Students, community members publicly confess privilege

Emily Lin-Jones

Students and community members gathered on the steps of the Memorial Building on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 12 to publicly confess their privilege as part of an event sponsored by the Whitman Christian Fellowship (WCF) entitled “We Are the 1%”.

“[The event] is primarily about working toward economic redemption, but it’s mostly about providing a space where we can be fully open with each other about what our privilege is and how we feel about it, what we want to change,” said senior Michael Putnam, a student leader in WCF.

“We are the 1%” took place on the lawn outside Memorial Building. Photos by Tanner Bowersox.

Participants spoke their confessions into an open microphone, relating stories about their relationship to class and privilege. Speakers came from a variety of backgrounds; one Walla Walla resident described the difficulty of working a night shift at Safeway to support his family, while a Whitman student from a wealthy community talked about struggling with financial guilt.

Nick Brandenburg, a representative of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship who assists in leading Whitman’s chapter of the organization, noted that the event was both indebted to the message of the Occupy movement and an attempt to expand its statement.

“We want to pay homage to the Occupy movement. A lot of us either fully support it or sympathize with it, but we also believe that an understanding of privilege and wealth must be couched in a global perspective,” said Brandenburg. “We are the global one percent, in the same sense that we have a national one percent that exerts influence and power over the 99 percent, we have that same capacity on a global scale.”

Not everyone on campus has been on board with the event’s message, according to Brandenburg.

“We’ve had some pushback,” said Brandenburg, adding that discussion has been “healthy” and took place both in e-mails and through people approaching advertising tables. Brandenburg said dissent mostly took two forms: those unhappy with being classified as privileged, and those who took issue with confession as a way to relieve economic guilt.

“We’re trying to take what we deem as a transcendent take on both sides of those issues,” said Brandenburg.

Despite the variances in tone and content, a common spiritual thread ran throughout the confessions. The event was preceded by a selection of readings from the New Testament and included prayers throughout.

Brandenburg admitted that he’d hoped for a larger turnout to the event, which was mostly attended by members of WCF despite being advertised throughout campus as open to all.

“I’ve heard that critique from people,” said Brandenburg, regarding the possibility that religious aspects of the event might have dissuaded some from attending.

“I think this event was really powerful for our community … the tack we might take in the future is partnership,” Brandenburg said, citing campus class-awareness clubs like First Generation/Working Class students and Residence Life and Housing as possible allies.

Senior Stanislav Walmer, a member of WCF and a participant in the event, agreed that collaboration would be an ideal next step.

“The thing that really touched home for me today was about hope, and I just don’t think that fighting institutions or fighting the big system is really possible by myself … That’s why I think it’s good to stand in solidarity, for Whitman to be more together in these missions,” Walmer said.

Senior Laura Holford speaks during “We are the 1%.”

Sophomore Ashley Hansack, co-president of FGWC, though unable to attend the event, confirmed an interest in possible collaboration and the desire to keep a dialogue about privilege alive on campus.

“Creating a safe space [is difficult] … FGWC is working on doing that this year but it’s hard to keep everybody comfortable,” said Hansack, noting the difficulty some working-class students face in balancing recognizing their own privileges and not placing all Whitman students in the same privileged category.

“I often have this conversation with other FGWC students because it amazes us and sometimes angers us when we take into account the privilege that surrounds us … [but] even though they are not the same privileges that many Whitman students have in common, I would not be here if I was not privileged in one way or another. And once you really get to know the FGWC students and/or students of color, you begin to see how they too have had so many privileged opportunities,” said Hansack in an email.

Worries about low turnout and conflicting reactions to the event’s message aside, most participants seemed positive about its effect.

“I really feel like this was the start of something different, something for real change,” said Walla Walla resident Vincent Le. “Even though we didn’t have a huge turnout, the commissioning at the end to continue these conversations is going to be really powerful for people on campus.”