In the first meeting of its kind, representatives from Young Conservatives club were invited to speak to the Payton Advisory Leaders (PALs) during a seminar meeting on March 30 to discuss the Republican identity at Payton. This invitation comes after the published results of January’s ‘invisibility survey’, which aimed to pinpoint subgroups of the student body who felt overlooked or unwelcomed in the wider Payton community. Among other identity groups, “[political] conservatives” were reported to be invisible, according to an analysis from the survey.
During the meeting, Rob Brutvan ‘17, Eli Selz ‘17, and Casey Jackson ‘17 participated in a guided discussion of their experiences as Republicans at Payton. The roundtable was moderated by Ms. Molly Spooner, the teacher sponsor of PALs. After answering a list of pre-written questions, the 41 PALs had a chance to conduct a Q&A with the guest panel. “In our heads, we thought that the environment might be … slightly cold or unwelcoming. However, Ms. Spooner really made an effort to tell people that we weren’t there to have an argument. We were really there for informative purposes,” said Jackson.
When asked why he volunteered to participate on the panel, Brutvan said that “the overall Payton environment isn’t welcoming for Conservatives. Since it’s the PALs job to make Payton a welcoming environment for everyone who enters the school, we thought it would be good to help the PALs to address that issue.”
Although the dialogue was polite and professional, the room was not free of judgement. “There was a sense in the room that … we were just waiting for them to say something politically incorrect,” said Nic Xu ‘16, a PAL. Brutvan felt a similar undercurrent. “Overall, all the PALs were welcoming and open minded to hearing our perspective … but there were a couple eye rolls and not so welcoming thoughts,” he said.
After the discussion, many PALs noted that “a certain type of Republican” was talking: one who is “socially liberal but economically conservative,” according to Dylan Moore ‘16, a PAL. This political breakdown would traditionally be labeled libertarian, although all three students on the panel identified as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and aligned with the Republican party.
In an interview with Jackson and Brutvan after the discussion, Brutvan noted that he knows “half a dozen” Payton students who are “truly Conservative on both sides [i.e. fiscally and socially].” However, if such students sat on the panel, “they would have been shut down very quickly. Realizing that we [the panelists and PALs] have social views in common made it easier to relate and talk more. If we disagreed on everything, it wouldn’t have been a discussion.”
Jackson added that “it’s important to have a middle ground, and we served as that medium. I’ll probably take a lot of flack for this, but I think that we should even work to accept people who are socially conservative because that’s just a view that they’re allowed to have in America. You don’t have to agree with them, but they’re people too, and they’re entitled to their own opinion.”
Regardless of personal politics, participants overwhelmingly agreed that such discussion is good for Payton’s community. Moore said that “it was important to hear a different perspective, especially when you’re in your own little bubble at Payton where you think everyone loves Bernie Sanders.” Stella Binion ‘17 said that although, for her, the discussion was “overwhelming because we were making space for views that are almost always made space for,” she realized that “‘I need to include these people’s views’ because I think it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.”
Brutvan even suggested that a similar civil conversation could expand outside of a moderated, classroom setting: “I don’t know anyone [who is Conservative] who’s not willing to sit down and talk about issues,” he said.
(Such scrutiny of the cohesiveness of Payton’s student body comes in the wake of a handful of community-building programs spearheaded by the new Director of Student Engagement, Dr. Erica Bauer. Bauer’s other initiatives in the 2015-16 school year include We Are Payton! and Payton People of Color (PPoC). We Are Payton! attracts student activists who work towards “creative disruption” so that all members of the Payton community, regardless of identity politics, might “express themselves.” PPoC, which Bauer sponsors, serves as a “safe space” to discuss “issues related to race, culture, and identity specific to Payton,” according to both groups’ descriptions on the online enrichment sign-up system, Selenium.)