"We are not immune from the world around us on our idyllic campus,ā€ said Kirk Murphy, Cā€™17, addressing a crowd gathered in the Quad to discuss issues of race and social justice.

Finding Words for a New Kind of Unity

Behold how good: Sewanee students, faculty, staff, and administrators come together to talk about what it means to live in a diverse community.

In the warm light of a late afternoon in November, Kirk Murphy, C’17, stood atop the stone wall that wraps around the sitting porch outside Walsh-Ellett Hall. A commanding presence, Murphy addressed students, faculty, administrators, seminarians, and other community members, speaking forcefully, with a poetic cadence. On this day, Murphy’s message was a simple repeated refrain, “If it can happen in Mizzou, it can happen to you.” 

Members of the University community had come together for one in a series of campus events to discuss racism and social justice and to raise awareness of racial intolerance. The events were prompted by student protests against administrative inaction at the University of Missouri, as well as protests at Yale, Princeton, and elsewhere.

“We are not immune from the world around us on our idyllic campus,” he said. “Because we love Sewanee so much, we should love it enough to change it.” Murphy asked the crowd to “make Sewanee a better place for all students.” His plea was not in response to a campus incident but an acknowledgement that we cannot escape the challenges beyond our gates.

Listening to Murphy speak was a vivid reminder that, like communities everywhere, Sewanee is grappling with the race-related issues being addressed across the nation and around the globe. He gracefully demonstrated that provocative speech and civility can coexist through shared insights and close relationships. These features have always served Sewanee well, and when students lead the conversation, it creates a confidence that thoughtful leadership can prevail.

Murphy is not just a powerful orator, he’s also a Posse scholar from Washington, D.C. His unique talents, leadership skills, and work ethic are what made him a Posse scholar, but his skills have been honed during his Posse and Sewanee experience. His contributions to our community are also a tribute to the quality of students that the University’s partnership with Posse brings to our student body. The Posse scholarship is one of the most selective scholarships available at Sewanee, starting with nearly 2,000 applicants and narrowing to 10 scholars each year.

But the partnership is not limited to finding high-achieving students. It’s also a leadership program with other features, including an annual three-day, off-campus experience called the Posse Plus Retreat. This year’s gathering was Sewanee’s ninth annual event.

In early February at Beersheba Springs Retreat Center, 225 Sewanee students, faculty, administrators, and staff—a record number—showed up for this year’s Posse Plus Retreat. The overnight experience centered around a thorny topic: “Sticks and Stones: Language and Speech in a Diverse Society.” It was an exploration of how the words people use have intentional and unintentional consequences for the people around them.

The retreat is organized by Director for Campus Life Barbara Banks, who is also a frequent Posse mentor. While Sewanee coordinates the logistics, the format and curriculum is created by the Posse Foundation, and other university partners of Posse host the same retreat. The format remains much the same year-to-year, but the topics change and segments of the retreat are led by Sewanee’s Posse scholars in concert with outside facilitators. The program aims to cultivate the skills and talents of students, especially Posse scholars, while engaging the broader community in diverse discourse.

This year’s topic recognized that most of us, regardless of our background, race, religion, or socioeconomic status, lack a language to talk about race, diversity, and inequities. Many of us do not engage and contribute to the dialogue because it feels personally risky. We fear that we might offend others or that we might be offended.

During the retreat’s opening remarks, facilitators set the tone for the retreat when they established ground rules and defined terms.

One of the defined terms that is controversial across the country and at Sewanee was “trigger warnings.” Trigger warnings are statements that precede a piece of writing, video, or lecture, alerting the audience to the fact that it includes material that could be distressing for some people. Certain graphic content, for instance, can evoke emotional responses or panic in some individuals, often as a result of their personal experiences. The idea is controversial because some people believe trigger warnings are necessary only because young adults today lack emotional resilience and feel entitled to be protected from feeling unsafe—a notion that many educators struggle to accept.

Facilitator Micia Mosley provided a moment of clarity when she simplified the issue: “We need to clarify the distinction between not feeling safe and not feeling comfortable.” Many conversations that students will have while in college will make them feel uncomfortable, she said. “Do not mistake discomfort for feeling unsafe. Be open to supporting someone who toggles back and forth between feeling unsafe and uncomfortable. Sometimes those distinctions change as we grow and our awareness and experiences shift. Protecting yourself from discomfort insulates you from learning. Yet, ignoring or disbelieving someone when they claim to feel unsafe also needs attention.”

The process of defining terms doesn’t usually hold a 225-person audience’s attention, but these words did. The facilitator and program helped define what many colleges struggle to clarify. Among our differences as individuals are the differences in our emotional responses. We should embrace the discomfort that comes with being challenged intellectually and emotionally. In connecting to one another’s experiences, we should also be thoughtful in recognizing when someone else’s discomfort has intensified into panic and anxiety. When people feel unsafe, they are no longer able to learn, and they need support. It can be easier for others to recognize when that threshold is passed, and therein lies an opportunity for living in community. 

Across the country, universities and colleges are experiencing heated discourse on race relations. In moments like these, I find myself grateful that our University motto encourages us to live together in unity. Having such a large percentage of our community gathered and engaged in an important national dialogue demonstrates the value of living in intentional and close community. The retreat format connects the liberal arts education with personal experiences to reveal a powerful commitment to learning, even when it is personally difficult.

Having had a close-up view of Sewanee student life for 20 years, I find myself frequently tearful during the Posse Plus retreats. Students tell stories that include penetrating observations and diverse perspectives that can go unspoken in a formal classroom and hidden underneath class dress. The tears are often a reaction to the challenges these students have faced, but are just as frequently shed in appreciation for the support found amid the risks in telling our stories and making ourselves vulnerable. Participants witness new awakenings that arise from uncertainty and discomfort. Hearts are opened to new forms of understanding.

No particular philosophy or theology is evoked. Instead, the retreat simply makes time and space for each of us to understand parts of the human experience from the perspective of others. Living together in unity is not an experience but a collection of experiences that evolve over time, and the intentional design of the Posse Plus Retreat keeps our community acutely aware of the needs of the world, some of which have been standing beside us without our knowledge.

When Murphy stands on a wall in the Quad offering his reflections on the world around him, we stand with him—together—reminded that unity does not require single-mindedness. It requires presence, listening, and critical thought. Sewanee, by design—through isolation, awe-inspiring natural surroundings, and a thoughtful approach to college education—continues to create opportunities to achieve what our nation desperately needs: a few ground rules, shared definitions, and the patience to better understand one another’s experiences.

Eric Hartman is Sewanee’s vice president for risk management and institutional effectiveness. Before assuming his current role, he served 19 years in the University’s Dean of Students Office, including 10 years as dean of students.