The Cultural Connection Center starts the new semester with new safety measures and a renewed purpose.
By Emma Eidsvoog
Ratsamee Thosaengsiri came to the Cultural Connection Center first as a freshman, welcomed by a student named Michelle. Two years ago, the center, a 429-square-foot room on the third floor of the Clauson Center, included tables and chairs for students to play board games and do homework. Now, it’s limited to a walkthrough as a museum exhibit. But learning still happens, and so does the community Thosaengsiri was drawn to her freshman year.
“I love Bethel, but sometimes having a place that you can see people like you and have a space that welcomes you and you can sit in there and enjoy…Those were the best moments from freshman year,” Ratsamee Thosaengsiri said.
Thosaengsiri, now a CCC Ambassador, sits at the desk in the front of the room behind a sheet of plexiglass each Friday. She welcomes students into the space and introduces them to the exhibits.
Diversity and Inclusion Associate Pang Moua spent the summer trying to figure out how to continue their center with social distancing. In the past, the CCC involved sharing food and laughs and sitting close with one another on couches while doing homework.
“I’m looking forward to sitting shoulder to shoulder again,” Pang Moua said.
After the release of students from campus in the spring, Moua continued to connect through letters, meal drop-offs and prayer blankets. She knows the CCC is not just the four walls of CC317, it’s also the people.
When Moua and campus pastor Paul Kong were faced with restructuring the center, Kong was inspired by the Sankofa trips he led every spring break. The group visited sites that made a significant impact during the civil rights movement, such as the National Civil Rights museum, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Kong thought of creating ‘exhibits’ within the CCC for students and faculty to reflect on the theme of humanity.
“Seeing powerful images triggers thought and makes you ask questions,” Kong said.
The space now serves as a walkthrough, like a museum, with exhibits for learning and reflecting. The first stop is a mirror with the words “Beloved, you belong here” placed over the top and polaroids bordering the edges. Kong says this is a reminder for all students that the center is intended for all students, including white students who feel the space isn’t for them to interact with.
“When you see the image of yourself it will help reinforce that you belong here, we all belong here; together,” Kong said.
Shelves with photos of CCC’s ambassadors line the left wall. Each week, an ambassador is on “spotlight” and will share their favorite snack.
The next stop, called “Know their name,” has papers written with names of people killed by law enforcement. In the middle, a mirror hangs with a block underneath saying “unknown name.”
Kong says the exhibit is to remind others of the victims’ humanity. That they had names, children and people who cared for them.
“When the person looks in the mirror, they realize that this could be us. This is who we are, we are also imperfect individuals,” Kong said. “A person’s name helps us remember their humanity.”
The back wall holds a collage of a poem written by Chief Diversity Officer Ruben Rivera, and on the right are images of Jesus portrayed in different cultural perspectives. Kong said the Jesus he related to the most wasn’t the European style he grew up seeing.
Plexiglass and tables divide the center down the middle, but they are plastered with printed out prayers and battery-powered candles.
This semester, Moua was excited to see new faces of students, faculty and staff in the center – one of them being Bethel’s new president, Ross Allen. The first week of classes tested the CCC’s new layout. Students came to connect after a six-month absence, some sat on the floor due to the lack of chairs.
“I hold my worries in tension with each other: protection and connection; protection from the virus and connection with students of color on campus,” Moua said.
Moua and Kong saw a need to clarify the purpose of the CCC. Their focus this year is to “support historically marginalized groups on campus and welcome people who have a desire to develop their intercultural competence.”
“The CCC is evidence that specifically students of color at Bethel have been crying out for a place to simply be, for a place to simply belong, to let down their guard and be accepted as them,” Pang said. “It’s like a rest stop for them.”