GFC: ‘Unwelcoming’ for some members of the campus community

Grounds for Change, the coffeehouse on the second floor of the campus center, is either a common hangout place for you or a curiosity you dismissively glance at on your way to your mailbox. GFC, as tagged by its frequenters, has a relaxed, ambient atmosphere with plush seating and dimmed lights that serves an eclectic selection of aromatic foreign coffees and teas. The environment is by most people’s account a pleasant place to study or chat. But a majority of the Allegheny student body steers clear of GFC. Why?

I asked my football playing friend exactly this question. He responded by saying, “I just don’t feel comfortable dude. I just feel so out of place and people stare at me.” I asked more of my friends who do not frequent GFC and they seemed to give me resounding responses. The environment of GFC certainly has a democratic appeal, but the demographic that frequents it is extremely narrow. It is dominated by a crowd for which I have coined the term, ‘socially offbeat hipsters.’

Of course it is open to everyone and there are ample exceptions to the crowd and occasionally the socially-conscious sorority girl finds herself avoiding eye contact and focusing on homework, but it is mostly a homogenous and exclusive crowd.

Consider the groups that utilize GFC as a space: Young Fems (the student feminist organization that uses the space for general meetings), ARGO (the Active Role Playing Games Organization whose members are among the most frequent visitors of GFC and at times host open mic nights), Overkill (the obscure publication that puts out pamphlets with collections of creative writing and poetry) and the most popular WARC (the student-run radio broadcasting organization which mostly invites indie and alternative rock groups to perform in GFC).

GFC was created in the 1990’s as a junior seminar having to do with political and environmental science. It was intended to be an inclusive place, but in reality it is dominated by a curious corner of our college demographic, and many students do not find it to be inclusive or welcoming.
Why is that the case? GFC’s board surprisingly is relatively socially diverse (for Allegheny standards); there are Resident Advisors, a sorority girl, fraternity bros, and ASG members. So what makes for the homogeneity of the crowd and the perceived unwelcoming atmosphere?

I do not have the answer to this question. I do not know whose fault it is. I do know that my African American, football playing, basketball playing, baseball playing and my more politically conservative friends, even many of the ones that like to drink coffee agree, that they do not feel welcome in Grounds for Change. I know that this is not fair, considering the intention with which GFC was created. I also know it is not fair because it is a charming space with a surprisingly eclectic collection of coffees and teas, and I know many of my friends would really appreciate the atmosphere.

A clue into this issue lies within the 2010 Allegheny College Climate Assessment Report. Amongst colleges in the GLCA, the Great Lakes College Association or colleges like Allegheny, Allegheny ranked in the middle of the list in compositional diversity. Compositional Diversity is the number Allegheny seems to pride in. It is the 16 to18 percent of students that are not Caucasian or from the United States. Allegheny amongst GLCA schools, however, was among the worst in this thing called cross-cultural understanding. Vaguely, cross-cultural understanding is how well Allegheny students from different backgrounds engage with each other. How good of a conversation does a wealthy Caucasian girl from the suburbs of Pittsburgh have with an African American football player from Harlem? According to the report, the conversation does not go very well.

If cross-cultural understanding is an issue along racial lines, then I speculate that is also an issue along social lines. We apparently have the social cliques of a middle school in New Jersey. I am not sure who to blame for GFC’s cultural exclusivity, but I know that it sucks. I wish more of my friends felt welcome in GFC.