First Years: Yes, You Have To Go to JusTalks

By MIYO McGINN, Opinion Editor

In 2011, a handful of students gathered in the basement of Ross to talk about what wasn’t being talked about on Middlebury’s campus. How did different experiences of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability impact the lives of Middlebury students? The students who organized this first JusTalks have graduated, but student organizers have kept the effort alive. JusTalks has looked different over the course of those seven years; it’s been incorporated into the First Year Seminars and been an optional weekend event. Two years ago student organizers started hanging posters, collecting signatures and meeting with administrators to make JusTalks into what it is now: a full-day event required for all first years. The event is student-led — those who facilitate the event spend their J-Term in class five hours a day, five days a week, learning to be facilitators, discussing what topics need to be addressed and how to make the experience as fruitful and engaging as possible for all the participants.

The first JusTalks weekend of 2018 took place during J-Term, with over 300 first years in attendance. This coming weekend, the 7th and 8th of April, is your last chance to go if you missed the J-Term sessions. For all the first years who haven’t gone yet: check your email. Find the date you were assigned. Come to ADK at 10:15 a.m. and get on the bus. Do your best to be present throughout the day. Maybe your friends who already went told you it was boring, or just totally sucked. But trust me: this is important.

At first, I wasn’t impressed by the idea of JusTalks. I’m a sophomore myself, and last J-term was a member of the first class to go to the mandatory full-day event at Breadloaf. By the end of the day I was exhausted. Conversations we had barely scratched the surface of the issues, and I was frustrated by the way my peers were tiptoeing around the questions at hand. After JusTalks I went home, took a long nap, and didn’t think much more of it.

But then in March, Charles Murray came, and the whole campus exploded. As first years, I know that you didn’t experience that firsthand. But you’ve seen the lingering impact — the graffiti on parent’s weekend, the emotional “community meetings” in Mead Chapel, the short tempers and strained conversations. And when JusTalks facilitator applications went out this September, I applied. Beyond orientation, there aren’t many universal, uniting experiences at Middlebury. First years live in different commons, take different first-year seminars and can eat in different dining halls. JusTalks is one of the only things here that all students participate in, and we’ve never needed a space to come together more than we do now.

For once, this isn’t some decree from high above, or professors lecturing at you. This event is mandatory because your fellow students have said it needs to be. The topics of conversation matter because they have been decided on by your peers, people who not only care deeply about this community, but belong to it. Speaking as a facilitator, I can tell you this: we’re not pushing some sort of liberal agenda on you. Ask anyone who went — this weekend is about conversations, not lecturing or right answers.

I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of criticisms: it’s too long, it’s too early, we’re not going to have solved anything by the end of the day, we’re not talking about the right things. Believe me when I say that no one is more aware of these shortcomings than the organizers and facilitators. But I hope you’ll make the same choice that we have: that it’s worth it to do the imperfect, incomplete thing. That it’s worth it to show up. We know that the one-day event is not a solution to all of Middlebury’s divisions and inequities. Rather, we hope that it can be the start of a longer conversation, which can continue in dining halls, dorm rooms and classes.

So yes, I’m telling you that you have to go to JusTalks. Not just because it’s mandatory, and not just because of that rumor you heard (which I will neither confirm nor deny) that if you don’t go you’ll get a bad room draw number. You have to go because you’re a member of this community, and your experiences and actions affect the experiences and lives of other students here.

I have a lot of homework this weekend, too. But I’ll be getting up early and facilitating all day because I genuinely think it’s better than nothing, and passionately believe we have to start somewhere. I hope I’ll see you there.

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