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The SGO Forum and the Failure to Listen

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The SGO forum on divestment last Friday appears to have produced more tension than dialogue. This is largely due to Mountain Justice’s curious interpretation of the event after the fact. By their account, expressed in the op-ed “Friday’s Forum: An Exercise in Futility” written by Mountain Justice member Aru Shiney-Ajay ‘20 , the organizers only allowed “one student representative when there were three from the administration… the administration repeatedly danced around questions, refusing to give concrete answers.”

The implication that the organizers of the event were trying to stifle student dissent by only allowing one student representative from Mountain Justice is simply unfounded. The forum was about divestment, not Mountain Justice, and the organizers succeeded in finding a diverse array of backgrounds and positions. There were three students: one for divestment, one against it, and one that was neutral. There were two professors: one for divestment and one who was at least skeptical of it. And there were three administrators: the President of the College, the Vice-President of Finance, and the Sustainability Director. It is hard to see how having another Mountain Justice member would have improved this lineup in any way. Regardless, the pro-divestment contingent of Shiney-Ajay and Professor Lee Smithey had by far the most speaking time, and were in no way impeded by the moderator, who gave them plenty of permission to speak on nearly every question, which they did.

Mountain Justice’s second point of contention, that the administration agreed to the forum as a show and had no intention of listening to students, is frankly hypocritical. It is highly doubtful that any member of Mountain Justice, who showed up prepared with cameras, pages of notes, and trendy finger snaps, came to the forum with the intention of listening to any doubts of divestment at all. This is a shame, because despite the awkward fishbowl format there was still a lot of valuable information that came up in the panelist’s statements and interactions. For example, Shiney-Ajay actually convinced me that the 1991 decision to forbid social causes from influencing the management of the endowment is fundamentally at odds with the decision to divest from South Africa, and by extension implies that only one of those decisions was correct in the eyes of the Board. For their part, if Mountain Justice’s delegation had done less talking and more listening, they might have had enough time to hear the answers they are now indignantly demanding. Or perhaps they would have heard Professor Timothy Burke’s warning that as a young activist he had overrated the importance of his own activism work in the context of a larger movement. It is hard, of course, to hear these criticisms over the sound of your friends snapping their fingers as you deliver a pre-written speech that takes up most of the time allotted for discussion and leaves you with no time to hear actual answers.

The real regret I have from the fallout of this forum is the way Mountain Justice has treated President Valerie Smith. Apart from her initial statement and other direct questions, President Smith sat in silence and spent the most time actually listening than any other participant in the forum. For this effort her office was soon the subject of a sit-in by the people at the forum who had listened the least. This is a serious impediment to further dialogue between the administration and students, and pro-divestment students should recognize that dialogue is as much a chance to listen as it is to speak.

An invitation from the Editorial Board

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

If you are reading this, then the Phoenix has published its first issue of the 2016-17 academic year. It is the first of many a Phoenix to be published on Thursday mornings, destined to litter both the physical spaces on campus where we distribute our print edition and the Facebook feeds of those who like us on social media. We pride ourselves on being a news outlet for the entire Swarthmore community, written and published by members of that same community. We say that we value the voices of the numerous constituencies on campus, and say that we try our best to include as many voices as possible in our publication.

However, it has become pretty clear to members of the editorial board that our actions and our words have not always lined up. Asking a member of the campus community how they feel about the Phoenix can provoke a range of reactions, from admiration to respect to annoyance to rage. Who reads the Phoenix, who writes for us, who values us, who respects us, and who trusts us have all changed over time, and placed us as an organization into a pretty problematic place.

Let’s be honest: our staffing decisions in the recent past have made the editorial board a pretty homogenous group. Words like “nepotistic” and “monopoly” get thrown around a lot in conversations about the Phoenix. Because of those staffing decisions, we have privileged certain voices in our publication, and whether it was intentional or unintentional does not matter. It has still made an impact on who feels represented in our community, and in that respect, the Phoenix has failed as an organization.

But we at the Phoenix want to change things. We want to do better. Not because it is what we should do, but because it is what we need to do to be a publication dedicated to the actual Swarthmore audience. The Phoenix has the largest print and online readership of any student publication on campus, and we do not take this responsibility lightly. We recognize the criticality of representing diverse voices on an authentic level, in every single issue we publish.

This editorial is not being written as an attempt to wash ourselves clean of our past mistakes. There is no easy fix for this problem, no BAND-AID® to quickly patch things up. Rather, this editorial marks the beginning of a fundamental shift in the way that we at the Phoenix produce content, hire staff, and work towards being a truly inclusive student and community publication. We have begun to take, and will take, a series of action steps to work towards these goals.

The first and most important step we are taking is to have this conversation, both with ourselves and with the community at large. We are not sweeping these problems under the rug, and we are not passively standing by in the hopes that things get better in the future. We at the Phoenix are making a conscious decision to change who we are and what we stand for as an organization, because our community is full of awesome and brilliant people, and we want everyone who has a voice to share their work and not to be hindered by feeling out of place in this publication.

In addition, we at the Phoenix want to make sure we are making changes in the kind of content that we solicit, cover, and publish, and who gets to make those decisions in the first place. In the past academic year, the Phoenix has begun to make decisions about hiring and staffing that reflect that belief; there are more staff members with backgrounds and life experiences previously not represented in the Phoenix than ever before. But our work is far from complete. We at the Phoenix must continue to grow into an institution that reflects the broad range of experiences and voices of the entire Swarthmore community.

There are new aspects of our publication that are designed specifically with these goals in mind. We’re excited to host new staple columns in the Campus Journal to increase lines of communication between our identity-based student centers and the community.

We cannot pursue these goals set forth without the support of the broader college community. Historically, the Phoenix has been a primarily inward facing institution. Starting now, we are shifting to becoming a more outwardly facing institution, regularly interacting with the campus at large. We at the Phoenix want to hear what community members have to say about our content, our staff, and our decisions as an organization. Therefore, this editorial is also an invitation: The Phoenix will be having its first Open Community Forum / Roast next Wednesday, September 14, in Shane Lounge at 6:00 p.m. All members of the campus community are invited to attend and discuss all types of feedback with members of the Phoenix editorial board. Skeptics, fans, and those that have never read the Phoenix are all welcome to attend this forum / roast. We hope that this event will serve as a constructive space, where the Phoenix can work together with those it is committed to representing so that it can better serve those groups and individuals.

If this is the first time you are reading the Phoenix, either as a first year, as a senior, as a staff member, or as a tenured faculty member, know that this is your publication, as it is the paper of your peers, your mentors, and your colleagues. We do not stand for sensationalism. We do not stand for nepotism. We do not stand for homogeneity. We exist to give you the facts, represent you, and give you the space to tell your stories, and it is our responsibility to do so to the highest standards possible.

We hope to see you in Shane Lounge next Wednesday.

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