JusTalks Breaks Down Barriers


Tiffany Chang '17, Winson Law '16.5, Matthew Spitzer '16.5 and Divesh Rizal '17 engage in a small group discussion toward the end of Saturday's JusTalks event. (Campus/Lily Miao)

By Emily Singer

On Saturday, Jan. 11, 120 first-year students and over 40 upperclassmen met for the second annual JusTalks event. Atwater Dining Hall turned was transformed into a safe haven not only from the freezing rain outside, but also for difficult conversations on the subject of identity.

The concept of JusTalks was conceived during the 2011-2012 academic year as a program for first-year students during their first J-term on campus with the goal of fostering discussions about identity and inequality within the College community and on a more personal level, encouraging participants to challenge themselves and feel uncomfortable at least once during the conversations.

“I really liked [JusTalks] because it started by identifying a need in the community and going from there, developing a program to fit that need,” JusTalks organizer Josh Swartz ’14.5 said. “And so over the past two years, since I’ve been involved, it’s changed to better fit that need and hasn’t necessarily adhered to one specific program.”

The first JusTalks event, held last year, was open to students of all years as a means of spreading the word, testing the structure of the event and laying the groundwork for future events. This year’s event was limited to first-year participants, which Swartz said was a way of slowly working toward JusTalks’ initial goal of creating a program for all first-year students.

In a year where debates over productive critical dialogue have been pushed to the forefront, JusTalks and its goals have become especially relevant.

Fellow JusTalks coordinator Afi Yellow-Duke ’15 noted the importance of keeping the structure and conversations behind JusTalks fluid to best-fit community needs.

“One of the things we’ve been really thoughtful about and continue to be very considerate of is making sure that the program can evolve with what happens on campus and the feedback we get,” Yellow-Duke said. “A lot of feedback we got from last year went into building this year’s curriculum and we were really trying to make sure that we’re always improving and making JusTalks relevant.”

In the wake of last year’s JusTalks event, as well as a number of open forums held during the fall after controversial events such as the Chance the Rapper concert, students and administrators raised concerns about the self-selecting nature of such discussions. Students in attendance were more apt to have already participated in meaningful conversations about such issues and thus felt as if they were preaching to the choir and not making a real impact.

Being that JusTalks has now been limited to first-year students but is still voluntary, the audience is slowly being expanded beyond the small group of self-selecting students who are actively interested in engaging in challenging discussions.

“This year there were a lot of freshmen who were there because they … were organically interested in what JusTalks had to offer,” Swartz said. “I think they came because they were excited about those conversations and then left having met other people who were also thirsty to have conversations about identity and inequality.”

Swartz added that such was another goal of JusTalks: “to bring new people into those conversations, because oftentimes it’s the same 20 people over and over again.”

The structure of the JusTalks event eased participants into increasingly personal and challenging conversations by breaking down into small “Family Groups” and participating in icebreaker activities.

The participants then reunited for an anonymous clicker activity, in which a live-poll was conducted on topics ranging from privilege and sexuality to respect of College property and hook-up culture.

One of the final activities of the day was a stand-up activity, in which a range of qualities and characteristics were read aloud and students were asked to stand if they identified with a certain statement.

“Generally the thinking behind the structure of events is that in order to have productive conversations that get beneath the surface, you have to create a safe space to have those conversations,” Swartz said. “So the morning is dedicated to talking about safe space, talking about social identity, sharing some personal experiences in a smaller family group. And then as people start to get more comfortable, you come back into a bigger group and get more personal, but still anonymous, with a clicker poll activity … Later in the day there’s the Stand activity, where you’re standing and you’re claiming identity, so it gets more and more personal throughout the day as people get more comfortable.”

First-years responded positively to the discussions encouraged by the event and the structure of the event itself.

“I think at a campus, although as liberal as Middlebury, there is always a distance, especially with all the diversity that we have,” Divesh Rizal ’17 said. “We all come from such different places and with all of our academics and extracurricular [activities], we happen to be surrounded by this small circle that we don’t often try to come out of. I think programs like JusTalks … let people come out and show other people who they are, or even make them explore who they are themselves.”

He added that he signed up for JusTalks with the goal of exploring himself and seeing a side of others that rarely manifests itself in the classroom or during extracurricular activities.

In many ways, JusTalks resembles the Midd Uncensored activity that takes place during first-year orientation, in which students are pushed out of their comfort zone and reveal different facets of their identity and personal history. JusTalks, however, has the advantage of students being more in-tune with campus culture after one semester and can therefore delve deeper.

Gabrielle Owens ’17 signed up for JusTalks at the suggestion of her roommate and saw the event as a furthering of her orientation experience.

“It’s nice to be able to do this now, after I’m a bit more comfortable in this environment and it’s not quite so uncertain and overwhelming,” she said.

Laura Xiao ’17 echoed Owens’ statement, calling JusTalks an expanded version of Midd Uncensored and noting the importance of its status as a student-run program.

“I’m really impressed that it’s all student-run and I’m glad that this is something that students came up with and students are organizing because it shows that this is the direction that the student body wants to go in, rather than the administration, top-down, saying ‘we want you guys to do these kinds of things and think like this,’” Xiao said.

JusTalks Faculty Advisor and Dean of Students Karen Guttentag believes that the student-led nature of the event “provides a much more multifaceted educational experience to all those who are involved.”

“The leaders are learning about the logistical and philosophical aspects of organizing an ambitious large-scale program; the leaders and facilitators are learning about pedagogical and instructional techniques; and the first-year participants are able to see in the leadership of their peers and their own potential for future activism and leadership,” Guttentag wrote in an email.

Current organizers and Guttentag anticipate that JusTalks will occur again next year, though its precise structure remains uncertain.

Swartz and Yellow-Duke mentioned ongoing discussions about the possibility of eventually turning JusTalks into a mandatory off-campus retreat. Guttentag reiterated such a possibility, but noted that the goal and purpose of JusTalks must somehow be enhanced.

“A stand-alone event, such as this year’s program, is an important anchor, but cannot serve as the only mechanism for students to develop the skills and insights we hope they will gain,” she wrote in an email. “Our conversations have therefore included the possibility of working with the National Intergroup Dialogue Institute to implement this program, or similar programs, on campus to ensure continuation of this work throughout the academic year.”

JusTalks does not seek to resolve big issues of identity on campus, but rather seeks to, quite simply, spark conversation.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that JusTalks is the be-all, end-all to solving the ways that we talk about these issues, or solving these issues in general, but … we do think it’s a helpful tool in engaging with issues about identity,” Yellow-Duke said.

Swartz noted the importance of challenging dialogue in creating an inclusive community at the College.

“It’s deceptively simple how having a conversation with someone does that and I think seeing it last year and seeing it again this year, it’s a really powerful thing,” Yellow-Duke added.