In a recent interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, President Sean Decatur summarized the national anxiety over the future of community and civil discourse. “What does it mean to navigate in that type of [diverse] world? How do you connect and relate to each other?” he asked. “It may mean developing an understanding of how people are looking at things from different perspectives.”
The Kenyon Listens program strikes at the heart of those questions. The program aims to foster meaningful discussions that strengthen community and interpersonal connections through events each semester around a common topic. This semester, students, faculty and staff gathered for a shared meal in Peirce Dining Hall, where they considered the value of community.
Ombudsperson Carrie Knell, who serves as a neutral conflict resolution professional for students and employees, founded the Kenyon Listens program two years ago with the intention of creating a space for genuine, productive dialogue. “Conversation and listening to others builds trust,” Knell said. “If you can create environments and opportunities for people to have conversations in small groups across campus, we start to feel connected: We trust each other, we care about each other.”
Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Ted Mason, professor of English and special advisor to the president, observed that people too frequently approach difficult conversations about civility with the wrong mindset. “The national debate tends to be about talking, how we talk to each other,” he said. “It ought to start with listening.”
At this semester’s community lunch, Knell divided the several dozen participants into small lunch tables to encourage more intimate conversations. Volunteer moderators led their tables of participants through guidelines for a productive, civil conversation and into discussions about community. Participants reflected on how they had contributed to their communities and how they’d like their communities to develop.
Celina German ’21, a history major from Bloomington, Indiana, registered as a conversation moderator after learning about the program via a campuswide email from Knell. “I’ve always been intrigued by hearing what community means to others,” she said. “The sense of community fabricates an image in your head of only your community,” she said. “You can’t really fathom others’.”
German’s group, composed of staff and faculty members, grappled with difficult questions of defining community and negotiating multiple communities as parents, professionals, citizens and friends. She came away from the conversation with her own expanded definition of community, informed by the musings of others. “For me,” she said, “community is hopefully something that reminds you of a safe and welcoming environment, one where you have seen other individuals or role models you hope to emulate.”
Mason affirmed the positive power of conversation itself. Although his table’s participants never arrived at broader conclusions about the meaning of community, he feels they left the discussion with something just as valuable.
“One way of thinking about community is as a dynamic system of relations,” Mason said. “It seems useful to think about Kenyon Listens conversations as not so much about community per se, but as a process through which community might be forged. The process is just as important as the product.”
—Ben Hunkler ’20