Alumni Host “Restore Our Democracy” Conference
Issue   |   Wed, 04/22/2015 - 01:14

Amherst students and members of the class of ’64 gathered at the Alumni House last Friday and Saturday for the Restore Our Democracy conference, the first event held by the Amherst Student-Alumni Organization. The conference, which was moderated by Mark Sandler ’64, consisted of conversations, panels and speeches on the theme of democratic reform.

Pierre Joseph ’15, the conference’s lead organizer, said that the class of 1964 experienced a time of pivotal change at Amherst. Members of the class were present at President John F. Kennedy’s speech at the groundbreaking of Frost Library on Oct. 26, 1963.

“The Kennedy speech at the dedication of Frost Library really challenged the meaning of attending elite institutions,” Joseph said. “You have notable alumni like Joe Stiglitz, who’d go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics, or folks like Charles Stover and Doug Bray, who went into the peace corps. They were part of a generation of doers.”

On Friday, participants took part in a “Jeffersonian Dinner,” in which students and alumni discussed themes related to democracy and the disillusionment of millennials. Afterwards, journalist and 1992 Amherst Honorary Degree recipient Hedrick Smith delivered an address titled “Let’s Reclaim the American Dream,” focusing on the rising power of special interests in politics.

“In the eyes of many alumni, [Smith] presents an assessment [of the] period since the 1950s that explains the extreme concentration of economic and political power, cultural changes during that period and corrective strategies through civic engagement,” said Charles Stover ’64, a conference planner. “His book, ‘Who Stole the American Dream’ is one of the best assessments of the last 50-plus years and is fully relevant to understanding the current dysfunctions in our democracy.”
On Saturday, participants attended addresses by several distinguished speakers and took part in panel discussions on democracy. Speakers included democracy advocate John Bonifaz, non-profit leader Josh Silver, activist Steven Olikara and former Congressman Mickey Edwards. The panel discussions covered structural changes to the political process, e-voting and women’s issues, the political role of millennials and the future of Student-Alumni Organization.

The inspiration for the conference came from the recent 50th reunion of the class of 1964. “The idea for the conference to promote dialogue between alumni, students and faculty about the state of our democracy came from the sessions at the 50th reunion of the class of 1964 in May 2014,” Stover said. “Since reunion, a group of roughly 40 students and alumni have continued a dialogue on ways to improve our democracy. A alumni-student program committee prepared the conference with assistance from many college officials and faculty.”

A common theme discussed in many of the addresses and panels was the frustration with politics that characterizes the American millennial generation, including current Amherst students.

“There’s a generational disconnect between democratic process issues like voting, gerrymandering, sore loser laws and the lived experience of people just trying to get by in an economic situation that doesn’t work for everyone,” Joseph said. “I believe students at Amherst really grapple with the question of how to create impact. We all care about a ton of issues, but don’t necessarily have the infrastructure [or] support in order to scale our own particular change initiatives.”

Joseph said the organizers of the event hope to continue to use the Student-Alumni Organization as a starting point for more dialogue in the future.