Molly Solomon, OPB:
On the glass doors at the front entrance of Clark College, posters proclaiming the school’s inclusive community welcome visitors, describing a place free of discrimination and harassment. But inside the campus walls, teachers, staff and students tell a different story.
“It’s not a climate that feels safe for you to really thrive,” said Summer Brown, Clark College’s only black counselor, who quit her tenure-track position in March.
She’s one of seven prominent women of color who has left the Vancouver, Washington, community college in the past year alone. School records and dozens of interviews with staff and students conducted by OPB show a culture at Clark College that alienates people of color, even as top school officials say the campus is becoming more inclusive.
During an interview at her private practice for marriage and family therapy in Hazel Dell, Brown described a work environment at Clark College that was particularly harmful to women of color. In the months before she decided to leave, she said she felt like she was constantly being monitored by her supervisors. Brown described her bosses scrutinizing everything, from the number of students she saw per day to the time spent during her lunch break.
“I had to work to make my own space at Clark, every second of every day,” Brown said. “I had to work extra to be seen, acknowledged.”
Brown recounted passive aggressive emails from her mostly white coworkers and how she had to fight to get a person of color on her tenure committee. The incidents never felt like a smoking gun. They were subtle, which sometimes made them easier to brush off.
She remembers on numerous occasions, Clark College President Bob Knight would call her and other employees of color troublemakers. Knight said he regrets using the term and that he had always thought of it as a playful tease.
“When I see people on campus, whether they’re people of color or other, that I feel like I’m comfortable with and I say, ‘Here comes trouble,’ it’s more of an affectionate term — the way I looked at it,” Knight told OPB.
He said in the 12 years he’s worked at Clark, he never thought about how the phrase might sound to employees of color coming from a white man.
Six other women of color also left the school last year, including three employees from the college’s diversity center. One of the first to leave in the wave of departures was Felisciana Peralta, the former director of student inclusion and equitable services. She resigned from her position last September.
“It became a hostile work environment, and I felt like it was no longer in line with my values and my integrity,” said Peralta, who was instrumental in creating a campus diversity center. “It was hard to walk away from a place I helped build.”
“I believe that there is a problem at Clark or there wouldn’t be so many leaving,” she said.
Peralta said a lot of her frustrations stemmed from new leadership at the office of diversity and equity. Last fall, Loretta Capeheart became the college’s first associate vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, a job that Peralta was also a finalist for.
Peralta described a shift once Capeheart stepped into the role. She introduced policy changes and rules that Peralta and others told OPB they felt were unnecessary and disrupted the culture at the center.
Rules banning food in the center were enforced and students were encouraged to stop using the kitchen area, a place that had previously been a source of community building and potluck events. Student peer mentors who worked at the diversity center were moved into a different building across campus.
“Before, it was a safe place where students could really express themselves, meet up for a meal, get help tutoring,” Guerrero said. “But, it soon became very restricted and the morale really went down.”
Peralta said there was also a significant change in how the Office of Diversity and Equity implemented the school’s social equity plan. Peralta and her coworkers had always been very engaged in the community, showing up at student events, promoting the college at job fairs, and organizing multicultural events on campus.
Now, Peralta said, Capeheart told her to stay behind her desk.
Students of color at Clark make up nearly 40 percent of the student body, and they said they noticed the resignations.
“Who can I run to and talk about my day now? The whole thing just makes me feel sad,” said Kenon McCollins, a 27-year-old student who enrolled at Clark College in 2016 after finishing a contract with the U.S. Marine Corps.
At Clark, he wanted to find direction in his life after the military, a club or a student group that centered on his identity as an African-American.
“I went to the diversity center and I spoke with Dolly. She was a black woman, and I just said, ‘Hey, I need to build community,’” McCollins said, referring to Dolly England, the college’s former diversity outreach program manager. “She just understood where I was coming from.”
England took McCollins under her wing during his first week and brought him to a job fair centered on hiring African Americans. She also told him about the Black Student Union and encouraged him to get involved. Soon after, he became their vice president.
“She went above and beyond. I love her for that,” he said.
Seeing the recent departures of faculty of color has left McCollins feeling deflated and concerned that students like him will have a harder time getting support at the college.
While the recent departures have had a significant effect on Clark students like McCollins, they are only the latest turn in an extended struggle with inclusion at the school.
In 2010, a student at Clark distributed a series of flyers proclaiming white pride. One of them was handed to Lexi Peterson-Burge, who was a 16-year old high school student at the time taking college courses through a program called Running Start. It was her third week of classes when a man she didn’t know approached her.
“He had swastika tattoos all over him: on the tops of his hands, on the back of his head, his head was shaved,” Peterson-Burge recalled recently. She’s now back at Clark to finish her associate’s degree.
The flyer was a one-page handout with “White and Proud” scrawled across the top. On the bottom was a contact for the local National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the United States.
The man smirked at Peterson-Burge, who is black and Native American, when he handed her the flyer. She knew why she was targeted.
“Because I was brown,” she said. “That was the intention.”
Peterson-Burge said the harassment didn’t stop with the flyer, however.
“What ended up happening in the weeks after that was that brown people on campus were being targeted,” she said.
Guerrero, the former Clark College diversity center employee who recently left, remembers also being intimidated when she was taking classes at the school that year. Guerrero reported a group of white men pushing her late one evening after class. One of the men said that people like her were a problem, and yelled “you colored people suck.” Guerrero ran to her car and called security three times, she said, but nobody answered. The next morning, she was so shaken that she had her brother-in-law walk onto campus with her to file a report.
“People were getting their backpacks ripped off of them, shoved into cars,” Peterson-Burge said. “It got to the point where security wasn’t responding enough when things were happening so we started walking to classes in pairs, especially women of color.”
“If leadership is not supportive, if they are not active in creating a different kind of environment, then hate will flourish,” said Earl Ford, former president of the Vancouver NAACP.
Ford said the Clark College’s executive cabinet has not taken a hard enough stance against hate activity on campus.
And he’s worried history may be repeating itself.
Former employees like Bobula said the climate at Clark has been hostile toward people of color for some time. She used to serve as the affirmative action officer at the college and says there was a lot of resistance toward hiring people of color.
“Clark had a lot of leftovers from the past for quite a long time, people who worked there who I considered carried significant biases,” said Bobula.
She remembers sitting in on a hiring meeting for a groundskeeper position. The two finalists had similar qualifications, but one was Native American. As the affirmative action officer, Bobula urged the personnel team to hire the diverse candidate — but they opted to go with the other person, a white man. According to Bobula, one of the people on the hiring team turned to her and said, “We’ve already got an Indian.”
“There was not a diverse staff there because they absolutely made sure there wasn’t a diverse staff there,” she said. “And the thing is, it never got better.”
“The reality is, and you can see in this data, we have a revolving door among our employees of color,” Diehl said.
The college has also been hit with several discrimination lawsuits from former employees, who said they were treated unfairly because of their race, age or gender. Three settlements within the last 15 years reviewed by OPB show Clark College has paid out nearly half a million dollars because of discrimination. Another case that alleges racial discrimination in the tenure process is still pending.
“By having a revolving door in this particular way, it can promote a place that feels more traumatizing than healing and supportive,” said Sonali Sangeeta Balajee, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute.
She has a background in equity work and says community colleges have a duty to foster diversity.
“It disrupts the possibility of supportive relationships for students of color if you see a large number of people of color leaving an institution all at once,” she said.