a student-run publication that seeks to provide space for voices that are not being heard on our campus. we are grounded by politics that are radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-homophobic, anti-ableist, and anti-transphobic (against all forms of oppression) and that reject the structural neo-liberal paradigm that characterizes middlebury college and its official publications
by Travis Sanderson
Every year, the Rohatyn Center hosts an annual student-run global affairs conference. Each one “gives students the opportunity to design, plan, and execute their own conference with the financial and logistical support of the Rohatyn Center and its Student Advisory Board.” The mission is definitely worthy. The Rohatyn Center is a department deeply invested in exposing our institution to world issues, which is necessary in our isolated geographical environment. We have the capacity to embrace our privilege in the Middlebury “bubble,” ignoring issues both near and far from us. The Rohatyn Center is a force for good in actively fighting against that danger.
This year, Go/Refuge applied to host the student-run conference. Go/Refuge is a student organization devoted to raising awareness of refugeeism and committing higher education to help alleviate the world refugee crisis. Thus, its proposal was actively geared toward that mission. The proposal operates under the working title of “Syria Symposium,” an event which aims to illustrate the world refugee crisis through the specific story of Syria viewed from lenses of education, social media, and revolution. It hopes to raise awareness of refugeeism through the stories of specific individuals deeply impacted by the Syrian conflict derived from very different lives and experiences. Represented among its speakers is a professor devoted to compelling every college campus to host one Syrian family; a journalist and former revolutionary who fled as a refugee from Syria after her mother was slaughtered by her father, high-ranking in Assad’s regime; an anti-Islamaphobia activist featured in documentaries; an Iraqi-Palestinian graduate student whose poetry is well-known through social media.
Go/Refuge’s proposal was soundly rejected by the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board for the annual student-run conference. The reasons listed are repeated word-for-word below:
“… We thought that your proposal was not sufficiently global or comparative enough for the Rohatyn Center Conference. Additionally, we were impressed by the activist focus of your conference, but would encourage you to look at your topic from multiple and varying perspectives.”
While at first apparently uncontroversial, these reasons are profoundly problematic.
By arguing that the Syria Symposium, a conference that attempts to shine light on the “global” issue of refugeeism, is not global or comparative enough, the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board’s argument illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the specific nature of global affairs. Discussing global affairs through anything but the stories of specific cases is limited at best, dehumanizing at worst. The amount of detail with which you can explore an issue is significantly impaired. There’s a reason that Middlebury College requires theses that are specific and in-depth. That does not mean context is sacrificed, but merely that context be utilized mostly in positioning the specific example that is exemplifying of an overall problem. Look at Shaun King’s talk. While he discussed broader trends, he proved his points through the specific videos, instances, and stories of the victims of racism. In his words, “I write articles with victims in mind.” Specific stories are the world’s story.
Secondly, rejecting the Symposium on the grounds of an apparent lack of “multiple and varying perspectives” is not based on truth. The Symposium not only includes many different perspectives on the Syrian crisis as detailed at the beginning of this article, but also includes research on multiple other refugee crises and examples of migration. Every speech made by Go/Refuge’s Symposium speakers will be accompanied by research relating to North Korea, Bosnia, and interfaith discipline. Go/Refuge did not include the accompanying research in the initial application, but Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board was made aware. Go/Refuge was willing to integrate academic context through academics with experience in the study of refugees. The Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board listened, yet remained unsatisfied. They rejected the proposal on the same grounds as before. The implication is clear: in order for the conference to be considered successful, it must be sufficiently limited—conforming to the flawed definition of “global” that the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board professes.
But most of all, rejecting the Symposium on such grounds has very real consequences. We are the people of a privileged community, one filled with white faces and the smiles and friendships often un-impacted by problems on the other side of the world. We are in a position to highlight and empower the voices of the more oppressed, because our privilege lends us the power to act as a megaphone. Both action and inaction do not exist in a vacuum. For every symposium not funded, for every decision made by even the smallest groups of people, the rest of the world is impacted in some way. The grounds upon which the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board’s decision is founded are the soil of privilege. It has elected to remain a non-positive force in aiding the world refugee crisis—at least in this specific instance. Fewer people will know about the issues; fewer privileged voices with the power and resources to do something will hear the stories of people affected by the conflict. Instead of real people, our information about refugees and the most oppressed will continue to be funneled through the channels of media and the translations of real lives into stories we scroll past on a computer or smartphone screen.
Every news story you read is a pair of eyes. Lines and quotes are translations of lives—like yours, mine. Faces peek out from between the prison bars of words, and emotion drips from every letter in the cell block. Each grand theory you read about is a representation of experiences tearing through families, neighborhoods, towns. Every statistic is a lumping together of the people that make up the numbers. News is human. Yet news stories are produced—under deadlines, by journalists and academics far removed from the oppression they discuss. The vast majority prize “objectivity” over justice, and strive to ensure their information is sufficiently diluted by perspectives to avoid “bias.” That is the context in which we must view the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board’s critique on the basis of “multiple and varying perspectives.” Their argument seems to be merely another way of saying that the student-run conference must be embedded neatly in “non-bias.”
But non-bias is impossible. Every line and quote translates some lives in favor of other ones, and includes some facts over others. Even the way a sentence is articulated is impossible to divorce from bias, because every word and letter is pregnant with connotation, history. The sum total effect of a sentence is a light shined on the faces peeking out between the bars of each word—or not. Given that non-bias is impossible, we face a choice. Will we benefit the oppressed, a megaphone for their subjects, or will we prioritize “non-bias” over the lives far more affected than ours?
In rejecting the Syria Symposium on the grounds of “globality” and a lack of “multiple and varying perspectives,” the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board has chosen to serve not as a megaphone for the oppressed. Instead, it has chosen to utilize its privilege to simply not discuss the issue of the world refugee crisis through the depth provided by the specific example of the Syrian conflict. And while I co-founded Go/Refuge and am thus deeply engrossed in the organization’s interests, I write this article not as a representative but as an individual. Go/Refuge does not benefit from this article as an organization still hoping to raise funds for the Symposium. But the issue is much larger than one organization. The foundation of the Rohatyn Center Student Advisory Board’s argument is problematic not only for Go/Refuge, but for all people and groups committed to justice in its many shades.
My respect for the Rohatyn Center as an institution cannot be greater. Nonetheless, the grounds upon which its Student Advisory Board rejected the Syria Symposium must be addressed. I hope that the institution is aware of the ramifications of its Student Advisory Board’s argument, and I am open to hearing their response—if they have one. We stand together, as a student body, awaiting that occasion.