“Derisa is my cousin but she’s like my sister,” Sandra Calliste told me as she braided a client’s hair in the lobby of the Anderson Freeman Center (AFC). “I raised her since she was little.”
Calliste is the owner of Mane Beauty, a hair and cosmetics shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. Over fall break, Calliste and her assistant, Rouchel McRae, took a six hour train to support the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) hair pop-up organized by Fanta Diop ’25 and Seif Alyosef ’25, Middlebury College Student Government Association DEI co-directors.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Fanta Diop ’25 who told me the initiative was an attempt to revitalize a pre-Covid tradition historically led by the Black Student Union (BSU).
While getting funding approved was a tumultuous process, Diop felt strongly supported by her friends. Specifically, Brys Peralta ’25, Bakari Moitt ’24, Tara Masri ’25, Josh Wayland ’25, Franchesca Belisle ’25, Raymond Diaz ’23 and Gloria Escobedo ’23 were essential in terms of providing emotional support and aiding with the marketing of the pop-up.
“In order for this to be successful, we needed to prove that students needed it. They came, showed up, posted about it and spoke about it. Without them, I don't think I would have wanted to do this,” Diop said.
Earlier that week, Diop had met with Derisa Collymore, the director of the AFC, feeling overwhelmed at the unfamiliarity of the inner hierarchies of the college and where to find avenues of institutional support. They met for five hours, and by the end of it, Diop felt redirected and her hope in the initiative was restored.
“Derisa has shown time and time again that she is somebody who will keep her word. If she says she is going to do something, then she absolutely will. She has not failed us, not once throughout this process,” Diop said as people snapped in support around the room.
Collymore also aided in finding accommodations and transportation for Diop’s mother, who filled in for a hair stylist that made a last minute cancellation.
Diop and her mother spoke to each other in Bambara, the national language of Mali. When I asked Diop about the qualities she admires most in her mother she immediately replied, “Her tenacity and determination. I don't think I’ve seen a more driven person in my life. I didn't expect her to make it up here, but she said she'd do it, and she came.”
After getting to know more about Diop and her family, I made my way over to Sade Awodesu ’25 who had been in the AFC that day for more than seven hours getting her hair braided. According to Awodesu, this is the fastest her hair has been braided.
“I had my old braids yesterday, and I had to take them out before this morning. Four people sat around me and took my braids out really fast. It took less than 30 minutes, whereas if I was alone in my dorm it would have taken four hours,” Awodesu said.
In addition to being convenient, the DEI hair pop-up served as a safe space for communal gathering, which according to Awodesu, is unusual for a place like Middlebury that can at times feel stressful.
“This is a human space. We’re taking care of each other,” Awodesu remarked.
After hearing so much hype about Collymore, I stopped by her office to see if she was around. Even though she was furiously typing away at her computer, she welcomed me inside.
Over fall break, Collymore had spent more than 12 hours at the AFC assisting with the hair pop-up. The hair pop-up was a trial run for the AFC’s future goal of implementing a permanent space at Middlebury and hiring a hair professional well versed in all hair types. Given the rural setting of Vermont, where haircare tends to be less accessible, this goal could better meet the needs of students.
Institutions are essential in maintaining traditions and keeping records to meet students' needs.
“When you build traditions, everybody remembers, and everybody knows how it's done. You leave that legacy of ‘this is what needs to get done,’” Collymore said.
According to Collymore, the college’s record keeping of traditions centered around BIPOC students, faculty and staff has been lacking. In the past, students have been left to do the majority of the organizing work surrounding creating traditions and community building in the absence of substantial institutional support. Traditions that are anecdotally passed down can become vulnerable to discontinuity.
Just as Diop mentioned earlier, Collymore has been keeping her word. Last year, Collymore and Janae Due, the assistant director of the AFC, organized the first ever Lavender Graduation. They also created stoles for first generation college graduates. “People make this a big deal, like, ‘Derisa you've done so much!’ No. This is the bare minimum,” Collymore said.
“This space [the AFC] belongs to the students and it is a place that legitimately cannot be touched at this point. I know this is a safe space to build. That's what I can focus on and I know most people are with me at this point.”