On Wednesday, March 14, a group of 40 Bryn Mawr alumnae/i and students went to a performance of the award-winning play Clybourne Park. Following the performance, the group participated in a private “talk back” with actors from the show and the show’s artistic director Terry Nolan.
This event is the third collaboration between the Alumnae Association and the Diversity Leadership Group around the yearlong “Class Dismissed?” initiative.
“Class Dismissed?” was launched last summer with the gift of the book Class Matters from the Alumnae Association to the incoming freshman. In February, Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research Professor Raymond Albert led a discussion in Philadelphia about Class Matters with a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate alumnae/i spanning many generations—from the class of 1948 through 2011.
Two of those attending the Clybourne Park event (an alumnus and a current student) volunteered to share their reflections about the performance and evening on the Class Dismissed blog.
A few weeks ago, I took a detour and drove past the Lower Merion property where my family moved approximately twenty-five years ago. The house that stood for many years on this land is no more; it has been carefully taken apart stone by stone. In its stead, a new house will spring forward. Although I have not stepped foot in our previous residence for many years, it was difficult not to feel melancholic or wistful. The physical structure no longer exists, but the memories and meanings ascribed to it remain. A house is not just four walls and a roof. It serves as a container for the hopes, dreams, fears, and secrets of its owners- past, present, and future. In our society, home ownership is a sign that a person has “made it”. And one of the most emotionally charged results of the recent economic downturn has been the epidemic of foreclosures that has plagued many families. In watching Bruce Norris’ brilliant, thought-provoking, and scathingly funny new play Clybourne Park with Bryn Mawr alumnae and students, I could not help but contemplate how our own private spaces can be impacted by issues of class and race.
In both acts of the play, characters remark that people need to live in houses, not principles. That said, Norris challenges us to consider that our choices about where and how we live say a lot about our principles. My parents grew up in working class environments in Buffalo, NY. Through hard work, determination, and many sacrifices, they were able to provide their three children with an upbringing vastly different from their own. This included first-rate private educations and a spacious residence. But a shift in geography did not necessarily translate into other changes. As a young man, despite the fact that I shared neighborhoods and a school with my classmates, I felt oddly out of sorts, as if there was some chasm of difference that was impossible to bridge. I was raised with a different set of values informed by my family’s roots in western New York. Those values are not necessarily better or worse than others, just different. Houses can offer new opportunities for better lives for some, but when we relocate, we bring ourselves along for the ride. Our principles and perspectives of the world persist. We cannot escape the confines of race and class by simply changing our address. Norris compels his audience to confront the idealistic notions of change that at times undergirds our discussions about race and class. Even with the passage of time, some elements of our identities remain resistant to modification. Our discussions of race and class must acknowledge that no matter where we move, we carry the past, present, and future along with us.
– John Edwards ’10 MSS
Growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, there were certain things that I did not have to ever consider — such as how people would view the importance of things such as Black History Month or understand what it truly means to be able to attend an institution such as Bryn Mawr as an African American female. Being here has opened my eyes to how often people from different walks of life often have inaccurate thoughts about people different than themselves.
Since being on campus I have participated in a number of programs to encourage the discussion of issues of race and class on campus including the Social Justice Partnership Program and saw the outing to ‘Clybourne Park” as another opportunity to continue that discussion.
The bold dialogue of “Clybourne Park” gave me questions to bring back to Bryn Mawr. It leaves me to wonder what stereotypes still exist about ethnic groups, and what role class plays in people’s interactions with one another.
The talk back was insightful because it gave me a chance to hear other attendees’ response to this satirical play. It was interesting that some attendees found humor in the work, while others were more critical because they felt the play was not a true depiction of interactions between whites and blacks. They offered the idea that white people do not have to deal with feeling unwanted by black people, and it caused me to consider the validity of this assertion.
After reflecting on the play I feel that racism can be a two way street, and I loved that the director of the play Edward Sobel said that playwright Bruce Norris leaves no character innocent throughout the work. In “Clybourne Park” both black and white characters had opinions of the other race, that were ignorant and insensitive. Norris’ skill as a writer is displayed in the fact that every character has their good and bad qualities, and that everyone has their own personal conflict with race relations.
[What] Last spring, as part of a yearlong initiative titled “Class Dismissed? Furthering the Dialogue About Class,” the President’s Diversity Council and the Diversity Leadership Group invited members of the Bryn Mawr campus community to submit proposals for collaborative projects designed to spark dialogue on the topic of class. Five groups received funding. Their work since last spring is noted below, as well as what they will share Monday. We hope you’ll attend!
Who Matters: Staff Perceptions of Social Class at Bryn Mawr College, by Melanie Bethea, Naté Hall, Maruyi Yu and Stephanie Wujcik. Monday’s program will kick off with this group’s short documentary focused on the ways that staff experience class at the College.
Class and Health Care. Sally Heimann, who collected personal stories about this connection, will present one audio interview and have additional interviews available at a listening station.
Benchmark. Addie Ansell, Jessica Wong, and Kady Ruth Ashcraft used a mobile bench to allow community members in various locations around campus to share their stories. Monday’s attendees can hear the stories through headphones at a listening station.
Storytelling: A Celebration of Class. Earlier this semester, the Executive Board of the student Self Government Association (Yong Jong Cho, Rebecca Sanders, Tina Hu, Mae Carlson, and Priya Saxena) presented “Bedtime Stories,” in which administrators and faculty shared accounts of experiences with class. On Monday, they will display an assortment of speech bubbles to provide a visual representation of people’s thoughts on the topic.
Mapping Out Class. Jody Cohen, Anne Dalke, Sarah Jenness, Alice Lesnick, Jomaira Salas, Samantha Saludades, Mfon-ido Akpan, Ellen Li and Michaela Olson worked with E-Sems to examine daily life experiences on campus through the lens of class. Many community members participated in this group’s fall workshop; on Monday, the group will present two activities about money and class.
The program will begin with a welcome by President McAuliffe. Refreshments will be served.
Sally Heimann, CRNP, whose project “Class and Health Care” is an RFP Winning Project, wrote a reflection on the series of interviews she conducted over the past two semesters. To hear more about Ms. Heimann’s experiences and listen to the actual interviews, attend the Culmination Extravaganza, Monday March 19th, 5-6:30pm in the Campus Center Main Lounge.
When I first conceived of this Class Dismissed? Project, which I originally called Socio-Economic Status(SES) and Its Affect on Health Care Among Members of the Bryn Mawr College Community, I thought about the barriers to care based on insurance and cost issues. There is plenty of research which supports the notion that people with lower incomes fare worse in health standards in the U.S.
But the project was meant to be about class, not specifically SES, so I renamed the project Class and Health Care. “Class” is a more amorphous issue than is determined by insurance coverage or income alone. Class is not just socio-economic status, race, education or income. It is, instead, some amalgam of factors that is very difficult to pinpoint. It changes over time and varies across populations/subgroups. Reading the book Class Matters? helped me broaden my thinking as I prepared for the interviews.
In the end,however, all but one of the people who volunteered to tell their stories chose to do so because of having had the experience of being without health insurance. The stories they related were all based on issues of insurance and difficulties managing the health care system based on financial issues.
And yet, all of the interviewees described an ability (either they themselves or their parents) to negotiate the health care system. Because of their educational backgrounds, their connections with people in power or some sense of entitlement, they were able, for the most part, to obtain the care they needed. I believe that ability distinguishes them from “lower” class individuals. For those in the lowest classes, that access and wherewithal is simply missing.
This isn’t to say that the interviewees all had an easy time of it. Far from it. Yet, although everyone who was interviewed categorized themselves as middle-middle or lower-middle class, in some ways they could be classified as upper middle class. By virtue of their educational background, their connections with people in power
Everyone was convinced that others on campus were at a higher economic level. That may be true, to some extent, but health care, or the access to it, is an invisible commodity or privilege. Someone who might appear affluent on the outside, by virtue of clothes and other material goods, may, in fact, be balancing on the precipice of financial ruin because of a lack of health insurance.
I guess in the end, one of the lessons is, never assume
Mae Carlson, a senior English major, former SGA secretary, and member of the “Storytelling:A Celebration of Class” RFP Winning Project, wrote the following reflection on the group’s story telling event:
On Thursday, Febraury 23rd, we (Yong Jung, Tina, Rebecca, Priya, and Mae) hosted an event in Rhoads common room called Bedtime Stories as part of our Class Dismissed? project: Storytelling: A Celebration of Class. We invited faculty, staff, and administrators to share how they’ve thought about class in their lifetimes. We wanted the event to parallel the bedtime stories tradition that takes place during hell week where seniors read stories to the other students in their dorms before calisthenics. We liked the idea of extending the tradition of senior members of the community sharing their stories right after Hell Week has finished.
Our participants were President Jane McAuliffe, Dean Michele Rasmussen, Professor Elizabeth Mosier ’84 in the Creative Writing department, and Michaile Rainey from the CDO. We asked participants to respond to the question “at what moment in your life did you feel different in terms of socio economic class?”
President McAuliffe was the first to speak. She remembered what it felt like to win a scholarship to attend a high school in an affluent neighborhood. Her father didn’t believe in higher education for women and refused to pay for her to go to school. She lived at home and worked to pay for her tuition. She talked about what it was like to work at restaurants where her friends ate and noted that at that time it was possible to have a job and be a student.
Dean Rasmussen described how her dad worked for the New Zealand government when she was younger and her family lived in a rural middle class neighborhood. Her father was transferred to the United States and their family moved to Bel-Air, California. The NZ government paid for her family’s home and her and her brothers schooling. She liked to write when she was younger and wrote a story about a girl whose father was a British diplomat and whose family led a wealthy lifestyle. After her mother read her story, she believed Dean Rasmussen was subconsciously writing about herself and not a fictional character, and made sure to tell her that they were not rich. Looking back, Dean Rasmussen believes it was important to her mother that she did not think she was rich because her mother’s parents came from humble means and she wanted her to appreciate that they’d had to work for things.
Elizabeth Mosier talked about different jobs she worked when she lived in Phoenix, Arizona. She described working as a maid in a hotel and having to wear a too short mustard colored maid’s uniform. She remembers one day in particular when a man came out of his room and asked her if she would be willing to come back later. She said she felt outraged that a man felt he could sexually proposition her because she was a maid, and that she also felt privileged to be able to feel that outrage.
Michaile Rainey spoke in a series of vignettes about class difference as her grandmother, her daughter, and she herself experienced it. In one of her stories she described her experience going away to college and having a housekeeper in her dorm, working in a similar position as her grandmother. She felt uncomfortable with her housekeeper cleaning her room when this was the same job that her grandmother had performed for other people. In her last story, she described the feeling of having lunch at Wyndham earlier that day and how it reminded her of all the ways that the definitions of class boundaries had changed.
At the end of the participant’s stories, the students who came to the event and the participants had a conversation. Students shared their stories about class difference in their lifetimes. Students noticed that those who have been more privileged often feel as though they can’t share their experiences and how that fact has stunted conversations about class on campus. We also discussed cultural differences in terms of the ways that families that have immigrated to the U.S think about class.
It was great to hear the stories of the participants and to hear the organic responses of the students in attendance. Those who attended the event felt comfortable sharing their experiences in a non-judgmental setting and celebrating the ways we are the same and the ways that we are different. At one point, Michaile Rainey noted that sometimes it’s difficult to incorporate certain aspects of our experiences into a story that we communicate and that making sense of what class means for us is an ongoing project – hopefully this is a project that the Bryn Mawr community can continue.
Come to next Monday’s Culmination Extravaganza to hear more about the bedtime stories event and their Bubble Extravaganza!
[Where] Check your campus mailbox for a notecard and a bubble bottle (you get to keep the bubbles!)
[What] “Storytelling: A Celebration of Class”, a grant recipient for their project proposal, is asking you to write (on your notecard!) about an experience when you felt different in terms of socioeconomic class… on campus, off campus, in high school, in middleschool… whenever! Just be honest and share your story.
Once you’ve anonymously written on your notecard, return them to Box C-398 before 3/19.
The notecards will be put on display in the Campus Center Main Lounge as part of the Project Culmination/Extravaganza!
A reception will follow the presentation, which builds on Professor Espenshade’s research presented in his award winning book, “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal,” which pulls back the curtain on the selective college experience and takes a rigorous and comprehensive look at how race and social class impact each stage — from application and admission, to enrollment and student life on campus.
Please join us for this important and thought provoking event.
Class Dismissed student coordinator Kady Ashcraft recently penned this story for the English House Gazette, a blog featuring the work of students in ART264 W, the news & feature writing class at Bryn Mawr College.
Students at Bryn Mawr say economic class is noticeable, but doesn’t define the school
By Kady Ashcraft
Two girls sit around the television, late Thursday night, in a common room in one of Bryn Mawr College’s dorms. They are watching reruns of MTV’s “Sixteen and Pregnant” and commenting on the poor parenting skills of the young reality TV mothers. Read the full story»
The 2011-2012 SGA Executive Board is so excited to announce that Thursday, February 23rd at 7pm (right after Hell Week ends!), Mawrters will have the opportunity to hear Bedtime stories from members of the faculty and staff!
Traditionally, Bedtime Stories build community and provide Seniors the opportunity to share meaningful, witty, inspiring, humorous… stories to the first years students. Bedtime stories help build a strong community!
The SGA Executive Board ’11-’12 hopes to provide the space where similar sentiments can be recreated with faculty and staff.
President McAuliffe, Dean Rasmussen, Michaile Rainey, Angie Sheets and Elizabeth Mosier will share an experience that addresses the question:
“Was there a moment when you felt different because of socioeconomic class?”
We are very grateful for our Bedtime Storytellers and are excited about this wonderful opportunity to learn more about them.
Bedtime Stories, is an event in the series, “Storytelling: A Celebration of Class”
Please join us on Feb 23rd at 7pm
Rhoads Common Room.
There will be pizza (Of course!)