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.
Thursday evening, Sharples was occupied twice. First came DU’s wheelbarrow races, part of their ongoing pledge process. But from six to seven, Sharples was, for the second time this semester, again occupied by the Swat General Assembly.
This second General Assembly, designed as a space for students to air their grievances, was attended by sixty to seventy students. At first, the event seemed less organized, less streamlined than two weeks ago, and as the facilitators scrambled to encourage and identify interested speakers within the audience, awkward moments of silence hung over the group. But this is perhaps to be expected as the novelty of the nascent group wears off.
One of the first items on the agenda was the amplification method. As it went,
“Should we use…”
“SHOULD WE USE!”
“…the human mic…”
“THE HUMAN MIC!”
“…or an electric mic?”
“OR AN ELECTRIC MIC!”
This week, at least, the human mic was retained as the preferred tool. “Having to repeat words does make you listen closely,” says Joan O’Bryan, ’13. “I like it!” Most supporters, by a show of hands, agreed. Dani Noble ’12 believed the human mic encouraged “brevity” and “poignancy.”
As the audience grew into a crowd, the conversation got underway. By 6:20, it seemed dozens of diners had turned to face the speakers. In fact, if from the other side of the room the General Assembly appeared small, on the inside of the circle it was much easier to see that many were paying close attention.
At least two attendees held video cameras throughout the hour; others brought still cameras and captured some of the more exciting moments.
Ben Wolcott ’14 got the discussion off to a start by reminding listeners to consider their Swarthmore values. In his view, most comments come from a desire to see the college move closer to these ideals. To be sure, values got a great deal of lip service—everything from diversity to socio-economic opportunity, diversity, and freedom of expression was mentioned at least once. A student highlighted Swarthmore’s history of student non-violent protest, recalling ‘60’s sit-ins and the South Africa Divestment movement.
Others had more concrete concerns. Two students plugged for the upcoming Olde Club anti-formal this Saturday, designed to support Street Academy, a charity whose work focuses on Ghana. A Mary Lyons student expressed her need for traffic calming measures at Harvard and Yale avenues, a busy intersection that creates dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians. Another student called for a better pedestrian connection to Cunningham Field.
One student proposed starting skill-shares during the Spring term: get-togethers where students with a unique talent or vital ability invite their peers to come learn from them, free of charge. Another student cried foul at the under-representation of Native American culture on campus, both within the curriculum and the student body.
But overall, it was clear there were fewer comments—and far fewer commentators—than at the first event. At least fifty percent of the comments came from facilitators. But the Assembly was frank with itself and addressed the issue head-on. “What does consensus mean when most of the people who have spoken tonight are facilitators anyway?” asked one student. “I think… we need to be more than a quarter of Sharples.” Others agreed, suggesting the group try to include clashing viewpoints or even get in touch with the wider Occupy movement. One student explained that students might be (wrongly) wary of spending time thinking about campus issues while problems in the wider world remain unaddressed. In his opinion, this is a destructive mindset that “blinds” students to the very real problems right here that might have more practicable solutions.
A particularly contentious debate began when Joan O’Bryan suggested the General Assembly send letters to the administration. While some agreed with the necessity of a GA-administration dialogue, others vehemently rejected the idea. Fearing the loss of the safe space and fearing the inherent exclusivity of any letter (even the writing of the Declaration of Independence had to be delegated to just one man) that might destroy the openness that is the GA’s raison d’être. Ben Wolcott responded that the “GA isn’t a safe space to begin with,” when it takes place by shouting in Sharples. No consensus was reached.
Other variants on the letter concept were proposed. Perhaps a newsletter, posted to Google Docs, would be the right medium. Maybe a Gazette column, written after each GA, would work better, suggested another participant. Many seemed interested in creating a forum, reviving a theme from the previous GA, that could be held online—sort of like a structured version of a Gazette comment feed. Working groups were another suggestion that congealed the debate over openness. How could a small working group retain the spirit of a General Assembly, wondered some. But how could real action be taken without halting the discussion somewhere and moving forward, wondered others.
But no decision was arrived at. At 6:43, one student speaker stopped mid-sentence as close to a dozen DU members bounded up onto tables and began to sing “I’m a Little Teapot.” The GA was caught in suspended animation as the dining room stopped to stare at the frat pledges. Eventually the GA resumed, but DU had left its mark.
Said one student, in private, “The fraternities stand opposed to the values of Swarthmore… they should be abolished.” His friend agreed, “They’re fucking assholes,” she exclaimed. Interestingly, Greek Life was not a focus of yesterday’s GA, as it had been two weeks ago. After the meeting, Joan, the student who had been cut-off by the teapot song, laughed the frats off: “Lawl, frats. It didn’t bother me. Actually wished the frat brothers had come and stood in the GA. It would have gotten us more attention.”
Attention was something Joan felt there needs to be more of. She supported using the GA format going forward, but expressed hope that it would expand as it continues. Forming concrete ties with existing groups is one way to do that, she said.
What’s for sure is that as the General Assembly is beginning to establish its own culture and direction. As a space for students’ concerns, the GA is popular both for the diversity of issues it raises and its free-form style. But in order for the GA to cement a position of relevance on campus, a number of participants said that the GA must reach out to organizations its conversations tend to focus on, such as the administration and student groups.