Posse Plus Retreat challenges barriers through “Us vs Them”

By Elon Epps and Hadley Montgomery

Staff Writers

The tenth annual Posse Plus Retreat took place at the Beersheba Springs Assembly Conference and Retreat Center from February 17 to the 19, bringing students, faculty, and members of the administration together to explore the theme, “Us vs. Them?: Division, Community, and Identity in American Society.”

The Posse Foundation “identifies, recruits, and trains incredible young leaders and sends them in Posses of 10 students to top colleges and universities across the country.” Posse Plus Retreat (PPR) “is a unique space where students, faculty, and staff come together to participate in a powerful discussion about a topic relevant to Sewanee’s community.”

Our campus currently has a Posse group from DC in each class, resulting in 35 Posse scholars on campus. These scholars invite and encourage classmates, faculty, and staff to attend PPR with the help of previous “Posse Plusers,” people who have already attended the retreat. Sewanee’s retreat attendance has always been upwards of 200, making Sewanee’s PRR one of the foundation’s largest. The retreat is held at all of the 55 campuses with Posse scholars.

This year, nearly 200 students boarded buses for Beersheba Springs, later joined by nearly 40 faculty and staff members of the university. The retreat began with Posse classic warm-ups and games to initiate conversation about “Us vs. Them.”

A diverse group of students, faculty, and staff from the University of the South coming together after a long week to start to grapple with the difficult topic was admirable and spoke to the school’s enthusiasm for pushing boundaries and having meaningful discussions. The next two days included everything from human barometers, fishbowl discussions, big and small group discussions, dyads, games, and other activities that challenged and educated participants.

The students and faculty engaged in discussions about what “Us vs. Them” meant to them. Each person’s “Us vs. Them” differed greatly according to their race, class, gender, sexuality, culture, and religion. The Plusers grappled with this predicament in all areas of the Sewanee community and beyond. The discussions began in small, six person groups with each group having an “Us vs. Them” example such as “male vs female.” The group was tasked with finding identifiers with each “us” and each “them” they were given. This really helped the Plusers realize just how many Us vs. Them scenarios there are in our culture.

The Plusers were also tasked with many activities of self reflection: What does Us vs. Them mean to you? How does this affect you in your everyday life? All of these questions surfaced throughout the weekend in different small and large group activities. Another Posse Plus original activity is a partnership with someone you know very little about. Each person gets to choose someone to spend a few hours with on the second day of the retreat. These conversations really encourage people to step to the edge of their comfort zone and get to know a person whom they may or may not agree with.

“It was good. It was a place we could talk about anything and people were comfortable and you learned different things from diverse people,” said Maron Gulema (C’20), a first-time attendee.   PPR strives to create safe environments where individuals can critically approach oppression, discrimination, stereotyping, politics, sexuality, socioeconomics, and much more, giving voices to the unheard and bringing stories to life.

“PPR was empowering and unifying,” said Bre Ayala (C’17). The retreat aims to carry this enthusiasm from the weekend back to campus, where real change and social movements can become part of a lifestyle, and not merely a topic of discussion.

PPR brings the campus together, making people comfortable with being uncomfortable and allowing Sewanee to evolve and become an inclusive, accepting university of diverse experiences, enriching the campus for everyone.