Us versus Them: Reaching across the aisle to our administrators

By Kaitlyn Bryson, Contributing Writer

Kaitlyn Bryson is a senior at Emerson College and serves as a student representative on the Title IX working group created by President M. Lee Pelton in the summer of 2019. She is also a contributing Op-Ed writer. 

Last spring, my morning started out like any other. I got ready for my Gender in a Global Perspective class by taking a shower, eating breakfast, and listening to The Daily podcast. As I walked out of Colonial and into Walker, I noticed fliers plastered along my route to class. They read 12 names of alleged abusers at the college. I recognized some of the names. I had no idea that these sheets of paper would be my study of focus for the next year of my life.

Anyone that attended Emerson College during spring 2019 remembers the chaos that erupted on campus from these fliers. When President M. Lee Pelton announced the formation of a working committee that included appointed students, there was hope for change on campus. The professor of my gender class, Laura Vares, encouraged us to advocate for positions on the committee. I saw this as my opportunity to speak up and create a change for my community, and I took it. 

The following day, a few classmates and I met with Pelton after researching our Title IX policy and the policies of nearby schools. We took notes, nominated trusted faculty members and students, and even followed up with emails. By mid-summer, I got a call from Pelton right before work, and he interviewed me for the position as a student representative. I was told that I would know if I got the position in a week, but in true Emerson fashion, I did not receive the news until the introductory email to the community about the committee in fall 2019.

There is an “us versus them” complex at Emerson. During my time at Emerson over the past couple of years, I have noticed that students have an extreme, almost inherent distrust of our institution and of anyone that works in administration. I am not here to say that these feelings are invalid. In any case, colleges are a business, and in any business, there is always someone getting the short end of the stick. I wanted to join this group to make sure no one was getting the short end of the stick. I am writing to share what I observed over the course of the eight months that I spent working alongside these administrators on the presidential working committee in hopes to bridge this gap between us.

As a stereotypical Emerson student who had never interacted with anyone beyond my classmates and a few of my professors, I came into the first committee meeting with a level of distrust for the adults around me. The stories from my peers that administrators do not have our best interests in mind rang in my ears, telling me I had to keep my guard up in these meetings to protect myself from their deceptive ways.

Yet after one meeting, I very quickly learned that these adults around the table had families, unique interests and hobbies, and kind hearts. They enjoyed discounted Broadway tickets and napping with their dogs, just like I do. From their dedication to learning the law surrounding Title IX, their passionate discussions about students, and their open ears to the student representatives’ experiences, I saw firsthand how they truly cared about us. My walls broke down, and I began to see how the “them” is not so different from “us.” We all have one common goal: creating a safer Emerson community. 

One of the most beneficial aspects of attending a school with a small student population is that students are given a chance to heavily interact with their teachers and faculty members. I never took advantage of this intimate connection prior to my appointment to the committee, and I can honestly attribute my skepticism to that. I truly do believe that there is a chance for open dialogue between us—students just have to be willing to have these conversations.

I have observed a lot of “performative activism” at Emerson. Performative activism is defined by a writer from Blavity as “well-intended political gestures that overall have no real substance.” This can be seen in the form of a retweet, wearing a politically-charged pin, or mouthing off about your political agenda in class but not backing it up with any real action. Don’t get me wrong, these are important components to being an activist, but there has to be tangible action behind these displays.

This committee was a chance for the appointed students to turn their performative activism into concrete changes. Unfortunately, I witnessed a lack of commitment from some students originally appointed to be on the committee. This was our chance to step up and have our voices heard. This was the chance to represent our friends and classmates who have been wronged by the system, who were violated and made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. This was our time to have a say in the future of the Title IX process at Emerson and connect administration and student life.

I urge my fellow classmates not to jump on the Emerson-hating bandwagon. I implore you not to immediately shut down when an adult walks in the room. No change can come from this standoffish attitude. We must reach across the aisle to our fellow administrators in a respectful and passionate manner. This is the only way to create long-lasting, meaningful change, not only in our Emerson community but in our country. Sitting back and pouting on Twitter is not the answer; action is. 

I am not shaming students for their disengagement with the administration. If anything, I understand how oftentimes, we are not even allowed in the room to be heard. I understand why the fliers were posted across campus last spring: students felt silenced. Survivors felt silenced. My biggest goal throughout my time on this committee was to foster transparent communication with the student body about our work. I pushed for community-wide email updates. I understand that students feel in the dark, and that leads to skepticism. I used to feel the same way. Once I got in the room, I realized these feelings are not always facts. There are many caring and dedicated adults looking out for us every day. 

Find the administrator you trust. Find the faculty member who won’t silence you. Find a professor like the one I had that made me put matters into my own hands and reach out to Pelton. These people are supposed to be here for us. We are allowed to tell them when they aren’t, just be respectful about it. Being generous, mature, and kind goes a long way in this world, and I can assure you it makes a difference at Emerson. 

Please check out our draft recommendations and provide feedback. The committee looks forward to our town hall discussion in the fall.