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Reflections on the Perry House Couch

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When I first heard that we were going to be doing final activism projects for this 360 instead of just a term paper or something straightly academic, I was thrilled. I feel as though I left our classroom spaces often unsure of myself or of what to make of what had just been said, and at the same time, feeling as though it had been made abundantly clear just how much work we need to do in the world to make it fairer and more just. In trying to keep myself in touch with the larger picture and the bigger world around me, I often remind myself that I’m just a tiny little piece of an enormous universe full of people, stories, history, happiness, injustices, triumphs and mistakes. But sometimes, this keeps me from feeling as though what I do has much impact at all. I worry that my efforts will not reach far enough, won’t attract enough attention, or won’t be effective. As much as I love being involved as an activist on and off campus, and try to do so as much as possible, I do sometimes feel as though it’s not enough. Throughout this class experience, though, it’s been reinforced for me that it really isn’t about me, or my comfort, or my self-esteem. I can’t use my lack of confidence or fear that my actions will lack efficacy as an excuse to shy away from doing my best, or feeling like the work that I’ve already done or plan to do has purpose and a positive impact.

            We’ve discussed this on numerous occasions, about how much we all as individuals, and as members of Bryn Mawr as a walled community and institution, need to take responsibility for the problems, prejudices, inequalities and injustices that persist, both in the world at large and at Bryn Mawr itself. This class has offered me a forum to put a critical lens to these walled communities, and to discuss both how the institution needs to be doing better, and how we may be implicitly, through our lack of action, allowing for these issues to be perpetuated.

            And so the Perry House Couch seemed like a fantastic way to both get involved in activism on the Bryn Mawr level, and to put the responsibility on myself and my fellow group members to look more critically and analytically at the situation. By working to make the information that we’ve discussed all semester about Perry House accessible to alumnae and the broader community, we needed to think seriously about what perspectives they might be coming from. This allowed us to consider what kinds of questions would be most usefully answered in our conversational, but still firmly pro-Perry videos. Some of it has been what I expected­–people wanting to know the details of what’s been going on, why we are advocating for Perry, and what the administrative response has been. But through having other people look at our work, especially at the presentation yesterday, it was especially gratifying that people were asking questions that we didn’t necessarily anticipate, or were starting conversations amongst themselves stemming from what we said and moving forward. The discussion of it being a zero-sum financial issue, or that some things are more important financially than others, was one that we’d discussed some in our group meetings, and one which couldn’tthinkofa…  addressed in her personal introduction in our first video. But I was so glad to see that, by sharing our work with the broader Bryn Mawr community, we really were doing activism! We are clearly not the first, last, or only people to be concerned about and start discussions about Perry House. But our series of informative videos did create a space similar to Tillie Olsen’s “foreground and background silences”, where people were called to think (and break that silence by speaking) more deeply and critically about the Perry House movement, where it has been, where it is going, and what their role is in it.

            Jody’s class, within the discipline of education and with a focus on voice, has helped me think about this project in terms of how we speak and convey ourselves and our thoughts about such a sensitive issue as Perry House. I’ve felt a little concerned throughout the semester about how critical I should be of Bryn Mawr in my public speech and writing, given that my employment at the school is centered on my being a good, positive representative for the school. It’s made me think about the conversation we had about the Occupy movement, and who was able to participate in it. Some people work and live in such precarious spaces, that speaking out against an institution, or even just taking the time away from their work, is a perilous choice that could cost them their income or future prospects for employment. I was glad to have had that conversation, since a lot of the feelings that I’d had around the Occupy movement were positive about the efforts of the activists, but curious about their own privilege, given that some spent months without going to work or fulfilling other responsibilities. Not everyone has the luxury to do that, obviously, so I wondered whom the protesters felt they were speaking for–themselves, or those who couldn’t be there? In some ways, I feel as though this, as a class project, gave us a “legitimate” (I question this, but in the institutional setting, presumed legitimacy often a key factor) way to express our feelings about the Perry House issue, and have it heard by administrators in a “legitimately” (there it is again) academic space at our presentation yesterday. Although there has now been a Perry House Committee formed, there hasn’t been much space for informal conversation between concerned students and other members of the Bryn Mawr community on the administrative side. I feel privileged to be able to say that we, the Perry House Couch, were able to share our voices through our videos, and, through the venue of our class presentation, have a space to be heard by fellow students, faculty, staff and administration. And although I was a little nervous when three of the women whom I work for at Admissions came to the event, I am grateful to know that, unlike the Occupy movement, this form of activism was not so risky for me or my fellow group members that our on-campus employment and standing would be threatened.

            Anne’s class, focused around silences, has made me much more cognizant of how and how well I am listening to others. In terms of this project, I considered myself to be fairly well informed about the Perry House movement in general, having gone to several meetings of the Coalition and spent a lot of time listening and ruminating about what others were saying. And yet, I am brought back to one of our most pertinent discussion topics this semester­–who can speak for whom? In what situations is it appropriate to silence yourself so that you can really listen to what others are saying, or, in some cases, not saying? I was somewhat nervous throughout the process of creating these videos, because I worried that I might misrepresent what I had heard, or that, as a white student and ally, I should not presume to speak for a movement that I do not want to wrongfully appropriate. Sometimes in the videos themselves, this is visible–when I spoke, I looked back at the other members of my group for reassurance if I was unsure that I was saying the right thing. But I think that, overall, my realizations about silence in this video, and in this class, have been that it doesn’t have to be an either/or, zero-sum situation, where my speaking silences someone else. Instead, silence and listening can contribute to an open conversation, and I hope that as a group, we are not only speaking to the broader Bryn Mawr community, but also hearing back from it.

            Last but certainly not least, I think that Barb’s class, centered on vision and images, informed our project because it gave us the idea to give a face (or four) to the Perry House movement.  Many alumnae and other members of the wider Bryn Mawr community have heard about the movement in one way or another, but don’t necessarily have a conception of who we are. We don’t seek to represent every member of the Perry House Coalition and its allies, obviously, which is something that I’ve gleaned from taking this course–there is no one way that a member of a group, be it incarcerated women, students, or any other, looks. But I think that having a group of students present these issues to the wider community was helpful, because what I’ve heard from several alums who have not been closely following the movement is that most of what they’ve seen has come from various sources, which have not necessarily given them a clear picture. By creating a single series of informational videos, we hoped to provide an image of the Perry House movement that, while not all encompassing, did create a reliable source for people to look at to clear up their understanding of our perspective.

            I’ve really loved working on this project, and I can’t wait to continue the conversation with season two of the Perry House Couch, as well as in other venues opened up both by our project and by other discussions that are happening on campus.