Incarnation Conference Center is nestled at the end of a winding road in Ivoryton, Conn. A peacock struts around; there are llamas. Cozy, with biblical plaques on the walls—Incarnation hosts an Episcopal summer camp—the lodge is equipped to hold upward of 100 people, and planned to do so when it hosted its inaugural PossePlus Retreat with participants from the University.
Fewer than 40 people, though, climbed out of the buses on Friday, Feb. 27, to participate in the retreat.
“Showing up to the bus and having eight people on it…was kind of unnerving,” said Royce Ebenal ’18, a Posse Scholar.
The Posse Foundation, an organization that partners with over 50 colleges and universities to connect students of diverse backgrounds with institutions of higher education and support them once there, hosts annual retreats for its scholars and community members to engage with various issues related to social justice. The Veterans Program is in its first year at the University; its first-year class consists of 10 scholars.
Scholars across the country chose this year’s topic, “Power, Authority, Crime & Punishment,” in August, soon after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Guest Rebecca Njeri ’15 decided to attend the retreat because of the prominence of crime and punishment in the news.
“Last semester, every time I was on Facebook there would be an article about Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner,” she said. “I thought, ‘It’s 2014. Things should be better.’”
When the group came together for the first time after a pasta dinner, the Posse Foundation’s Director of the Veterans Program Ileana Casellas-Katz remarked that the group, though small in size, was mighty in its makeup.
“This is a unique, diverse cross-section of faculty, staff, and students,” Casellas-Katz said. “Thank you for taking this leap and being part of the first annual PossePlus Retreat at Wesleyan.”
Retreat facilitator and Professor of Creative and Performing Arts at the College of Staten Island George Emilio Sanchez explained that the goal of the retreat was not to end the world’s problems but rather to foster dialogue.
“We might not solve anything,” Sanchez said. “But we’ll hopefully dig deeper into what we think we can do.”
The group of 35 included not only student guests and Posse Scholars but also Director of Public Safety Scott Rohde, Dean for the Class of 2018 Marina Melendez, Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, and Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias, among others. During activities throughout the weekend, the group members took stands on various moral issues, created human sculptures, and even hypothetically decided consequences for various real people convicted of crimes.
Kate Suslovic ’17 recognized the power of leaving campus for the retreat.
“I love getting the time to step away from regular life, so we can give all the things we’re thinking about their full consideration,” Suslovic said. “If you’re in the middle of your full, crazy life, it doesn’t quite work the same way.”
Suslovic added that the activities and the discussion they generated directed her awareness to the community’s compassion.
“I was surprised by how powerfully empathetic everyone was,” she said. “Even though crime and punishment is a big, scary thing, everyone still worried about people who were causing harm maybe being harmed themselves.”
Associate Dean of Student Academic Resources Laura Patey was excited by the chance the retreat provided for the attendees to form meaningful relationships.
“My favorite part [was] the opportunity to connect with students in a very deep way,” she said. “Something that’s really stood out to me is the deep sense of connectedness and sense of empathy that so many students have.”
Casellas-Katz reflected over breakfast on Sunday morning that the group’s small size worked in a positive way.
“We were really fortunate in that it made all the conversations more intimate and allowed us to hear from everybody who was present at the retreat in the large group, which if you have a larger group, you just don’t have the luxury to do,” she said.
Andrew Olivieri ’18, another Posse Scholar who was initially dismayed at the relatively small turnout, remarked that it was a blessing in disguise.
“It started off a little rocky, but everything worked out,” Olivieri said. “I’m glad we had a more intimate environment.”
The intimacy of the environment was clearest in the Saturday night no-talent show, which featured Melendez teaching merengue, Szegedy-Maszak playing saxophone, and four-year-old Elsa Fought singing an Irish lullaby, and culminated in making s’mores over the lodge’s fireplace.
In the afternoon, the group split into three groups, each addressing a different crime-related issue on campus: drug use and sales, sexual assault, and the drug culture at large. Casellas-Katz said she was struck by the quality of those discussions.
“I thought that the small groups around campus issues…were really powerful in that they were completely participant-created and facilitated,” she said. “It seemed that people were really leaning into those conversations because they matter to the campus. Everyone was concerned about what we can do as the considerate, diverse community that’s represented here.”
One such small group discussed drug use and sales on campus and focused particularly on the events of the previous weekend.
“That was a fantastic conversation,” said Gabe Frankel ’15. “We were talking about the Wesleyan incident, about the 11 kids sent to the hospital and four arrested…. Someone made a comment toward the end that it seemed like an inconsistency: we had earlier been talking in certain ways about drug dealers, and now why did we have so much compassion for these drug dealers because they were Wesleyan students? There was no period to that conversation.”
Posse Scholar Darryl Stevenson ’18 was most fond of the “dyads,” or two- or three-person casual conversation groups.
“My favorite moment of the weekend was having a conversation with Dean Melendez and [Dean of Equity and Inclusion Renee Johnson-Thornton],” Stevenson said. “So we were going through the dyads, and we…talked about some heavy topics, some silly topics. It was just a really good opportunity to see them as people, as regular humans.”
The activities also emphasized differences among participants, especially through a Saturday night exercise that asked people to stand if they identified with certain statements surrounding class, safety, race, and the criminal justice system.
Posse Scholar Michael Smith ’18 said he was surprised at the radical differences within the community.
“There was a student who mentioned that [racial] profiling isn’t something that he ever thinks about,” Smith said. “It’s just sort of shocking to know that some people don’t have to think about that. And I already know that, but in that moment we were all sharing, and it just sort of put everything into perspective, how unequal things are. And that’s emotional…. A lot of people don’t look at injustices because they’re not living them.”
Casellas-Katz hopes the relationships forged at the retreat will strengthen over the course of the year.
“For dialogue to continue, we need to have connections, and I think people started to make those relationships this weekend,” Casellas-Katz said. “We have to understand that through allyship and coalition—because we’re all from different communities here—we can have different opinions and really struggle and debate around those things, but maintain a real positive and powerful baseline of respect.”
Frankel identified just those things—positivity and respect—as the biggest takeaways of the weekend.
“I think what changed me most was not so much the big-topic stuff, but the warm and fuzzy stuff…and just having the chance to be with 30 people from Wesleyan—administrators especially,” he said. “I felt myself shifting in the way I interacted with people, in a very good way, because that box was opened—that box we get stuck in as the way we all interact with one another on campus. There’s just a way of surviving on this campus, and stepping out of that makes you realize that people can interact in different ways.”
Smith sees the positive effects of the retreat extending into the future.
“We got to dive deeply into a set of critical topics that will help with the balance of society going forward,” he said. “If we don’t address these issues of pressing inequality, and how justice is distributed, we will see communities who are already dominating the prison system further pushed to the fringes. It’s going to take us really caring and getting involved and believing in social justice and equality to make a difference.”