Issues in the age of Obama

By Emma WestRasmus

The John B. Davis Lecture Hall was packed to capacity with a crowd of 250 people, with latecomers sitting on the floor in the aisle to see Macalester’s fourth annual Civic Forum April 8, which lasted nearly three and a half hours. This year’s theme was “Civic Leadership in the Age of Obama,” and the panel of featured speakers delved into issues ranging from inequalities within the U.S. prison system, the lack of an American national class-consciousness, and the themes of change and leadership in light of Barack Obama’s historic election.

The Civic Forum featured Callie Thuma and Westenley Alcenat ’10 who presented commissioned papers. Ian Haney López, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at University of California Berkeley and race and constitutional law scholar, offered the keynote address entitled “Post-Racial Leadership: Racialized Mass Incarceration and President Obama.” The event was facilitated by Julie Dolan, associate professor and chair of the Political Science department, and associate professor of American Studies Karin Aguilar-San Juan offered the faculty response after Haney López’s speech.

This year’s Civic Forum differed slightly from past Forums in respect to the scheduling of the event. Karin Trail-Johnson, associate dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship, who coordinates the Forum, said this year’s Forum was condensed into one evening this year from prior years when it spanned a day and a half.

“In some ways this format worked better because we weren’t in competition with classes,” Trail-Johnson said.

The day started with a “pre-event” at noon when the Central High School Touring Theater performed an original play that addressed stereotypes and alienation that young people have to work through.

“The kids wrote the vignettes based on their own daily experiences and infused the acting with music and spoken word poetry,” Trail-Johnson said. “The Macalester Black Box was full with about 75 in the audience.”

Trail-Johnson said the performance was “very powerful” and helped set the stage and give context for Thuma’s presentation at the Civic Forum entitled “The Pursuit of Something New: Lessons from the Black Box Theater of Central High School.” The paper emerged from her experience collaborating with theater students at Central High as they developed a play around the 2008 presidential election and Barack Obama’s historic candidacy.

“Callie’s address focused on the Central Touring group as an example of how the arts can teach people to collaboratively live active citizenship,” Trail-Johnson said. “They learn to tell their story, address social justice, and become agents of change. It was wonderful to have the students perform on campus and then to hear Callie’s insightful words about the impact of their work and explore the transferrable lessons for how leadership can be played out.”

“I thought the event overall was a great success, and there were a lot of meaningful questions raised by the audience and presenters alike,” said Thuma, an American Studies major and Geography minor. “Talking about race and class-based injustices and other structural inequalities is incredibly important. As an American Studies major it was great to have this platform to share a little bit about how we see things, what we were talking about in a big campus event.”

Thuma noted that the process of writing and presenting her paper was a challenge, but one that generated much reflection on issues ranging from the role of women in academia and the potential future relationship between Macalester and Central High School students, to the varied modes of leadership that we can embody.

“I struggled a lot to get the paper I delivered, and personally I felt incredibly affirmed and supported by the campus community and by my friends here,” Thuma said. “I came out of this experience with an incredible sense of my own voice.”

This was also the first time that students presented at the beginning of the Forum, which Trail-Johnson said effectively served to highlight their scholarship and contributions.

“The audience gave the students a very enthusiastic response at the onset, and that set the tone for a scholarly but also spirited and enjoyable evening,” Trail-Johnson said.

Alcenat, a Political Science and History double major, presented his paper entitled “Revamping the Welfare State? Obama and the Challenge of American Politics,” and spoke about the relationship between race and class in the context of the Obama administration’s battle to pass healthcare reform.

In his presentation, Alcenat offered his analysis through what he termed “the American problem,” the idea that American politics has been “held captive by individualism, and an attitude that says ‘it’s not my problem that you can’t receive this social service.’ We are all children of Locke.”

Alcenat also spoke of America’s lack a class consciousness, and identified that in that void, the issue of race often blinds Americans from truly looking at class.

“We don’t have a class consciousness, so we substitute race to hide it,” Alcenat argued. “There’s a racial element to it, one I argue is deeply rooted in class,” Alcenat said in his presentation. “The racial issue-I call it the ‘white problem’-is a small white minority that was not open to Obama’s socialist push, and failed to see that the problem is largely a class problem. We have many inequalities based in class, and it’s hard to eradicate racial inequalities if we don’t address class.”

Trail-Johnson sees the Civic Forum as an integral part of the IGC’s central goals of engaging in discussions of leadership, global citizenship, and the “nature and promise of this historic moment” in the United States.

“One of the goals of the Civic Forum is to provide an annual opportunity for the campus and the local community to examine timely domestic issues. We did a lot of work on broad outreach and I was pleased that the audience included students, faculty, staff, neighbors, professionals working on issues related to the topic areas (prisons, schools, community organizations, foundations) and also some prospective parents here for the Sampler. The diversity of perspectives was evident in the excellent questions that were raised from the audience and reflected a rich dialogue that is central to global citizenship.