Featured VISTA Blog: Creative Solutions for a Socially Sustainable and Just Community
VHEC’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, which falls under Vermont Campus Compact, focuses on improving college access and success for first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in Vermont. VHEC currently has nine 2017-18 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at six different campuses around Vermont.
This is the seventh and final post in a 2016-17 series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important service they are doing/did. This post highlights and was written by Rebecca Wolfgang, who just completed her year of service with Green Mountain College as the Diversity and Inclusion VISTA. Rebecca, a 2016 graduate of Green Mountain College, was one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs that served at the college in 2016-17.
Written by Rebecca Wolfgang
"But what if starting a class with pronoun checks puts someone on the spot to come out?" a Green Mountain College professor asked, one stiff hand wavering in the back row at a Safe(r) Zone workshop my colleague and I were hosting.
"That," I flushed, "is a great question."
During this workshop, I was the 2016-17 AmeriCorps Diversity and Inclusion VISTA at Green Mountain College, an environmental liberal arts school of 500 students in central Vermont. Falling into this position at the school I graduated from was serendipitous; I meant to dedicate my life to our country’s unsustainable social structures that lead to economic disadvantages for many people who fall under intersectional oppressions. This position was a stepping stone.
My service description, jargon-official and all, was as follows: to build capacity of diversity and equity initiatives at GMC. I served underrepresented students, including students that identify as people of color, LGBT+, women and nonbinary, international, religious, and low-income. The academic year was focused on implementing anti-oppression workshops, like Safe(r) Zone; hosting educational events about diverse cultures; leading discussions on microaggressions and equity struggles within our school; and working with GMC stakeholders to find social instability and to make all initiatives permanent and effective.
And, on top of all that, I had public speaking anxiety to overcome.
During the workshop, I looked to my colleague, the GMC Pride Club President, then back to the ten professors lined in chestnut chairs. We were halfway through the two-and-a-half hour workshop about stronger allyship to queer and trans*gender students, and the tee beneath my office jacket had growing sweat stains. "What do the rest of you think about that?"
It's true. Pronoun checks put students, out and not out, trans* and not trans*, on the spot. It was a conversation my colleague and I had prior to that workshop. Some trans*gender students entering the higher education environment haven't transitioned to pronouns that fit their gender identity, and pronoun checks (asking a group of individuals to take turns saying their preferred names and pronouns (often she/her, he/him; sometimes they/them, ze/zir) could potentially put them on the spot to come out. Like all potential-bad-scenarios we invented during our conversations, we had various “that-could-work” ideas, but no guaranteed solutions.
A second professor chimed in: "I've had students write down their pronouns. If they don't want to say it in front of fifteen peers, but still want to let me know, they can. If they don't, they don't have to."
"Ok, that's one solution," I said. "Any others?"
See, although my colleague and I hoped to normalize pronoun checks through the Safe(r) Zone Training, that wasn’t the main goal. Pronoun checks aren’t a solution to trans*phobia.
Instead, we wanted to push allies to think about their actions, and try to empathize with how their students might react to those actions. We wanted to inspire the LGBT+ allies of our audiences to come up with their own creative solutions to problems that will arise whenever anti-oppression initiatives are attempted.
There were many times throughout my year, like the end of the Safe(r) Zone, where the audience was left with only a taste of social justice vocabulary and a bit more knowledge of anti-oppression tactics; but they never left thinking they had “the answer.”
As it turned out, that was a recurring theme for the rest of my term as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Capacity building isn’t just instituting workshops, promoting a series of annual educational events, and building stronger foundations for social justice committees and clubs. Capacity building is also about poking and prodding the critical thinking skills of the folks who are taking on these projects. Capacity building is about encouraging these folks to improve on the systems I’ve begun—and there is always room for improvement when it comes to making communities more socially sustainable and just.
“That went well,” my colleague shrugged when the GMC professors left.
I leafed through the workshop feedback sheets and noticed one that commented, "Good stuff. Gave me a thing or two to think about."
“Were my sweat stains noticeable?”
My colleague shook their head, “Barely.”