University students have worked working with Middletown residents this semester to organize an “encuentro,” which is Spanish for “encounter.” The encuentro served as a forum to spark community dialogue.
“[An encuentro is] the creation of a space where anyone can contribute their story and perspective without feeling worried or scared about feeling judged or attacked,” said organizer Rachel Fifer ’12.
The first encuentro was held last Saturday, April 28, at the First Congregational Church on Court Street in Middletown. The event was composed of a community meal, speakers, group discussions, and a general assembly. Approximately 60 people from the University and Middletown attended, and students provided childcare for the children of the attendees.
“The point of the encuentro is to talk,” said organizer Michaela Miller ’15. “Whether it’s while cooking, while eating, while speaking in front of people in small groups, the whole point is to talk.”
Last semester, several University students attended the New York City Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Unable to attend, Fifer was determined to bring the encuentro to Middletown.
“I thought it’d be amazing to have one here,” she said. “While going to New York and being a part of that sounded amazing, I really think that working in your own community is super important. I also was realizing that, as a senior, I still have no sense of being a Middletown resident.”
Fifer enlisted help from students at an Occupy Wesleyan meeting, as well as help from Middletown residents who appeared on the group’s email list.
“It ended up being half Wesleyan students and half Middletown residents who were working on it, which was great,” Miller said. “Even though I wish it was the actual proportion of Middletown residents to Wesleyan students.”
Fifer said that the turnout at the encuentro validated the amount of energy she put into planning.
“It kind of feels like my version of a thesis,” Fifer said. “This is exactly how I would want my energy to go into something: creating a community that is really lasting. The process has been really incredible, and it’s really cool to have put so much effort into something and then see it really just blossom.”
The Student Budget Committee (SBC), the University’s College Greens, Latin American Studies Department, as well as Middletown residents donated funds to the group. The money went toward renting out the space and bringing a speaker, Michael Velarde, from the Movement for Justice in El Barrio. Most of the food was donated by local organizations.
Miller said she hopes that in the future the funding will not primarily come from the University but rather from the Middletown community.
“Wesleyan provided a lot of the money for this encuentro,” Miller said. “That was uncomfortable. We really don’t want that to happen for next year’s encuentro.”
Miller noted that the original encuentro message is anti-neoliberalism, and that the group needed to decide if that was their goal as well. She recounted the heated discussion over the definition of neoliberalism at the event.
“The point was to have a community event where people’s voices are heard and [an event] that has all the themes of past encuentros,” Miller said. “But we don’t focus on this issue of being against neoliberalism because that will come up organically if people feel that is a common form of oppression.”
People milled about during the event, introduced themselves to each other, and listened to the live music. Velarde spoke and screened a forty-minute film about the New York City and international encuentros. Velarde filled in after the original speaker cancelled a few days before the event.
Miller expressed her dissatisfaction with this portion of the event.
“He was a horrible speaker in my opinion,” Miller said. “[The film] had nothing to do with Middletown and the whole focus of the event was Middletown.”
There was also a section where community members were able to share with other residents their motivation for attending the encuentro.
“The purpose of that section was for any individual to get up and share their thoughts and their individual story,” Fifer said.
After the speakers, the group divided into smaller discussion groups, each with an assigned issue. Fifer said that the topics included police brutality, education and bullying, Middletown and University relations, as well as environmental justice.
“That’s my favorite part of the event; it’s actually people in conversation,” Fifer said. “It’s not just one person speaking at a bunch of people.”
Afterward, the groups came together and discussed their ideas at the general assembly portion of the event. The attendees agreed to begin meeting once a month to discuss community issues.
As a graduating senior, Fifer said that she would not discourage a student group from being formed, although she said she wouldn’t want more students than Middletown residents to organize the meetings.
“I wouldn’t want it to turn into something where the students are a really solid group that organizes things, and then other people come,” she said.
Miller, on the other hand, stated that she definitely did not want the encuentro organizers to create a student group. She said that she has been disappointed with student activism on campus and has turned to Middletown residents.
“I realized I don’t have to look for Wesleyan students to do things—things like encuentro,” she said. “There are so many Middletown residents who have been thinking ‘I’m the only one who cares’ but just haven’t found each other.”
In addition to the monthly meetings, the group will continue to host encuentros. Miller expressed both optimism and concern over the event’s growth in the future.
“I really have a vision of this being the start of a new kind of communication in the town, a new kind of organizing for change,” she said. “My concern of it growing is that it’ll become institutionalized, and I really don’t want that to happen.”