Privilege & Policy at Wes, Part I

PP@WES

Exactly a year ago, the Diversity University forum was held to address diversity at Wesleyan in light of hateful comments on the ACB, the use of race in Public Safety Reports, and allegations of unnecessary use of force by Public Safety. The conversation also touched on many other points and became a three hour-long panel/discussion with over 400 students, faculty, and staff in attendance.

These were a few of the most salient points from the forum, summed up by pyrotechnics in his post from last year:

  • We’ve got problems. Big, scary institutional and individual problems and shortcomings. We all do. Every one of us.
  • There are a lot of people who really give a shit. Not only was this evident in attendance, but in the words, actions, and thoughts of many. This carries from those brave students who shared their own horrifying stories all the way to President Roth at the helm of the University, who remarked: “I take this very seriously. It’s so corrosive. It undermines the very fabric of this university. This can’t go on. … If we have screwed up, we will fix it. What you’re describing to me wrecks the University’s mission.”
  • Dialogue is important, and this kind of forum needs to happen regularly, but actions speak louder than words. Right now, there is a real limit to the trust that our community affords itself and the administration to actually address these issues. Ostensible, and more importantly, tangible progress in institutionally healing our community is necessary to shore up that lack of trust.

The dialogue continued again this year with the Privilege and Policy forums, which happened over a five part series in the span of a month. Student Body President Nicole Updegrove ‘14 organized the series, and 1-4 Wesleyan students facilitated each talk. The goals were to more thoroughly address diversity issues, for a wide range of students to participate, and to explore potential policy solutions. The conclusive points from this series were similar to those of the Diversity University forum from last year, namely that these issues are incredibly complex and important, that they affect everyone, and thusly, we need to talk about them.

While we do go to a diverse school, we are not always receptive to, or even aware of, the different experiences of others. There are many issues that Wes people are outspoken about, but rarely is there any dialogue or interaction between student groups of different backgrounds or viewpoints. Events organized by one group, like the Student of Color BBQ or Queer Prom, are largely attended by members of that community and their friends. Worse, forums on specific diversity or activism issues can become caricatures of themselves if just people of similar ideological backgrounds attend them; this further deters a wider range of people from participating. How can tangible policies be reached for the greater community if the policies themselves are one-sided, and if we don’t make an effort to understand each other?

The Privilege and Policy series were opportunities for students to talk about a range of issues, from class, race, and religion, to wellness, culture, and relationships.  Attendance for these forums varied by day, but attracted a diverse group of participants and ranged from about 7 to 40 participants at each one. Despite relatively low attendance for a couple of them, the discussions were fruitful. I hope that by giving a larger platform to these forums through this series of posts, we can continue the discussions, and reach a larger, versatile group of students. Compiled from Nicole Updegrove’s excellent notes (and my own experience), I’ll provide a summary of what was discussed at each forum in a 3-part series, the first of which I’ll publish here.

(1) Privilege, Class, Policy
Facilitators: Leo Liu ‘14 and Kwame Adams ‘14 

About 40 people were present at this forum, including many upperclassmen, Res Life staff, and Quest Scholars. The discussion was based on each participant’s answer to the question: How does class/classism affect the Wesleyan experience? The result was a unique opportunity to examine classism in our lives and within the Wesleyan institution. All of us are affected by classism, on individual, social, cultural, and institutional levels. Everyone has a different class story and identity, and it affects our views and experiences at Wesleyan. However, not everyone is aware of classism and how it relates to the Wesleyan experience, which is why it’s important to have conversations in person, in the classroom, and on an institutional level about it.

Campus Culture

Assumptions about class, regardless of where students actually fall on the economic spectrum, further divide people from different backgrounds. If someone is perceived to be well off it may be assumed that they’re here because they can pay full tuition easily, and if someone is perceived to be from a low income background, it may be assumed that they’re here to fill some kind of quota.

There are also basic lifestyle issues that set students apart by class. Owning a car, unaffordable travel expenses, having attended public or private school, or the ability to eat a meal on Main Street are just some of the things that divide students by class. Fashion choices (as a fad or as a need) along with the way you present yourself will necessarily expose you to assumptions of class.

Custodial Workers

Despite these incredibly thorough posts about the custodial situation, there is a general lack of understanding about our custodial workers and their recent struggles. Creating mess with the expectation that it will be cleaned up is behavior that perpetuates the student vs. worker mentality and illustrates our ‘privilege’ more clearly than any of these other issues.

The lack of communication between custodial workers and students, sometimes due to a language barrier, often silences the workers and makes it uncomfortable for them to speak in front of students or interact with them at all. To continue to dehumanize their presence, however, is to continue our daily activities in a bubble and not take responsibility for our own space. One suggested solution was to create a code of conduct for dorm cleaning behavior that would encourage meaningful interactions with custodial staff.

Administrative Issues

The biggest administration-induced class issue: Wesleyan is more concerned about bringing low-income students to the school than integrating them with the rest of the student body once they are on campus. There is not enough support from the administration in providing academic or financial mentors to low-income students. Other administrative issues put low-income students at a disadvantage, like the high cost of Wesleyan-mandated health insurance (and having your own health insurance rejected as incomparable).

Financial Aid/Work-study

The way work-study is presented on a financial aid package is dubious because in order to make the amount of money allotted students need to work many hours. This often cuts into valuable academic and social time, but students who must work a certain number of hours because their tuition depends on it have no choice.

There is also a difference between needing and wanting a job on campus. Sometimes people without work-study complain about the inability to get work-study jobs, while work-study students criticize non-work-study students taking jobs. Both views are problematic.

The student vs worker dynamic ties in here, since many students are workers. Serving your peers can be strange and uncomfortable, especially when students who are being served hold a similar sense of entitlement as in the custodial worker situation.

With financial aid, there is the obvious divide between the students who have it and those who don’t, and there are negative assumptions applied to those on either end of the financial aid spectrum. There is a dehumanizing aspect of having to prove that you need aid and also a perceived lack of education provided about how to manage finances post-Wesleyan.

Academic Issues

The assumption that if you’re from a more well-off background, you are able to major in something less ‘practical’ because you have money to fall back on, whereas low income students do not have this ‘luxury.’

Class issues are not barred from the actual classroom either, since some professors assign textbooks or online resources that cost a lot of money without regard for students who can’t afford it. Other academic resources, like music lessons, are inaccessible to some students because of their price.

Potential Solutions:

To Institutional Problems

  • Student-run financial aid education (financial advisors, like peer advisors)
  • Better advertisement of resources that are already available (like the above)
  • Consider whether Wesleyan should have more ‘practical’ academic programs (and how does that fit into the liberal arts education?)
  • Mentorship programs with professors
  • Reconsider budgeting for work-study jobs, how many they hire – make more educationally beneficial jobs work-study
  • Reconsider the unrealistically low travel stipend in the financial aid package
  • Talk to professors about affordability of class materials, how to communicate to students what to do if they can’t afford the materials
  • How-tos on finances
  • Covering some class issues during Orientation, like how to approach a professor or manage finances

To social/individual problems

  • Expose people who wouldn’t otherwise come to these events
  • Let each professor talk about issues of class and diversity (maybe in the context of their field) during a day of classes
  • Allies educate other ‘privileged’ people
  • Mentorship programs of students
  • Events to help the low-income student community to get to know each other
  • Make Res Life programs more informal so students get to know each another
  • Create a student group that deals with class issues
  • All-campus survey about perceived problems, experiences of class-based problems (Difference between perceived wealth of campus vs. real wealth of campus)

The classism issues in this forum intertwined with what was discussed in the other forums (posts forthcoming this week). Some of the policy solutions discussed (like above) will be presented to the administration, but ultimately the responsibility is on us as students to become more aware of the issues and keep the discussion going. Any thoughts, concerns, ideas? Leave a comment or e-mail staff[at]wesleying[dot]org.

Related Posts:

Beckham Hall Ruptures and Collapses from Weight of Released Emotion
Video: Forum about Race and Inclusion
Reflections on Diversity University Forum Round Two
Wesleyan’s Custodial Workers Protest Working Conditions, Employee Cuts Outside Roth’s House on Lunch Break
Unofficial Orientation Series: The Wrath Update
Why Dorm Showers Aren’t Getting Cleaned: An FAQ about Wesleyan and its Contracted Custodial Staff, Part I
Why Dorm Showers Aren’t Getting Cleaned: An FAQ about Wesleyan and its Contracted Custodial Staff, Part II
Why Dorm Showers Aren’t Getting Cleaned: An FAQ about Wesleyan and its Contracted Custodial Staff, Part III

  • hmmm…

    No mention of the new need-discriminatory admissions policy as a classist policy–a policy instituted by the largely upper class Board of Trustees which decreases the ability of poor people to even GET here in the first place–?

    • Samira

      There wasn’t any explicit discussion about the policy being seen as a classist policy, although it was addressed implicitly in discussing the way our institution shapes our experiences of classism on campus. The whole discussion was based on the participants’s answers to the question “How does class/classism affect your Wesleyan experience?”, and the existence of the policy itself did not come up in any of the experiences presented (which isn’t to say that it’s not still pertinent to the classism discussion. It just didn’t come up circumstantially).

  • sinERJEE
  • ’15

    Great summary. Thanks for posting.