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 Montpelier Magazine

 

Agitators. Campus activists under cover of a funny name -- OrangeBand, living together, stirring up students at JMU about a war (and other issues), and now planning to spread their message and radical notions to other colleges around the nation during a … bus trip! The OrangeBand Bus Tour. Haven't we -- or some of us -- been here before?

How about a chorus of Déjà Vu?

Think back to 1970, which was the last time JMU experienced a large dose of student activism. America was at war, and student demonstrators -- after occupying Wilson Hall -- had to be forcibly evicted.

A couple of dozen demonstrators were arrested and hauled off in paddy wagons. The fallout from that event ensnared the college in litigation that ultimately wound into the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (where the court supported the school's contention that its rules governing demonstrations were constitutional).

Did you say you want a revolution? Did you say it was the institution? Well, even if you didn't endorse the Beatles' anthem, wrap your mind around this: The campus activism of OrangeBand, which (like college radio) samples from the repertoire of earlier student movements, is readily embraced by the current JMU administration.

Most recently, OrangeBand consists of the following core cadre of JMU students and graduates: Kai Degner ('03), a compelling, articulate integrated science and technology graduate, who is now in the business (that's right, business) school at JMU, working on his M.B.A.; a reflective sociology major, Megan Dunphy, who will graduate in 2005; and two recent graduates, Amber Lautigar ('04), an idealist when it comes to democratic values, with a degree in media arts and design; and a soft-spoken, avid reader, Ernest Toney ('04), who majored in kinesiology.

But there have been others from the band's early days, graduates who have moved on, most notably Megan Sweat ('03) and Atasi Das ('03), both of whom are now in the Peace Corps, and Jason Pittman ('03) and Isiah Carl Smith ('04).

As is often the case with many fledgling student movements, national policies sparked the OrangeBand fire that first flickered one Monday in February 2003. That's the day Degner was "jolted" by the news that a "cohort," he says, "a second-semester senior finishing his senior project same as me," but as a military reservist, had been told the evening before that he would be deployed to Kuwait by the end of the week. Standing in the Community Service-Learning office, Degner said, "Let's do something." His goal was to get students talking -- not protesting, not chanting or choosing sides, just talking -- about the imminent Iraq War, which hadn't yet pierced the "JMU bubble," as Degner puts it.

"We wanted people to recognize the seriousness of the debate," Degner says. "It wasn't that people were just accepting one side, it was that no one was even talking about it." Whatever they would do, Degner knew that, "It was very important to create a visual impact." What he envisioned was an orange cloth, a strip of fabric that could be pinned to a book bag, backpack or worn as an armband, headband or wristband. But, what exactly would the orange band symbolize other than a swatch of campus activism?

Growing up with a German father and an American mother in a bilingual household and living in Germany until the age of 7 lends Degner the apparent ability to entertain two opposing or even contradictory ideas or opinions. It's a quality that English poet John Keats called "negative capability," which is not to be confused with negativity, because one of the most striking things about Degner is his optimism. Whatever the orange band symbolized, Degner sought something that would engender conversation, not confrontation; an opening up, not a shutting down; an exchange of ideas or even conflicting viewpoints.

For a couple of weeks, Degner, Lautigar, Sweat, Das, and other friends and associates refined the orange band's meaning, talking it over. Then it just clicked. Let the band represent a willingness -- an invitation -- to discuss a subject, any topic, with another person. Don't confine the orange band to Iraq and the war. Whatever topic someone feels passionate about or cares to discuss, that's what it represents. Just jot it on the band in a word or phrase: Liberate Iraq. WMD. Patriotism. No War. Gay Rights. Abortion. Tuition. Prayer. That's it. Let's talk. What's your orange band?

With its meaning solidified, the orange band quickly morphed in a matter of five weeks into the OrangeBand Initiative, which formally dedicated itself to promoting civic engagement. Das, Sweat, Smith and Degner drafted a mission statement. Pittman and Degner posted a Web site (www.orangeband.org), and OrangeBand, in association with other student organizations, orchestrated a series of eight educational campus forums dealing with Iraq. The forums were scheduled during one week in April with the aim of demonstrating OrangeBand's overall mission of fostering "nonargumentative, constructive conversations about meaningful contemporary issues."

It's a radical notion perhaps, the dream of inciting nonpartisan or conversely "all-partisan," as Degner says, civil discourse in these politically uncivil and crassly partisan times, which pundits and politicians attest are getting worse, in large part because of the apathy of the electorate.

"One can make a strong argument," according to Bob Roberts, JMU professor of political science, "that if any of the individuals who have opted out of the political process re-enter the process, the existing political parties will be forced to moderate their positions in order to appeal to these individuals." By Roberts' analysis, the major political parties today target only "around 26 percent of the possible electorate," and they do so through wedge issues that mobilize their respective extreme flanks. In so doing, they persuade voters that "their opponents are evil or immoral," adds Roberts. The trend now is for the country's two political parties to move away from the center, where they used to gravitate. "National policies are therefore often shaped by less than a quarter of those eligible to vote," says Roberts, a situation that "does not help to produce compromises which are essential for any democratic system of government to resolve serious disputes."

"Debate is not what OrangeBand is about," Degner says today. It's about talk -- as in before talk radio with its polari-zing static. That mission is steeped in the ideals of American democracy and the notion of an informed citizenry partici-pating in its own governance, Lautigar affirms. OrangeBand, Degner summarizes, is about "dialogue, education and action."

Ah! Campus radicalism in the new century. Teach your parents well ...

There was, at this point in 2003, one unknown. Would the OrangeBand Initiative work? Would JMU students respond?

While the JMU bubble may tend to insulate the campus in its own cosmos, it can also concentrate the wave-effect of a homegrown JMU phenomenon such as the OrangeBand. Physically, the campus landscape -- well defined and extraordinarily beautiful, a legacy of the presidency of Ronald E. Carrier that continues to flourish under President Linwood H. Rose
-- encourages students to congregate and intermingle. And because the landscape composes the bubble, it is easy to overlook it. Obviously, there is the grand expanse of the Quad with its "Rock" in front of Alumnae Hall. But, there's also The Commons and, even more significantly, the abundance of benches, tables and comfortable perches scattered throughout the campus. Unlike some other schools, the JMU campus also had the good fortune of coming of age amid ample and available farmland. Thus, the expansive boon of places to gather and socialize outside complements the numerous facilities -- the
College Center, the Convocation Center, the University Center and the University Recreation Center. Gatherings in these facilities also provide for many opportunities for social interaction. Orange bands had every chance to create a visual impact once they were taken up by as few as a dozen students.

"We started on a Monday with not many people knowing about what we were doing," recalls Degner, who stood out on The Commons with either Sweat or Das, each with a fist full of orange bands, while other members ranged across campus. They would stop students, explain themselves and the intent of the bands, while emphasizing that they were not an anti-war group. Then they would ask students to take a band and write something on it that would encapsulate their view about the Iraq War or another issue, something they would be willing to discuss if asked. They then mentioned the upcoming forums about Iraq.

"Monday it was a struggle getting out bands," says Degner. "By Wednesday, you
could literally walk through the Quad, bands in the air, and people would be coming up to you asking for them." Within one week, more than 2,000 JMU students and faculty and staff members had sported bands. Students also attended the faculty-led forums, as the bands continued to spread throughout campus, complementing the azaleas. People, especially JMU faculty members, thanked Degner, Lautigar, Sweat and Das for what they had wrought: talk, dialogue, conversation around campus (weekly OrangeBand sessions at Taylor Down Under) and both in and out of classes, and in e-mail. Orange bands were in the breeze and OrangeBand in The Breeze.

As Degner sees it in retrospect, "JMU was a good environment because it was starved for any pervasive efforts to engage people on controversial, important social issues outside the classroom -- if it hadn't been starved, the response to OrangeBand wouldn't have been so strong." He also credits its success to the "undergraduate focus of the institution [which] makes it easy to approach professors to speak or sit on a panel" such as the forums required.

The success led Degner and associates during the summer of 2003 to wonder about duplicating OrangeBand elsewhere, as well as furthering its role at JMU. Returning to campus that fall, OrangeBand formalized the structure for its forums so that they dealt sequentially with international, national and then local topics. Thus for the fall and spring semesters, forums coalesced around the Israeli and Palestinian problem (fall), AIDS in Africa (spring); health care (fall) and voting in the United States (spring); and campus diversity (fall); and local immigrants and refugees (spring). Meanwhile, the band contacted students at other colleges about creating affiliated chapters and succeeded in launching a chapter at Eastern Mennonite University, the first one outside of JMU. During the last academic year, OrangeBand handed out more than 6,000 bands and coordinated 50 forums, co-sponsored with 30 other student organizations.

But in April, the prospect of a national network of OrangeBands gained momentum when C-SPAN arrived on campus and videotaped a forum that featured three soldiers, all JMU undergraduates -- Sgt. Andrew Carnahan and Sgt. Corrie Baier, both of the U.S. Army Reserve, and Cpl. Matthew Mills of the Marine Corps Reserve -- who had recently returned from Iraq. True to form, that forum revealed to participants and a national audience the power inherent in the OrangeBand idea. During the hour-and-a-half event, Baier, Carnahan and Mills spoke positively about their experiences, concentrating on the personal connections they had made with individual Iraqis, especially women and children. The forum shifted some views and opinions, particularly among the anti-war participants, including some OrangeBand members, too.

"It just broadened my perspective so much," says Lautigar. "At the beginning,
I just felt so passionate that [going to war in Iraq] was highly the wrong thing to do. I don't think I'll necessarily go back on that initial take on it. But I became aware of how much more complex the issue is, how complicated the issue is, and that there are huge consequences no matter what we are seeking to do." For Degner, too, it resulted in a "paradigm shift." "Throughout that hour, they [the soldiers] repeatedly came back to the relationships with the people there and the friendships that they were creating. There was a soldier [Baier] talking about her relationships with the women there," Degner says. "I don't agree with the politics one bit. But to hear that for an hour and a half" left him asking, "What does that do for my political feelings? Where do you put that?"

Such reactions -- expressions of ambiguity or re-examinations of beliefs -- indicate precisely why OrangeBand forums are effective in promoting dialogue and undermining ideological thinking; and why, for that reason, ideologues from right and left have occasionally criticized them. "We got a big backlash from the more liberal people," says Degner of the soldier forum, "saying that it was a big support the troops rally."

Through its methods and mission OrangeBand seeks to increase the number
of "individuals who have a stake in the political process," as professor Roberts sees it. "The goals of the OrangeBand," he says, "may be difficult to achieve, but the lack of civility in society is directly related to the fact that many of those who do not hold strong political views simply do not participate. Consequently, those interests on both sides of the political spectrum tend to view victory as destroying their political opponents. Compromise," adds Roberts, "is
[perceived as] immoral."

The forum's and OrangeBand's call for civic engagement through the process of informationeducationaction also explains why JMU administrators welcome the organization. Whether it was serendipity or good institutional karma at work, OrangeBand's blossoming at JMU redounds positively on the university's efforts in recent years to programmatically link James Madison, the university, with James Madison, the man. OrangeBand dovetails with that overarching mission as a student organization channeling the spirit of James Madison, who, as everyone knows, is the Father of the Constitution and co-author of the Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights. The life-size statue of James Madison, standing between Varner and Logan halls, for good reasons, briefly wore orange headbands and wristbands.

One of the first things OrangeBand members did this semester was help coordinate a campuswide voter-registration awareness campaign and forum during the week of Constitution Day.

In a real sense, OrangeBand has gradu-ated and is venturing forth, even as it remains firmly rooted in JMU, the place that shaped and engendered it.

After the C-SPAN broadcast, OrangeBand received e-mail from around the United States and the world that lauded their work and queried members about starting chapters at New York University, Princeton University, Wake Forest and Washington State, as well as at schools in the Philippines and Denmark. The band would like to see these things happen, but it has reached an important crossroads. To carry on, it must raise the money necessary to create a viable national organization. Toward that end, the group incorporated and recently received Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) status, meaning it can accept tax-deductible contributions from individuals and corporations. And Degner, Dunphy, Lautigar and Toney are giving a minimum one-year commitment to the OrangeBand Initiative Inc. To economize, they have consolidated their personal and organizational expenses by renting a house together -- the OrangeBand House in Harrisonburg's Old Town will serve as their living and working space. In between holding down part-time jobs or finishing school, in the case of Dunphy, they are applying for federal and private grants to fund the organization into the future, while they continue to cultivate other chapters. In October, JMU provided vital institutional and financial support that will help OrangeBand expand nationally. According to Degner, JMU has offered OrangeBand a contract "to provide two new chapters, a student conference in the spring and develop the JMU chapter into the 'Alpha Chapter,' whose members "can mentor students at other schools that want to start chapters."

Should sufficient mana materialize, OrangeBand will embark on a coast-to-coast bus tour in 2005. "The objective of the bus tour," says Degner, "is to communicate the OrangeBand mission and make the bands available to a larger community. We will be looking for people, mostly college students, who would be interested in starting an action campaign [such as the forums] in their community."

Sixties counterculture guru and author Ken Kesey used to say of another bus -- of a very different color, as described in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
-- "You're either on the bus or off it." The OrangeBand Initiative's current plans offer a second chance for many people of that earlier era who either refused for legitimate reasons to get on the Kesey express or fell off it (for illegitimate reasons). This time the Kool-Aid ain't spiked, and all it takes to join is an orange band. And thankfully, there's a new generation at the wheel. Imagine a bus tour across this politically divided nation passing through all those blue and red states and spreading a whole lot of orange.

So what's your orange band?

Story by Randy Jones " Photos by Woods Pierce