Two weeks ago, I received an email from former Chief of Staff Jane Mathison inviting me to represent The Grape at The State of American Democracy conference. According to the email, the three-day conference had been organized by Professor of Environmental Studies David Orr with the intent of discussing “what can be done to ensure a strong, equitable, and reasoned plan for the future of our country.”
Included in the email were the names of notable attendees, including New York Times columnist Tim Egan, former TIME editor and Oberlin graduate from the class of 1980 Michael McDuffy, financial journalist and author of Dark Money, Jane Mayer, and J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. The list of panelists went on for three lines in ten-point font. It was, in short, an aspiring journalist’s wet dream.
When I entered the lobby of the Hotel at Oberlin on November 15, I saw what might best be described as a professional orgy: perhaps one hundred navy-blazered businessmen exchanging pleasantries and, on occasion, business cards. Over their hemming and hawing about “kids these days” and “the firm,” the hotel lobby’s receptionist called me over to check in for the conference. I was handed a laminated name tag that read Lucas Fortney: The Grape Newspaper.
My first thought was How’d Professor Orr get all of these people to fly out to Oberlin, Ohio on a Wednesday afternoon? And not only did he get them to fly out, he got them to pay to be here—and no small sum either. (General admission tickets to the conference ran at $350 each, to say nothing of airfare and lodging.)
As an Oberlin College student, my ticket fee had been waived and I had emailed my professors letting them know in advance that I wouldn’t be in class, but what of each of the event’s attendees? As those gathered in the lobby were ushered into the hotel’s upstairs conference room, I was left wondering who exactly these people were and how they managed to pay to miss a week of work to get here.
The answer to that question probably should not have surprised me, but I admit that on the morning of November 15th it did. Standing at the massive doors of the hotel’s conference room, I scanned the faces of those gathered with the hope of finding an open seat next to one of the journalists I had read would be in attendance. Instead, I found a panorama of bespectacled- faces, wispy clouds of receding hair, and suit jackets draped over chairs. Truth be told, I have never seen so many elderly white men gathered in one place, which, considering I spent 18 years living in Orange County, California, is a strange achievement for the State of American Democracy to have earned. It was in that moment that I realized that the state of American democracy is still old, white, and male.
In the week leading up to the conference, I didn’t take the time to study the line-up of guest speakers as well as I should have. When I took the time to look over the program that had been given to me in the hotel lobby, I found that of the 32 panelists at the conference, 24 were male and 25 were white. I expected that this would spell trouble for the Oberlin students and few people of color in attendance, but I couldn’t have imagined that a New York Times columnist would stand on stage and take aim at the term “privileged,” or that one of the conference’s moderators, a white, middle-aged man, would ask, “Do any people of color have thoughts about this?”
Over the course of three days, the State of American Democracy conference was time and again hyped as the “first of its kind” and the first of four conferences in a series that would continue in Denver, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. But what about those assembled qualified this as a “first?” I thought of other rooms of white intellectuals; I thought of the signing of the constitution; I thought of Donald Trump’s cabinet discussing Planned Parenthood; and then I thought of The Grape Newspaper.
As long as I can remember, The Grape has primarily been written by and for white readers. The labels may have changed over the years—from alternative to artistic to hipster elite —but the message is more or less the same: this paper doesn’t serve the Oberlin College student body as well as an organization funded twenty-thousand dollars a year should. It’s time for the editors to deliver a long-overdue call out of The Grape.
If our content seems white-centric to you, I’ll be the first to say you’re not wrong. Thirteen of our current seventeen staff members are white; two are bi-racial but white-passing; and the two students of color on our staff were hired within the last semester. Though this is the result of generations of hiring at The Grape, it is still a reality that we accept and enable every time we go to print.
If there’s any silver lining to being a student organization at Oberlin College, it’s that vision, leadership, and staff makeup are always in flux. The Grape is actively making internal changes to address the content we produce and the audiences we serve. Although I don’t expect this promise to be trusted in full, for lack of precedent, my hope is that readers are pleasantly surprised when as we continue to make strides towards delivering it.