Approximately 40 members of the Swarthmore College community gathered last Friday at the Friends Meeting House for the first open collection since 2013. Planned in collaboration by Sociology Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, History Professor Marjorie Murphy, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins, and Murphy Austin ’16, the collection was gathered in response to a desire expressed by a number of students, faculty, and staff to come together to speak as a community outside of a crisis. It was the first of two regular collections scheduled for the coming year.
The collection was organized as an interrelated series of queries, primarily developed by Austin, that asked members to reflect on the spirit of friendship and one’s ability to change or be changed by others’ ideas and experiences. In response to the queries, several members of the community shared stories of times they felt connected to others and expressed gratitude for the college’s ability to create such a community. Contrastingly, some shared experiences of times when the community failed to maintain a spirit of friendship. Organizers generally appreciated the contributions to collection, which ended fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled.
“The reflections that were offered were deeply thoughtful — pearls I’ve continued to contemplate long after the collection ended,” Tompkins said in an e-mail.
Although Tompkins recognized a positive response to what was shared in the collection, she and other members of the organizing group expressed frustrations with the planning and implementation process. In the week preceding the collection, the group learned of at least three other major campus events that conflicted with the collection. This forced the committee to change the scheduled time just three days before the event, moving back to a starting time of noon. Even though there is a campus calendar that is intended to synchronize events across campus, Tompkins explained that since so few organizers use it, it seemed pointless to consult it for planning purposes.
Willie-LeBreton concurred, recognizing that the planning of the collection on the day before Halloween presented special logistical challenges to the group. The collection’s close proximity to Halloween may also explain the noticeably low student turnout; less than a quarter of the community members gathered for the collection were students.
Despite the logistical hurdles the group had to overcome to make this collection happen, most participants believed it to be a positive experience overall. Natalie Flores Semyonova ‘19, who had participated in collections earlier this semester, appreciated the opportunity to learn about community members’ perspectives on the queries presented.
“It’s such a great experience to have that time to sit and reflect and just slow down for a little while… [and] this Collection was especially great because a good handful of people were moved to speak in a pretty short window of time,” she said in an email.
Willie-LeBreton felt that the re-establishment of regularly scheduled collections like this one was a good way for community members to be with each other in a non-academic sense, especially in the wake of recent events. She specifically mentioned the way in which issues raised by the college populace during the spring 2013 semester may have altered or damaged the sense of community felt on campus.
“After the ‘Spring of our Discontent’ in 2013, several students, faculty and staff began wondering out loud what mechanisms or traditions we had to engender a greater sense of empathy… for a number of Swarthmore folks, the word community had become an empty promise, and for others, its absence [was] a betrayal,” she said in an email. For those community members, regularly scheduled collections were one solution of many to address the problems associated with the sense of community on-campus.
For Austin, the opportunity to work with such supportive faculty and community members has proved to be an invaluable experience.
“Helping to organize the collection was simple and fun… It was very refreshing to work with professors and deans outside of the hierarchical roles that we occupy at Swarthmore,” he said in an email.
The meeting time for the next collection has not been established yet, but the hope of the organizers is that, in the future, collection will be scheduled at a time that is more convenient for a majority of community members.