First Town Hall: Creating a Culture of Conversation
The Chapel is filled to the brim. Students and administrators fill the two floors; two students run up and down aisles to hand students microphones, and the line that had formed outside slowly disappears as people trickle into the crevices of the room, eager to stand and watch: everyone is here to take part in Hamilton’s first Town Hall.
On April 2, President David Wippman, Dean of Students Terry Martinez, other administrators, and students gathered to discuss free speech, mental health, sexual assault, racism, and tolerance/intolerance. The event was led by Student Assembly, but the initial idea for the conversation was created by the Levitt Center Social Innovation Team.
Dean Martinez began the event by explaining the importance of having conversations about issues like race and sexual assault on campus, the necessity of communication between administration and students, and explained some of the initiatives in the works to address these issues on campus.
“We have begun the regular practice of looking at the language we have created in our policy and have partnered with activists and survivors on enhancing that language so that it reads with clarity and compassion,” Martinez said. “Our work around creating bystander intervention training has been developed in partnership with student leaders, athletes, and others, to ensure that various voices and perspectives are understood and included. We must continue this work.”
Chris Victor ’21 opened the forum by asking the question, “What gives you life on this campus?” Students’ answers ranged from “singing a cappella” to “the man who always walks his two dogs on campus” to “listening to music with my roommate.”
The overall goal was to get students, faculty, and staff together to collectively reflect on campus culture in a way that was not reactionary but proactive, and as a consequence spur a culture of honest and meaningful dialogue.
The topics brought up from there ranged from simple, practical problems to more serious, emotionally taxing issues. Some students shared personal stories of feeling isolated as a person of color in the classroom, while others explained the difficulty of being LGBTQ on campus. Students raised the need for more blue-lights on campus to create a safer environment, as well as the importance of preventing sexual assault and harassment by shifting the blame from the victim to the perpetrator. Students also discussed how McEwen’s not being open on the weekends or down-the-hill housing could be detrimental to a student’s mental and emotional health.
Chidera Onyeoziri ’18, who leads the Social Innovation Team, approached Student Assembly with their idea to have some sort of community discussion on various issues. Hamilton had had “town hall” discussions in past years, but they had been reactionary discussions to specific events or occurrences, not forums for pure conversation, which is what Onyeoziri and her team felt there needed to be.
“The overall goal was to get students, faculty, and staff together to collectively reflect on campus culture in a way that was not reactionary but proactive, and as a consequence spur a culture of honest and meaningful dialogue,” Onyeoziri said.
The Social Innovation Team and Student Assembly hoped to create a space to talk about issues not usually discussed in the classroom, and to create a culture where campus-wide conversations are normalized. Student Assembly member Diana Perez ’21 is one of the class representatives for the class of 2021 and was there when Onyeoziri approached Student Assembly.
“I thought it was very productive as a first step to engaging communication as a community,” Perez said. “It’s shocked me that this conversation has never happened before on campus. It was very thought-provoking and inspiring that people were sharing personal stories and relating them to specific instances on campus, and tying all of that together to come up with a solution of what we should do next.”
President Wippman began his tenure in 2016, while Dean Martinez began in 2017. Onyeoziri felt that this was the first time in her four years on campus that Hamilton had had a campus-wide discussion, something she hopes will happen more often from now on, especially with this new administration overseeing Hamilton.
“We’ve never done something like this before,” Onyeoziri said. “I want students to take away that we have a new administration who is more willing and open to interact with students and to address student needs than in the past three, four years that I’ve been here. They were willing to put themselves on the line, were willing to be addressed and to be vulnerable.”
Perez is also hopeful about ways in which students can work with administration to move forward and find solutions for the issues discussed at the Town Hall.
“Faculty are truly trying to engage in a conversation with us and listen to us,” Perez said. “Although we may have felt like we haven’t been heard or action has been taken, these are baby steps that are happening. It requires us to not stop wanting this, and to keep talking about these issues.”
The Town Hall was moderated by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mariam Durrani and Assistant Professor of Government Gbemende Johnson.