Inside Drake University’s new John Dee Bright College, situated in Meredith Hall, the inaugural class leans into conversations about race.
Finger snaps occasionally follow candid remarks. Bright students hunger for these conversations, which have been missing in their high schools and workplaces in a state that is 84.5% white, according to the 2020 US Census.
While school board candidates nationally and locally battle over critical race theory and equity, deeply personal conversations about racial justice happen daily at Bright, a new two-year college that prioritizes admitting diverse students and forges a new path in Drake’s 140-year history. The first semester includes seven modules, all of which include racial justice in the title.
Bright students rock blue hair, pink hair, ponytails, braided hairstyles and locs. They range in age from 17 to 67. One sports Chuck Taylors. They carry colorful backpacks and wear face masks.
Professors Debra DeLaet and Megan Brown this semester led a discussion about the essay, “Walking While Black” by Garnette Cadogan. The essay explores the author's walks in his native Jamaica, compared to walking in New Orleans and New York and his interactions with the police.
“In my community, we don’t talk to the police,” said DeShana Taylor, 45, during the classroom discussion.
Taylor, who also works full-time and plans to become a lawyer, said attending Bright College is one of the best decisions she has made in her adult life.
Floyd Ezell, 32, who submitted an essay on artificial intelligence during the admissions process, said cities like Des Moines and Chicago constantly categorize people by race and colors - like gangs.
“Black is the color of the gang you’re in,” in America, he said.
Ezell said he grew up with the expectation of attending college but didn't expect Drake.
“This is Drake University where people that I know don’t attend,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good enough.”
Inside Bright’s classroom, Ezell is confident. His classmates snapped their fingers when he finished speaking. He said the curriculum is “real and raw” and ignites his passion for learning. He plans to use his Bright education, coupled with how he overcame struggles with depression and substance abuse, to write books and reviews, build business brands and motivate the masses.
“Just give my testimony though the grace of God,” he said.
Students share raw emotion. They nod in agreement, or push back politely.
Professors asked students to take a walk, like Cadogan did in his essay, and report their observations.
When they returned, some students talked about doing cartwheels. Others said they were surprised to find other students of color on Drake’s campus of 4,800 undergraduate and graduate students. Still, a few felt like outsiders.
Taylor told the class that few people had made eye contact with her. She felt a mix of emotions, which she said she didn’t necessarily attribute to her race. Another Black student agreed.
“As I'm walking, I'm making a concerted effort to make eye contact with folks walking by, and I noticed that really no one was really wanting to make eye contact. I tried not to make any assumptions as to why,” she said.
Brown likened the experience to how the essay author felt as he moved from his home in Jamaica to unfamiliar American cities, his feelings of alienation and how he had to figure out the “lay of the land.”
Abena Imhotep, 44, leads Sankofa Literary & Empowerment Group. “Life happened” between having a baby in high school and decades later sitting in a classroom at Bright, she said. Her family is her greatest accomplishment, she said, but now is the time to “just do the stuff that aligns” with her purpose. For Imhotep, that meant college.
“The only thing I had not done was gotten my degree,” she said.
She plans to continue at Drake after Bright and earn degrees in anthropology and sociology. In her dreams, she goes even further.
“This is a longing that I’ve had forever, and I know it’s the right place and the right time,” she said.
Kat Fortin, 17, is Honduran. As a “woman of color” she has participated in walkouts at Norwalk High School for Black Lives Matter. She also organized a walkout and founded the school's Gay Straight Student Alliance, she said.
“Coming from a predominantly white high school, people wouldn’t listen to me,” she said.
It's different at Bright where they discussed the "N-word" on the first day of class, she said.
"Coming here and being able to speak and write freely, but also being able to be challenged and challenging others to have a healthy discussion, to have those healthy disagreements, it's a very welcoming environment to come into," she said.
Talking about race, though, isn’t always easy and can “hit close to home,” said Fortin, who plans to get a law degree and work in the nation’s capital.
“When we talk about race and people’s experiences, it isn’t an article anymore,” she said. “It’s my classmates and people I’ve grown found of. There’s a comfort in knowing I’m not alone anymore.”
Imhotep said Drake will "sharpen her edges." She said she brings her fully "shaped" self, along with her community, to Bright.
"I love the fact that all of these different worlds collide," she said. "It's really something I can't describe."
"This is such a great starting point to open your eyes up to the world," she said.
Bright College is named for a Black 1952 Drake graduate, who holds 20 records in three varsity sports, said Bright College Dean Craig Owens. Bright was viciously attacked during a football game in 1951, which sparked national outrage and raised awareness about the racism felt by Black athletes. He was poised to become the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles’ first Black player, but instead he moved to Canada, played football professionally and worked as a teacher, coach and school administrator, according to Drake. He died in 1983.
Top Banner: Meredith Hall at Drake University, John Dee Bright, Floyd Ezell. Hall and Ezell photos by Black Iowa News.