Below the poverty line. Upper class. Lower class. These are among the terms with which students chose to publicly identify themselves at a retreat sponsored by the Posse Foundation.
The retreat, which took place at the Marriott Hotel in Portland last weekend, required students to push themselves out of their comfort zones for the sake of generating personal, in-depth discussions about socioeconomic class at Bowdoin.
The Posse Foundation, based in New York, selects students from New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. to form multicultural teams that apply to a college as a group. These teams, or "posses," are given training and scholarships for college.
Since the Posse program was brought to Bowdoin six years ago, Bowdoin's Posse scholars have planned annual weekend retreats to discuss a topic that concerns the campus community that year. The scholars are also largely responsible for recruiting other students and faculty to attend the retreat.
The Posse scholars for the class of 2008 represent the last ones at Bowdoin. Because the Posse Foundation does not take financial need into account when selecting the scholars, Bowdoin decided to discontinue its chapter of the program. Instead, the number of Chamberlain Scholars, who are selected for leadership and financial need, will be increased from eight to 15 for the class of 2010.
Director of First Year and Multicultural Student Programs and Posse Mentor Stacey Jones said, "Planning the Posse Plus Retreat is a full effort from Posse staff in Boston, Posse scholars on campus, and the Posse mentors."
Jones said that after the Posse Scholars on campus decide on a topic, the Boston Posse staff plans a two day retreat schedule, "filled with activities, structured and unstructured conversation among other things, to engage community members in the chosen topic."
This year's retreat, which was attended by about 60 students?both Posse scholars and any other students who wanted to attend?and several faculty members, began last Friday evening with a discussion centered on the issue of global socioeconomic status. The Posse staff selected 50 people to form a "global village," or a microcosm of the world which would statistically represent its current population.
The staff then read statements. A number of people stood up to give a visual representation of the percentage of the world to whom the statement applied. For instance, 17 of the village members would be undernourished, one would have AIDS, 35 would be illiterate, and one would have a college education.
On Saturday, the focus shifted from a global level to a community and personal level. Signs were hung around the room that described different levels of socioeconomic class, such as "middle class," "upper class," and "immigrant class." Participants had to choose a description with which they did not identify, and write down the stereotypes they held of that group.
After this brainstorming exercise, participants were asked to stand by the class label that they did identify with and write down what it was really like to be part of that group. In some cases, the stereotypes were a close match to the descriptions that actual members of the group provided, but in other cases, there were major discrepancies.
"I felt a little surprised [by the activity]," Rachael Fleming '09 said. "I really liked the exercise because it kind of showed that people do assume a lot by a person's social status."
"I felt kind of hurt, but some of them were kind of true. It was a good exercise," she said.
Saturday afternoon, participants had one-on-one discussions guided by questions in a booklet. The questions included, "What are the advantages and disadvantages about your socioeconomic class?" and "What do you wish more people knew about your class?"
Although the main purpose of the retreat was to share experiences about socioeconomic class, one Posse scholar said that everybody was also there "to have a good time." So, on Saturday night, the Posse scholars hosted the "No Talent, Talent Show."
Acts included a rendition of "Paddy-cake," a German poetry recitation, and a silly but fervent impromptu speech by Stacey Jones, which spurred audience to throw their hands in the air and shout "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!"
The retreat ended on Sunday morning when participants sat in a circle, and each individual walked to the middle of the circle and told the group how he or she would apply his experience at the retreat to his life at Bowdoin.
"I really enjoyed experiencing things outside my comfort zone," Fleming said.
"In the safe space created by the Posse Plus facilitators, we were able to experience these things in a completely safe and unbiased environment."
Dudney Sylla '08, a Posse scholar, agreed. "I felt the retreat was great because it got people to talk about an issue that is hidden and rarely openly discussed at Bowdoin."
"Everyone was respectful of each other's comments and viewpoints. This program does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere where people can be honest and feel safe doing so," he said.