The Aula brimmed with the smell of apple-cider. Balancing paper plates on their laps, students sat in chairs event organizers had arranged into a circle. Behind them, boxes of autumnal desserts lay sprawled out on a table. Someone had taken the time to cut the pumpkin pie into tea party-sized slivers.
Everyone was waiting for the “Campus Life and Diversity Forum” to begin. The event’s mission was for members of the Vassar community to have a dialogue on the recent, politically-charged tragedies that raged on throughout the summer and into the fall. The conversation was in part sparked by the string of racially-motivated police shootings that ended the lives of three black men within the span of three months. The casualties included Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota; Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, Virginia. These were some of the latest in the incidents of police brutality since the slaying of Florida teen Trayvon Martin four summers before.
A group of Campus Life workers gathered as latecomers trickled into the room. The grim topics that flyers advertising the event promised to delve into–police shootings, racism, apathy, disillusionment–loomed ominously above the space.
Among College employees and faculty in attendance were Associate Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman, Interim Director of the ALANA Center Wendy Maragh Taylor, Director of the Spiritual Life Office and Assistant Dean of Campus Life Samuel H. Speers, Director of Jewish Life Joseph A. Glick and Women’s Center and LGBTQ Center Director Jodie Costanza. Also in attendance was Shani Cox ’15, a post-baccalaureate fellow for the Office of International Services.
The forum came on the heels of the postponement of “In Solidarity: A Gathering for Community and Affirmation,” a collaboration between the Black Student Union, Council of Black Seniors and Caribbean Students Alliance. Unlike “Solidarity,” the emphasis of the Diversity forum was dialogue rather than healing. “You are invited to join a conversation about…#blacklivesmatter #sayhername #TulsaFerguson #bluelivesmatter #translivesmatter ElCajon FalconHeights and more,” read the mass email invitation Pittman sent out a week before. Though the event’s theme encompassed a wide varitey of discussion topics, students in attendance focused their concerns on the prolematic public discourse related to issues of social justice.
The forum was not an event in which all students felt comfortable, despite its welcoming invitation. One senior who chose not to attend, and who wished to remain anonymous, defended his choice. “Given what was written, I felt like the dialogue had so many intentions and super intense topics until it could have played out any number of ways,” he said in a brief interview. “It was too nebulous to really be effective in my opinion.”
To combat the gravity of the topics, the forum featured an open dialogue format. Its setup allowed for participants to reveal intense, painful feelings, and to sympathize with and support each other. The first half of the allotted hour was reserved for critiquing Vassar’s pitfalls as both a community and an institution when addressing the effects of headline-making hate crimes; the second half, to possible solutions.
When the time came for the forum to start, Campus Life workers interspersed themselves with the students before taking turns to specify a list of “norms” or rules to abide by during the talk. The norms were simple enough: “Speak your truth with kindness and compassion,” “assume everyone has constructive intentions,” “appreciate that people have the courage to speak in a public forum on incredible violence” and “respect confidentiality” [for this reason, The Miscellany News has chosen to keep student participants anonymous].
Many of the topics discussed were emotionally charged, albeit important to talk about. Referring to the recent incidences of racially motivated police brutality, Pittman said, “My emotions were all over the place. We wanted to create an opportunity for students to talk. It’s an atrocious situation, and we can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.”
The dialogue was punctuated with moments of silence. Speech came in bursts, followed by quiet reflection in the form of nodding heads and furrowed brows. Topics ranged from the superficiality of Vassar’s purported liberalness to the lack of critical thinking that often plagues discourse on identity based violence. “When things like [the shooting of Philando Castile] happen, there’s no pause [at Vassar],” one junior opined. “If there is, it’s always later, with the same circle of people.”
Students also brought up their disillusionment with the school, and the impact that that has on the campus atmosphere. One freshman said, “[Many students] reach a point where they become tired and action is taken off the table.” Voicing concern, he went on to say, “[Disillusionment] is so dangerous, especially for freshmen, to see because it creates a cycle.”
The conversation ended on a positive note. Interim Director for the Campus Life ALANA Center Wendy Taylor read a quote from renowned black feminist activist and writer Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” People exchanged smiles and everyone went around the room to share their preferred method for self-care. Answers elicited responses that ranged from laughter–a senior admitted, “I like to take long showers…against my housemate’s wishes”–to understanding–one freshman offered, “I like to just look at the trees and respect nature.”
Students arranged themselves into small groups to continue discussing the topics they were most drawn to. While this particular forum came to a close, the dialogue surrounding emotionally charged topics such as identity based violence will undoubtedly continue.