At Swarthmore’s first ever General Assembly on Thursday, dozens of students gathered at Sharples to speak and listen to concerns around the community. This experiment in direct democracy, which ran during dinner from six to seven, was modeled on the recent Occupy protests, though Swarthmore’s GA avoided discussing Wall Street or the economy.
When the meeting began, the organizers, including Will Lawrence ’13, Zein Nakhoda ’12, Rebekah Judson ’12, and Dani Noble ’12 (among several others) seemed unsure what sort of turnout they might get. The start time was delayed as empty seats were shuffled back and forth. However, soon enough, a small crowd had gathered, and as the speakers began the assembly using the human microphone—the collective repetition of the speakers’ words by the entire crowd—more and more onlookers gathered around. By 6:45, a wide circle had enveloped a full quarter of the dining hall.
Not counting the few procedural gaffes that accompany any inaugural college activity, the General Assembly ran smoothly and earnestly. A facilitator continuously scanned the crowd, taking down the name of anyone interested in speaking. After establishing some safe space guidelines, the participants produced an endless stream of comments, complaints, and suggestions for the group to consider. One by one, individuals were called on to speak by the facilitators, their every phrase echoed by the human microphone crowd.
Administration transparency was the hot-button issue of the night, as audience members faulted the Dean’s office, the Treasurer, and President Chopp for taking a behind-closed-doors attitude towards the budget, investment, and sexual abuse reports. According to one speaker, the College Budget Committee has not convened once yet this semester. “It sounds like an important committee,” said the speaker, Will Lawrence, who also helped plan the assembly. “Well, I guess it’s not!” he exclaimed, to applause and finger twinkles—a wiggly-fingered hand gesture the audience adopted to communicate excitement and solidarity. Others expressed deep concern that sexual assault cases were being dangerously swept under the rug, and a few students wondered why it is impossible to request that the college change its investment practices. Another student pointed out that the college is in the third year of a hiring freeze: “that’s fucked!” she said, exasperated.
Women’s issues, especially regarding the sorority proposal and ensuing brouhaha, also garnered a significant amount of attention. Though no one went so far as to suggest banning greek life on campus, a handful of speakers called it an essentially gender-discriminatory institution. Others expressed support of the sorority idea. Multiple co-creaters of the proposal took their turns to speak, defending their hoped-for sorority’s positive nature and their desire to work with other women’s groups, including the WRC. A member of LaSS reminded the assembly that that organization is not affiliated with the sorority idea, and encouraged students to look up the proposal and read it.
Other concerns, including misrepresentation of diversity offerings during campus tours, the underfunding of student cooking (at Paces Café and Mary Lyons breakfast), and a proposal for voluntary Weekly Friday Collection at the Scott Ampitheater were all discussed during the meeting. One speaker promoted the Swat Women’s Union proposal, which is due to premier in a Gazette letter to the editor today.
As for the future of this small but enthusiastic movement, participants seemed pleased with the exposure and expressed a desire to convene another General Assembly sometime in the future. One organizer stressed his hopes that the community could establish a permanent forum, either online or in assembly fashion, so students could keep up the conversations about their concerns. These conversations, it was clear, were only just beginning. Two proposals to occupy Parrish came out of the assembly (for two different reasons), and Callie Feingold ’12, for one, was excited to continue the conversation about kitchen funding at a later date.
Students left energized by the event. “Actually seeing activism on campus is exciting,” said Melissa Tier ’14. “It shows activism can be small campus issues, not just ‘fixing Chester.’ And the human mike was awesome!” Zein Nakhoda ’12, one of the organizers, called the event “the best student conversation I’ve seen at Swarthmore.”