NORTHAMPTON — At a time when college campuses across the country are divided by issues of politics, race, and free speech, two Smith College students are trying to bridge the divide, starting a group whose sole purpose is to discuss topics that can be polarizing. They insist such dialogue can occur in a manner that respects both political and personal differences.
Hitchcock-Smith, 21, said a controversy on campus in 2014 crystallized her belief that students must find better ways to express their differences. After International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde was named commencement speaker that year, student protesters rallied at the campus home of Smith's president, Kathleen McCartney, arguing that the invitation amounted to support for the IMF.
"Protesting is not a bad thing, but the way that they did it, they were just screaming at Kathy. That didn't leave room for conversation," said Hitchcock-Smith. "It made me upset because people were scared to say their opinions and thoughts, and college is supposed to be a place to expand your mind."
In the end, Lagarde withdrew from the commencement address — and Hitchcock-Smith and others on campus felt a learning opportunity had been lost.
Meyer, 20, is from Montclair, N.J., where her parents are Democrats, and her mother a public school teacher and proud union member.
Meyer says she arrived at Smith a "passionate Democrat," but she became frustrated that her ideas weren't tested or challenged by others.
She sought out Republicans on campus and found herself intrigued by their ideas. "I looked at my views with a fine-tooth comb," she said. "I began to see that some of my views were conservative."
She says her mother good-naturedly told her she thought her daughter might go to Smith and return home a lesbian, but she never imagined she'd come back home a Republican.
As it turned out, it might have been easier to come out as a lesbian on the Smith campus. Meyer said she became the target of a nasty social media campaign when somebody posted the names and room numbers of members of the Smith Republican club with the message "do what you will." Later, someone posted her Facebook profile and Twitter account on the same anonymous online forum. The experience left her shaken but resolved to find a way to disagree openly about controversial matters without fear of retribution.
Hitchcock-Smith, who grew up in Brookline, was not scared off by Meyer's political convictions.
She said she was motivated to work with Meyer out of her strong commitment to free speech and tendency to play devil's advocate. "I don't condone hate speech in any way, but you don't censor speech, you fight it with more speech," she said.
The women, both government majors, came up with the idea for the coalition last spring, developed it over the summer, and have convened twice-monthly, topic-based discussion meetings since school began in September.
They prepare for their meetings by doing research. Each session begins with a fact-based report, followed by video clips that offer conflicting views. So far, they've taken up women's health — which Meyer said "actually led to a very nuanced discussion" of the Planned Parenthood controversy — as well as immigration, Common Core, and gun-free college campuses.
A recent meeting drew a diverse group of 25 women who crowded around a long rectangular table at the student center.
"I'm so ready. I just had a debate with my boyfriend about gun control," Caroline Cipollini, among the first to arrive, said as she took her seat.
Hitchcock-Smith and Meyer explained the ground rules.
"It's a judgment-free zone. We're here to learn about other perspectives," said Hitchcock-Smith. "If it's getting to a point where you want to go past respectful, we want you to agree to disagree."
Meyer added: "And also, no name-calling," a comment that drew chuckles.
They needn't have worried. The conversation that ensued was respectful, some might even say boring. But along the way, points were made, nobody interrupted, and a lot of listening went on.
Someone noted that Smith College police don't carry guns though they do have pepper spray.
"I don't know if I agree with that because I feel like a police officer who is trained to have a gun should have it," said Cipollini, 19, a sophomore from Fall River.
"I don't know if I agree with that in terms of how successful are guns in preventing gun violence," countered Taylor Fallon, 20, from Boston.
"In order to protect myself as a citizen, I would rather nobody be able to carry a gun, including police officers," said Sophie Strauss-Jenkins, 18, a sophomore from France.
Later, as students packed up to leave, Hitchcock-Smith invited suggestions for the next session. Refugees, somebody shouted out. Others concurred.
On the topic they agreed.
Next comes the hard part: the debate.
On this night anyway, they made it look easy.