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Then and Now: Johnetta Cole

September 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Johnetta Cole is a cultural anthropologist by training, college builder by practice. She’s best known for her years as president of Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black institution for women. She has now taken the helm at tiny, troubled Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, the nation’s only other private college for black women.

JOHNETTA COLE: Sometimes I think one of our biggest problems on college campuses is the absence of idealism, the absence of a sense of rebellion, the absence of being young. I mean, if you’re just going to sit it out, what are you going to do when you are 40?

GWEN IFILL: After ten years at Spelman, Cole retired in 1997, returned to teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, and retired again. She moved to Greensboro after deciding she’s just not very good at retirement. Cole is the author of “Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President,” and “Dream the Boldest Dreams: And Other Lessons of life.” We spoke with her in founders library on another historically black college campus, Howard University in Washington. Johnetta Cole, welcome.

JOHNETTA COLE, President, Bennett College: Thank you, sister Gwen. Thank you very much for inviting me.

GWEN IFILL: You are on a new campus this year, a new job, came out of retirement to go to Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. How different is the campus now this year, a year after September 11?

JOHNETTA COLE: On the campus at Bennett College is a young sister. Her name is Tiffany Smith. Her father was Leon Smith, Jr., And he lost his life on September 11. You can’t avoid feeling this. This is not abstract. This is not about something that happened so far away that you don’t need to connect with it.

GWEN IFILL: He was in the World Trade Center?

JOHNETTA COLE: He was a fireman, a very beloved firemen. Tiffany wasn’t sure she could make it, that she could continue in school. And every day a member of his company called her up and said, “You must go to school. Your daddy is watching you.”

GWEN IFILL: You have talked about a community, a sense of connection in a community. Has the United States become more of a community? Has there been a greater connection as a result of the past 12 months?

JOHNETTA COLE: I can tell you what I hope, but I must also tell you what I fear. I hope that we have. I hope that these deeply, deeply entrenched lines that divide us– race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender– that we look at them differently now. My fear is that while we initially responded out of a deep sense of compassion and community, that we have sort of returned in many ways to some of our old behavior. I am very concerned about the rise of Islama-phobia, about the sense that “I can tell a terrorist.” I really weep for young Arab Americans who have experienced increased victimization because of something that they wish to have absolutely nothing to do with.

GWEN IFILL: You’ve written a book, “Dream the Boldest Dreams,” which has a lot of lessons of life, as we’re talking about lessons here. And I want to read a few of them to you and ask you to elaborate on how they can be applied to the lessons we may have learned or not learned since September 11. One, you write “Because freedom is indivisible, pitting one oppression against another harms us all.” Elaborate on that thought.

JOHNETTA COLE: Well, it’s pretty obvious that I’m an African American woman and that I have, too, been victimized by racism and by sexism. But I must say that it is possible for those of us who are African American to victimize others. It is possible for a woman to be homophobic. It is possible for someone who is Jewish to have very, very deep bigotry against someone who happens to be black. What can we say about slavery? What can we say about the Holocaust? But we must also remember Rwanda. We must think of what happened in Haiti. We must remember that each of us unfortunately has the capacity to oppress another. Imagine a world where all of this stuff, these “isms,” these systems of inequality, which really are much bigger and more lasting and so terribly powerful, much more powerful than anything we as individuals do– imagine, though, if we could teach, if we could genuinely teach tolerance, because it ain’t genetic. I mean, forgive my use of an ungrammatical phrase there, but, you know, we have learned this stuff.

GWEN IFILL: You know, this time last year or a little… a few weeks from now last year, we were talking about how everyone was suddenly going to pay attention for the first time to different kinds of religions, different kinds of people, different kinds of backgrounds. Instead, you are saying that we are still stuck in a kind of rut in terms of understanding one another and learning how to co-exist. 9/11 didn’t change that?

JOHNETTA COLE: Of course, 9/11 has had an effect, but, you know, Gwen, there is an increased interest in other people, other religions, but I live in a state where a group of folk tried to stop the reading of a book about Islam assigned for freshmen and freshwomen. Do I lift that up as the only example out of September 11? No, but that it exists says that we still have a lot of work to do.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the challenge on a college campus right now, a year later where you’re supposed to be teaching these lessons? What is the challenge to get young people to pay attention, to feel other than… “Tiffany over here had a loss, but it wasn’t my loss,” to feel that it affects them, that there’s something that they can be doing.

JOHNETTA COLE: The challenge is still there. And I mean absolutely no disrespect about September 11. My heart is in little pieces as the heart of everyone is, but you know, we’ve always had terrorism. We have always had inhumanity. We have always had oppression. And I think the role of colleges and universities, of our schools has always been to teach the destructiveness of it all.

GWEN IFILL: You’re best known for your work at Spelman College in Atlanta. What made you come out of retirement to take on another college presidency when you could have happily served on boards and written books and not gotten drawn back into this?

JOHNETTA COLE: I think… no, I know, that I came out of retirement to serve as Bennett College as president because of a deep human desire that we all have to be needed, to be needed. I think that there’s some things that I with lots and lots of other folk– no savior complex here– that I with lots of other folk can do, to turn the corner for this extraordinary place. There are only two historically black colleges for women in our country. We cannot let one go away.

GWEN IFILL: It’s a small school. You’re dealing with a relatively finite number of students. What difference can it make?

JOHNETTA COLE: I’ve often thought about the power of something called hope. I’m going to quote Margaret Meade, perhaps the most famous anthropologist the world has known. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt the ability of a small, thoughtful, committed group of citizens to change the world.” Indeed it’s the only way it happens. Well, I think, although we’d love to change the world– get rid of bigotry and some other stuff– a small group of committed folk can change Bennett College. And that’s… that’s what we’re trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: Which leads to my final question: Can a small group of committed folk also change the way America deals with itself in the wake of 9/11?

JOHNETTA COLE: I have to believe that. Otherwise what do I do? I wallow in a sense of hopelessness. I assume that bigotry will be forever. I declare that my country can never change. I refuse to do that. I do believe that we have the capacity to do better. We need to start trying.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Cole, thank you very much.

JOHNETTA COLE: You know you’re welcome.