25 Years of the Intercultural Center

In 1993, in response to a melange of student activism and demand for safe spaces on campus to express and explore identity, the Intercultural Center was born. Yet the story may be more complicated, as shown in the exhibit in the McCabe lobby displaying artifacts from some of the IC’s landmark events, and through the stories of the founding alumni.


The exhibit, organized by IC intern Sonya Chen ̕18, kicked off on Feb 8 with a panel of alumni and faculty who witnessed the early days of the center. This panel included Peter Schmidt, a current English Literature professor who worked with students to found the IC in 1993, Jed Bell ̕91, Rita Burgos ̕93, and Gayle Isa ̕93.


The alumni attested to the student activism that permeated campus during the early 90s and lead to the establishment of the IC. As both Bell and Burgos share, what they were doing did not feel as much like founding as it did troublemaking.


One such instance of troublemaking came about when a student on campus noted that there were no paintings of people of color in Parrish Parlors. The school claimed that there was 15% diversity in the student population at the time (a figure that included students from abroad, according to Burgos), but this diversity was not present on the walls. Schmidt noted that this was an issue of how the college portrays its history and who we look up to as figureheads of the school. This lead to a protest in which students from the Black Cultural Center wrote messages all over Parrish to bring more attention to the disparity.


A Korean American student decided to take the initiative to create more diversity among the paintings. He painted a portrait of Malcolm X and mounted it among the medley of written protests. This artwork was found a few days later, taken down, ripped up, and with an assortment of items thrown on it that imitated a mock lynching.


According to Isa, the response to the defiling of this artwork started the momentum that culminated in the founding of the IC.


Swarthmore has a history of organizations developing in light of student protest. As Schmidt recounted, the BCC was founded after Black students staged a sit-in in the admissions office in protest of falling Black enrollment numbers.


Reflecting on the provocative event years later, Burgos shared that underlying the more explicit black/white binary was a more sophisticated play of race relations. A takeaway for her was that a Korean American student turned to Malcolm X when exploring his own identity. Schmidt stated many people were surprised to learn about a Korean American student self-identifying with Malcom X, but he saw this as creating ties between anti-colonial and anti-racist discussions.


In the naming of the Intercultural Center, Burgos reflects that she pushed for the prefix inter as opposed to the more widespread multi. To her, this expressed the idea that “meaning comes from connection and community, and what we build together.” “Multi” carried the connotation that the center was a smattering of identity-based groups, as opposed to placing the emphasis on what all those different organizations created and shared together.


The early days of the IC did not resemble the IC today. Bell shared his encounters with the two groups that have now evolved into the Swarthmore Queer Union: the Gay Lesbian Union  and the Bisexual Questioning Circle , which were shortened to glub quick. “How’s that for an elegant name?” Bell joked. The meeting space and office for GLU-BQC is now used as a storage closet. It could fit maximum eight people. “It was very clear what our status was on the campus,” Bell said speaking to the lack of physical and social space set aside for queer-identifying students on campus at the time. The environment was not conducive to being openly gay, and Bell shared that he could count the number of out students at Swarthmore on one hand.


Bell also described more overt forms of disrespect that queer students had to endure in the early 90s. As he describes, their were groups of evangelical Christians who would invade their space and tell them to change their lifestyle. There stories make it clear why a definitive and safe space was sorely needed for identity-based groups in the minority.


Even after the IC was established, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Nyk Robertson, interim assistant director of the IC, said that part of the intention behind the exhibit in McCabe was to show the whole history of the IC and not just showing the positive impacts.


Part of this effort is evident in the broken piece of the Swarthmore Queer Union section of the IC sign from 2003. Like the earlier defacement of the Malcolm X painting, this was an directed act of vandalism. A statement from 2003 below the sign reads “this is not an isolated incident; acts of homophobia invade our so-called tolerant campus with dismaying frequency.” Surrounding the sign are statements that comprised the following campus-wide discussion.


The display also shows some of the IC’s successful endeavors and the creation of different student organizations. The IC now represents 22 groups with interns assigned to each group, a far cry from the initial three.


A highlight of the exhibit is a 1993 letter asking for Asian American studies courses and faculty. Robertson believes that one impressive thing that is relatively unique to Swarthmore is the capacity for students to influence academics. The issue is still unresolved, as there is still no separate departmental major, but there is an interdisciplinary Asian Studies program. A 2017 Voices article on display next to the 1993 letter outlines the ongoing efforts to advance this issue.


One artifact in the exhibit that recalls more recent history is the ENLACE statement of support for SASS for their decision to boycott the student publication The Daily Gazette and find other ways to “voice and uplift the opinions of marginalized students.” According to Robertson, the IC helps facilitate inter-group collaboration. In this case the new student publication Voices was able to contact board members of student organizations through the IC to garner support.


Collaboration is one of the things Robertson said they were eager to enhance upon coming into their position as interim director. They said there has been a shift in student groups towards recognizing that oppression is oppression, and acknowledging the struggles of each community. This notion recalls Burgos’ original vision in naming the IC, the idea that unity can stem from diversity.


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