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The Case for Meaningful Dialogue: Honoring our Past and Present Activism

On Campus

The Case for Meaningful Dialogue: Honoring our Past and Present Activism

Radix Admin

By Courtney Brunson '16

As Mount Holyoke students, we pride ourselves on our intellectual prowess and advocacy for a wide variety of domestic and worldwide issues. Yet, too frequently, we see this intellect and activism fall to the wayside in both academic or personal settings. For almost all of us, we can recollect a moment of when we have sat in a classroom and grimaced as ‘that person’ in the class begins their umpteenth rant about irrelevant material that only serves the purpose of giving them an audience for stroking their intellectual ego.

A recently published study found that “87 percent of millennials admitted to missing out on a conversation because they were distracted by their phone…[and] 54 percent said they experience a fear of missing out if not checking social networks.” With the rise of social media and other technological advancements, our generation is often subjected to the quick, surface level, and meaningless interactions and conversations that frequently leave people wanting more – or even worse – believing that they are more educated and well versed than they actually are. Despite the fact that we now have the capacity to be connected to people all around the world, it seems as though the quality of our conversations have suffered as a result.

Let me clarify at this moment that this is not going to be an opinion piece that adds another item to the list about how horrible and ungrateful our generation is. Rather, I seek to explore how millennials as well as individuals currently in collegiate academic spaces can have conversations that hold more meaning and purpose in our lives.

What, you may ask, would you qualify as meaningful conversation? I would call a dialogue meaningful if it does one or more of these three things:

1) Helps you reflect upon or defend your current beliefs in a way you were unable to do before

2) Changes the way you think about a person, situation, or phenomenon

3) Propels you to commit a positive action that you would not have done otherwise

The topics I am most concerned about ensuring we talk about are social justice issues and our current political landscape. As the 2016 election cycle comes around, I become more and more aware of the fact that, to some extent, we are at a turning point of policy making and goal setting as a generation. With issues like climate change, income inequality, and continued racial discrimination looming over our heads, we must arm ourselves with knowledge and the ability to have an intelligent conversation about where we stand and what we seek to do in solving these issues. Regardless of where your political advocacy lies, it is important that you have the opportunity to know who you are voting into office and what policies best create the world you want to live in.

To explain how meaningful discourse can be had, I discuss two tools that already exist (or have previously existed) and have been known about and utilized by some people on this very campus. The first is the Posse Foundation Posse Plus Retreat. Granted, as a Posse Scholar, I obviously have a bias, but I will seek to make an objective argument about how this weekend retreat  is effective later on. The second, which is the significantly lesser known example of the two (and was only told to me at a Wilder breakfast session months ago), was the creation of Choragos, which is the conversion of the Mount Holyoke News in the early 1960s into a thought and solution oriented newspaper publication. Present on the campus for less than two decades, Choragos candidly discussed important and often controversial student issues and concerns in their weekly publication with the aim of provoking further dialogue and tangible student action.  

As a writer for Radix, I have personally learned more about my own advocacy, through the defense of my analysis in my articles and the reading of my fellow colleagues vast different perspectives and experiences. Similarly, as a Posse Scholar, I have attended and facilitated dozens of conversations on various social justice issues but enjoyed the Posse Plus retreat most because it was opened to my wider community, which allowed for a multiplicity of perspectives as well as a space for difficult yet important conversations that affected our world, nation, and campus community. I want to highlight these examples as scenarios to give an explanation of how meaningful conversation can and has occurred on this campus and how, if you believe in playing a role in a better future, you can enter into or create your own opportunities and spaces.

So first, the Posse Retreat. Officially, the Posse Foundation states that the PossePlus Retreat entails “a weekend of interactive and challenging workshops designed to tackle important national and campus issues.” By bringing together student, faculty, administrator, and staff members, Posse facilitates dialogues on complex social, cultural and political issues while still “creating a safe space for dialogue between campus community members who may not ordinarily interact with one another.” For anyone that has ever attended these retreats, the above definition is just a really eloquent way of saying “We’re going to take you students into the woods with administrators, staff, and faculty that you likely haven’t had much interaction with whatsoever to push you to the edge of your comfort zone and cry about your mutual and different experiences.” Though I myself abhor the presence of larger concentrations of trees than humans and had only spent a total of 12 days in the past four years in these retreats, I believe that we were able to cover major topics such as socioeconomic class, criminal justice, trigger warnings, etc, in a productive and profound matter.

It’s fairly easy to isolate for what elements the PossePlus space possesses that made it a space amicable to the meaningful dialogue I advocate for increasing. The first component is the ability of Posse attendees and facilitators to create a safe space that (to a large extent) withholds judgment, allows for mistakes and digressions, and promotes learning. For both understandable and problematic reasons, Mount Holyoke College tends to have a “Call- Out Culture” that immediately alienates someone who is not familiar with certain academic jargon or concepts or mistakenly commits race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender based microaggressions. In a lot of ways, no student is or should be required to consistently act as other’s punching bags or educators. If someone says something to you that bothers or upsets you, you are 100% entitled to call them for it. However, the inevitable consequence of that is that a person might be significantly more likely to censor their words and significantly less likely to try to learn something about that particular person or general topic in the future. The second component I believe the retreat possesses is more specifically about the space. We are all in college because we believe in the pursuit of earning a degree that teaches us many important things about the disciplines we are interested in and seek to start a career in upon graduation. However, I encourage people to make concerted efforts to parallel these academic lessons with profound experiences to ensure they are putting what they learn in class into practice. The PossePlus Retreat accomplishes this by taking us into the middle of nowhere and guiding us through daylong facilitations. Yet, you are equally capable of creating a safe place that isn’t a classroom to have conversations about the complex and loaded topics that matter to you. In these spaces, it is less about getting a certain grade in a class and more about learning about others and asking questions about the world you currently live in in order to develop tools to build the world we seek to live in.

These spaces also give you an opportunity to say what you actually think without resorting to unintelligible Facebook posts or anonymous Yaking. Rather, you can talk about the things you’re passionate about and learn about some things that you’re less passionate about but that are equally important to be aware of.

Now, for my second example, I invite you to join me down memory lane (or in the Archives folder that I found all of this information in).

Picture it, Mount Holyoke College in 1963.

For context, the students on campus at this time were grappling with issues including institutional racism, tenure, immoral wars, drug consumption, terrible social lives, upcoming elections and how best to communicate and collaborate with the administration as a student. A couple of these sound quite familiar, don’t they?

Well, in light of these issues, Julie C. Van Camp, Class of 1969, in collaboration with other writers and editors decided to make a radical change. On Friday, March 1, 1968, Van Camp and company wrote an article that explained that the fifty years of Mount Holyoke News should be ended and replaced “to break with traditions no longer relevant or meaningful” to the campus. In its place, passive reporters became “active initiators of change with the goal of improvement.” Rather than commenting on past information, they wanted to instead focus on the “enlarged responsibility” of talking about what could and should be happening at Mount Holyoke. In one line, the paper concedes that they had “neither the power nor the right to make the final decision” but believed that “once the community has been well informed and turned on to the possibilities before them, half the battle is won.” This was true, as they continued, because then it allowed the community to decide “whether the status quo is indeed the best alternative or if change should be forthcoming.”

And for nearly the next two decades after that article, they would invite people into their newsroom (located in the Mead basement) to attend what they called “bitch-sessions” about what happened on the campus and what should be done about it, which would get published in the newspaper every single Friday. The paper definitely received numerous complaints and gaining many detractors. Clips of papers included letters to the editor titled: “MHC isn’t perfect, but complaints won’t change it”, letters by disgruntled readers including one specifically who believed the language used in the articles was similar to that of the obscenities used in “the lower ranks in the Marines”, and accounts from Julie C. Van Camp herself that said most of the correspondence she received was from complete strangers who criticized her. On the other hand, though, she and the newspaper also received a lot of praise, especially by Phil Semas, editor for the College Press Service, who wrote to Van Camp that the previous role of the paper “put a little too much emphasis on its bulletin board function” and that its new formation did the opposite of the current American press, which he described as being “content to present things in the view approved by the Establishment.” Many people have reiterated a similar argument today about how the press has only sensationalized the news of the world and regurgitated the white, heteronormative perspective that the world around us has right before our very eyes. Instead of relying on that standard, our role on college campuses (as well as off of them) should be to change it, with one word, one article, and one commentary at a time.

At Mount Holyoke College, I have learned how to write policy papers, research papers, lab reports, and analytical essays. But what I have received most satisfaction from was the opportunity to speak about my own experiences on my own terms. By no means limited to Radix, you have the opportunity to speak your mind and write down your words. Julie’s work is just one example of how what you say matters. Not just for you or the people who have the opportunity to read it in the moment, but also for the students at Mount Holyoke who follow you and might gain immense insight and joy from what you speak about. On a slightly more realistic note, putting your ideas on paper can be really scary. Especially as the World Wide Web makes circulating your words around the world only a click away, it might be terrifying to publish your own opinion, especially since it may not be positively received by your family, friends, and peers. Yet it can also be beneficial to have both people you are close with as well as people you don’t know at all question your arguments and your perspectives because it is in those moments that you can learn the most. Best-case scenario, you hear a different perspective you never considered; worst-case scenario, you encounter really terrible people on the Internet which just further affirms your thoughts and beliefs.

If by this point in the piece, you think, “Courtney, I believe you’re ignoring one huge subgroup of people here” then let me clarify it now. Yes, there will always be the trolls, assholes, and detractors that simply speak to feel the vibration of their vocal cords. Though I wish I had a more optimistic tip for dealing with them, my only advice would be to evaluate if there is any earnestness or genuineness to be found within this person. If not, you are completely entitled to place them in the “Lost Souls” box.

Overall, the solution I seek to encourage you to find is not limited to the PossePlus Retreat or the hijacking of the newspaper for the purpose of turning it back into Choragos. Instead, I thought these two examples would be the best way to explain what place and state of mind we have to be in to create and foster meaningful dialogue. Too often, we end up on one end of the line. We either are so personally immersed in our perspectives and beliefs that we are unable to hear an opinion that is contrary to our own or we are so painfully objective on important social justice issues that we stand in the way of progress and support the oppression of the status quo.

We must grapple and balance with this line every single day to ensure that we mutually benefit from the conversations that our generation so desperately needs to have about the current state of our domestic and international affairs. We do not all have to agree. But it would be the worst mistake you could make if you lend the reigns of your future to someone else simply because you didn’t want to take the time to hear what others have to say or explain your own perspective.

‘Meaningful dialogue’ is by no means the silver bullet to the problems I ask that you explore. I simply ask, as both Posse and Choragos sought to do, that you consider all of the information and perspectives around you. Because at that point, half the battle of fighting for change is truly already won.

Let me be clear.

What you think matters. What you want matters. And though what you believe might change or remain the same, you owe it to yourself and the world to give your words, thoughts, and actions meaning. And MHC (for better or worse) gives you some tools to help do just that. So I encourage you to work in collaboration with your peers to continue a legacy and expand a current reality of meaningful dialogues on this campus.


***Photo Courtesy of MHC Archives