Researching Race in Grand Rapids

A Caucasian woman entered the pharmacy to get her prescriptions filled. Nia, a young African American pharmacy technician, offered to help.

“I’ll wait,” the woman said. After Nia asked again, the woman reluctantly accepted. But she wouldn’t accept change from Nia’s hand.

Calvin College junior Abby Koning said that Nia’s story was one of the many she heard as a fellow of the McGregor Undergraduate Research Program for the Humanities and Social Sciences. A large part of Koning’s work was transcribing the 150 interviews that Calvin communication arts and sciences professor Stephanie Sandberg recorded with residents of Grand Rapids, Mich., on the subject of race.

Koning, an English major and international development studies minor, also heard about minorities who make arrangements by phone to see an apartment—only to find it rented when they arrive. She’s heard about the African American college professor who was shadowed by a police cruiser as he was jogging. In addition, Koning conducted some interviews and did research at the local library.

From these stories, Sandberg, Koning, and a team of actors are creating a play called Lines: The Lived Experience of Race.

“You pull the material for the script right out of the interviews,” Koning said. “You don’t change anybody’s words. You use the actual words. . . . It is not a play about racism. It is a play about the experience of ‘race.’”

Students learn many skills through a project like Lines, said Sandberg. “It’s vital to teach how they might use scholarship to promote social justice. I want to teach this kind of research methodology to the next generation of artists so that they can carry on with the work.”

About the Author

Myrna Anderson is a senior writer in Calvin College’s communications and marketing department.