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Fourth annual Power & Privilege Symposium promotes open dialogue on campus

By Gillian Frew | Photos by Matt Banderas

Students converse at symposium

Street Art and Social Activism.
A Isn't for Ally.
Living Indigenous in a Modern World.

These are just a handful of the 45 social justice-themed workshops, panels and presentations hosted on campus last week as part of the 2016 Power & Privilege Symposium.

"I was surprised and pleased by the variety of workshops that we ended up having," said Ellen Ivens-Duran '16, a history major who served as programming director for the student-organized event.

A Whitman tradition now in its fourth year, the symposium was split into four sessions on a day when classes were cancelled and the Whitman community came together to reflect on issues of identity and inequality.

The theme of this year's symposium was "Speak Up, Act Out," with a number of discussions centered around subjects such as political activism, police brutality, economic inequality, body image and climate change. At its peak hours in the early afternoon, more than 800 people participated in these conversations in venues across campus, from small classrooms to large auditoriums, many of which were standing room only. Overflowing classroom"I actively encouraged students in both my Encounters and physical chemistry class to attend the symposium," said Allison Calhoun, associate professor of chemistry and faculty sponsor for Whitman's First Generation/Working Class Club.

"My students shared that they were challenged to think about new things, learned new vocabulary and are interested in continuing the conversation. The written responses I collected from students in both classes indicated that they were provided an opportunity to learn something new, and to understand more about themselves and their identity."

Calhoun, along with Jessica Palacios '16 and Christina Irvine, program adviser for the Intercultural Center, led an interactive session in Maxey Hall called "Privilege in Action: What it Means to be First Generation."

In it, participants broke into small groups to discuss the barriers that first generation college students often face. They spoke about the social awkwardness that arises from not being able to afford to eat out with friends or go on trips during school breaks, options their classmates may take for granted. Even asking for help understanding new terms they encounter in academia—like the difference between "syllabus" and "sabbatical"—can be fraught with anxiety.

"It was my own experiences and the resonances between what I heard from students and staff about their experiences that led to this workshop," Calhoun said. "We planned the activity to develop a means to discuss the implications of a lack of social capital in a non-threatening way, and then connect it to our students' and colleagues' lived experiences. The FG/WC students who volunteered their time and the participants that wholeheartedly engaged in the workshop made it work."

Assistant Director of Student Activities Katharine Curles said she was particularly impressed with the dedication of student directors like Ivens-Duran, as well as Anna Zheng '17, Elliot Granath '17, Samantha Grainger Shuba '16 and Olivia Hagel '16. Their team began planning last May, booking prominent civil rights lawyer Constance Rice as the keynote speaker and coordinating a multi-platform marketing campaign.

"It's such a great opportunity for student leadership and enhanced extracurricular learning," she said. "It really is a special day. You just hear the buzz of conversation about the sessions people have attended. Everyone is excited to talk about what they're learning and engage with people who are outside their normal acquaintance." 

Light show

Whitman students spent months hard at work to make the symposium a success. Upwards of 50 volunteered their time to set up, take down and clean up, and organizers estimate about a 50 percent total turnout of the campus population.

"I love that the symposium has evolved to include more and more staff and faculty in the audience, and that it has become a time when all of the Whitman community has the opportunity to engage in conversations about issues that often don't get voice or press time," Curles said.

Among the most popular sessions of the day was "LGBT* Greeks: Queering the Traditional Men's Fraternity." It involved a panel of six taking the stage in Olin Hall to field questions and share their stories of being queer-identified students who are also members of Whitman fraternities.

"Not a lot of people associate fraternities with queer—gay, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming—identities," said Lorenzo Silva '17, a gender studies major who moderated the event.

"I wanted to allow space where these individuals could tell their personal experiences, good or bad, to the rest of the Whitman community."

Panelists covered concerns ranging from the rush process to correct pronoun usage to functions, which are mainly closed house parties or mixers with sororities. Many shared fond memories and said they felt supported by fellow members, while musing about how to make Greek life even more inclusive.

"Fraternities are not homogenous institutions full of stereotypical frat boys commonly represented in popular media and culture," Silva said. "Whitman fraternities are unique and exceptional when it comes to including non-traditional gender identities and non-heterosexual individuals in their membership."

Ivens-Duran, who spent most of the symposium stationed in Reid Campus Center in case of impromptu questions for the committee, said she was inspired by the enthusiasm she witnessed.

"I think dialog is one key tool for fighting the fear, apathy or blindness that can impede the creation of spaces where each person is empowered," she said. "Of course, conversation alone cannot solve every issue, but having spaces dedicated to creating a common understanding of justice is a key part of the struggle."

Published on Feb 26, 2016
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