A Message to the Poet Community

June 15, 2020


Dear Poets:

I am writing this letter to the Whittier College community—its students, faculty, staff, and administration—in my role as the incoming Chair of the Board of Trustees to express that, like all of you, I am engaged in the recent events that have turned our world upside down and that I share your hopes that we are on the cusp of meaningful, positive changes in our society.

I have spent the last two weekends at Black Lives Matter demonstrations near my home in Hollywood. Both were massive gatherings of people, numbering well into the thousands. People of all races. And while I was not the only old guy at the demonstrations, I was filled with hope because the crowd skewed young. It is far more important that our next generation of leaders—and voters—carry this message. 

The energy of the gatherings was electric. Angry, but also hopeful. Serious and determined, but also joyful. Loud and raucous, but always peaceful. 

The tee shirts and thousands of signs at the demonstrations reflected all of these sentiments. Many simply said “Black Lives Matter” or “#BLM.” Or, at yesterday’s march that stretched nearly the entire three miles of a route from Hollywood to West Hollywood, “All Black Lives Matter.” There were many placards that evoked sadness. “Say Their Names.” “Justice for George.” Many were profane—making clear what they think of our country’s 45th President, either by name or by number. Others made specific calls for action. “Defund the Police.” And others expressed their pleas in humorous ways. “Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand had it right: Enough is enough is enough.”

As I raised my voice to chant with other demonstrators and I tried to fully comprehend what I saw, one placard in particular expressed my thoughts: “I understand that I will never understand. However, I stand.” 

As a white person who was raised in a solidly middle class family in Kansas that could easily have been featured on a television sitcom in the 1960s and who has led a life that has all of the hallmarks of white privilege, I know that I will never be able to understand what it means to be a Black person in America. I know that we are a country that has a deeply engrained legacy of racism. I know that it is not enough to say that I am not a racist. It is not enough to say that I have many Black friends. Because, although these things are true, I also know that my skin color has opened many doors and granted me many privileges that I take for granted, but which are not readily available to Black Americans. And I have never had to fear for my safety or wonder if it was safe for me to travel a particular road at a late hour because of my skin color. So, I can’t really understand and I never will.

But, even though I will never understand, I stand. I stand with our Black students, faculty, staff and administrators at Whittier. I stand committed to listen. And I stand committed to strive to be more than just not racist, but to be anti-racist.  

I know from my years of service on the Whittier Board of Trustees that my fellow trustees are, like me, proud of our successes as a diverse community, which are an important manifestation of our Quaker heritage. But we need to do more. While we are diverse, our numbers of Black students, faculty and staff do not reflect those of our community or our nation. We can and will do better. And I can assure you that the Board of Trustees is committed to working with all of you to build on our successes and to address the areas where we must improve, as we pursue our shared goal of making Whittier a fully equitable and inclusive community. We ask all members of the Whittier College community to work with us to meet the significant challenges we face. 

Chris Caldwell