Making Class Visible Forum Opens Dialogue

Posted: April 2, 2007

Students, staff, and faculty gathered in Chapin Auditorium on the afternoon of March 29 to discuss the sensitive issues of economic privilege and disadvantage and how social class is experienced at Mount Holyoke. Titled "Making Class Visible," the all-campus forum was sponsored by the Multicultural Community and College Life Committee (MCCL) and aimed to provide a framework for ongoing conversation in and out of the classroom.

In his welcome, Dean of the College Lee Bowie noted that the event reflected the Multicultural Community and College Life Committee's (MCCL) 2006-2007 focus on social class at Mount Holyoke and its expression at the critical intersections of race, gender, and disability. "This forum is a chance for us to think and talk together about the issues that face us and will face us later in life and to do our part in making our community better," Bowie said.

The forum was moderated by Preston Smith, associate professor and chair of politics and associate director of the Weissman Center for Community-Based Learning. Smith commended the MCCL for focusing on class, saying that during his many years in higher education, he could not recall a forum devoted to a discussion of class on campus. He then acknowledged the growing number of elite colleges and universities now grappling with the issue of class in terms of access to higher education due to escalating costs. He added, "While Mount Holyoke is not perfect when it comes to access, it is true that the average incomes of our students and our students' families are significantly less than those of our peer institutions." The forum, however, focused on the day-to-day aspects of class, such as whether low-income students can take full advantage of Mount Holyoke, if students from the working class feel they have to hide their background, and how staff is treated by students, faculty, and their employer.

To get the conversation started, a 20-minute film titled Making Class Visible: A Mount Holyoke Home Moviewas screened. The film had been produced by students in a social anthropology course offered during January Term by Debbora Battaglia, professor of anthropology. In it, community members addressed the questions of "where do you notice social class?"; "what is the value of work?"; and "how do exchanges of social class broaden our definition of social class?" Making Class Visible was edited by Rachel Bickel '08, Brittany Estes-Gaudette '09, and Megumi Yoshida '09.

While those in attendance discussed the film with each other and submitted questions on index cards, five panelists joined Smith on stage. They were: Carmen Jimenez, senior administrative assistant in the Office of Human Resources; Mari Dumbaugh '07, a member of the Student Coalition for Action and a CAUSE board member; Corinna Yazbek '01, an advocate for economic justice who previously worked for Class Action; Sava Asmelash '07, a former member of the Presidential Commission on Diverse Community who is active in public service; and Harold Garrett-Goodyear, professor of history. Each presented a short statement illustrating their perspectives, experiences, and beliefs on the issue of class. Their comments included stories of discovering class differences and stereotypes, of hiding a trailer park upbringing, of being forced to confront class privilege, and of feeling the distance that people in an elite environment put between themselves and the poor. In his statement, Goodyear spoke about the contradictions related to issues of class, as well as the inequalities in power that are inherent in class differences.

The audience questions that followed ranged from "why should class be visible?" to "why does MHC have a reputation as an elite environment when the film expresses a different reality?" As the event drew to a close, it was obvious that a conversation had begun that would continue in dorms, dining halls, and classrooms. In his closing remarks, Bowie stated that the one thing the forum "had made crystal clear is that this issue is critically important. It affects us, it affects our potential for growth and for making our world a better place."

Related Link:

Making Class Visible Forum (News Story: February 28, 2007)