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St. Olaf alumni organize an anti-racist book group among other anti-racist projects

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Photo by Alli Hering

 

Oles for Racial Awareness, Change, and Equity (ORACE) was organized by St. Olaf alumni to support the 2017 anti-racist student protest. Since their conception, ORACE has been involved in a variety of anti-racist projects at St. Olaf College and around Northfield. 

 

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, which several ORACE members have worked with, hosts speaker events every month. After the 2016 election, ORACE organizers decided to shift the speaker program to “Courageous Conversations,” focusing on social justice issues. Alongside the program, ORACE members formed an anti-racist book group as an opportunity for people to learn more about racism. 

 

Throughout the book club’s six years, 50 people have participated and at least 17 books have been read. Initially, they chose their books based on St. Olaf faculty suggestions. However, they have recently switched to selecting books based on what is being shown in the news. 

 

“This is a very engaged group, so they’ve got a lot of ears to the ground, so that’s where our ideas come from,” ORACE member Dawn Tommerdahl said in an interview with The Olaf Messenger.  

 

Some of the main themes the group identified from the readings were racism in religious institutions, patterns of anti-racist progress followed by backtracking, and racism as a systemic and pervasive issue. 

 

ORACE member Jane Burnett ’72 argues that it is important to do one’s own research regarding anti-racism and evaluate sources of discomfort. “That’s what’s good about the way we read our books,” Burnett said in an interview with the Olaf Messenger. “The minute you start to feel shame, resentment or anger, you must stop right there and go, ‘okay what is it that’s bothering me?’ What word was it? What phrase was it?”

 

Most people who join the group are thoughtful, open-minded, and come with a strong desire to learn more about racism in the United States. 

 

“All of us who are reading these books are asking ourselves, ‘what is our role now?’” Joanna Franklin ’72 said in an interview with the Olaf Messenger. 

 

In November 2023, ORACE members Burnett, Franklin, and Carrie Nelson ’72 met for lunch at the Ole Store and discussed the war in Gaza when Burnett said, “Well, let’s just do a protest.” From there, Burnett and Nelson obtained cardboard and markers from the Ole Store manager, made signs that read “ceasefire” and “justice for Palestine,” and stood in the main level of Buntrock Commons, where there was the most traffic on campus. 

 

“A lot of people came up to thank us for being there. It was almost all BIPOC faculty and students, not that many white students,” Burnett said. “It doesn’t take anything to do a protest… You’ll always get into a conversation.”    

 

ORACE members were involved in other anti-racist work such as raising $100,000 to endow the Dr. Joan Hepburn Endowment for Race and Ethnic studies. They consider themselves ready to mobilize when there is a need. 

 

butler9@stolaf.edu