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"It's just a shunning experience"
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
April 29, 2002

In early March, high school guidance counselors around the Twin Cities opened an unsettling piece of mail. The letter was from three black professors at St. Cloud State University. It claimed a pattern of discrimination. The letter included news clippings spanning 15 years. And it included one particularly stunning phrase: That St. Cloud and St. Cloud State "can be hazardous for black people."

Decontee Kofa
St. Cloud State Senior Decontee Kofa.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

University officials said the letter was not helpful. But it did spur a fresh round of debate about the experience of students of color. Decontee Kofa was born in Liberia, and transferred here last year from North Hennepin Community College. She would not call the place "hazardous." But she says she can never forget for a moment that she is black.

"The people I was rooming with, they were from small towns around St. Cloud," she said, "so there was a lot that they really didn't know. And at first it was cool telling them things about Africans and African-Americans and minorities, but after a while it became, 'OK, already, that's not why I came here. Let me study.'"

Kofa says students ask her questions about her hair and make comments that suggest they have no knowledge of black history. She says she's tried to handle it with grace. But she's annoyed by having to be what she calls "the voice."

Cory Lawrence and Dan Martinez
Listen to perspectives from other student leaders: Cory Lawrence, top, leads the Native American Student Association; Dan Martinez heads MECHA, a Chicano/Latino student group.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"Because (in) a lot of my classes, often I found myself being the only African in the class, the only black person in the class," Kofa said. "There were a lot of moments where, if there's something that targets African-Americans or people of color or minorities, the whole room turns to me: 'So, what's your point of view? What's the black point of view on that?'"

For many students, the experience on campus is inseparable from their experience in the community. Mark Jones is a student from Mississippi finishing his second semester. He asked that we change his last name.

Mark says he doesn't really feel in danger here. But he recalls one time he thinks he was stopped by police because he's black. And there's been another, more frightening encounter with a random car on the street.

"It's just a shunning experience," he said. "You have a person, a white person, just come out and blatantly call you 'nigger.'"

Other students also relate experiences they thought they were born too late to see. Some students say they've been told to leave stores and restaurants, sometimes being told that baggy clothes are not allowed.

Sandra Chesborough is in a unique position to lend credence to some of the stories. She's a white Midwesterner who grew up near Rochester. Chesborough is a social work professor who taught for a while in the deep South. She moved back three years ago to teach at St. Cloud State.

African students
African students hang out in the student center. They estimate there are twice as many Africans as African-Americans at SCSU.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

For one year she ran a small exchange program to bring students here from historically black Rust College in Mississippi. Two students came in the fall of 2000.

"I was with these students and took them places, like restaurants, and saw differences in the way I had been previously treated in restaurants and how I was treated when I was with these students," Chesborough said. "It was a much more 'sit-in-the-back-of-the-restaurant' kind of approach."

"It just takes time to build relationships and trust. And that's what we're trying to do."

- University President Roy Saigo

Chesborough says she was shocked by the experience, and it has hardened her resolve to find funding for the program once again.

Nothing much shocks Mike Davis any more. Davis moved to St. Cloud to 13 years ago to teach cultural diversity, and says is has been "the worst mistake I ever made." He was one of the authors of the letter declaring St. Cloud "hazardous" to blacks. Sitting behind his desk in a black beret, surrounded by books and papers, Davis spills out his anger with a place he sees as almost unredeemable.

"We have people say, 'Why wouldn't you want students of color to come here?'" Davis said. "They can't even deal with the problems that they have right now. So why would you want to bring more students here so they can suffer? I don't want my young brothers and sisters to get hurt."

Warning-police sign
A sign in the office of Prof. Semya Hakim, the co-chair of the Faculty of Color Caucus. Listen to her experiences as a person of color on campus.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Davis is not just angry with whites. He is frustrated with apathetic black colleagues and the new university president, who is Japanese-American. But when asked what the biggest single problem his, he points to the police.

Davis has spent years counseling students who say they've been profiled or harassed. Davis himself says he had a gun pulled on him during a routine traffic stop. Davis and the administration don't have many constructive conversations these days. But when asked if there is one symbolic gesture University President Roy Saigo can make to set things back on a constructive path, he has a clear answer.

"I would like to see him, in public, make a statement - a public speech, plus put it in writing - that any police officer in St. Cloud, any of the professors also, who treat students of color badly, he will prosecute them in a court of law," Davis said. "Same with landlords. That's leadership."

President Saigo says things are rarely so clear-cut, but he will always stand by his students.

SCSU President Roy Saigo
SCSU President Roy Saigo discusses the climate on campus and changes that are underway. Listen to his comments.
(Photo courtesy of St. Cloud State University )

"We are being very aggressive in reviewing these kinds of issues, and I will tell you that if I hear something like this and I have information, I'll be right there," Saigo said. "We do not sit around, we do not ho-hum, we get right down to it and we take care of it."

Saigo has been president for a year and half. He inherited a racial harmony task force that puts campus and city people together. He says the group is actively working on police credibility problems.

Saigo says he was encouraged by a recent meeting with the new St. Cloud police chief. But the police department has been damaged in the past year by a rumor that made the rounds at St. Cloud State. Some black faculty believe the previous chief said 90 percent of all arrests in St. Cloud are people of color.

A police spokesman says the chief never would have said that, because it's not true. Capt. Richard Wilson says the figure might indeed be close, if it were only referring to the drug trade, but that's just a small portion of the overall crime in the area. Wilson says officers are taught in no uncertain terms that profiling makes poor police work.

St. Cloud police car
St. Cloud police officials say creating a department that reflects the community is one of their top priorities.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"These cops are coming out of the community. So do we have some biases in the community? Sure we do," Wilson said. "And to say there's none here in the (department)? No, that's not true. But do we work and train to avoid that and to prevent that, and to get them to do the job appropriately? Yes."

Wilson says recruiting minorities is proving extremely difficult, but it's a major priority. There are Hispanics on the force. And now that a city hiring freeze has just been lifted, St. Cloud is set to swear in its only black police officer. The candidate happens to be one of the only students of color ever to take advantage of a criminal justice internship program at St. Cloud State.

Prof. Dick Andzenge helps run that program. It's been slow going, but he says it's one of many positive things that get overlooked amid the complaints.

Dick Andzenge
Criminal justice professor Dick Andzenge.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"I have stayed in St. Cloud for 10 years, I have raised children here," Andzenge said. "And as I have worked with people in the community on different projects, I have seen people have been very happy to work with me."

President Saigo points to increasing diversity among students, faculty and administrators that is bringing what he calls "a sea of change" to the school and the city.

"I'm not a Pollyanna," Saigo said. "At the same time, let's not forget that so many, 80 percent to 90 percent of the situations that happen on and off campus are terrific - so warm and wonderful."

And even many with stories to tell are determined not to dwell on the negative. Mark Jones, who was called a nigger in his first months here, refuses to let the experience disrupt his education.

"If someone thought they could stop me from finishing this program out, I'll tell them, 'Quit it. You try and stop me from finishing this program out.' Because this is what I'm here for. I'm here to get a piece of this pie too."

Mark will return to classes at St. Cloud State in the fall.