spotlight on Blacks at Brandeis."

"I hate it here," said Clinton Freeman '89 in the article. "There are very few minority students to begin with and there are ever fewer whom to agree with."

Freeman did not have much choice. The incoming class of 1990 included only 19 blacks out of nearly 800 students. Most black students who were accepted to Brandeis, the article stated, had not decided to matriculate.

Efforts to make Brandeis a culturally and racially accepting community were largely unsuccessful. Douglas helped organize the Black-Jewish Dialogue, a forum intended to make connections and break myths between the black and Jewish community at Brandeis. But only four black students showed up, according to the "Spotlight on Blacks" article. The approximately 25 students who did attend concluded that "Black-Jewish relations are not where they should be," according to the Justice.

The Director of Community Relations, a Student Union position formed in the 1970s to give a minority voice in the Senate, became embroiled in controversy.

Justice columnist David Bernstein '88 called the position an example of unhelpful "favoritism" and the "perfect example of the dehumanizing effect that quotas have on minority group members."

While the Student Senate opposed Bernstein's views and defended the DCR, students became outraged at the position in 1988 when Marcy Baskin '90, a white student, was elected to the position due to confusions over the voting system. Minority students impeached Baskin based on the notion that the DCR must be a minority student and can only be elected by minority students, using a list by the Admissions Office that verified voters' ethnicity.

African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans and international students needed to create a support system on campus–the problem was figuring out how.

"We remain in a crisis," wrote Michele Becker '89 in a letter to the Justice on Oct. 29, 1986. "Racism exists–yes, even at Brandeis."

Brandeis had become a microcosm of a nationwide problem. Universities around the country were also experiencing racial tension.

"Studies confirm the high levels of social estrangement among black students," a 1988 New York Times article stated. "In his recent study of black undergraduates, Prof. Walter Allen [a sociologist at the University of Michigan] found that only 12 percent of black students, as against a majority of whites, said they felt they were an important part of campus life."

By the next year, minority students at Brandeis helped to demand a large step toward campus diversity–the creation of a committee to study minority concerns, which recommended the creation of the ICC.

Finding a Solution

Besides encountering a bevy of administrative, logistical and monetary issues, the Push Committee struggled to rally white students to its side.

Many thought the proposed ICC would separate minorities from the rest of the campus.

"There is a fear that the establishment of the center will lead the community towards a self-imposed segregation," the Justice wrote in an Oct. 29, 1991 editorial.

But the Push Committee remained resolute.

"We are coming down to the wire," it wrote to its members. "Finals and final papers are approaching. … we are all a little frazzled and on edge. Don't think that this is accidental. One tactic itinerant administrators use is to tire out demanding students … we need to be more prepared than ever before."

However, with the help of the new President Samuel Their and Dean of Student Affairs Rod Crafts, the Push Committee's plan to turn the Swig Student Center, an office for residential and athletics needs, into the ICC eventually came into fruition.

A March 4, 1992 photo in the Brandeis Reporter showed the Swig Lounge packed with students. A black female student stood in front, smiling, preparing to cut a colorful tape to celebrate the ICC's inauguration. A plethora of cultural clubs had already moved into the new ICC.

In the past 20 years, the center has gained a vital campus presence. It now hosts Culture X, one of the school's largest student-organized events, and has a staff of four full-time coordinators, three programming board co-chairs and over 10 student staff members.

"Brandeis is much more welcoming now and I think the ICC helps contribute to it," said Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Elaine Wong, who saw the growth of the ICC from its beginnings. "They work together in synergy [and] support one another."

"When you graduate, you realize there are things you really miss from Brandeis," said Kenta Yamamoto '10, a former president of JSA and programming chair for the ICC who traveled from New York to attend last weekend's reunion events. "For me, that was the ICC."

—Tess Raser contributed reporting. 

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