Tori Hope Petersen almost signed the petition she went viral for opposing. An alumni letter addressed to Hillsdale College, demanding the school speak out in favor of Black Lives Matter, caught traction in the weeks after George Floyd’s killing. Petersen credits “the hand of God” for inspiring her to pause before signing it.
Written by a white female graduate, the letter to Hillsdale said in part:
Your silence is evidence of your complicity and apathy on matters of racial equity.
Your refusal to take a stand against the tyranny of our militarized police force is evidence of your abandonment of your founding principles.
Your reticence during this time amounts to erasure.
Your lack of a statement admonishing white supremacy is a silent consent.
Other major institutions are reckoning with their place in this movement.
You have the platform and ability to set a standard for your student body and faculty, Conservatives at large, and anyone who seeks to uphold the Good, True, and Beautiful.
Hillsdale responded by pointing unapologetically to its record on racial equity, methodically dismantling that argument that publishing a statement of solidarity was necessary given the college’s proud history of combating racism.
Petersen, a black woman who went into the foster care system at age 12 after growing up in Ohio with a “single, mentally-ill, abusive mother,” attended the school on a track scholarship and a grant. She’s now a wife, a mother, and an advocate for foster youth living in Minnesota.
In a Monday interview, Petersen reflected on her initial reaction to the petition. “When I first read the letter, instantly I thought ‘Oh she’s right, Hillsdale should be speaking up about this,” Peterson told me. “And as time went on, and then Hillsdale did respond, I thought, ‘What has Hillsdale done for me?” So Petersen pushed back.
“I was very scared of putting it out there,” Petersen said of the thoughtful letter she published on her website, an eloquent rebuttal to the petition and its reliance on the ascendant notion that silence necessarily indicates agreement, or even violence.
Petersen walked through the myriad ways Hillsdale empowered her, financially, emotionally, and academically. From a scholarship to an outpouring of support during an unplanned pregnancy, the school, Petersen emphasized, spoke loudly and clearly. “Hillsdale College doesn’t have to be loud with their words, because they’re bold in their actions and consistent in their education,” she argued.
“I felt it was necessary to write the letter,” Petersen told me, “because Hillsdale’s motto is ‘what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful,’ and I felt like what I was reading wasn’t true. It wasn’t the full picture.”
“I just felt it was so important because I really wanted to encourage the leadership who had encouraged me, and I wanted to shine a light on what is true, and that’s why I tried to give very tangible examples of what Hillsdale and the leadership there have actually done,” she added. Hillsdale “has been saying something all along,” Petersen realized.
People immediately responded to Petersen’s post—including the woman who wrote the original petition. “She thanked me for starting the dialogue, and then she told me that she was going to donate to the Fostering the Good scholarship. She said, ‘I disagree with you, but I thank you for starting a dialogue and I’m going to donate to the scholarship.'” Fostering the Good is a fund Petersen helped start for Hillsdale students.
Asked why she thought a white woman drafted a petition speaking to what the black community needed from Hillsdale, Petersen said, “It does worry me that people who are not of color are claiming the struggle as their own for attention, to build their platform.”
“That’s frightening,” she continued. “I can’t say that I know her heart, but I wish that she would have sought out other minorities.” Another young woman who wrote her own letter to the college told Petersen, “I wish I would have read a letter like yours before I wrote mine.”
So why does she think her fellow Hillsdale alumni signed onto the letter? “It’s so tense, everyone is emotional about this topic. We’re trying to reconcile our faith, and our politics, and our education and the way we’ve been raised with this huge cultural devastation. And we’re thinking, ‘Oh, how can we help? Well, maybe we’ll get this institution that has a national voice to say something.'”
“I think there are people who are just trying to be godly, they’re trying to do the right thing, and so there’s this signature line that’s so easy to sign, and I think they just did it without thinking about the things we were taught because of the school,” she speculated.
Hillsdale’s response, Petersen said, provides a helpful model for the country. “I live in Minnesota. I have friends who look outside and there are buildings burning. So to be prudent, to be slow, to want to help in a way that’s actually helpful. I that’s what we should all be doing. They’re just modeling for us.”
“They embodied the virtue that they teach all of us,” said Petersen, “and that is prudence. The second thing that I’ve tried to keep in mind during all this is that if our nation, if our people do need to change in any capacity, that change takes time.”
She added, “I always think young, vulnerable people who have all this trauma and these triggers, we don’t just expect them to fix what is broken. We give them tools, they go to counseling, and we give them the time to really dig up those roots and re-cultivate what might be wrong so that they can bear good fruit. So I think being prudent is okay, being slow to speak in the midst of all of this is okay.”
In Petersen’s experience, Hillsdale’s efforts to “understand” also reflect efforts that should be emulated on a national scale. “I think that’s one of the biggest cries from the black community and from suffering people right now is just ‘hear my experience.’ And I think that’s what I loved about Hillsdale is that they can never fully know me or understand me because most of them do not have a background anything like me, but they try their very hardest to understand me.”
One of the country’s “core problems,” according to Petersen, “is that we’re not seeing each other as God sees us. We’re not seeing each other fully. And that’s why black men are being killed unjustly. That’s why white men are being judged unfairly. There’s not just one side to this.”
Another step towards healing, as Petersen sees it, is “to stop playing hero and let people be the heroes of their own stories.”
“We can be allies and lovers of our neighbors, and encouragers, but no one wants someone to come and save them. We dance beautifully together if we learn to give and take, but we are depriving people of creating beauty in their own stories if we are only givers or only takers,” she continued.
As an advocate for kids in the foster care system, Petersen is passionate about spreading the word about how others can assist. “When people see the foster care system they think, ‘Oh, I have to be a foster parent to help.’ And foster parents are so needed, especially in this time as the COVID pandemic will bring so many youth into the foster care because abuse and neglect is skyrocketing just as it did in the 2008 recession,” she explained.
“But,” Petersen continued, “if you don’t want to be a foster parent, some influential people in my story were my mentors, it was my track coach. So just being there for vulnerable youth, again, trying to understand their story.”
She uses her website and social media accounts, particularly Instagram, to raise awareness about foster care and adoption, and “hopefully shine light on the gospel.”
“A lot of people have reached out to me,” Petersen told me on Monday, reflecting on the Hillsdale community’s response to her letter. “Before we got on our phone call, I was crying to my husband because I just couldn’t believe all of the messages that I’m getting.”
“I wrote it to be an encouragement, but I didn’t think that I would get a response like this so quickly,” she said.