This year’s Posse Plus Retreat (PPR), the seventh since Posse Scholars began matriculating to Sewanee, brought 140 members of the Sewanee community to the Beersheba Springs United Methodist Assembly for a weekend devoted to exploring social and political movements. The event marked the largest turnout since the event began with Posse 1 with the Class of 2011. The retreat brought the 36 members of Posses 4, 5, 6 and 7 together with over 100 students and faculty, colloquially known as “Posse Plus.” Part of what made PPR such a success this year was the broad range of interests among those who attended, many of whom were experiencing it for the first time. “As the weekend progressed I felt as if I had made a friendship with everyone there because everyone was an open book. I definitely plan on going again next year and would urge anyone with an open mind to go and see what it’s all about,” said Neal Johnson (C’15).
Asked what made the turnout at this year’s retreat greater than it has ever been, PPR’s chief organizer Barbara Banks surmised, “Students knew that it was a safe place for expression. Faculty that had never been there before, like Professor Bachman and Professor Craighill, came to me and asked what they need to do as faculty members to bring this back to campus.” A great deal of the retreat’s effectiveness stems from its organizers’ practiced ability to take individuals outside of their comfort zone, allow them to be vulnerable, and then show the commonality shared among the participants. “The biggest challenge was seeing students struggle in the beginning because they didn’t realize that they were truly in a safe space and could open up to people they didn’t know,” Banks added.
Issues that were addressed at PPR included: Sewanee’s treatment of privilege, gender, sexual assault, drinking culture, race, student apathy, and the separation between Greek and social organizations. “It’s a weekend for open discussion and expression of perspectives. The only issue is that there are students on campus who believe that it is an exclusive retreat because the majority of individuals that attend PPR have a communal perspective on most issues, but it’s more than that. I believe PPR 2014 was a step out of that ideology,” said Kiera Coleman (C’15). “Everyone opens up in a way that they wouldn’t on campus,” added Sheana Algama (C’15).
Five Posse trainers, who often included scholars and plussers alike in the introductions, conducted all workshops and exercises at the retreat. Discussions were augmented by group exercises exploring the tactics behind the Labor, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and Anti-War movements in American history. Trainers devoted a great deal of the group’s energy towards facilitating smaller discussion groups numbering no more than eight individuals, with a focus on bringing together people who had not met one another. “I’m never doubting them again. I was worried about the topic at first, but they did such a wonderful job of bringing it back to the individuals there,” Banks said.
The focus returned to Sewanee with an exercise called “Stand.” 140 men and women seated themselves in five concentric circles as the trainers read off statements, all of which began with the words “Stand if…” At times, tears broke the otherwise interminable silence as our peers revealed some of the most intimate details of their personal lives.
When asked about the greatest challenge of the retreat, Eric Benjamin, director of Multicultural Affairs, replied, “I envisioned myself doing this as a senior, and I don’t think we had a grasp of culture, of life. It’s having the courage to share any number of things expressing some very complicated cultural stuff. It’s like speaking up in class as a freshman.”
Dean Hagi Bradley added, “It’s opening myself up to be so vulnerable rather than closing it off like I’m used to doing, allowing students and faculty to see that softer vulnerable side.” Speaking to Vice-Chancellor John McCardell on his first experience with the Posse Plus Retreat, he remarked, “The chief benefit of Posse is its insistence that Posse members not segregate themselves, but fan out into all sectors of the University community. I hope that the takeaways from the retreat are widely shared beyond the participants, especially with our ReThink/Cornerstone Committee, which has been working on many of the topics that arose at the retreat.”
According to their website, the Posse Foundation “identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential, placing them in multicultural teams of ten students.” The program touts a 90% graduation rate, bringing students from Chicago, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, and in Sewanee’s case, Washington, D.C., to 51 colleges and universities. Since the foundation’s inception, partner institutions have awarded over $670 million in scholarships.
Freshmen and seniors alike held the microphone, eliciting equal parts laughter, joy, and empathy from peers who had never before heard them speak. Their command of the room comes from a command of self, and an invitation to all those listening that they may share that ability too.