Editorial: VILLEage Groups: What's Next?

Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement last summer and student feedback regarding on-campus dialogue on current events in America, the administration created the first-ever VILLEage groups, a program intended to spark productive discussion on important social topics.

Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement last summer and student feedback regarding on-campus dialogue on current events in America, the administration created the first-ever VILLEage groups, a program intended to spark productive discussion on important social topics. Each group consisted of a random sample of 15 students in II and III, or IV and V Forms, along with two faculty advisors who guided the discussions. These VILLEage groups sought to push Lawrentians outside of their comfort zones and seek novel opinions from individuals whom they wouldn’t usually interact with. Yet during the few meetings that we had, it was clear from the amount of muted microphones that most students were unwilling to actively participate. This raises the questions: why are we failing at our own initiative? Are VILLEage groups really the key towards achieving civil discourse on important issues within America?

Perhaps we should consider alternatives that encourage productive discourse while maintaining diversity, rather than jumping into VILLEage groups and falling short because of their online format and imposed social discomfort.

Whether we wish to admit it or not, virtual discussions simply do not elicit the same kind of engagement as physical ones do. Not only did the physical barrier affect our interactions with each other, but facing yet another online obligation immediately after hours in class certainly added towards Zoom fatigue. Though the opportunity to meet new people seems beneficial in an era of Zoom when we don’t get to see as many people as we normally do, it has taken away from time that would otherwise be used for actual, physical interaction with friends outside or in sports.

Combined with the never-ending cycle of Zoom meetings, the forced togetherness with strangers made many students uncomfortable and unwilling to open up. Vulnerability is key in a program designed to elicit effective discussions about serious topics, and speaking to a group of strangers often served as a barrier to the program’s intentions, because vulnerability comes with trust and trust often develops through relationships. While we recognize that having a group of dissimilar students may expose Lawrentians to a wider array of perspectives on social issues, if students are unwilling to start these conversations primarily due to being unfamiliar with each other, then the program loses its original purpose.

Of course, some students may have simply been unwilling to open up regardless. But if students were uncomfortable having these conversations in the first place, the unfamiliarity of the group only exacerbated this sentiment.

In acknowledgement of these difficulties, the administration has suspended VILLEage groups due to the modified Winter Term schedule. Yet discontinuing the program shouldn’t be the solution that we fall back upon. Thinking back to the Capitol riots, or the Inauguration, the past months presented so many missed opportunities for meaningful discussion within our community.

VILLEage groups are expected to continue in the spring, but the same problems from the fall will likely persist. As we look ahead to provide spaces for necessary conversation, we should first consider the most effective ways to do so. “Leaning into discomfort” is important, but this discomfort should stem from the topic of discussion, not the target audience. In the current online environment and social climate, it is reasonable for people to seek comfort from familiar faces. While familiar friend groups may lack diversity, familiarity doesn’t always have to mean similarity. Lawrenceville prides itself in its House system because of how student diversity can coexist with strong bonds between House members. Having these conversations in a House can ensure student diversity while providing the level of mutual understanding needed for vulnerability. If the lack of diversity in sex poses a concern, having these discussions in a pre-existing class is another viable solution, as the Harkness classroom is already geared up for productive discourse between a diverse group of students and faculty.

If the end goal is for students to have serious discussions without losing diversity in perspectives, then we should consider a more reasonable and realistic means to achieving that purpose. VILLEage groups were launched with the right intentions, but they missed the mark. When students are already exposed to novel and unprecedented discussion topics, we should focus on actually starting them rather than being fixated on the environment in which we do so. Hence, having Lawrentians converse in their Houses or classrooms may elicit more positive outcomes. Not only will students encounter similar, if not the same, levels of diversity as they would in their VILLEage groups, but the familiarity goes a long way in generating productive discourse.

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