Several student organizations are working to bring to the forefront an issue which they believe doesn’t receive sufficient attention: class and classism.
On September 28, about 25 students from different socioeconomic backgrounds engaged in a Class Action workshop held at the College Center MPR, which was mainly organized by Students’ Class Issues Alliance (SCIA) with support from Feminist Alliance, Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP) and VSA Social Consciousness Fund.
Ian Cark ’17, one of the workshop organizers, during a follow-up dinner held by SCIA in the Aula on the following Wednesday, October 2 said he has been trying to spread the word around to get more people involved weeks before the actual workshop.
“To be frank,” he said, “it was hard for many students to speak up about socioeconomic issues at the beginning, but by the end of the workshop, they had a good sense of how classes affect Vassar and groups around the world.
During the workshop, participants interacted with each other by having activities and conversations in groups of varying scales. At first, all attendants stood in the same big circle for an activity called common ground. Each time the trainer identified a certain circumstance regarding class or class issues, everyone who identified with that statement stepped into the circle.
Later on, people with similar backgrounds aligned with each other in smaller circles to further discuss common problems they faced. The workshop organizers hoped by opening a safe space for exchanging individual experiences, everybody could realize that class issues exist in various forms, and that nobody who is a part of a specific class was ever alone.
Willow Carter ’15 saw the workshop as a particular opportunity to increase the awareness of diversity on campus.
“It’s important to make people realize that differences do exist,” she said. “Classes and class issues aren’t often discussed at Vassar. Since it’s a premier liberal art school, there’s often the assumption that people are coming from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, which is not true.”
During the brief speech SCIA President Rocky Schwartz ’15 gave during the follow-up dinner, she reiterated SCIA’s mission.
“We are constantly striving for fostering campus conversations about class and the way it affects students, and create a space for low-income and first-generation students to discuss their issues and collaborate,” she said.
Class Action intern and SCIA member Hannah Schenk ’14 was interested in how this particular workshop, which had never happened before, could be a fresh start to future progresses for Vassar in the way of classism discussions.
Based on expectations, group believed that the dinner was well attended. SCIA Treasurer and Co-Facilitator Benedict Nguyen ’15 wrote in an emailed statement, “About 40 people attended the dinner. It was a productive discussion that saw some familiar and new faces in unexpected conversations about class on campus and in the broader Poughkeepsie area”
One of SCIA’s major goals is to create a an on-campus center designated for students who are first-generation and come from a low-income background to discuss their experiences. The workshop is one such outlet for these students.
Schenk also spoke about the group’s aim for a “working class student center” for which SCIA proposed a resolution to Vassar Student Association (VSA) last December as part of SCIA’s ongoing goal. The group aims at “providing a space not found elsewhere on campus in which students can comfortably discuss issues of socioeconomic class at Vassar and in the larger community.”
The center, as SCIA members envisioned, would have a structure similar to those of the ALANA, LGBTQ and Women’s Centers.
Nguyen spoke to how, just as other marginalized groups can be silenced on campus, class is another issue that can easily be ignored at elite schools. He said, “Though it can be difficult to overcome the silence around class on campus, I believe that this component of our identity has more of an impact on student experiences than campus climate discourses sometimes give voice to.”
Schenk attested to the hidden nature of class issues at Vassar. “I love talking about class issues with my peers, because they are typically made so invisible here. Class is a subject that people at Vassar are usually extremely uncomfortable talking about, yet it deeply impacts everyone and intersects with so many other issues of identity and social justice,” Schenk wrote in an emailed statement. “I enjoy discovering the shared experiences relating to class that are lurking under the surface of almost everyone’s mind.”
As for how these lurking issues can change, people had similar thoughts for effecting change both on campus and off. One of Schenk’s plans was simply to encourage discussion—getting people to talk about class means that they are at least thinking about it—and to make spaces available to discuss class and classism.
“Just talking and creating space to talk about class is a huge step towards reducing classism. We all have something to contribute to conversations about class, we just need the space to have these conversations. These conversations can then generate concrete action steps towards fighting inequality,” said Schenk.
Nguyen, on the other hand, encouraged students to feel uncomfortable, emphasizing that discomfort is not necessarily a negative when it comes to enacting change.
“Continuing to challenge instances of interpersonal classism to encourage students to lean into the discomfort this issue causes would help our student body begin to acknowledge class as a form of difference and thus, work to bridge gaps across class divides,” Nguyen went on to explain.
Looking to the future, SCIA plans to continue hosting activities that focus on improving class-related discourse at Vassar.
Said Nguyen, “We hope to plan monthly discussion dinners collaborating with other [organizations’ to address intersectionality and class. In addition, we hope to include more professors in our discussions this year to provide an academic and institutional perspective of Vassar.”