In the wake of the election, increased attention has been brought to social justice issues, both nationally and on college campuses. Students on campus feeling helpless and angry about the results became even more aware of their status as young activists and began to become more involved in national issues. Students traveled to South Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Students and teachers alike protested Trump and openly scorned his wealthy naivety and white privilege. We were united in the fight for social justice and felt like we were aware of our world and ready to fight for inclusivity. Yet sometimes when looking at the bigger picture, we fail to notice the ways in which we perpetrate unjust actions here on campus, sometimes even in places where community should perhaps be strongest—in Living and Learning Communities (LLCs).
We were recently made aware of division on our campus through the vandalism in the Pride and Revitalizing Nations LLCs, a painful reminder that it can be easy to be unaware of social justice issues on campus until we are directly confronted with them. I was reminded again of this fact when looking into the Outdoor Education Special Interest Community’s move to Mathias and its conversion to an LLC. I began this article with the understanding that the only difference between an LLC and a special interest community was the amount of funding. The last thing I expected was to find myself in the middle of a social justice issue. The more information I gathered, the more it became clear that this was more than a change in name and location.
The Outdoor Education Special Interest Community (OESIC) has existed for four years. For three of those four years it was a pilot program in Slocum, and as such was tentatively designated a “Special Interest Community.” This year, OESIC became an LLC (OELLC) and relocated to Mathias.
Many students have wondered why OESIC became an LLC. The process began as an inquiry into why OESIC was the only community on campus with the designation of a “Special Interest Community.” Among incoming first-years and current students alike, there has been considerable confusion about the differences between a special interest community and a living learning community. Additionally, there has been some thought that the designation “OESIC” and the community’s location in Slocum has disconnected them from other communities on campus. Finally, Lindsey Deringer, OESIC RA of the 2015-2016 school year, decided to bring the question concerning this discrepancy to Yolany Gonell, Residential Life Coordinator.
According to Gonell, Residential Life’s operation budget provides each LLC $1,000 for community programming to enhance that community’s experience. Meanwhile, OESIC wasn’t designated any money (although their connection to the Outdoor Education department did give them some access to funding).
The promise of increased funding by becoming an LLC was exciting. Funding meant tremendous potential to get more students involved in the outdoor community and in outdoor activities. It didn’t seem like there was anything to lose by becoming an LLC, while there was a lot to gain: more funding, more access to resources, and consistency in the naming system of communities on campus. Deringer brought the idea to the hall and it was met with similar enthusiasm. However, there was one sticking point: all LLCs at the time lived in Mathias.
Three options were presented to the hall: remain as OESIC in Slocum, become an LLC and live in Slocum, or become an LLC and move to Mathias. While the hall was excited to have more funding as an LLC, there was considerable hesitation about moving; the community members liked living in Slocum. One returning sophomore, Carl Anderson, remarked, “Slocum is physically nicer,” while another sophomore no longer living in the community complained, “Mathias doesn’t have good heating and is harder to navigate.” These sentiments were echoed by Hoang Pham: “the architecture of [Mathias] is hard; it’s harder to see people.” And when asked about his opinion on the move from Slocum to Mathias, first-year Connor Nolan admitted, “Slocum is a really nice dorm.”
Gonell invited students in the community to meet about the transition. Eight or nine students attended, along with Deringer.
A controversial time for OESIC members, this was also a time of controversy and uncertainty in the greater campus community with increased focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. Gonell noted that, perhaps because of this movement, the eight or nine students at the meeting seemed especially aware of their reputation as a primarily white and privileged community.
In the meeting with Gonell, it became clear that what had begun as a simple desire for more funding shed light on a deeper social justice issue. However, the students’ strong sentiments to stay in Slocum seemed to contradict their stated desires for including others in the community.
One of the big issues of the move was the lack of communication between the members of OESIC and the Residential Life Office. Many members didn’t attend hall meetings or the meeting with Gonell, and with a lack of attendance at meetings, many members were unsure of the options presented to them. One of the major misconceptions was that the community was being forced to live in Mathias in order to become an LLC, a thought that led to confusion and resentment when the Pride and Revitalizing Nations LLCs moved into Slocum this year.
According to Gonell, the move to Mathias was optional. When I met with her, she stressed the fact that Residential Life strives to listen to students’ goals and to create opportunities for students to achieve those goals. As new communities this year, the Pride and Revitalizing Nations LLCs are small, and felt that their needs would be best met in Slocum. Meanwhile, at the meeting, Gonell heard from the students in OESIC a desire to create partnerships and diversify their community. In Gonell’s eyes, the simple solution for diversification was a move to Mathias to be in community with other, more diverse LLCs.
While Gonell felt that the move to Mathias was a response to student desire, her strong thoughts about the necessity to move to Mathias led some students, especially those who hadn’t been present at the meetings, to feel forced into the move. Sophomores Carl Anderson and Emmett de Maynadier spoke to this frustration, saying that they and others felt “guilt-tripped” to move after Gonell sent them an email about their responsibility to increase campus diversity. De Maynadier said that while he could see how the issue of the move was a social justice issue, his main frustration was the lack of physical evidence of a change in the social justice issue: “It feels as though things are being done for paperwork, without any real impact on social justice,” he said. Anderson furthered this sentiment: “I have personally interacted with zero other LLCs.” They both admit that this may be a lack of effort on their part, but also feel that Residential Life should provide more help in spurring diversification between the LLCs since they so strongly encouraged the move.
When I brought this to Gonell, she stressed the need for student initiative and peer cooperation. According to Gonell, the Residential Life center is willing to provide the opportunity, which she feels they have done by moving OESIC to Mathias, but now it is up to the students to reach out to their peers and engage in community. There must be a balance between structured change promoted by the school and student initiative.
Yet, perhaps the problem doesn’t lie in a “lack of student initiative,” but rather within the definition of an LLC itself. When talking to Gonell, I got the strong impression that her idea of LLCs includes interactions between communities, but I received varying opinions when talking to students. Anderson stated, “the purpose of LLCs is [for students] to interact within themselves,” while Nolan admitted that he wouldn’t go into the OELLC community hall if he didn’t live there, as it can feel “clique-y.” Meanwhile, de Maynadier expressed a desire for more interaction with other LLCs. Perhaps there needs to be a different discussion, something broader than placing responsibility and blame on OELLC’s shoulders for not creating more community. Do LLCs foster safe places, or is it possible that they allow people to create exclusive cliques? Are we creating community, or creating divisiveness?
Whatever the answers to these questions, Gonell stressed that although there has not been physical change with exception to the move to Mathias, things have changed in dialogue. When she met with the eight students and Deringer about the transition to an LLC, she heard their frustration with the lack of diversity in their community and their willingness to be vulnerable. The rest, the physical changes in diversity, “will take time. The school can continue to provide access to and assistance for change, but they won’t force it. The students must take that step,” Gonnell said.
In the end, the transition isn’t just a difference in funding and the issue of moving to a different building. It is an issue of social justice, of strengthening community, and making ties between different people. It would be so easy to simplify the transition into an issue of money and space, but the reality is that the issue involves personal risk, vulnerability, and digging deeper as individuals and as a community. However, it holds tremendous potential for change not just in one small LLC, but also for our community as a whole. This is a charge that all of us must respond to in order to create an inclusive community.
President Jill Tiefenthaler has recently urged us to work on our relationships: “rather than retreating to a small circle of those who share views, let’s increase understanding by reaching out…reach out to your peers in the indigenous peoples and queer communities and offer them support.” With the recent election results, we’ve talked on campus about privilege, divisiveness, power and powerlessness. As we move forward in these uncertain times, we are once again reminded to dig deeper and see the social justice issues right here on our campus. It is sometimes too easy to condemn others for neglecting social justice issues while overlooking the divisions that isolate people in our own community.
Moving forward, we all must ask ourselves: What are we willing to do? How vulnerable do we want to be? What does personal risk look like? Gonell is interested to see how, in the next few years of this pilot program in Mathias, students will challenge themselves and their peers to answer President Tiefenthaler’s, and the College’s, call for inclusion, communication, and awareness.