On Monday, Sept. 20, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie gave a talk at the College about his life, work, and ideas. It is the latest installment in the Schmaltz Family Effective Communication Initiative’s efforts to enhance the verbal communication skills of Colby students. He was invited and interviewed by Professor Aaron Hanlon, who guided him through a series of questions to an audience of students, professors, and community members.
Bouie regularly writes opinion columns for The New York Times. His area of focus, as listed on its website, is described as “Politics, history, and culture.”
Bouie grew up in Virginia and graduated from the University of Virginia in 2009. He told The Colby Echo last week about the difference between college students then and now.
“If I have any observations about college students now versus when I was in college, I … think people are more thoughtful, more open minded, and more open to difference,” Bouie said.
He elaborated on how college students can engage in civil discourse during the Q&A after his conversation.
“I think young people should speak out and they should use their voices,” Bouie told the young readers and writers in the room. “You should engage with the world, and what I think the world owes you is basically a little grace … a willingness not to hold people’s youthful words and actions and mistakes against them for the duration [of their lives].”
Bouie explained that he first joined Twitter when he was still in college. By 2016, he had deleted all of his tweets.
“Plenty of that stuff would have been glib [and] plenty of that stuff would have been ignorant and ill-informed,” he said.
While acknowledging the tendency for quotes to gain permanence online, he encouraged the future journalists in the room to engage nonetheless.
“The world I would like to see is one where people can engage in the world as young people and make mistakes, as you’re going to do, and then have some grace,” Bouie said. “That doesn’t just go for students flexing their muscles when it comes to writing or activism, it goes for a 19-year-old who gets involved in a crime, and then has a record. I don’t think that should be with that kid for the duration [of their life]. That kid is not a criminal … We’re not our worst actions, and I would like to see us try to build a culture and a society that tries to take that seriously.”
Bouie is involved in the local politics in his home city, Charlottesville, VA. He serves on the city’s Parking Advisory Panel, which helps make decisions about parking supply in downtown Charlottesville.
“I live in a small enough place these days where the actual circle of people who make decisions about the city is actually very small,” he said.
Bouie and some friends took advantage of this by forming an informal lobbying group. They work to support the building of walking infrastructure and were involved in blocking the construction of a $15 million parking garage in the city. He spoke in his conversation with Professor Hanlon about his thoughts on American “car culture.”
“I don’t think that many people enjoy being in a car all the time.” Bouie explained. “People don’t like traffic and long commutes. People like walking around. They like having fresh air … in my ideal life, I can walk and bike everywhere I need to go.”
He went on to explain the inherent safety issues that come with the country’s reliance on cars as well as its inflammatory effect on inequality. Bouie works in his own city to help build better transportation infrastructure and added that students are also vocal on the matter.
“Here in Charlottesville, students are organizing for better transit or bike paths or better pedestrian infrastructure,” he told The Colby Echo. “[They] are going to have a measurable impact on their own lives as well as the lives of their fellow students and fellow residents of Charlottesville.”
Bouie said that college students are uniquely poised to change their own homes for the better as well.
“I’m a very big believer that the most effective and satisfying way to get involved in political activity is through local politics,” he explained. “[College students] have way more time on your hands than you actually realize, and the people who dominate local government tend to be people with a lot of time on their hands.”
“College students … can act as some very powerful counterweights to retirees and older people who have a lot of time but also tend to be, in their local politics, resistant to any kind of change,” Bouie continued.
While he was unable to walk or ride his bike up to the College to have his conversation with Professor Hanlon, Bouie maintaned a generally optimistic disposition.
“To the extent that I have any faith or optimism, it’s simply in the fact that human agency matters,” he said. “We don’t really know where we are in the story. We don’t know if we’re at the beginning [and] we don’t know if we’re at the end. So [it’s] the contingency of human agency that makes me not despair, because despair assumes that you know, and you don’t know. I think there is a power [in that sentiment], and I think maybe you could call it hopefulness in the acknowledgement that you don’t really know.”
~ Milo Lani-Caputo `23