NAACP: Convocation planning should include us

Castleton University held its Spring ‘23 Convocation ceremony on Jan. 19 in the Casella Theater to celebrate the new semester as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., since the federal holiday fell the prior Monday.

The event included several speeches from respected members of the Castleton community, student recitations of both original and well-known poems, and choir arrangements courtesy of the Castleton Music Department, all hinged on the topic of celebration and diversity.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken bird that cannot fly,” read student Kendrick Madore, reciting Langston Hughes’ “Dreams,” followed by Vidur Katyal’s reading of “Let Me Not Lose My Dream,” By Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Between the two split podiums onstage were the bolded words “163 days,” signifying the finalization of the merger process from Castleton University as a separate entity into the unified Vermont State University.

“When we started the transformation,” it was as if we dumped all the pieces of the puzzle on the table,” said Dean Cathy Kozlik, using the metaphor of completing a puzzle to the VTSU merger process. She added that, up until this point, Castleton has been turning over the pieces and creating the framework, but “During the spring semester, we’ll be filling in the pieces.”

But despite the themes of celebration and diversity, some individuals felt as though the event itself was not diverse, leaving less for them to celebrate.

Student Perri Chiadika, who read King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, brought this to the crowd’s attention in his opening statement.

“The decision for me, a black student, to read this speech, was only made because one of the three white students who were supposed to read this couldn’t because they were uncomfortable saying the word ‘negro.’ Not only that, but none of the black students or the black community in this school were involved in the planning of this event that is heavily rooted in the history of the black man in America.”

He went on to say that he couldn’t read the speech with “a clear conscience” without expressing the following conviction, on behalf of himself and the NAACP. 

“Black students and students of color in this school are underappreciated and underrepresented,” he said. “And we are not here to fill out a quota for diversity, we are here to be active members of this university.”

He ended with a plea for the student government and school board “to do better” and “make a change.”

Chiadika followed this statement with a powerful and eloquent reading of the MLK speech, which moved the audience to a standing ovation.

No one would have guessed that he had less than a few hours to prepare, with the reader change made that same morning.

Kayon Morgan, President of the NAACP branch at Castleton, elaborated on these feelings of disappointment and frustration for the way the event was coordinated.

“When you look on how many individuals that spoke a convocation, there were two minorities; Vidur, who is Indian, and Perri, who is Black,” Morgan said. “That should not happen. And they’re right, it was a mistake, but it’s a mistake that Castleton is going to have to learn from.”

However, Morgan praised the student who didn’t feel comfortable reading the speech and who advocated that a student of color should read it.

“If the students, if our generation, wasn’t the slightest bit more educated, this situation would not have been what it is right now,” Morgan said. “If the white students had felt comfortable with saying the N word, if they didn’t realize that’s problematic, they wouldn’t have called on us. I’m very proud that the students did not go up there and do that.”

Morgan believes that the NAACP should have been directly contacted about the event to collaborate.

She felt as though they were a “last choice about an event that celebrated a man that is very pivotal in our community. Even an event that is supposed to celebrate us we’re left out of.”

Marisa Valent-Altland, Soundings Manager and coordinator of the event, responded with both an apology and explanation. 

“I should’ve reached out,” Valent-Altland said. “But it’s a situation I’m grateful to have as a learning experience.”

She said that, amidst the planning process, she didn’t reach out to them because she did not want to “burden the NAACP with planning a diversity-based event.” She had assumed that, if they wanted to participate, the opportunity was there via her school-wide email about convocation, seeking poetry and readers, sent out in late November.

Morgan responded to this, saying, “I spoke to Marisa, she said that she just didn’t want the burden to be on us to always do (these events). And I empathize with that … The pressure should not be on marginalized groups to always do events like these, but the pressure wasn’t on marginalized groups to plan this (event). The school took the initiative to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and then just didn’t include us.”

Valent-Altland also explained that the current inactivity of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) played a role in the flawed execution of Convocation.

“Since January of 2020, January Convocation was planned by the CU See Me Committee, a subcommittee of the DEI Committee. Because our DEI Committee is currently inactive, it fell on me to do all of the planning for the event,” she said.

She said she had planned the event “basing it on things shared with [her] by other people,” since she herself had “began [her] work at Castleton in October of 2019 and never attended one of those Convocations.”

Valent-Altland expressed that she was “well-meaning” in the situation, but that it was nonetheless a mistake and a learning opportunity. She is “sorry that it [came] at the expense of a marginalized group.”

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