On Oct. 4, a group of 54 students, faculty and administrators streamed into the Alumni Dining Room to talk about “Kenyonness.” The first Kenyon Listens Community Dialogue, organized by the College’s Ombudperson, a mediator for internal affairs, Carrie Knell, was about to commence.
Open to all community members, the Kenyon Listens program is a series of conversations on topics relating to life at the College, the first of which focused on belonging.
“I always had the intention of wanting to start a dialogue program, so I brought forth to [President] Sean Decatur my proposal for a dialogue program over the summer,” Knell said. While Kenyon Listens isn’t directly related to the small group conversations that occurred last April, it “tied really well in with the spring program,” Knell said.
George Goldman ’20, who served as one of the discussion’s facilitators, emphasized the importance of having frequent, campus-wide conversations. “We shouldn’t just wait for really big moments where the current lack of conversation causes a lot of hurt,” Goldman said. “[This should be] an ongoing, continuous, frankly never-ending conversation.”
During the event, participants sat at circular tables, each of which had a facilitator and about six people who took turns answering questions posed by Knell. The questions ranged from experiences of belonging or alienation, the meaning of the Kenyon identity and the significance of these types of dialogue.
Goldman said that, because our aspirations as a college are so high, it’s easy to overlook the magnitude of work required for large-scale changes to occur. “We sort of just accept that there’s the magic spell of the Kokosing that we’re all under, and we all get along so well,” he said. “But I think that sentiment comes at the cost of not spending a lot of time actually sitting down and figuring out what Kenyonness really means.”
Goldman noted that all students should be charged with assessing and challenging the Kenyon identity. “It’s not just say the role of students at Kenyon whose identities make them feel out of place to do the heavy-lifting of examining the Kenyon identity,” Goldman said. “It’s sort of incumbent on everyone.”
Associate Provost of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason stressed the importance of a one-step-back, two-steps-forward approach. “If one forges community by certain important kinds of conversations, that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “I don’t have a master plan. I think these things go one step at a time. I’m certainly convinced that we need to listen better.”
Mason said that its impossible for people to be on the same page all the time, but he wants to see the College build its capacity to handle tension and difference, which happens through listening.
“If that emphasis on speech is really aimed at communication, there’s a half that’s missing — and that’s like listening,” Mason said. “I think that listening to understand, listening to empathize, listening to engage is the part that we really need to work on. Listening, is at its best, active.”
The next dialogue event will be on emotional and physical safety on Nov. 15.
“I encourage people to give it a try and see if they like it, and if they do come back next time,” Knell said.