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Creating a Lively, Relevant Space


Karlene Burrell-McRae’s voice has a beguiling lilt that reveals her Jamaican origins, and her clothing displays boldness—in style and hue.

She became the director of the Black Cultural Center and dean of the junior class in July, after serving as the University of Pennsylvania’s Black Cultural Center director since 2000. She immersed herself in all things Swarthmore—quickly booking meetings with 40-some faculty and staff members. Soon she fielded an offer to head to the Chester County Prison during the spring semester to co-facilitate a class led by Keith Reeves ’88, associate professor of political science; and Tom Elverson ’75, counseling associate in the dean’s office.

She couldn’t refuse: “I see myself as a scholarly practitioner. Theory informs the practice. The practice informs the theory. I thought, ‘Great, I get to know students in a different way.’ It was a win-win all the way around.”

Burrell-McRae is definitely on the fast track—often that means beating the path between her office in Robinson House, a three-story stone mansion on the corner of Elm and College streets, which has been the Black Cultural Center’s home for 42 years, and her office in Parrish Hall.

Though a Philadelphian for the last 18 years, Burrell-McRae spent her early years in Jamaica. Her family moved to New York when she was 10 to afford the children better educational opportunities. Burrell-McRae studied anthropology at Colby College, then earned an M.S.W. and Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She, husband Kamau, daughter Coltrane Louise, 8, and son Moses Blake, 6, live in Philadelphia.

Burrell-McRae sat down with another newcomer, Sherri Kimmel, Bulletin editor, in February. They enjoyed a fast-paced talk about diversity, social justice, the penal system, fashion, art and, oh yeah, the Oscars.

Tell me about the Robinson House.
Originally it was seen as a kind of safe space for black students.

Is that how it’s seen today, or is there a different emphasis?
It will always and should always be a safe space for black students. My emphasis is on still being able to create a safe space for black students who feel they need that, without it being exclusive to everybody else. You have to be able to have balance. It’s part of the Swarthmore tradition, it’s part of the Swarthmore community, and I think there’s a way to be able to have both.

What is your vision for the next generation of the BCC?
I started in July, so I’m still giving myself those few more months to talk with students and alums and staff members to see what it’s been like and what their vision of the space is as well. Some of it has to include education. Some of it has to include community service. For example, I really want to bring faculty members to the house to teach, especially seminar classes that connect to issues that impact the black community. For example, Professor [Keith] Reeves [’88] is teaching a class on the politics of punishment, and there are 15 Swarthmore students who have been selected—a very diverse group of students—and they’re going into the Chester County Prison to have a class with 15 inmates. The majority of those inmates are black and Latino. Disproportionately, there are more blacks and Latinos who are incarcerated. That impacts the black community. And so a lot of the students are meeting at the center for their debriefing discussions. For some students, this is their first engagement with the center—through their intellectual engagement. We need to do more of that type of work.

So it sounds like you’re trying to build a stronger conduit to the academic program.
Yes. But there will still be leadership development. It would be a disservice to not support black students in their leadership possibilities. There are four groups on campus that are open to anyone interested in the African diaspora, but the focus is on black student leadership. The center should continue to advise those student groups. It allows them to be more committed to learning about themselves and who they are. That makes them better stewards and better citizens of Swarthmore when they leave. I think you have to do both.

Let’s talk a little bit about diversity more broadly. We often think of racial diversity first, and currently, 38 percent of the student body here comprises students of color, including international students, and 9 percent are black. What are some of the other kinds of diversity that are important here at Swarthmore?
I think there are many. Class is big, and I think people don’t want to talk about that. I think learning differences is another big issue. Of course, there is the issue of ethnicity. Yes, I’m black, but I’m Jamaican, right? And that plays out differently in terms of how I see the world than someone who was born and raised here their entire life. I think we tend to lump race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation and identity are significant. We need to think more about transgender folks, transsexuals. That’s an important part of the fabric of Swarthmore. Athletes versus those who aren’t is a big deal. When we think about programming, do we think about our athletes? How does that impact them when we always plan events between 3 and 6 p.m.? And don’t forget about gender. Women still make a lot less than men, right? But we don’t talk about that either. How does that impact us in the short term? How does it impact us in the long term in terms of retirement and pension plans? All of that has to be included when we think about issues of diversity.

Did I hear you say something earlier about African art? Actually, my husband and I collect art. We collect mostly paintings. I think we are up to about 65 or 70 pieces of art, mostly by black American artists, and we have a few pieces by a Haitian artist. I also have masks and bowls and things from all around the world when I had a chance to travel. We collect it because it’s a reflection of who we are, of our history and our culture. And I want our children to be affirmed by that—before they leave the house and when they come home from a hard day—what it means to be black.

You must feel very much at home in the Black Cultural Center since there’s some nice African art in there. There’s a lot of beautiful art. The last director [Timothy Sams] did an amazing job making sure that that was reflected in the space.

Are you hoping to increase that?
There might be interesting ways to do that over time. Some of our student artists may want to create something for the center. Can we use that space to showcase students’ artwork? The idea is to really ensure that the BCC is a livable, vibrant, and relevant space.

I’m going to veer slightly off, more on an art/entertainment angle. The Oscars are coming up this weekend, and one of the nominated films is The Help. What did you think of it?
I’m reminded of the resilience of black women, of how we often don’t get credit for helping to sustain our families and cleaning our houses and trying to raise decent human beings, and we’re still figuring out how to battle other people’s perception of us—as loud and bossy. All of this sort of negativity. That it took a white woman to tell that story for people to be OK with it, I struggle with that. Sometimes for us to have validation, it has to come from someone who doesn’t look like us, doesn’t sound like us but who can empathize. Will some of the revenue earned from this blockbuster be used to help folks in the black community?

So you’d like to see some social justice result from the great outcome they’ve had with this film.
Yes, I would.

Anything else you want to say?
No, just that I love life, and I love being in the present,
and I love people.

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