Diversity and Democracy

Processing Trauma as an Activist Alumna: A Conversation with Mica Grimm

When a college or university’s public face is marred by scandals or criticism, former students may find it difficult to be enthusiastic “boosters” that fit the mold of engaged alumni. This tension is even more pronounced for alumni who faced negative experiences or even trauma during their time on campus. How do they process the effects of these experiences on themselves and their work?

As a professional community organizer working for social change, these issues have weighed on my mind since I left my alma mater. To explore these questions, I sat down with Mica Grimm, a fellow community organizer I worked with at Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) in Minneapolis. Grimm is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. In her role at MPIRG, she worked with college students across the state around racial justice issues.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erkkila: What was your entrance into college like?

Grimm: I was recruited to [a small college in eastern Minnesota]. When I got to campus, I would get asked, “How do I talk to black people?” and not know what to say. . . . You’re talking to me now! It was really a challenge. I had faced racism [back home] in Minneapolis but I didn’t realize that people could be so ignorant and unknowing to talk to me like that.

As a freshman, [my class saw] a play where a woman says these racially charged things—microaggressions—to this black man. After the play was over, no one in the class got it. And no wonder, because they didn’t even have a basic understanding of what racism is. So if you don’t have that basic foundation, how are you supposed to understand the nuances of microaggressions, right?

During the discussion of the play, most people were making fun of what they saw and cracking jokes about racism. There were probably only seven kids of color, and we were all sitting together. It was just really hurtful to be in that space. And someone asked, “Why can black people say ‘the n-word’ and white people can’t?” In my mind, this was such an easy answer, so I volunteered to respond, and I said, “White people can’t say ‘the n-word’ because of slavery.” And then people started to boo me. I was so confused, so baffled. Did they not understand what I was saying? So I tried to talk about the history of the word and I ended up getting booed even more. And I wondered if any of these educators, or my professors, or any of the people putting this [play] on were going to say anything. And they didn’t, so I thought I had done something wrong.

Afterward, I actually apologized to my classmates because I felt that it was my fault. That I had tried to put too much information onto them. And I didn’t want to be ostracized.

Erkkila: You felt like it was your fault for not getting the message across?

Grimm: Yes, or like they weren’t ready and I should have known that. Or maybe even that I was wrong. My professor told me not to apologize. But she also was someone that was in the room when it happened. College never felt safe to me after that. After it happened, I had to get off campus for a while. It [took] me a couple days to realize that they were just going to keep bringing black kids up here into these spaces, and I had to do something about it.

Erkkila: And that’s when you started to organize around some of the issues you and other students were facing?

Grimm: Some friends and I started a group on campus, and we ended up getting a new vice president position for institutional diversity—a woman of color—[and] several staff hired. Suddenly the school made a recommitment to diversity that became one of their pillars of education. They instituted an anonymous incident reporting system. A lot of students hadn’t felt safe reporting a race-related incident in a majority-white school. But for me, it was too little, too late.

I look back and I am really proud of the accomplishments and how much the campus shifted while I was there. It did help me realize that any space I was in, I could shift it and bend it. That was really encouraging.

Erkkila: You left college without graduating and started working as a community organizer. Despite your experience at college, you kept higher education and college students at the center of your work and activism. How do you understand your transition from school to your professional life?

Grimm: Knowing that there were still students going through what I went through, I felt obligated to take some of the weight off their backs. It’s not fair what queer students, or trans students, or students of color have to go through on campus. . . . The fact that they graduate in the numbers that they do and show that resiliency amazes me on a regular basis. However, how many of those amazing, bright minds do we lose because no one is paying attention to them?

If academic institutions want their students to thrive, then they need a student body that reflects the population of the world they live in. If you don’t teach your students how to live in a multicultural community, they won’t be able to function in the real world. They’re still trying to reflect a homogenous society that doesn’t exist. If an educational institution or a business or nonprofit cannot learn to work with “minority” groups of people, they are going to go extinct. Those “minority” groups will not be in the minority for very much longer.

Erkkila: What kind of work have you done since college, both professionally and in your activism?

Grimm: The basis of what I [did as the racial justice coordinator at MPIRG was] creating spaces where people felt free to be themselves. Students can affect how campuses work. They just need someone to give them the push and the encouragement to get it done.

I am also one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. We passed a city ordinance repealing the city laws against lurking and spitting, which police used to target people of color and homeless people.

Erkkila: What role do college students play both in the movement for racial justice and more generally as civic agents?

Grimm: Young people’s energy and resilience is something to be admired. We were at a rally after the protests in Ferguson[, Missouri,] with about three hundred people. Someone was hit by a car, an ambulance came, and we were ready to shut it down and not do the planned takeover of the freeway. And right at that moment, all of these college students, hundreds chanting and cheering, walked up the street. And we immediately knew we were going to be fine. They literally brought life to something that was so terrifying and allowed people to be courageous. I do not know if we would have done that action, which made national news, without them.

Erkkila: Are there lessons to learn from even the most negative experiences with a college institution?

Grimm: I look back on my experience, and I think it shaped me. My mentor told me that you cannot let these traumatizing events define you. [You] shouldn’t negate the effect [they have on] you, but you have to find something positive to do with that negativity. I think of it as alchemy: it’s negative stuff that you turn into gold. You pull what you can from those experiences, the traits that help you go through them in the first place, and you start to figure out who you are and what makes you.

I believe that if I had stayed at my school for another year, I would not have survived. Students have to take care of themselves first. But also realize [that when you’re in college], you’re in a microcosm of society, and you have a lot more weight than in the “real world.” Your voice is amplified, so you have this opportunity to leverage that.

Peter Erkkila is a Community Organizer.

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