In anticipation of a fraught national presidential vote, Goshen College is organizing discussion groups to help the college community process the 2020 election.
Discussions will be based on a method developed by the Colossian Forum. According to their mission statement, Colossian Forum is a nonprofit that seeks “to transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness.” Students trained in the Colossian Way will act as moderators.
Suzanne Ehst, an associate professor of education and director of secondary education, proposed the class. Ehst, whose last name rhymes with “east,” met with Joe Liechty, a retired professor of PJCS, in early July to see if he’d be willing to prepare students for discussions “before and after the fall election, anticipating intense polarization,” Liechty said.
Liechty proposed a different plan, Ehst recalled: to “prepare students through the course of the semester through a class.” The class, PJCS 310, which was approved by the Dean Ann Vendrely, meets weekly on Monday night.
Liechty previously led two Colossian classes at churches, the setting that the materials were designed for. Liechty hoped that students who applied to the class would bring a diversity of theological and political backgrounds, but he noted that the group does tilt progressive.
“We have a good range,” Liechty said, “but in terms of, you know, accurate numerical representation, it’s a little skewed.”
One student, Jorge Suriano, a third-year peace, justice and conflict studies major, took the class to gain practice in mediation and dialogue. “The more practice you get, the better,” he said.
Suriano also thought it would be interesting to “play devil’s advocate in a way… try and voice lesser opinions that I might hold myself.”
Suriano enjoys being able to talk to other students willing to have a dialogue on difficult topics. The discussion time is built into the class, which Suriano appreciates because it’s a “space that isn’t always available during normal class time,” he said. “It’s sorely needed.”
Suriano said that the class is helpful for Christians, providing “a place of growth for their community,” such as for topics “that would otherwise have, like, no moral compass.”
Ehst is unsure how many people will participate in the discussion groups attached to the election, but is hoping that around 200 students, the average for an in-person convocation. Liechty said that an advantage to convocations not being required this year is that people will come because they want to be there, and not for convo credit.
While planning out the 2020 election discussions, the leaders used knowledge gained from the 2016 election convocation.
Richard Aguirre, an administrator in Student Life, helped lead the 2016 presidential convocation. Aguirre has been involved in election related events since 2006, such as organizing debate watch groups, getting students registered to vote, and publicizing when to vote, on local and presidential levels. “I have a real interest in that,” he said.
Aguirre said that he knew 2016 was going to be an important election and very contentious. He also knew that the election results, while not specific to the 2016 presidential election, “would be real encouraging to some people and real discouraging to others.”
The panel discussion held in convocation, Aguirre said, was an attempt to say “the election is over, we can and should try to come back as a country.” Aguirre and other convocation leaders also made a point of clarifying that the convocation “was not going to be a post-election rally for either candidate.”
The convocation was led by panelists who assumed that Hillary Clinton would win, Aguirre said.
The convocation resulted in tension on campus, Aguirre said. “The tone of shock, disappointment, surprise, was not taken well by students,” Aguirre explained, “and perhaps some staff . . . who supported Donald Trump and looked forward to him being elected president.”
“One student said, ‘I guess you’re gonna have to go back to your country now, now that Trump was elected,’ ” Aguirre recalled. Some students also laughed when Latinx students cried, and said “Ha ha, you lost.”
Both students who were Trump supporters and Latinx and other students of color were upset. Students who supported Trump felt that the convocation didn’t adequately represent the views of people happy Trump was elected, Aguirre explained.
Liechty recalled a discussion with seniors who were freshman in 2016 who “got honest” when discussing the range of hurt. “It was equally true that this was a time when conservative students felt like they learned that to survive at Goshen College, you need to kind of mask your opinions,” Liechty explained. “So there was hurt, polarization on all sides.”
Sign ups, which are required for the discussion groups, will open on Monday, Nov 2. Participants are asked to commit to both conversations, the first on Nov. 2, and the second on Nov. 4, which will be “physically distanced, small group conversations.”
Aguirre predicts the conversations are “going to be successful.”
Ehst said the groups will not be for debate, but for engagement, listening and curiosity. The groups are designed to not put anyone on the spot, a problem encountered with the 2016 convocation.
Ehst referred to the discussion groups, which will consist of small groups spread throughout the College Mennonite Church, as “brave spaces.”
“We felt like if we’re going to ask people to speak honestly and respectfully and safely about the election results,” Ehst explained, “it would be good to spend the day before primarily just focusing on learning to know our conversation partners, understanding a bit about their stories and establishing what type of space it is.”
Suriano is apprehensive about blindly suggesting the class to students. “I think that the name of the class suggests how to talk politics and not get mad,” Suriano explained, but is more about helping students identify their own limitations, such as potentially joining “polarized camps.” Suriano plans to act as a facilitator during the discussion groups, and hopes to provide a space for people to share honestly.
PJCS 310 students may choose to opt out of being moderators; none have so far. While the class is not as diverse as he hoped to see, Liechty spoke highly of the students.
“The beauty of these students is that whatever their political positions, they all recognize polarization as a real problem,” he said. “They would like to be a constructive presence in the face of it… There is very little self-righteousness, and so they have just been a dream to work with. They’re doing fantastic.”