Power and Privilege Symposium 2017

Andrew Schwartz, News Editor

The class of 2017 will be the first for which the Power & Privilege Symposium has been a staple in the Whitman year, every year. It was before the 2014 event that faculty first voted to cancel class on the day of the symposium, and since then the event has grown and molded, logistically and culturally, into something of a campus institution unto itself.

This year, the tinkering continues. An additional workshop session brings the total to five. An additional emphasis on a closing ceremony which in past years has typically entailed a movie screening: this year will feature a musical performance by Whitman graduate Aisha Fukushima.

The theme is “Empower.” Forrest Arnold, a rhetoric major who is the Operations Director on this year’s Power & Privilege planning committee, said that the theme is “meaningful in perhaps a different way than it was four months ago when we came up with it.” The theme was chosen before the election. 

“But at the most basic level, what we were focusing on is a sort of difference between empowering yourself and working to empower others,” Arnold said. “In terms of the chronology of last year’s very action focused theme, ‘Speak Up, Act Out,’ [the empower theme is] almost serving to take that as an absolutely necessary starting step and nuance it, and start to think critically about who is speaking, who is acting, who can.”

The Whitman college and community has seen an upswell in sociopolitical activism in past months.

Angela Tang, who directed the symposium in 2015, was involved in the genesis of three sessions this year and will be moderating one of them.

“I think in this moment with Trump, a lot of young folks … are feeling a little bit stuck, said Tang. “And for me it’s always nice to have these conversations with my friends, where we’re like what kind of change to you want to create? How are you doing it? Just bouncing ideas and philosophies of change off of each other helps me envision what am I going to do in the future.”

For Tang, the symposium has come to exemplify a unique and welcome harmony between the Whitman administration, that largely funds and supports the event, and activists in the student body, who largely make it happen.

Katie Dong, who is one of this year’s programming directors, noted the variety of the sessions. She and the other Programming director, Alondra Contreras, have made an extra effort this year to be accessible resources for presenters, but in terms of content itself, the process remains fairly hands-off.

“I hope that when people present, they feel empowered, and they get to share their experience and are validated,” Dong said.

The symposium is funded by number of sources, from ASWC (via the Whitman Events Board) to the President’s Office, which chipped in extra money for Fukushima’s show, to the Intercultural Center, campus clubs and greek organizations.

The decision to cancel class was first made four years ago by a vote of the faculty with the idea to bolster attendance and institutionalize the event. Then ASWC President Tim Reed told The Wire during 2014 symposium that, “I think this is definitely a shining moment to prove the efficacy and worthwhile nature of having the Power & Privilege Symposium and [to] have it become something that is happening every year.”

Since then, many students have become familiar with the ritual-flares of debate around whether the event merits class-cancellation.

Arnold, for his part, characterized the day as being about “a different kind of learning, that I think is a necessary supplement to the text based classroom education that happens on a day-to-day basis.”

“You don’t have to be a politics major to be thinking about social justice all the time,” he said. “These topics and conversations are about everyday life, and they should be a part of everyday life.”