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The Carletonian

Air horn in CSA jars senators

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Last Monday, David Atkinson ’15 (who prefers they/their pronouns) walked into the CSA meeting in the Great Hall and sat in the spectators section. Atkinson held in their hands an air horn, a notebook and a pen.

The meeting started like normal, and began with a presentation from the Alcohol and Other Drug Committee. Shortly into the meeting, however, Atkinson blew their air horn. The sudden blast of sound in the cavernous Great Hall shocked the entire room. When asked to explain themselves by Marielle Foster ’16, CSA president, Atkinson explained their intention: Whenever three male or four white senators spoke in a row, Atkinson would blow their horn.

According to senators present, Foster told Atkinson that she appreciated their point. She agreed that gender and racial equality in speaking time on Senate remained a major problem, and needed to be addressed. Later that night, Foster would recall how, as vice president, she often kept tallies of the number of times male and females spoke in budget committee meetings.

However, considering the blow horn a major disruption, she asked Atkinson if they would refrain from blowing the horn any further. Atkinson nodded in response. Later, Atkinson explained that they made this nod in recognition of what Marielle said and not in agreement with her request.

The next time Atkinson blew his horn, Foster began to cry. Witnesses claim that most of the senators seemed visibly on edge during the affair. Several senators expressed concern that the air horn presented a mental health issue.

Hiyanthi Peiris ’15 later reported that, “A few senators were visibly shocked, and hurt mentally by the sound of the blow horn, as it acted as a trigger for mental health concerns like anxiety and panic attacks.”

Foster warned Atkinson that she would call security if they did not stop, confirmed Foster after the meeting. Atkinson did not leave the room and continued to keep tallies.

At no other point in the meeting, however, did three male senators or four white senators speak in a row, according to the tailles Atkinson made during the meeting. Whether a series of male or white speakers did not happen a third time because of the air horn’s presence or because of mere chance, Atkinson refused to speculate.

Later that night, Foster expressed why she believed the air horn was not a constructive force, for either the CSA senate or the issue at hand.

She contrasted Atkinson’s methods with her own way of solving problems: “The way I intend to approach things is by fostering conversation, trying to make people feel safe and trying to have an environment where people can respectfully have a discourse with each other and where they feel capable communicating their feelings.

“And when they do make mistakes or overreach themselves, then people can talk to them about that.”

In Foster’s opinion, the air horn made people feel unsafe. “I think there are a lot more conversations you can have leading up to demonstration,” she commented. Besides, “It’s calling out someone based on one of their identities,” Foster asserted.

“Which I would say is destructive because it’s making a huge assumption about that person.”

When asked if they thought their air horn created an unsafe space, Atkinson did not shy away from the term. “In a sense it is creating an unsafe space. It’s creating a space where people are no longer safe to exercise power they might have over others because of their gender and race. If that makes people feel unsafe, then I guess people ought to feel unsafe a little more often.”

Atkinson explained that they thought some of the actions that CSA has taken this past year have helped – for example, the recent diversity training and the diversity survey.

However, Atkinson does not believe these actions are enough to solve the underlying problem.

“The course of the senate meetings is another important factor that needs to be addressed, and I don’t think you can diversity train that or small-group discussion that away,” Atkinson said.

“I think part of it is just the inadequacies of Robert’s rules and the rules of order in the senate.” Atkinson suggested progressive stack facilitation as an alternative that ensures all senators an opportunity to speak.

Nearly every senator agreed with the intent of Atkinson’s gesture, although most disapproved of the gesture’s execution. Senator Henry Gordon ’15 noted how much the senate has accomplished to promote diversity in the past year, while recognizing that there is more senate can and should do on the issue.

However, he did not mince words when critiquing the execution of Atkinson’s demonstration: “It was threatening, destructive and immensely disturbing.”

Senator Peiris agreed with the gesture and thought the air horn accomplished its goal but believed something less aggressive than an air horn would have been more considerate.

She proposed the idea of a whiteboard, which would show a tally count of the white and male senators speaking, as opposed to female and nonwhite senators.

Since the meeting, a student has allegedly filed a community concern form against Atkinson. However, in relation to the community concern form, one of the deans of students reportedly expressed in private that this was a matter for the student body to deal with and not the administration.

Despite the contentious senate meeting, Foster expressed optimism about where the discussion would go from here.

“One of the things I like most about Carleton is students can be very empowered and make things happen,” she said. “For better or for worse.” 

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