Can We Converge Through Diverge?
By Mohini Tangri
I’m tired. I’m tired of being at this school. I guess that’s to be expected of a graduating senior. But I think it’s especially to be expected of an independent, progressive senior at Washington and Lee.
Bear with me now—I know that after reading that sentence some people might think oh goodness, here comes a tirade from a social justice activist who wants to vent about how unjust various aspects of campus life at W&L are. I could definitely comment on that, but I guess I’m not just tired of this school, generally—I’m tired of being angry at the “other side,” at the people standing on the other side of the wall we’ve got standing firmly between the Greeks and the independents. And instead of attempting to hurl another polemic over the wall just to see it fail to reach anyone on the other side, I’m going to try something I think people on both sides should have started doing a long time ago: leaving my frustration behind, crossing into the other’s territory, and honestly seeking to understand the other side.
I’ve spent my last several years here at W&L working to grow Amnesty International, which has been my baby since I founded it during my first year. I remember how passionately I felt about bringing international human rights issues to W&L, how hard I worked to erect the organization despite having no idea how organizations at W&L even worked, how excited I was to have found wonderful exec members who were just as dedicated to making the organization successful as I was. But as we’ve worked on various human rights campaigns over the last several years, I’ve felt that we’ve just been shouting into the void, that we’ve attracted only like-minded, largely independent students on campus who hold the beliefs that Amnesty stands for anyways and have been unable to reach those who think differently than we do.
Part of it is because of America’s political climate; there’s no escaping it even within our little W&L bubble. Part of it is because some of our campaigning techniques are ineffective; with each event we hold, we learn more about what gets people thinking about our activism and what simply pushes them away. But most of it is because of the massive wall on campus between Greeks and independents, a wall that is too high for most messages to transcend. Greeks and independents alike take one look at this wall and think no thanks, getting a message over that thing would never work. People on both sides end up thinking that the other side is uninterested in their side of the story, so they don’t end up paying attention to the few messages that do make it over.
From my side, where the independent students (who are very often also minority students) stand, it feels like students involved in Greek life simply aren’t paying attention to the social issues we’re working on. Earlier this year I heard a group of Greek students talking about how they wanted to get involved in various types of civil rights work on campus but didn’t have any clue where to start, leaving me wondering hmm, does anyone read the Amnesty signs that we put up all over the campus several times a month? Do people pay attention to The Vigil articles that are widely advertised across the school during the term? Information on how to get involved is literally everywhere—are people just looking away when they see these groups are led by people who aren’t in their social circles?
It’s made me angry. I’ve thought oh, well maybe people just don't care if they’re ignoring our messages. Maybe they don’t see us because they don’t associate with us. Is it because several progressive leaders on campus don’t act in the same Southern way as many people in Greek life do—which is likely because of our different ethnic backgrounds? Is it because classism insidiously permeates the smallest of everyday interactions—an issue made especially obvious by the widespread lack of understanding on this campus of what being low-income even means? My mind’s gone crazy trying to cope with these thoughts, to answer these questions. And I think being angry, frustrated, and exhausted is a pretty natural response to the situation. But this year I’ve begun to internalize that I’m part of the problem too, that both sides just aren’t looking hard enough for those messages coming over that damn wall. I’ve realized that the solution is less about screaming louder and more about listening better—and that all it takes is a couple people willing to lend their ears. This is where Diverge comes in.
I would be remiss to leave unacknowledged the problems that came with the creation of Diverge. I, like many other minorities on campus, was initially very frustrated with Diverge for some of the ways its leaders reached out to us, making many feel tokenized and disrespected. I was also frustrated because a group of minority students on campus had already started a journal--The Vigil--to create a space for often unheard voices. Diverge’s approach, for many of us, confirmed that people on campus do not listen to what we say and as a result appear to engage in savior-type behavior when trying to get involved with social issues. A lot of us were turned off as a result.
But I’ve always been raised to focus on intentions rather than purely on the outcomes of people’s actions. I asked the women leading Diverge if we could have a talk, and what they showed me in our meeting gave me hope that there are some in Greek life who really do care about bringing attention to social issues on campus and working together to solve them. I told them everything that the minority students had been feeling and I was thoroughly impressed with their willingness to work with me, to listen to me, and to learn more about being respectful activists. For example, when I asked them why they sent out email blasts to minority students, they clarified that they emailed everyone they could think of, not just minority students, because they wanted to elicit as many perspectives as possible from anyone they thought might be interested in their ideas. When I then explained that emailing minorities indiscriminately made it seem like our perspectives were valued only insofar as Diverge needed them to fill its pages, they were apologetic, understanding, and genuinely interested in trying to fix the situation.
The way they responded to me is rare, especially in this polarized world and on this polarized campus. I’m glad that I was able to meet with these women and get a better idea of the reality of the situation. I could have instead relied on assumptions of malicious intent to guide my actions, but then I’d have been as responsible as anyone for our polarization. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t helpful to fault those who truly want to help, especially when their response to learning how their actions negatively impacted minorities on campus is one of open-mindedness and a willingness to be better. And I really hope that others on campus will begin to see how a lack of communication has led to misunderstandings that have festered between the Greeks and independents.
This is a call for people on both sides to start paying more attention to one another. I am calling on Diverge to focus on bridging our two communities, as the organization is uniquely poised to help us actually listen to one another. I am calling on minority students to take a leap of faith and focus on the intentions of people whose goals may not be so different from ours. We can’t stay angry at each other; it’s fruitless and clouds our minds, preventing us from seeing the possibilities that exist for a more inclusive W&L. I really do believe that our communities care more for one another than we may think, and as an exhausted and demoralized senior, I would leave this place significantly more optimistic if I knew that people were starting to consider the power that a bridge could have in uniting our two communities.
So please. Let’s communicate. I’m tired of being angry, and I know I’m not the only one.