Town Hall: The BSU Community Comes Together in the Wake of a Roller Coaster Election

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by Marina Smoske, Editor-in-Chief

Empathy.

Compassion.

Inclusivity.

Bipartisanship.

These were just a few of the words scrawled by students and faculty on posters lining the RCC Ballroom last Wednesday during a Town Hall event for the BSU community to discuss the results of the presidential election. Plucked from an array of many others like them, they are a product of the deep-seated uncertainty that set the tone for discussion among attendees, with many asking the question, “What happens next?”

After writing responses to questions posted around the space and listening to opening remarks from BSU President Fred Clark, students and faculty met in small groups for guided discussion. I was able to catch up with a number of students and faculty attending, who eagerly shared with me their thoughts on the election and the event itself.

Junior and English major Patrick Bessey expressed disappointment with the options this election afforded him, an attitude far from uncommon among participants:

“I think it’s kind of sad that we live in a country where the two major party candidates are disliked, they have unfavorable views, but people don’t seek out the third party option. But at this event, I heard some different perspectives. It made me think.”

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“What are 1 or 2 actions will you take to improve communication and understanding between yourself and people from different social circumstances?” (all photos by the author)

However saddened by the loss of his favored candidate, Jill Stein of the Green Party, Bessey also felt the Town Hall was productive, granting attendees the opportunity to justify their own perspectives and be receptive to others:

“It’s almost like you learn more about your own view from conversing with other people. You have a feeling of what’s wrong, but you’re forced to articulate it. And people challenge you, and that’s a good thing.”

Sarah Fender, a junior Political Science and English double major, chimed in to discuss what went on in her group:

“We talked about how there’s blatant racism and sexism on display. I think we have our own ideas on what issues are most important, and if we had more empathy, we would understand why people do the things that they do.”

In my own group, there seemed to be an initial reluctance among participants to express their thoughts. Conflict, after all, is more difficult to confront in person than on screen, where many of us watched it unfold the night before. Ultimately, sentiments of disappointment and apprehension with the election results from both sides of the aisle turned inward, focusing on how BSU’s culture may be affected and what can be done to address the ideological polarization that threatens the unity of our campus.

Heading the organization of the event was Dr. Christy Lyons Graham of the Service Learning and Civic Engagement Initiative. Lyons Graham collaborated with other community members with the intention of addressing the election’s immediate impact on the campus climate:

“There was a group of administrators, faculty, and staff who expressed some concern about the day after the election because it has been so contentious. We were really just unsure about what would happen on our campus and wanted to set aside a safe space for people to get together the day after.”

Lyons Graham noted clear commonalities between small discussion groups:

“It was interesting to hear that people on both sides had that same theme of wanting to feel understood and not wanting certain words to be associated with them just because they voted for a certain candidate. And they felt like that might happen.”

Several participants reaffirmed the importance of establishing open forums for students and faculty to voice their opinions, citing the importance of dialogue between people with disparate life experiences and the significance of personal identity in the higher education environment. And despite the sense of disillusionment that gripped much of the room, somehow, optimism in the strength of the BSU community prevailed.

But for me, those feelings of hope are tainted by skepticism. At BSU, we promote values like inclusivity and diversity; they are imbued in our institutional culture. But what has become clear in this election, perhaps more than any other, is that these values are politicized, even contentious. And for some community members, the embrace or rejection of these values is intrinsically and inextricably tied to their political identities and personal values. And when those elements of a person’s life come into conflict, that becomes a problem. Which set of beliefs wins out? How can we expect someone to reconcile these inconsistencies without being forced to choose?

For these beliefs I am either a cynic or a realist, depending upon your personal stock in ideological heterogeneity.

At least for President Clark, the outlook is decidedly less bleak. Echoing the theme of unity that appeared throughout the day, he issued a firm reminder that regardless of our personal beliefs, we all must face the outcome together:

“Democracy can be messy… it’s ok to be disappointed or joyous with the result, that’s what democracy is all about. Today, we need to think of red, white, and blue. Not red or blue.”

 

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