Maya Campbell ’15 in Latham Square in downtown Oakland.
Maya Campbell ’15 in Latham Square in downtown Oakland.

Seizing The Moment

Frustrated by Reed’s Eurocentric curriculum, these students went rogue and built their own DIY alternative.

By Brandon Zero ’11 | July 12, 2021

It’s the fall of 2011. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” tops billboard music charts, perhaps playing in the still-corded earbuds of student iPods as their owners scan the Quest for the latest antics of reigning presidents Barack Obama and Colin Diver.

Maya Campbell ’15 returns to campus after an overnight for high school seniors the year before to start her freshman orientation. It’s two days into O-week before she realizes the five or so Black students she’s spotted on campus thus far are increasingly likely to represent the extent of her new home’s “diversity.”

As she explores campus, a Jamaican flag hanging in a dorm room sparks her interest—is someone here Jamaican? Maya has family from the island. She gets a reply that the flag owner is not; they just like the aesthetic.

In an orientation training on cultural sensitivity held in the chapel, Maya is the only Black person in the room. She’s from a city near Washington, DC, where less than half of the population is Caucasian. A white student in the chapel, though, remarks that it’s the most diverse room he’s ever been in.

And in class, the cultural omissions pile up. Humanities 220 is a cultural exploration of European modernity, moving from the Enlightenment to the post–World War II era. “Slavery doesn’t come up until the very end of class,” Maya said, pointing to a course reading of Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism.

“We spend all this time in Europe and a foray into Oceania, and we talk about world fairs and don’t talk about [the] human zoos there. A very strange thing that Reed didn’t want to acknowledge, because the faculty didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

Humanities was only the start. Maya sought out classes on race and ethnic studies, at least in part to find community. But debates about Blackness proved hard to stomach when she alone was a member of the group being discussed, sitting in as a kind of avatar for an entire people.

“In class, I was often one of the only, if not the only, Black students in all of my classes,” Campbell said. “It was alienating—I often found myself taking classes centered around race and ethnic studies, but I often found myself feeling like the ‘representative’ of all Black people in those classes.

“The amount of self-doubt I felt there has really shifted my confidence as a student,” said Campbell, who is now an editor for the California Law Review and is finishing law school at UC Berkeley. “Moments in class, I was paralyzed of saying the wrong thing or being a bad representation. For many students, I may have been the only Black student they ever encountered. What would Reed have been like if I weren’t carrying all this extra anxiety around? What would my grades have been like?”

A Turning Tide

To some extent, Campbell found out. From the time she arrived on campus in 2011 and the time she graduated four years later, Black enrollment rose over 20% from 51 students to 62—more than ever in Reed’s history.

Campbell recalls seeing groups of half a dozen Black students spontaneously forming to chat on the Quad—a phenomenon that only a year prior might have looked more like an all-campus assembly.

The appointment of a dean for institutional diversity, and a greater campus emphasis on diversity, was beginning to bear fruit too.

“It felt like it dramatically changed the environment of the school; I didn’t feel as alone,” Campbell said. “I remember one of my friends saying that we could finally ‘choose who we could actually like’ instead of having to default befriend every Black student in class.”

And Reedies were doing work on the ground to change the campus experience of students of color and the curriculum that helped shape it. Alex Cherin ’12 and Imani Jackson ’14 recruited Campbell to join a group called DIY African American, Latinx, and Native American Studies (DIY-ALANA) during that same long, isolating freshman year.

The group fought to create an ethnic studies major at Reed with a novel tactic: educate the student body. Cherin said he grew impatient with circulating petitions and holding forums to diversify the curriculum. Why wait?

Cherin and Jackson recruited faculty who had already cultivated specialties unplumbed by a Eurocentric curriculum to give lectures, Tuesday talks, and Paideia courses on their research. Suddenly, a Hum 220 student could study changing gender roles and class structures in the mid-20th century in conference, and then drop in on an extracurricular lecture on contemporary singer Sam Cooke’s influence on historical memory and cultural identity.

Prof. Margo Minardi [history 2007–], an eager ALANA participant, lectured on Massachusetts abolitionists. Her talk focused on the work of slavery opponents who situated Black American participation in the American Revolution in the historical narrative to bolster the case for emancipation.

Meanwhile, the student group’s core, led by April Kaplowitz ’15, continued to bring Reed and outside faculty lectures to campus with an explicitly postcolonial focus. In 2016, ALANA evolved into a new group called DIVERSIFY where students and alumni gave the lectures. Campbell, by then a graduate, returned to campus to talk about her research on Black Power and radical social movements.

“We filled up whole classes in Eliot,” Campbell says. “And that eventually turned into Reedies Against Racism.”

The push was the latest in a long line of efforts that would ultimately result in a comparative race and ethnicity Studies (CRES) major in 2018.

Pause for a moment. In 2012, Campbell had to explain who Whitney Houston was to a classmate with whom she was trying to commiserate about the singer’s recent death. By 2016, academic lectures on Sam Cooke were on the books and guerilla proto-CRES lectures were packing Eliot classrooms.

Cherin returned to campus in 2016 as a staff member and says he was surprised at the increase in Brown and Black students since his graduation four years earlier.

Correlation and causation make for fickle bedfellows, but this much is clear: a rise in non-white faculty and students accompanied a campaign to supplant a white curriculum. Remember Campbell’s words? “What would Reed have been like if I weren’t carrying all this extra anxiety around?” Perhaps new students won’t have to ask themselves the same question.

Tags: Academics, Alumni, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Institutional