Can we create a community not motivated by trauma?


Every year, around this time, I get a sudden onset of nostalgia for community. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the transition to a non-Swattie-filled environment or the sense of alienation from working for what seems like an eternity on that final paper alone in your room. I begin to miss people even before leaving them, and I wish that I had to gotten to know this or that person. Moreover, as my commencement approaches, the sense of nostalgia is made all the more intense.

When I was a freshman, I organized a spontaneous soapbox (a raised platform for impromptu speech) event in front of Sharples around this time. My flyer read, “Speak whatever is on your mind. No eloquence or preparation necessary.” I was trying to replicate an activity I had experienced in a Peace Studies class when we were were asked to get up on an orange milk crate to speak about whatever was on our mind in Media, PA. As nerve-wracking and bizarre as it was to speak to a stream of strangers, I was amazed by my classmates’ outpouring of otherwise hidden stories of joy, struggle, and passion. By this point, I had secured enough friends to assure me of the desperate need to get to know more people (remember your first meals in Sharples?). But I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could talk to new Swatties and hear their stories?” So I ran around campus posting flyers and reaching out to all the email listservs I could get a hold of to create this opportunity through a soapbox event on campus.

Sometimes I incredulously look back at my optimistic freshman self who had the naïveté to try to single-handedly organize a community event. Besides a handful of brave and valiant friends who volunteered to speak on the soapbox, most rushed by avoiding eye contact or at best, gave sympathetic looks. What was I thinking, expecting Swatties to overcome their reputed “awkwardness” to speak publicly spontaneously? Yet a part of me is nostalgic for my naïve but courageous and hopeful spirit (though I have learned my lesson that one does not plan a community event alone…). I had not realized until then how hard it is to get people to come to events on campus. The “community” I was promised when I came to Swarthmore seemed illusive. What kind of community is terrified of making eye contact?

Now, fast forward to the spring of my sophomore year (also infamously termed “the spring of our discontent”). I am running down the hill towards the loudening sounds of the rally happening outside Sharples. I am almost speechless at the sight of a crowd holding hands, chanting, and listening. It is beyond what I could have imagined even during my overly optimistic freshman days planning for the soapbox. But there it was, people taking turns on the mic in front a big crowd of intent listeners. Speaking from their hearts so courageously and generously, the speakers didn’t even need a silly milk crate to prop them up.

My heart patters a little quicker every time I recall these precious few moments when I felt “community.” What does “community” feel like? To me, it is the sense of being heard and listening to others. It is the feeling that that despite our idiosyncrasies, there is somehow a thread that pulls us together. But unfortunately, I feel as though these feelings have emerged for me only in times of crises. Why is it that we are only moved to intentionally create spaces to listen to one another as a larger community when something traumatic happens (e.g. the 5th IC urination incident or Ferguson)? Perhaps it is idealistic to expect a larger sense of community beyond my own little bubbles of friends. Perhaps I should just be content with the small (but amazing) subset of the college community I have come to call friends. But I ache for more.

I ache for a community where I can smile and make eye contact with those I pass by out in the sidewalks. I ache for a community where we are more aware of and supportive of one anothers’ struggles. I ache for a sense of community that reassures me that we will take care of one another. I ache for a community where everyone feels safe.

With only a month left in my time at Swarthmore, I still ache for this sense of community. I do not expect the sense of community to be simply handed to me like the lanyard I was given during orientation. I recognize that it is our responsibility to work towards creating it. And it is this sense of responsibility that I have been a part of an ongoing collective effort to revisit the history of the spring of 2013. The fear of institutional memory loss has pushed many upperclassmen to yet again endure sleepless nights to work to pass on the legacy and try to organize a more intentional community. But must community-building efforts happen at 2 in the morning when the end of the semester is imminent and we fear erasure? Can we create space during the day in our everyday interactions to talk to one another and build a community without fear and trauma being our primary motives for community building?

From having an extended “how are you” conversation to organizing coalitions, I have been touched by many fellow peers and professors who have offered their precious time to listen and support me in spite of all their countless obligations. I do not doubt that Swarthmore is filled with many caring individuals, but I worry whether we create enough opportunities to exercise care for one another and our own selves. Creating a stronger sense of community will entail not only changes on an individual level, but also on an institutional level. Can we create a culture in which we are not so inundated with work that we are afraid to make eye contact? Can we create more opportunities for dialogues (that lead to productive changes) that include diverse voices?

It is with an immense sense of nostalgia and belief in our capacity to become a stronger community that I invite all members of the community to come together for the making of “Our Interwoven Struggles: A Quilt for Collective Liberation” on May 1st, 11AM-3PM in the IC Courtyard.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this, I feel so strongly exactly these things, it’s part of the reason SwatDeck came to be in the fall of 2013 actually. We were all talking all the time and listening all the time but doing that with the same people in the same places about the same, angry things. And while that all has a place and a crucial importance, I think, in what this school will grow to be in the next many years, I think part of the reason I felt so tied to the idea of SwatDeck was that it was intended to break all that up. I hope that it has in bits and pieces of people’s lives here, and one of the things I’d like to do with my senior year is ensure that something like “community” feels more part of everyone’s experience in this place where so often we are alone and insular.

    Again, thank you so much for this. Well said.

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