St. Olaf College | News

A conversation on what it means to change ourselves and repair our communities

Last summer, St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Music Tesfa Wondemagegnehu found himself in Kenosha, Wisconsin, giving a woman he had just met a ride to a homeless shelter.

As they drove, he explained to her that he was on a 60-day journey across the eastern half of the United States to collect narratives from Black community members, activists, artists, clergy, and politicians whose work focuses on repairing the Black community.

“If you want information, don’t go to the people in the offices — come to the people on the streets,” the woman, who is Black and lives on the streets, told Wondemagegnehu. Those are the people, she said, who care for one another, share with one another, and see the workings of the community in a way that others don’t.

“Humble thyself, and watch how much it rewards you,” she told him.

Wondemagegnehu has listened to that conversation, which he recorded as they drove together, countless times since. He played it for the St. Olaf audience that gathered virtually on February 15 for a conversation about his To Repair Project, the 60-day, 40-stop journey he made during the summer of 2021.

One of the reasons the woman’s words were so profound, Wondemagegnehu told the audience, is because they were eerily similar to what his lifelong friend, Amanzi Arnett, had said to him in the summer of 2020: If you really want to know what’s happening in the Black community, get out of your ivory tower and be in the community. Sit down, listen, learn, and be humble.

That conversation with Arnett was the spark for the To Repair Project. Arnett, a coordinator with the TONE organization in Memphis, joined Wondemagegnehu for the virtual St. Olaf conversation that also included Vice President for Equity and Inclusion María Pabón Gautier and Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion Director Martin Olague ’04.

During the event, Wondemagegnehu described the conversations he had on his To Repair journey, from an impromptu meeting with an elderly couple in Kenosha who had once been sharecroppers to a visit with Timothy Wright, a lawyer and former government official who served in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. He also played several audio clips from his conversations with Black community members last summer, including his conversation in Kenosha and a visit with the Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers.

All of these conversations focused on the need to openly acknowledge and begin to address the spiritual and emotional trauma that Black communities have experienced. The work of building the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described begins with honest, difficult conversations. The urgency of the work demands that those discussions begin now, Wondemagegnehu says — including at St. Olaf.

“We don’t have the time at our disposal any longer to dance around these topics,” he told the audience.

And truthful conversations will be uncomfortable, messy, and emotional. “If it has to be in a nice, neat box and my tone has to shift for it to be more palatable for you, it isn’t going to work,” he added.

Having these conversations, Wondemagegnehu says, is critical to retain faculty, staff, and students of color at St. Olaf. Olague agreed, noting that it’s important for the college to not just accept people of color, but to adapt to be inclusive.

“[Students of color] don’t have the same experience as our white students have,” Olague told the audience. “We need to find a way on campus to become welcoming and to become that place where students feel like they belong.”

Pabón says it’s important for all campus community members to understand that higher education was not built around the experiences of people of color — and it has yet to fully adapt. “In academia, we ask for diversity, but are we ready for diversity? Are we ready for the discerning questions, for the pushback, for the challenges, the shifting?”

Rather than simply inviting people of color to the table, she says, they need to have the power to build the table. Wondemagegnehu said that bold action will be needed in order to move forward.

“It seems like we’re so afraid of that discomfort, we’re so afraid to speak boldly and stand tall,” he told the audience.

“One of the things that I’m hoping that To Repair models for the entire world is that we can be critiqued and it’s okay,” he said. “And we have to make it okay. The temporary discomfort is a part of reconciliation.”

The To Repair Project serves as the basis of a new multi-movement choral work that Wondemagegnehu was commissioned to create for the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club by conductor Mark Stover.

The world premiere performance of the piece by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club will be at Lincoln Center in New York City on Thursday, April 7, at 8 p.m. More information and tickets are available through Lincoln Center.

The piece will be performed at St. Olaf on Saturday, May 7, at 3:30 p.m. by the Michigan Men’s Glee Club and tenors and basses from the St. Olaf Choir and Viking Chorus. The event will also highlight the mission of Wondemagegnehu’s To Repair work and next steps.