Capturing the flag and some SOLER energy

On some semi-utopian southwestern Ohio campus where everyone seems to be in need of a 36-hour day and an eight-day week to get everything on their “have to do” list accomplished, there was finally a day for releasing some of the intense and pent-up pressures of studying, teaching or just dealing with a huge everyday workload.       

Memorial Day weekend’s “Community Day” Friday had a day of festivities including a community picnic, bonfire and “capture the flag.” When I think of flags and campus, I do have some stories about the flagpole on front campus facing Glen Helen.  A fairly recent and whimsically delightful memory comes from a right before we went into our short institutional “interruption.”  If you were to read some Antioch College admissions materials from the ‘50s and ‘60s and on, these brochures often explained that an Antioch education was much more than books.  That education also involved “experience, action, jobs and travel” (from a 1952 Antioch College Bulletin provided by Scott Sanders in Antiochiana).  After a host of co-ops and an abroad experience, everyone here knew very well that the world was really our campus and Yellow Springs was home base or “transient mode home.”

Experiential education and the abroad experience certainly was what we all knew as “our” niche long before others caught up with the Antioch idea. So it then might almost be culturally logical to claim the “earth flag” as a flag we might fly.  For a brief period during spring 2007 on the front campus lawn the “earth flag” flew in ITS own glory.  The first time I saw that blue flag waving as I walked around the east side of Main Building, l was certainly so surprised that it made me stop and laugh.  It, in a subtle, metaphorical way, stated a mission of winning victories for humanity and watching out for an endangered precious blue planet. Why limit yourself to just the provinces?  Of course the flag’s tenure was brief and eventually it was back to Old Glory.

So, during that spring season front-lawn Ultimate Frisbee games were played under different flags.

With all the Antiochians who are Quakers, shakers, doctors and environmental types that blue flag seemed to be a nice, fun fit for our collective legacy and culture, as well as being out of the usual conventional and quotidian box. Perhaps that flag was deemed a little too irreverent or confusing to visitors so it was captured and then it was back to the traditional flag that just represented a certain 50 states in that bigger blue planet.

While most campuses work on the basic three R’s, Antioch also has the three C’s (classroom, co-op and community).   This year we also seem to be working with what we might start calling the three D’s.   That would be debate (we have a winning team), discussion (that’s always our true favorite sport) and now we are delving into dialogue.  

Sustained dialogue training is being brought to campus by the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network (link) via the Louise Smith ’77, dean of community life, and the campus Diversity Committee.   This dialogue training has actually been made possible by many of you who voted with your gifts during December’s Giving Tuesday contest sponsored by the Office of Advancement. This dialogue group will be here again sometime during the summer with the idea that enough people will be trained in sustained dialogue technique and able to pass on some communication skills.  Some of the first workshops are titled “Training the trainer.”  Unlike discussion or debate, dialogue does not require one to do research or homework.  It does require one to try to be open and in “listening mode” so talking that happens between people ends with both parties having an ability to undergo some fundamental changes (even if at first those changes feel imperceptible).

From a training session handout the definition of dialogue follows:  “Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into their own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up their identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that they will act differently toward the other.”

The Sustained Dialogue Network does things worldwide and also has a branch that only works with campuses throughout this country, and Mexico and Ethiopia.  Among its participants have been Harvard, Princeton, Denison, Dickinson, St. John Fisher College, Susquehanna University and others.

Twenty-five community members participated during the sessions in the morning and during the afternoon 25 others joined small- and large-group discussions with a facilitator.

Many years ago, many of you may remember Ben Thompson, former philosophy professor and director of admissions who often did trust exercises during orientation or philosophy classes with paired people being walked around campus, one being blindfolded and asked to fall and have enough trust that other would catch them.  Dialogue training may do something similar to this but on a different level.  As you open parts of yourself and listen you become open to others. Everyone has some overlapping circles and common ground.

As training began, bright spring sunshine streamed into the Coretta Scott King Center. People sat in chairs in a large circle and started listening to the trainer. Of course, I did not know what to expect. I had been to different diversity-related activities throughout the years and went with a certain apprehension and tension.  After a while that unease eased.  As training started we were asked to say our name, what we did at the College and what we gave up to listen to the training. As we sat in a large circle we were told what the basic ground rules were.   1.) Listen harder when you disagree; 2.) Don’t just jump in when the water is warm; 3.) Share airtime; and 4.) Assume best intentions.  The ground rules also stressed that what is heard is not to be judged as either good or bad.

On a flip chart was also the acronym “SOLER.”  It was about body language. “S” means to look at someone straight-on, not sideways like a prom picture. “O” means to keep your body open, like not folding one’s arms across your body.  (Of course I had to ask “What if I am doing that to cover my love-handles?”) “L” means to lean forward toward someone and listen during dialogue.  “E” is for eye-contact, unless culturally inappropriate. And “R” (which is the hardest) means to relax. That’s SOLER power!

A warm-up exercise was to pair off with someone and ask over and over in rapid-fire answer mode “Who are you?” for two minutes.  Actually you would be surprised how long that is and how much can come out in two minutes.  Did you learn something new about your partner; did you feel surprised or challenged?  

A second follow-up exercise was in a slightly larger group telling your own life story in four minutes by weaving into it the Big Eight Dimensions of Social Identity in the United States.

1.     Race and color

2.     Class and Socio-economic status

3.     Sex and gender

4.     Sexual orientation

5.     Ethnicity

6.     Religion

7.     Age

8.     Ability 

9.     What else? (optional)   

Of course to pair up with people who you don’t very well is optimal.

An accompanying handout explained that “the learning point is to open “one’s self” up and see that these are the social identities (the basic big 8) that people often have a difficult time conversing about in an open, honest and respectful way.  They are also social identities that are often tied to the way (people) experience power, privilege and oppression in our society.”

The handout explained, “The end goal is to create a space where people won’t shy away but ask questions and share experiences.” Final larger discussions of the day dealt with perceived barriers or what things were going well with wide varieties of questions about feelings about inclusivity in the community.  And what happens next? What would we be excited to do to make things better? I found out new dimensions in anyone with whom I dialogued. 

Well, so much for shedding some light on a different kind of SOLER power. Stay tuned as there is much in the works on the Antioch College campus with geothermal and that other solar energy as well. Maybe one of those places will have that blue “earth flag” flying nearby!

Below is a classic Admission poster from the early 1970’s sent by Robert Fishbone ’74.   He will be here at Reunion hosting a drumming circle.  Come and hang out!  It may one of those moments that will be hard to beat!