University campuses are vital venues for initiating and discussing societal change. Graceland is no exception and held a second Town Hall Meeting, based on the California State University, Chico Town Hall Meeting format, in December 2015 focused on privilege. This meeting format is designed to bring together students, faculty, staff and community members to engage in a deliberative, civic dialogue on a current topic.
Privilege is defined as “the sociological concept that some groups of people have advantages relative to other groups,” and was discussed in three areas: gender, class and race. The Town Hall Meeting includes opportunity for the university to dialogue in smaller groups with trained discussion leaders. The preparatory events leading to the meeting included “I am We,” an LGBT-themed event promoting a safe community, education about healthy relationships and being comfortable in your own skin. The Graceland University Theatre produced Nickel and Dimed in November, which addressed issues specifically related to social class. A panel discussion on gender and identity was led by Professor Raquel Moreira and included several students along with Caitlyn Jenner and the crew from her television show. A number of readings were made available to participants prior to the Dec. 3 meeting as well. The first year experience classes were especially encouraged to attend and participate in the discussions. The conclusion portion of the meeting was devoted to addressing action to be taken or “what can we do about this?” and suggestions from each area were given. Increased education, attention and discussion were positive steps identified in all three areas.
On the afternoon of Nov. 17, a large, black bus pulled onto campus with guests for a panel discussion on “Community, Gender and Identity.” This visit by Caitlyn Jenner ’73 was timely for Graceland, and the student response was extremely positive and supportive. The panel discussion gave opportunity for sincere dialog and was a forward step in understanding issues of gender and identity. Meeting Jenner and her team brought real life personalization to an issue that students were eager to discuss. Each of the five transgender women spoke about their journeys, the suffering of rejection, of their differing stages of transition, their life stories and their unified hope for future generations to have better acceptance in society. The need for compassion and steps toward understanding were underscored by the current suicide statistics – a staggering 41 percent of trans or gender non-conforming people surveyed have attempted suicide.* The purpose of their tour was to encourage tolerance and gather footage for the “I Am Cait” documentary series.
Caitlyn reminisced about being a student at Graceland and about working hard and setting Olympic goals. She visited with Graceland faculty and administration, joked with old friends and toured Eugene E. and Julia Travis Closson Physical Education Center.
“I got a good start here at Graceland, and I met some great people. It really means a lot to me to come back today and have the opportunity to talk with students. Your future is in your hands. I don’t care what problems you have; everybody has their stuff. I always say, ‘Dream big. Work hard.’ To me, that is the motto I live by.”
For many at Graceland, the panel discussion led by Professor Raquel Moreira with students and guests was meaningful for self-discovery and led to clearer understanding toward the worth of all persons. The panel was influential in
the preparation for Town Hall discussions to follow.
Graceland University’s production of Nickel and Dimed, a short play about the working poor and their struggle to get by in life, was another part of the preparation for the Town Hall Meeting.
“It’s a play that doesn’t act unbiased,” said Gary Heisserer, Professor of Theatre at Graceland and director of Nickel and Dimed. “It’s incredibly provocative and shows only one side of the story. It shapes these working poor characters as actual human beings with heart, while it portrays the managers as two-dimensional villains. It clearly takes the side of the working class, and, because of that, hopefully it sparks an interesting discussion.”
The discussion led to questions about raising the minimum wage, capping the top end of salaries, as well as some practical and simple steps to help with the problem of privilege in class: leaving 20 percent tips, being selective about where to shop, and being kind. Action steps were suggested to investigate Sodexo and Follett, Graceland’s outsourced industries, from a service industry viewpoint. As in all the Town Hall breakout discussions, education was listed as one of the steps toward leveling the playing field.
The discussion of race and privilege echoed some of the thoughts from the last Town Hall Meeting in January 2015 over Martin Luther King weekend. The events in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson are current, and racial privilege continues as a needed area of discussion and change.
Graceland students identified some of the obstacles within the Graceland community, such as the relative absence of diversity in faculty and administration and the reoccurring presence of fear as a minority on campus. The idea of having anti-racism training for faculty was met with the question of “Who would teach the training?” Notes from the discussion included the telling observation that it took 33 minutes before someone of color spoke in the breakout session.
The Town Hall final discussions concluded that people need to be careful and patient when talking about privilege of any sort. It is a dangerous and powerful force that is unseen within the privileged.
The discussions were a step toward education and understanding. Each group listed further education as an action item toward positive solutions. “Town Hall Meetings have the potential to be a high-impact practice,” said Tammy Everett, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty. “At Graceland, we are working to engage students in this process every semester.”
Around the table image above: Analyn Blake '16, Angela Bradford '15, Rebecca Perryman '16 and Braden Austin '16
Lower right image: Allysha Bilges '17 and Karima Burns '16