Changes Afoot in 2013

This was originally published by The Kenyon Observer on January 14, 2013. 

Today marks the beginning of a new (and my last) semester at Kenyon.  People are back from winter break, or from semesters spent off campus ready to enter again into the daily grind. After every break, I find comfort in returning back to a place which holds friends, memories and familiar campus landmarks. In my first week of classes as a freshman, the president of my a cappella group advised us that every new year necessarily involves changes which require thoughtful consideration and a flexible outlook. As I enter my last go-around on this Hill, I can’t help but notice some of the changes underway, here in this place which can often feel so static and familiar.

Regulating Health
What was originally dubbed a campus wide smoking ban apparently goes into effect today. No official proclamation has come from our Student Government, but emails from last semester indicate that the new regulations and designated smoking areas go into effect in January 2013. Though the language and regulations evolved following community input, this marks a milestone in the College’s regulation of its students’ behaviors from a public health angle.

Paving the Way
At the start of last semester, people were caught off guard by sections of Middle Path, in front of Old Kenyon, which were roped off and re-vamped. A number of aggregate compositions of gravel and concrete were being tested to determine the possible renovation of the campuses beloved “central artery” to make it more accessible.I haven’t heard anything recently, but expect the debate (and endless alumni input) to continue.

Fraternité
Greek life at Kenyon is shifting, with proposals for both a new fraternity and sorority making their way through Greek Council last semester. Greeks are also seeking recognition and a vote as part of Student Council. Frat.

Progress(ive)Curriculum
In my four years, Kenyon has added Programs in Islamic Civilization and Cultures, Latino/a Studies, and expanded the Asian Studies program to include a joint major, the first of its kind. Rumors are circulating that the Environmental Studies program is considering adopting a similar structure. Enrollment in Arabic is at an all-time high, as are rates of study abroad. A coalition of students, faculty, and administrators recognize the challenges facing current Kenyon students and the rapidly-globalizing world they will enter upon graduation. These people are promoting changes in the curriculum and social fabric of campus which expand what it means to be a liberal arts institution while retaining Kenyon’s character, essence, and traditions.

Maintenance Management
The debate that started with an announcement about potential outsourcing of maintenance staff has yet to reach a conclusion. Negotiations are still underway, after the receipt of recommendations from the advisory panel formed last fall. The decisions that are made in the coming weeks impact how the College is perceived by its employees, the surrounding community, and by concerned alumni and students.

Presidential Politics
One of the largest changes facing Kenyon in 2013 is the departure of President S. Georgia Nugent. The search is underway, and those involved are encouraging student and faculty input on what should be required and expected of the new head of the College.

In her address to the entering class of 2016 during the annual Matriculation ceremony, President Nugent commented on the inextricability of beginnings and endings. Both bring new challenges and decisions to be made; they shape those who experience them. Kenyon is undergoing a series of changes, some more readily apparent than others. Deciding when, how, and to what extent these alterations are made requires the continual and persistent input of the student body and faculty, as well as a supportive and receptive administration. Kenyon’s Mission Statement declares that, “… A liberal education forms the foundation of a fulfilling and valuable life. To that purpose Kenyon College is devoted.” From the long-term health of students, to their mobility on campus, to the rights and assurances given to those the College employs, and what is available as a program of study here, decisions are being made which impact what that “fulfilling and valuable life” might look like here in Gambier. As students, we should resolve to be part of the process.

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Wear A Hoodie this Friday

To my Kenyon Community,

The media is ablaze with controversy following the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin last month. His death (and the debate that has ensued) is one stark example amidst a series of incidents in the last week which have demonstrated the power and pervasiveness of racial, ethnic, gender, religious biases (etc.) in national discourse. Among these, I call to your attention the murder of Shamia Alawadi, an Iraqi-American mother of 5, who was found battered and unconscious in her kitchen floor, with a note reading: “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” In pop culture, disgraceful internet uproar over the race of Hunger Games characters and a Shorty Award for new media being awarded to the Awkward Black Girl miniseries (who came to Kenyon this past February) has ensued. In a reprehensible moment that correlates hideously with Juan Williams’ admission that he feels “nervous” when he sees Muslims in the airport, Fox commentator Geraldo Rivera noted this week “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was…. What’s the instant identification [when you see someone wearing a hooded sweatshirt]?….People are gonna perceive you as a menace.” These incidents reflect the power of racial profiling to affect (and cut short) the lives of innocent persons in diverse communities. Further, they demonstrate the inability of many to disassociate damaging stereotypes and biases from the people they encounter, and recognize the value, beauty, or transcendence of someone’s narrative, fictional or not, is not dependent on their ethnic, racial or religious identity.

Kenyon College is better than that. I believe Kenyon to be a place that encourages the development of compassionate, humanistic global citizens.

Thus, I humbly ask you to join me in a national movement expressing solidarity with the families of Trayvon Martin and Shamia Alawadi, and all those who face discrimination by wearing a ‘hoodie’ TOMORROW, Friday March 30th. As a community, we can send the message that we reject racial, ethnic and religious profiling, and show our recognition that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Happy Social Justice Week.

Peace,

Tess Waggoner ’13
Yalla Change Campaign- Ohio

Hoodies, Hijabis and the Hunger Games

This article was originally published by the online edition of the Kenyon Observer

I remember in the aftermath of President Obama’s election in November 2008, many proclaimed that America was post-racial. I disagreed then and now with this assessment; it suggests that the election of a black President amounted to full eradication of racial prejudices in America. In light of recent events, I don’t think one could reasonably make that argument. Three seemingly unrelated recent events, two murders and a blockbuster movie, in addition to my involvement in Project Open Voices, have brought in sharp relief the long road that lies before us in eradicating discrimination.

As horrifying and tragic as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Shamia Alwadi are, they present an opportunity to refocus attention on issues of race, discrimination, and internal biases. In honor of ‘Social Justice Week’ here at Kenyon, I’d like to raise a few comments and challenges to our community, in the aftermath of these events.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that occasionally the Twitterverse can feel like an echo chamber. However, it can provide a compelling glimpse into aspects of popular opinions and perceptions. So when Twitter lit up with angry Hunger Games fans expressing their disappointment (so to speak) that casting agents had “made all the good characters black,” I was disturbed but not surprised.

The events surrounding Trayon Martin’s death and the subsequent investigation have been chronicled in detail by the media, an overview by TKO’s Megan Shaw can be found here. A lesser known murder occurred just last Wednesday in El Cajon, California, and is currently being investigated as a hate crime. Homemaker Shamia Alwadi was found by her seventeen year old daughter, at home, “in a pool of her own blood” after her head was beaten with a tire iron. Next to her mother’s unconscious body, the girl found a note which read, “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Alwadi and her family moved to the United States from Iraq in 1993. She was a mother of five, and was a muhajiba, a Muslim woman who chose to wear hijab, or a headscarf. Emily L Hauser writes,

“In a country in which entire police departments feel justified in spying on Muslim Americans across state lines; in a country in which entire communities, across the country, are whipped up into a froth over plans to build houses of worship; in a country in which elected officials feel free to call Muslim faith-based philanthropic events ‘pure, unadulterated evil’ — should we, in fact, be surprised that many believe ‘Muslim’ to be  synonymous with ‘terrorist’?”

The next logical question, I would hope, is, how do we stop it?

I appreciate Jon Green’s recent post, which bravely acknowledges the striking biases that permeate our society. Advocating humanism and egalitarianism over socialized stereotypes is a crucial step in the creation of a better world and more just society. He writes, “As long as I am aware that my biases exist I can consciously override them, knowing how irrational they are.” It’s a simple but noble call to action, one that could have a radical impact on the lives of many if implemented. I look forward to the day when controversial acknowledgments, like those by Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams no longer occur, because they are overridden, “knowing how irrational they are.” Perhaps these Twitter users would feel differently about the Hunger Games movie if they were able to disassociate damaging stereotypes and biases from the story unfolding on screen, and recognize that the value of someone’s narrative, fictional or not, is not dependent on their ethnic, racial or religious identity.

“Islam’s Diverse Paths” at Kenyon College

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Office of Public Affairs at Kenyon College about our slew of exciting events this spring related to the Islamicate world. It has been incredibly gratifying to watch the program grow and shift along with student interest. One of the unique advantages of the liberal arts experience, especially at Kenyon, is the ability each individual student has to shape and impact what they get out of their time on “the Hill”. Personally, I went from swearing off language study entirely, to now applying to overseas immersion programs in Arabic. The Arabic program has ballooned from a single year long introductory course, to record enrollment at the introductory and intermediate level. Every day I am meeting people who came to Kenyon because they knew it was a place where they could study the Middle East in an interdisciplinary way. I learn new things every day, both in my classes and from stimulating, intense conversations with faculty and peers alike.

What began with some buddies talking politics over dinner morphed into the Middle East Student Association, which was awarded Best New Student Organization by the Student Activities Office in the spring of 2010 and was nominated for Best Student Organization of the Year the following spring. That same organization, which I now am proud to lead, will co-sponsor at least 10 events this semester alone, everything from an Arabic/Hebrew poetry night, to a celebration of Noruz, the Persian New Year, to discussions in the lead up to Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy’s conference: “Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?” Many of my fondest memories and closest friends from Kenyon were gifts that have come via my involvement in MESA, and I am so, so lucky to have them. Each day I spend studying the Middle East brings new questions, challenges, and surprises, and I am fortunate to be in a place and with people who are similarly engaged.

Why I Don’t Call It The Arab Spring

This article was originally published in Kenyon College’s MESA Journal, Vol. 3, Ed. 1 (November, 2011).

I can already see the entries in future history books: what began with self-immolation by a frustrated young fruit vendor in Tunisia launched unprecedented revolution across the Arab world. Aided by Facebook, Twitter and other social media, movements spread and autocratic regimes fell. It was the dawn of nonviolence in the Middle East, a time of rapid change: the Arab Spring.
I’m not so sure.

It is not my place to attempt a retelling of the events in the Arab World in the past ten months, nor could I begin to address the scope and complexity of various national movements. Instead, I wish to address the way these events have been presented and interpreted, as well as how the Obama Administration has responded. Finally, I will conclude with how American foreign policy should proceed.

Complexity is at the core of my opposition to the usage of the term “Arab Spring” to describe recent uprisings across the Arab world. The common narrative alludes to a process of rolling ignition, seen in the language of “first Tunisia,“then Egypt” followed by a smattering of other countries in varying chronology. This mode of presentation detracts from the existence of opposition movements that predated the uprisings in various Arab countries, and implies a simple progression from Country A to Country B to C and D and E (with the obvious inclusion of social media as the disseminating agent of protest organization) without acknowledgement of the unique circumstances underlying the protests in each individual country. Tunisia is not Egypt is not Syria is not Libya is not Bahrain, and a euphemistic categorical umbrella does not help our understanding of the unfolding events, nor in accommodating a climate of progressive change across the region.

Many of my objections to usage of this term draw heavily from an editorial in Lebanon’s The Daily Star by Dr. Rami Khouri entitled “Drop the Orientalist Term ‘Arab Spring.’” In the article, Khouri notes that the terminology most popular with Western media, “Arab Spring” does not reflect the language used by those engaged in the movements themselves. The implicit temporality and passivity of the word “spring” should also give its users pause. The phrase does no justice to the millions who have courageously stood up to brutal, malicious regimes, and to the thousands who have lost their lives in those struggles.

The collective movements that allegedly began with vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation did not end with Tunisia’s successful elections last month. While the developments in each country will follow their own respective trajectories, each transition will be most unlike those between seasons (buds to blossoms to barren). The analogy oversimplifies what is certain to be a long, arduous, non-linear process. The reclamation of the political agency of Arab peoples is not a seasonal phase, but a dramatic shift that will take more than passive observation of changing foliage and clime, but tireless activism, strong will, and honest governance. The transition taking place doesn’t involve leaves falling from trees, but people dying at the hands of ruthless autocrats.  Reducing their struggles to an Arab Spring minimizes the importance of their efforts.

The language we use to describe these events is symbolic, to be sure; however, it can serve as a useful mark of the more necessary shift: one in attitudes and actions by Western leaders towards the Arab peoples and the governments that represent them. Khouri argues:
Western powers for the past century and a half or so have assumed that they can shape and control most aspects of power and policy across the Arab world, whether due to imperial self-interest, energy requirements, economic needs, or pro-Israeli biases….Perhaps some in the West also do not want to acknowledge the full reality of Arabs reconfiguring their power structures, because Western powers (including Russia) supported those old, failed authoritarian systems that are now being challenged and changed.

Prior to the outbreak of large-scale revolutionary activity, this sentiment was put another way by Iraqi-Canadian rapper The Narcycist in his book, Diatribes of a Dying Tribe: “If the restaurant of life were an Arab establishment, dictators would be the waiters to a Capitalist chef.” As regimes shift or topple and tides of public sentiment grow louder, it is time for Washington to listen to some Bob Dylan : “The times they are a changin.” What is the intended result of the uprisings of the past year? Agency for Arab peoples.

I hope to look back at the last year as a watershed in the history of American foreign policy
towards the Arab world. I hope to watch Arab political power expressed justly through free and fair elections, through leaders who are appointed by the masses to serve the masses. I hope to see genuine structural changes to the power structures in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and other nations that face unequal and unjust representation. I hope to see the monarchs of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco continue, however gradually, to shift power to elected legislatures and executives.

As desirable as those outcomes may be, it is not the role of American foreign policy to produce them. Instead, the U.S. should craft a foreign policy that respects the agency of Arabs, encourages struggles that align with our nation’s founding principles, and rejects political violence against civilians. The continued hypocrisy of the Obama Administration toward unfolding events in the region violates our nation’s values and ideals and inhibits our ability to act as an impartial arbiter of peace within the international community. While our economic and national security needs may remain, the means through which America meets its strategic interests in the region must change.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak has revealed that the military holds the real power in Egypt.  The seasonal change that seemed so evident in February has not occurred at a rate suitable to anyone save the army and its interests in the business sector. Delayed elections, difficulties in developing and organizing new political structures and military trials of civilians by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces have shown that Egypt’s revolution remains incomplete.  Political stagnation isn’t the only issue facing Egypt: recent incidents of violence by security forces against Coptic Christians, growing popular support for well-organized Islamist political factions, and an attack on the Israeli embassy have left many concerned about Egypt’s prospects for a smooth transition to representative democracy.

These problems are real and complex and will need to be solved through persistence, cooperation, and empathy by the Egyptian people and their leadership. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

The great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is… the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; … who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.

Dr. King’s description corresponds with what has been labeled the Arab Spring, and it is far from over. Rather than set a paternalistic timetable, or attempt to gloss over the distinctive aspects of each revolution, we must allow change to take its natural course. Majorities in many Arab countries have chosen instability over injustice, and the U.S. should no longer stand in the way of their causes to advance American interests. What is required is not a new season in American foreign policy, but an entirely new paradigm: one that replaces collectivism toward the region with informed analysis, and shuns convenience in favor of integrity and legitimate governance.

The Perfect College

I happen to believe in a “best fit” college scenario– there is a school that is right for YOU.

Still, reality calls and for the hundreds of prospective college students I have or will encounter(ed) it certainly is a daunting time and task. Many of my friends at college discuss tutors and the cost of their high school tuition; many of my friends from home weigh the costs of working two jobs to afford community college.

The stakes are high, and approaches vary. I know lots of people who view an undergraduate experience as a necessary expense, of time and effort, to get training or get the piece of paper that says you’re qualified to do x job. I also know I am not alone in viewing my undergraduate experience as a time of intense personal growth and exploration.

For me, learning is an experience, not a process.

For me, you go to college to learn.

For me, you go to college to experience.

When approaching the admissions process, keep close to your heart the task of finding a place that will help you grow, and show the admissions department that you are ready to do just that.