Power and Privilege: legacy, access and institutional barriers

Leo Cohen, Podcast Reporter

Whitman’s first symposium on race relations occurred in Nov. 2006 following a party where students attended in blackface. Images circulated, the story became national news and conversation sparked regarding race relations on campus. In the years since, that symposium has evolved, and the annual Power & Privilege Symposium is intended to continue such work. This week, the “Whitman Wire Podcast” sat down with Merry Cockroft, this year’s Power & Privilege executive director, to discuss this year’s symposium and the role it still plays at Whitman. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wire: What does Power & Privilege mean? 

Merry Cockroft: I think the event is [intended] to encourage people to consider the ways that their own individual identities are implicated in systems of power and in systems of privilege. We’re encouraging people to take an intersectional approach to social justice work. [We’re encouraging] thinking about the way all of our identities have certain levels or amounts of privilege, what that privilege means and to think about how we can use that privilege to benefit our larger communities. 

That leads us into the theme this year, which is “No More Allies.” With this theme, we’re really encouraging people to move from an ally to being an accomplice. We see being an ally as the first step. An ally is someone who states their intentions to implicate themselves in social justice work [but] maybe takes action that is really performative. 

We want people to think beyond that first step and to think about moving to being an accomplice. [An accomplice] is someone who takes a certain amount of risk and is willing to do work that is often really uncomfortable. 

We’re hoping that people come out of Power & Privilege this year thinking about action. 

Wire: I understand there are some changes between last year’s and this year’s symposiums. What do those changes look like? 

MC: One of the biggest changes this year is [that] we made the decision to pay all session leaders stipends. There was some tension last year [around] expectations. I think session leaders had expected to be compensated for their work in leading sessions at P&P.

There was a rush on social media with people passing around session leaders’ Venmos or PayPals so that people who went to P&P and really benefited from those sessions could try to compensate those session leaders in some way. 

To be clear, almost all of our session leaders are students. These are students who are taking time out of their already busy lives to provide sessions that are really important and of value. This year we wanted to set the expectation that we were going to try to recognize the work that session leaders do [through] compensation.

[The stipends are in] no way reflective of the hourly work that session leaders do, but we hope that it’s a way for us to say that this work is important.

Wire: Are there any concerns or spaces for improvement at an institutional level or things you wish were different when planning the event?

MC: Absolutely. We are just running into a lot of [institutional] barriers that we don’t really have a lot of control over.

One of those largest barriers is physical accessibility. We’ve tried so hard this year to make accessibility a priority. We made sure that a large part of our session leader training was talking about what an accessible presentation looks like visually [and] what that looks like in relation to sound recordings. 

But, if our locations aren’t accessible in the first place, then it doesn’t matter. Our keynote [speech] is not in our largest auditorium on campus. It’s in the Reid Ballroom. Cordiner Hall is not an accessible space, and that’s really unfortunate.

[There are] four locations [where] sessions are happening on the symposium day: Reid Ballroom, Chism Music Hall, Maxey Auditorium and Olin Auditorium. The only location that is accessible is Reid. All the [other] spaces have accessibility challenges whether it’s a stage with stairs or the incline or decline of the sitting area. We’ve made a lot of our sessions hybrid to increase accessibility.

Wire: How does this year’s symposium function when thinking about a broader legacy? 

MC: It’s a privilege for me to be in a position leading this symposium this year because of the work that has been done before I got to Whitman to make this symposium happen. There have been students and faculty of color who have really worked hard without compensation to make this symposium happen.

They recognize[d] that it was really important on Whitman’s campus to have a day of community learning centered around social and racial justice. I want people to be reminded of that as they come into the symposium, especially students who are new and haven’t had the chance to learn about the history of the symposium.

We hope that the things we’re doing with the symposium we’ll be able to pass on to future leaders, and we’ll be able to help future leaders with some of what we think are important precedents that we’re setting.

We hope that people in future years will look critically at our symposium and look for ways to improve, and also see and recognize the good. 

The annual Power & Privilege Symposium is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 23. The four blocks of sessions begin at 9 a.m. More information about the executive team and this year’s programming can be found on the P&P Instagram page: @whitman_ppsymposium.

To listen to the Wire’s conversation with Cockroft, tune into this week’s episode of the Whitman Wire Podcast, releasing at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 24 online and airing on KWCW. Full episodes of the podcast can be found here.