Speak Up: New Campus Series Encourages Dialogue Around Difficult Issues

shannon room

One of last semester’s What Matters conversations

The news is filled with stories about the uncertainties and problems that bedevil our world today. How do we uproot the racism embedded in our justice system? Should the U.S. accept more Syrian refugees? Is anonymous speech good for society or destructive?

To respond to and generate discussion around current events as they come up, the McKeen Center has launched a “nimble” new community discussion series called What Matters.

When an issue arises in the world, McKeen Center Director Sarah Seames and Interim Associate Director Michelle Vazquez Jacobus spring into action. After asking a few faculty, staff or community members who are knowledgable in the topic to participate, they get the word out about the event to the Bowdoin campus. The discussions are also typically open to the public.

When Vazquez Jacobus was hired by Bowdoin last summer, she was asked to help catalyze “discussions across difference,” as she described it. “We’re in a position [at the Mckeen Center] to connect larger social and community issues and to reach out across the campus.”

The McKeen Center oversees student volunteer groups, works with professors who incorporate community work into their curricula, and offers a number of fellowships for students to pursue international and local community projects.

The What Matters discussion series is designed to encourage participants to offer diverse opinions and to not shy from asking questions. “We don’t always have an answer to these big questions, and we wanted to have a forum where people can talk about things they care about without having to do weeks of reading in advance,” Vazquez Jacobus said. “We’re hoping this doesn’t feel like a discussion you have to have to be an expert on in order to participate in.”

It is important, she added, that the McKeen Center cultivates conversations that make people feel comfortable expressing different points of view. Vazquez Jacobus said they hope to avoid an “echo chamber,” and one way to do this is to set up conversational venues. “If you have an expert speaking at a podium, you set up a hierarchy where you don’t have genuine engagement because people feel they don’t have any right to talk,” she explained.

This fall the two discussions had to do with Syrian refugees and anonymous speech.

Going forward this semester, The McKeen Center is considering offering What Matters talks on several possible topics, include gun laws and economic opportunity across socioeconomic levels. They are putting together a “current events posse” of faculty, students and staff who will meet regularly to discuss the news and to come up with themes for new discussions. She encourages “news junkies” to get in touch with her if they would like to be part of the group.

“We really want an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to interact on social issues,” she said.

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