An Account of Life on the 2nd Floor of the JRC: The Successes, the Failures, and a Tantalizing Taste of Reality

On May 20, my world will end. I am moving halfway across the country, from small town Iowa to Washington, DC. My time at Grinnell will be history. My knowledge of Grinnell—of the personalities, of our administration, of SGA—will no longer matter in my daily life, and it will no longer be useful to Grinnell.

When [2013] came to Grinnell, the student body was impassioned. The hate crime in Spring 2008 had riled up student activists to form AJust Grinnell and the No Limits Project. The firing of Sheree Andrews from Student Affairs in fall 2008 pit professors against administrators, publicly, as students watched or took sides. On issues such as supporting the SRC and building popularly-supported windmills to become more energy independent, administrators were not to be trusted.

As a reporter for the S&B, my first year as a student activist was marked by Bias-Motivated Incidents: homophobic vandalism on white boards, racist vandalism of an SGA campaign poster, Cunnilingus. The SRC, SOL, and scores of young idealists like me fought back with all-campus forums and chalk and posters professing our values of welcoming diversity and creating a supportive, loving community. It felt like I had joined the ranks in a battle of good vs. mean, good vs. negligent.

After watching three classes graduate before us, I can comfortably say that the change we made as students will feel more like ripples than currents to next year’s freshmen. Our class personalities will live on as shadows, not monuments.

Not everything is worthy of the history books. I don’t expect much wisdom will be lost if future students never understand our [love] of [brackets], once Facebook fully replaces [Plans]. If the SGA Constitution gets trashed for a new one, it’s probably for the best. And I don’t want to hear another word about windmills at Grinnell.

But I’ve got something to show for my four years here. In my manic pursuit of news for the S&B, political power to become SGA President (twice), and the esteem of my classmates, I learned about how we, the Grinnell community, can learn to live with each other, and what we can get out of our four years here. What follows are the lessons I think Grinnell should remember.

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Do your homework.

I’m not talking about assignments for classes. Academics are important, and I wish I had spent more time on them, but that’s not my point.

One of my best tools as a first year reporter was research. Before every big interview, I would learn as much as I could about the person I would soon meet. I wanted to know where they were coming from and who they knew that might be important to the story.

During our conversation, I could tailor my questions to the subjects they could speak on with authority. When they heard me mention some relevant fact from their past, sources would feel comfortable that I knew what I was doing as a reporter, and they would open up to me.

The night before Dr. Raynard Kington was announced as our future college president, my editor got a hold of his name so I could prepare for the interview. I saw the impressed look on his face when I surprised him with a question about the social health issues he used to research. “Welcome to Grinnell,” I thought. “We do research here, too.”

President Kington settled in, and he started giving public speeches about his transition to Grinnell. I noticed a few times that he cited a book by the former President of Princeton as his starting point for understanding his new job. A friend in SGA told me he talked about it even more in private and kept the book on his desk.

That summer, I bought my own copy of Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President. It’s still on my desk. It’s not a code book for predicting President Kington’s decisions, and he doesn’t always follow the author’s advice (the author opposes merit aid as socially unjust, for example). It did teach me how he thinks. It taught me how he makes decisions. I recognized some of the language he used and some of the processes he set up. That understanding found its way into my articles.

It’s a good habit to keep. I don’t do much reporting anymore, but I still research people before professional meetings and always, always before anything that might turn into a job interview.

Every student here got accepted to Grinnell and has something to offer the community.

I used to stay up late in the JRC talking to Gabe Schechter. He was the SGA President, and I was Co-Editor of the S&B. He’d brew a pot of coffee, and we would talk for hours about students, the Strategic Plan, and the drinking culture on campus.

One conversation sticks out in my mind. Gabe had been mouthing off about athletics in the Grille, and an athlete who overheard him followed up with a long, angry email. Athletics, in this context, meant the big three: football, basketball and baseball. It wasn’t uncommon then for Grinnellians to complain that these teams added nothing to our community, and attracted the wrong kind of student for the wrong reasons. Members of those teams had been tied recently to theft and rape. Their teammates didn’t (for some time) report the people involved. After the infamous Cunnilingus party, guilt by association seemed entirely fair. From the outside, it looked like team loyalty was more important to them than self-gov.

Gabe wanted Grinnell to be different from the rest of the world. He thought Grinnell should be a place where people can escape many of the problems of the rest of the world. He envisioned a Grinnell with very little malicious intent. He thought we should recruit students who would work to realize that vision. He thought athletes threatened it.

I responded with a vision of Grinnell as a school that improved us, wherever we started. I wanted a Grinnell that could take any asshole in as a student and teach him to be more respectful, more responsible for his actions, and more empathic to the needs of the people around him. To do this, we need a critical mass of students who already hold those things as a goal, but nobody’s perfect. Nobody comes out of high school fully ready to be part of a socially just community. Once Admissions makes their decision, we’re here, and we should focus on learning together, as a student community, not excluding the large percent of students we deem not good enough.

Grinnell should be a supportive community of its own making (a lesson I soon learned the hard way). Gabe was right that the great things about Grinnell (the relative lack of offensive jokes or vandalism compared to a state school, the relatively horizontal and open social structures that students form, etc.) inspire us to create communities in that image. We had to find the right balance.

In our generation, student activism is self-serving (and that’s okay).

When de Toqueville toured America, he found it was local government that gave us our democratic spirit. Positions of power in state or federal government were too few to attract the ambitious masses. Local politics served to slice the pie thinner, so more people could take a slice. Townships “serve as a centre for the desire of public esteem, the want of exciting interests, and the taste for authority and popularity.” Just so with student activism at Grinnell.

This isn’t the sixties. Our friends aren’t being drafted. Our school accepts students of any gender or race and no longer locks up the women in South Campus at nightfall. When students protest, no one sends in a riot squad to break us up. We have problems, yes, but the stakes of student activism are low.

I’m often cynical about how activism done at Grinnell, especially public protests. I often complain that issues aren’t well researched, that the tools used in protest aren’t the most effective, and that we really don’t need to be so paranoid that the administration doesn’t share our values.

But in some ways, that’s not the point. With our extracurriculars, too, we’re here as students. We can do much more to improve the world when we’re not also full-time students. Our student groups, our student protests, have the power to make a small difference here. They have the power to make a tremendous difference on us. They teach us how to get involved. If we compromise effective activism for effectively teaching activism, that’s a good deal.

Self-governance is a philosophy we teach, not a residence life policy.

Self-gov is not asking someone down the hall to turn their music down so you can sleep. Self-gov is not taking care of drunk people. Self-gov is not campus bikes.

Self-gov is a philosophy that reminds us society is made up of people like us. Each of us will change the character of our community, for better or for worse. Therefore, each of us has a role to play to make things better for the people around us and to pave a path for anyone who should follow.

We practice leadership at Grinnell so that when we graduate, we take with us the skills we need to improve our communities. We learn how to identify inequity and correct for unfairness. We learn who to talk to to change an institutional policy. We learn how information travels. And, yes, we learn how to take care of loud music, drunk people, and campus bikes. The responsibility for the community rests on the self.

That’s the philosophy I love.

It’s bigger than you.

My most public mistake as reporter, News Editor, and Editor-in-Chief of the S&B was my refusal to print gender-neutral pronouns. It started early in my second year, when I was reporting on a minor hate crime. A student’s room was broken into and vandalized, and the perpetrator spray-painted a homophobic slur on the wall. The S&B denounced a set of student protests that formed in response, and amid our conflict with the protestors, I sent a casual email attacking their tactics.

I had been covering bias-motivated incidents since early on. My article about a series of homophobic scribbles left on white boards after parties was praised by the SRC. My article about a racist slur left on an SGA campaign poster connected me with some of the leaders of SOL, and it was picked up by the Huffington Post. When the football team was caught using sexist, racist, and ableist terms individually targeted at over 100 Grinnellians at Cunnilingus, I worked harder than I ever had to write a fair, comprehensive article. I never once received a complaint about the content or the tone of these articles, and I was proud of that. Reporting was my way of helping people understand each other.

Our coverage of the hate crime was not so well received by the protesters who we called out in a staff editorial. They sent back a stream of letters in response, with a stream of complaints (all the way down to the trivial “the photo we used in the article was chosen to make them look aggressive instead of supportive”).

It was in that tense atmosphere that I got an email from one of the leaders of the protest asking to be referred to by the pronoun “ze” and possessive “zir” in future articles. I said no (as was our policy) and cited a number of sources, including the AP Stylebook and many newspapers, that did not use any nonstandard pronouns in news articles. Instead, I offered to refer to the subject only by last name in future articles to avoid imposing an identity. That angered some people, but in the chaos, didn’t become a big deal.

Half a year later, I was preparing to take over as Editor-in-Chief. My Co-Editor was studying abroad, so for the last few weeks of the school year, I was solely in charge. At our first editorial meeting, the staff demanded that we publicly reverse the pronoun policy to print any pronoun that a subject identified with. They were unanimous. I was alone. Two of them threatened to quit. I acquiesced, but at the time I wasn’t happy.

This isn’t a confession. I don’t want to relitigate the issue, but I’ll briefly explain my position. I thought we should act like Grinnell was the real world. Real newspapers don’t bend the rules of grammar, and I wanted to emulate them. I wasn’t focused on change at the Grinnell level, I was focused on preparing Grinnell students to go make change after college. That means talking to reporters whose positions you find reactionary. That means interacting with the vast majority of people in the world who will never, in their lifetime, accept the idea of gender-neutrality. I don’t know what it feels like to not identify with either gender, but neither do most people. Just as many Grinnellians found my position disrespectful, I found their surprise and expectation naive.

Looking back, what I really wanted was to learn, for myself, how to be an All-American, respectable reporter. I wanted to be Ben Bradlee. What I didn’t see is that the S&B was much more than my chance to run a newspaper. It was Grinnell’s newspaper, and the community had every right to shape it. It was more important to many people that we print gender-neutral pronouns, even though that position is radical by outside standards, and even though it wasn’t the newspaper I wanted to run.

A full year after that, I declared my campaign for SGA President. Someone asked me on Plans to explain the original pronoun decision, and, arrogant enough to think I would win easily, I responded too honestly and too bluntly, explaining what my reasoning had been. My opinion was once again very unpopular.

My chief competitor, Colleen Osborne, won easily.

Use Grinnell to practice the skills you want to learn.

One of my ideas during my presidential campaign was to hire an Outreach Director. That year’s cabinet had struggled to make students know or care about the strategic plan. They were simply to busy to do any real outreach. After I lost, I decided to push on to create the position anyway.

It was a popular idea in Joint Board, and Cabinet certainly wanted the extra help. The new President-Elect took the stance opposing the idea on the grounds that she could do outreach herself (history proved her wrong). Even so, Joint Board seemed to overwhelmingly support the idea, because Senators believed that it would help bridge the information gap on campus.

I wanted to whip votes. I had decided to go into politics (in real life), and counting votes was a skill I wanted to practice. I created a spreadsheet with each Senator’s name and a line for Cabinet’s vote. I stayed late after Joint Board talking to Senators. I stopped them in the hallway. I corned them in the Grille. I talked to Gabe and other cabinet members. By the time the vote came, I knew I had at least 14 votes of the total 19, and I hoped for three more. I only needed 13 (two thirds of the total). The resolution passed 16-2.

Don’t give up on something you believe in.

Early last semester, I decided once again to be SGA President. The current leadership was in shambles. They had, effectively, set no goals for their tenure. Their ignorance of recent school policy discussions threatened SGA’s stature in the eyes of the administration. And after a source told me the administration might cut need-blind admissions, I feared they would whiff on their opportunity to shape the most important decision of our time at Grinnell with student values.

Unfortunately, I had already run for President and lost. I would have to act creatively. It was time for a coup.

The basic plan was simple: impeach Colleen and win the election to replace her. The politics were more complicated. She would have to become so unpopular that people were willing to break the status quo and break social norms to impeach her, so unpopular that people cared about SGA. No one could know the full extent of my involvement. The coup had to look like a unified rejection of SGA, not a personal power grab.

Meanwhile, I would have to rehabilitate my image with those students I offended during my last run. I ran for Senator (and won easily). I would take up any pet projects I had time for to impress as many students as possible, especially those not affiliated with SGA.

While the public relations tracks moved forward, I would launch another campaign to change the rules of succession. The SGA Constitution clearly stated that the Vice President of Student Affairs would replace the President, should she, for any reason, step down. I would use my position as Reform Committee Chair to advance the necessary Constitutional amendments hidden in a flurry of changes. These would be non-controversial improvements, such as codifying the budget procedure and listing each regular, paid SGA job in the by-laws. They would also include changes to impeachment and succession procedure, lowering the bar to impeach and replacing executives with an election. The changes would be presented to Joint Board as a package, so there would be no public attention paid to the succession changes unless someone moved to consider it separately. It would pass without controversy.

My plot sprung into action. With a few terrible interviews and no clear plan for the year, Colleen had already started looking bad. The S&B quickly took note. Unfortunately, the new staff on newspaper wouldn’t help me as directly as I hoped. (In an unfortunate bout of journalistic integrity, they went so far as to kick me out of the Publications Office when I was trying to spin an article about Joint Board.) Still, I could trust them to (rightly) trash Cabinet when I needed them to.

As luck would have it, I found a easier method to impeach cabinet. I wouldn’t need to change the by-laws. Robert’s Rules of Order (which Joint Board follows) allow a body to censure, or reprimand, one of its members. A censure can include a punishment, including an impeachment. All it would take was a two thirds vote at Joint Board. No election necessary. It was starting to look realistic.

Plant a seed. Let it grow.

An opportunity arrived. A friend approached me with an axe to grind. Cabinet and STIFund had unilaterally decided not to put a student initiative on the ballot because it made a joke about hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning, which is, of course, a serious matter on campus. The initiative was entirely in jest, but its author had followed the procedure, collected the necessary signatures, and turned it in. When he voted on election day, it wasn’t on the ballot.

It wasn’t a big deal, but it was an opportunity. I could use this to introduce the idea of a censure to Joint Board. We moved to censure STIFund. As we hoped, Cabinet leapt to defend the decision. We could make them look bad without ourselves bringing them into the battle and making it personal.

I won’t recount the whole debate here. It was painfully redundant and overplayed in the rumor mill. In the end, we lost in a disappointing 8-8 tie. But for my purposes, it was a success. Joint Board knew what a censure was. In fact, long after I abandoned my plan, they would move to censure the ACE Chair for grossly over-allocating her budget. Once an idea takes hold, it’s easy to bring it back.

Accountability is a strong motivator.

Meanwhile, Reform Committee was sprinting to its goal. I collected friends and allies, all with SGA experience, all competent, and all dissatisfied with SGA. We were such a group of discontents that one friend started calling us the Coup Committee, and despite my best efforts to quash it (too true for my comfort), that name stuck.

We listed everything we wanted to change, from typos and outdated references to major  Joint Board reform. We decided (at my encouragement) to start by focusing on policies that could change without an all-campus vote of affirmation. I never mentioned succession at that first meeting, but slipped it on to the list in the email I sent out that night.

We broke in subcommittees. A few people were put in charge of each the eight or so policy changes. They were sent off the meet with Cabinet officials, senators, and anyone else with strong opinions. We were preparing an overhaul of the SGA by-laws that would do the institution lasting good.

The policy I most wanted to pass (beside changing succession) was moving to instant runoff elections. I hate SGA runoffs. Everyone hates SGA runoffs. People don’t want to vote twice. Candidates don’t want to campaign twice. No one cares that much anyway.

Election Board Chair Peter Bautz is the reason we still have them. Peter didn’t defer to the majority opinion, not because he was fighting for a cause, but because he didn’t understand that other people had different priorities. He thought virtual run-offs would be too hard for Election Board to calculate. He wasn’t comfortable with the new election math (even though it is identical). For no other reason, he insistently fought against changing the system. This may be my most annoying memory of SGA.

I learned as Chair that everyone was happy to do work, but no one was self-motivated by the thought of changing the SGA Constitution. I sent out more emails to the same people in those few weeks than I ever thought I’d need to. I emailed subcommittees to keep them working. I emailed Cabinet members to make sure they were happy. I emailed my subcommittees to get our work done. I emailed the other ones again to remind them about the meetings they had scheduled. I emailed the whole group to update everyone on each other’s progress.

And it worked. As long as I sent emails, they delivered. Sadly, when I gave up my coup, none of the changes got implemented. My successor on Reform Committee had no such ambitions and no knowledge of the progress we made. But for a time, our committee smoothly, shockingly worked.

The good kind of politics requires the bad kind of politics.

That was my first time serving on Joint Board, and I learned something about politics.

SGA Senators aren’t corrupt. They don’t levy their power to bring back favors for their clusters. They don’t make backroom political deals to further each other’s interests. They don’t support their common interest as Senators over the interest of students at large. Discussions in Joint Board focus on policy and process.

They also don’t get anything done. They would rather not back down from their ideal stance than make a compromise. They can afford that luxury because no one depends on them. No one expects them to succeed as a student legislature. They’re not in anyone’s pocket, so they have no motivation to make a deal.

These features are two sides of the same coin. Politics works because we need it to work and we have faith enough in the process that we invest in winners. That forces lawmakers to get something done. Without force, they’d wait until a policy closer to their views gets popular support. It’s the same phenomenon that encourages pork barrel spending and what they used to call “honest graft.”

Take care of yourself.

Back to the plot. I was ready to march in to SGA like Hamlet claiming his throne, but my tragedy wasn’t Shakespearean. It was Greek. My own fatal flaws would be my undoing: bad study habits, my inability to handle grief, and my status as a full time student.

I could have overcome my setbacks in Money Brawl and Reform Committee. The censure had entered the minds of Senators. That was more important than the outcome of the vote to reprimand STIFund. At some point, I could ignore Peter and bring my ideas before the full Reform Committee for a vote. I would win the vote. He might try to stir up trouble in Joint Board (not that I would invite him). If he did, it could actually work to my benefit, since it would distract from the one necessary change.

But life caught up to me. I had already had a rough couple of years in my personal life (medical problems, problems with friends and so on), but senior year was the worst. Over the summer, my friend and former S&B colleague Mando Montano died in Mexico City. I was interning full time for the Elizabeth Warren campaign, in a fast paced environment with many new friends, so I never really processed my loss. Coming back to Grinnell, no longer living the exciting lifestyle of politics, no longer Editor-in-Chief of the S&B, and seeing Mando’s ghost around every corner, the grief ate at me. I became private and insular. I spend more and more time in my room, not really doing anything. I got behind in my classes.

Grinnell always enabled my worse habits. It’s too tempting and too easy to stay up all night working on a small campus with an endless amount to do. Too many of us are late or sleep through class for me to feel accountable when I miss something important. I lost any sense of a sleep cycle, as I often have when I get busy here. I wasn’t eating much. I wasn’t doing any physical activity. I wasn’t partying, or socializing much at all. My mind wasn’t engaged by any big projects, except my ridiculous attempt to take over SGA. I lost my motivation. I lost my edge.

One night, sitting outside, thinking, well into the early morning, I called off the coup. I could not, in my current state, be an effective SGA President. I would sleep through meetings. I would fail my classes. Once I admitted that, it was over.

I quit Joint Board the next day. I offered to stay on Reform Committee, but I stopped sending those emails out, and we didn’t put anything on paper by the end of the semester. I stopped caring about how the S&B covered SGA.

My goal was to refocus on my classes as much as possible, and refocus on myself. I never committed to my academics as much as I wanted to. I’m really not the type. Despite some more setbacks, I did get my life back together. It wasn’t the senior year I expected, but I found ways to get a lot out of it. I learned to take care of myself.

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On May 20, my world will end. I’ll take the lessons I learned to DC for a couple years, then to law school and wherever else life takes me. It’s up to younger students to keep them here at Grinnell. It’s up to you to build your own community here, your own methods of student activism and your own goals, to face the problems that your generation of Grinnell students decides to face.

There are no limits to what you can try to do.