Working with Akom
Throughout January, as students, staff and faculty adjust to the change in pace of J-term, the editorial staff of Middlebury Magazine has been making its way around the campus to discover just what goes on during this month.
J-term in Middlebury brings a welcome chance to slow down and catch your breath. It is also an invigorating time that can send you on a mission to test yourself or to try something new. January is, in fact, a molten flow of hot and cold, of sleep and action.
On Wednesday afternoon last week, the Orchard room in Franklin Environmental Center was packed with an audience that wanted to be challenged: to have hands-on practice with techniques that break down racial and social barriers and that can advance the cause of environmental health for all. Dr. Antwi Akom, a leading expert in climate justice and educational equity, was on campus to deliver the Martin Luther King keynote address. This afternoon, he was sharing some of the tools he uses in his work.
He called it his toolkit.
Part of the toolkit involved pairing up. “Pick someone you do not know…and face each other,” he instructed. Person A was to answer a question. Person B was to listen, without comment. Then reverse roles, when signaled. This process was repeated again and again. The room heated up quickly as people warmed to the questions and to the person they were talking to.
A dark-skinned young man, from the Bronx, with wild, wooly hair, teamed up with a middle-aged woman from town. They looked at each other hesitantly. Similar pairings were underway throughout the room.
The questions ranged from the expected to the unexpectedly personal. The first asked participants to discuss an environmental issue affecting their community and how race impacts it. The room hummed as people sorted through the question aloud. And the room fell suddenly silent with the second question—describe a time you’ve been betrayed and how it felt. With only a heartbeat in which to gather their thoughts or consider their reservations, strangers told each other something intimate.
A question about negative stereotypes lead the woman to tell the young man that she feared being seen as “old” and therefore discounted. He confessed that his appearance seems to frighten many Vermonters. She nodded, aware that her preconceived notions about her partner were being swept away. Whatever gaps separated them were narrowing.
As the workshop ended and people ventured into the frozen afternoon, one person commented, “I’m so glad I came. I almost took a nap instead.”