One evening last October, a dozen members of an alumni group dedicated to issues of race gathered around a long table at a Middle Eastern restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. The conversation drifted from comments made by television personality Raven-Symone — who recently had sparked controversy by poking fun at stereotypically African American names — to the problem of police violence in cities like Chicago. Laughter and jokes mixed with more sober discussions of racial reparations and the legacy of slavery. “We talk about race, which can be emotional or incendiary,” says Jenny Korn ’96. “But we’re not out to argue. Everyone is there because they want to become more enlightened.”
Korn is the founder of Chicago Princeton Club Diversity, a group of alumni from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, including members who are Asian American, African American, Latino, and white. They’ve been meeting monthly in homes and restaurants across Chicago for the past two years. (Because of privacy concerns, PAW was not able to attend one of these events.) As issues of race have consumed headlines — from protests on college campuses to a controversy over the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Award nominees — the group has continued to grow. Gatherings draw as many as several dozen people, from the Class of 1955 to the Class of 2015.
For its members, the group serves as a space to process emotionally fraught events as well as a call to action. “When you talk about race in most settings, it immediately becomes an argument,” says Reginald Ponder ’84. “When you can discuss these issues in a personal conversation where you feel you’ll be taken at your word, you begin to understand them better. And then you can take that leap to say, ‘What can we do about it?’”
Chicago Princeton Club Diversity was founded in the late spring of 2014, just after President Eisgruber ’83 visited Chicago on his “listening tour.” Korn, who is a member of Princeton affinity groups for black, Asian American, and Latino alumni, remembers drifting between receptions sponsored by the different groups and wondering why alumni who were interested in issues of race couldn’t gather regularly. Group members began to bring spouses, kids, and friends, and recent graduates sought out the group as they adjusted to life in a new city.
The discussions are unstructured, with a few prompts provided by Korn. Although most alumni who attend the group agree on core questions, their goal is to embrace as wide a range of views as possible. Often, members arrive ready to talk about a piece of news or a problem at work. When student protests over racial discrimination sparked at the University of Missouri and Yale in November, Chelsea Mayo ’14 says she couldn’t wait to discuss them with the group. Later in the month, the protest and sit-in at Princeton — especially the controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s legacy — struck even closer to home. At the next meeting, alumni disagreed about whether and how Wilson’s name should be preserved. “We didn’t solve the problem, but I left feeling like I had a better understanding of the argument and why we were having it,” Mayo says.
Conversation always will be at the heart of Chicago Princeton Club Diversity’s mission, Korn says, but the group is beginning to broaden its scope. This spring, Hannah Rosenthal ’15 organized a Passover Seder focusing on race that was hosted jointly by the diversity group and a nascent Jewish alumni network. “A shared Princeton experience can be a great basis for starting these conversations,” Rosenthal says.
So far, the group’s primary aim has been to create a strong community for alumni who want to engage on issues of race. But as they expand, Korn and others hope to incorporate more activities that will aid Princeton in its efforts to diversify the student body and encourage more discussion of race on campus. Chicago is far enough from New Jersey that it’s difficult to interact directly with students, but Korn says there’s one important way they can help: by encouraging more students of color to apply. “We’ve talked about that moment — when did you realize Princeton was possible?” she says. “Somebody had to tell you that you could go there.”
Outreach to high school students is a top priority for club members Gus Viano and Margarete Novo, the parents of a current Princeton undergraduate. “At our daughter’s public school, the expectation was that you would go to community college,” Viano says. “The lack of knowledge about the application process, about the kinds of scholarships places like Princeton can offer — it’s huge.” He hopes to organize a forum for local high school students, featuring Chicago Princeton Club Diversity members.
The challenge will be to preserve the group’s informality as it continues to grow. “I think we have been successful because it’s been organic from the beginning — there’s never been a hierarchy,” says Nat Piggee ’96. But he nevertheless hopes similar groups will sprout in other cities and regions, as a way to promote engagement with Princeton around issues of race among alumni of all backgrounds. “If we’re going to talk about a question like Wilson’s legacy, we need to involve everyone, not just the people who have solidly identified with Princeton from the beginning. Otherwise, how are we going to keep improving the experiences of the students who are there now?”