LIVE BLOG: Critical Examinations of “Community”: Lived Experiences at Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The second in a series of campus-wide events concerning community, diversity, and inclusion.  Today’s discussion of personal experiences at Swarthmore College features panelists Phoebe Cooke (’15), Maurice Eldridge (’61), Charmaine Giles (’10), Rose Maio, and Salman Safir (’14).

From the Student Digest:

This event aims to highlight the diversity of lived experiences of different members of the college. After the panelists’ brief presentations, most of the time in this session will be devoted to opening discussions to all in attendance.

[Source]

 4:39  Professor Christy Schuetze introduces today’s event: “What is community at Swarthmore like?  What do we envision it to be? […] This panel is meant to generate discussion that will help us dig deeper into what the term ‘community’ refers to.”

4:43  Professor Lee Smithey points out that anybody absent from the panel in Sci 101 may follow the discussion on Twitter via #swatcomms.

4:46  Maurice Eldridge begins by discussing his background before coming to Swarthmore: Growing up in a segregated neighborhood in Washington, D.C., which he describes as a “sleepy southern town,” and characterizes as a caring, neighborly environment.

4:49  Eldridge describes the diffuse communities he encountered as a child, and the conflicting attitudes toward race, when visiting his mother’s family in Mississippi and his father’s family in Brooklyn.

4:54  Eldridge describes the Swarthmore he first knew (as a student) as a “simpler place than you know it today.”

4:56  Eldridge: “The complexity of who we are individually […] cannot be reduced to those more simplistic terms that we sometimes fall into, which govern our lives.”

4:58  Upon returning to Swarthmore as an administrator, found Swarthmore to be considerably more diverse than it was when he left as a student. On tiptoeing around issues of racial sensitivity: “Life’s messy. Let’s just get into the mess.”

5:00  Phoebe Cook discusses “my experience of Swarthmore versus what I am told is my experience at Swarthmore.”

5:02  Cook shares an anecdote from her experience at Swarthmore, where a professor learned the names of white female students quickly, but struggled to learn Latina students’ names.

5:03  “Nobody gets to tell us whether we’re welcome here. The only one who gets to decide if we’re welcome here is us.”

5:04  Giles: “It’s the diversity that brings community alive […] It is not one single group or experience. It is the celebration of all those experiences together.”

5:05  Giles encourages conversation, disagreement, and “pushing back” as opposed to simply recognizing and appreciating diversity.

5:08  Rose Maio:  “All the issues we’re talking about today are about community — but for me, it’s more about respect.” She discusses the hierarchy among staff, students, and faculty.

5:10  Maio speaks of unequal treatment and disrespect among groups on campus: “We’re not living what our Quaker institution mission is.”

5:12  Salman Safir: “When our communities clash, are people trying to maintain their community, or their individual groups?”

5:13  Safir references the protests of last spring, pointing out that only one administrator marched with the protesting students. He compares reactive measures to true responsibility.

5:16  Safir argues that Swarthmore is not the socially responsible institution it claims to be. “There are so many student groups on campus that need help. As students, we’re expected to do it all […] Administrators look to us and say, ‘As students, you have a lot of power.'”

5:18  Discussion opens to all attendees. One student asks, “What is the best way to incite learning across the community?” He compares learning in a classroom setting to learning through social experiences.

5:24  Giles responds, suggesting that social responsibilities fall too heavily on students and that dean response is lacking.

5:27  Salfir calls for a reexamination of administrative roles, suggesting that the seemingly constant addition of new dean positions does little unless deans do more to support students.

5:29  Student comment: Faculty and administrators are doing their jobs by aiding students on an intimate, personal level. Students are wrong to criticize administration so heavily.

5:32  Dean comment (Dean McRae): “I think it was easier to blame us as deans than to be reflective about individual behavior […] It is mean-spirited and it tears down our community in ways that are so unproductive.”

 5:35  Faculty question (Professor Ghannam): “What is it that the notion of community captures that we are so keen on materializing?  What’s at stake if we are not a community?  What would we miss if we didn’t have it?”

5:37  Maio responds: Students’ assumptions that they are smarter or more capable than staff and faculty is “insulting.”

5:42  Faculty comment (Professor Dorsey): Calls for discussion within groups as well as across groups.  Calls for better communication of student expectations, student anger over what they perceive to be faculty shortcomings is “insulting.”

5:47  Student comment: “A fundamental issue we have on this campus is the way that we hear about things and the way that we’re told about things. Communication on this campus is so fragmented, in my experience.”

5:49  Student comment: “When we use these terms ‘inclusivity,’ and ‘community,’ and ‘unity,’ who are we speaking for, and why do we feel that we need to speak for them?”

5:54  Student comment: Speaks for Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) against the notion that SLAP touts an insulting mission. “I feel like right now we’re having this conversation and so many people feel like we’ve messed up so much in the last year […] But regardless, I feel like we all recognize that there are things that need to change […] Making sure that we aren’t messing up before we institute change is not the right answer.”

6:00  Safir apologizes for generalizing administration into a single voice or group, responds to Dean McRae: “For me, it sometimes feels that we are supportive, but we’re also not drawing people in. If people don’t have a strong voice, it’s not fair to ask them to be their own uprising.”

6:02  Staff or alum comment: Collections once provided a forum for discussion. “If we’re going to institute a community where we communicate better, we’re going to have to make time for that.”

6:05  Maurice Eldridge closes: “Coming together in this kind of conversation needs to mean that we have a shared endeavor. It really is for all of us to undertake.”

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