'Speech Matters': New Marlboro College program examines issues and the language behind them

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MARLBORO >> How issues are talked of can affect the shaping of future policy.

That is part of the thought behind a newly created program called "Speech Matters" at Marlboro College.

"I've been teaching for 18 years and this is the best experience I've ever had, bar none. I finally feel I'm delivering an education that matters," said Meg Mott, professor of politics and gender studies. "I've never seen this level of engagement. They have a reason to work and think harder."

While designing the program, Mott wanted to incorporate three aspects of her life that she always felt were important but were handled separately. She had participated in community activism in the early 1990s at the Women's Freedom Center and the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont. Also, she taught theory locally and wrote columns for the Reformer.

The non-degree program is a semester-long intensive learning experience that gets students to engage in rigorous intellectual efforts and discuss issues that matter, Mott said. This semester's focus is on addiction.

The issue is a primary concern in Vermont where Gov. Peter Shumlin highlighted the opiate crisis "front and center" during an annual state address in 2014, said Mott, who has known several people who have overdosed.

"It seemed a perfect idea and 'Speech Matters' was born," she said of the program that sees students attending all the same classes. "They study how to reframe a debate and use some political theory in order to get some scaffolding."

By approaching issues as scaffolding in social and political theory, participants can step back and review what they're making. They also can decide to change the facade of the building if they deem it necessary.

Some may approach addiction with a belief that it is "heavily criminal" while others come at it from a medical point of view. Mott said her students are seeing there are other ways to think about addiction that "move it out of the hands of experts" and into the community.

Eleven students, including a few community members from Brattleboro, signed up for the class and recently returned from a six-day trip. In New York City, they attended an open forum on alternatives to public injections.

"New York is working hard to take the next step beyond needle exchange," explained Mott. "Needle exchange or syringe exchange is a great way to get clean needles into the hands of addicts so they don't transmit HIV or Hepatitis C."

However, the program doesn't change the reality of the situation. Users are obtaining clean needles but heading into a McDonald's or other public venue to shoot up where they can easily overdose, Mott said.

Supervised injection sites exist in countries such as Germany, Canada and Australia, where social workers or community organizers ensure these actions are taken with safety in mind.

"That's very much against the law in this country," said Mott, noting results from a Vancouver-based facility called Insite. "They pretty much eliminated the number of ODs."

During the trip, some "Speech Matters" students went to a needle exchange in New York to see how the process unfolds. They watched syringes being handed out then saw negotiations for use of bathrooms taking place.

"That kind of blew them away," Mott said. "So much care for people who use drugs."

An editor at a Huffington Post publication, planning to post commentary, spoke with students on these issues. Mott said there is a lot of interest in hearing what young people have to say about overdoses. Anytime she gives a talk and asks how many people know someone who has overdosed, everyone raises their hand.

In Washington, D.C., students looked at the harm reduction model. At a rally, they heard from the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy who says an upcoming report on addiction will be based on fact and science; moral failure will no longer be blamed. Politician Patrick Kennedy told them that addiction is a disease.

Students were then part of "a different discourse" with the recovery community. Mott said they looked at interesting overlaps and tension between the harm reduction and recovery models. The former refers to addicts as people who use drugs. The latter says a person is in recovery. Spiritual language and preventive narrative is used to explain their circumstances.

"The students see there are two different ways of addressing the problem," said Mott. "It gets back to the key part of the program, how speech really does matter. Terms like addict or junkies will affect public policy while terms in recovery will determine the treatment program. Harm reduction will set out another set of possibilities."

Up in Montpelier, there was a destigmatization conference that students also attended. They'll be heading there again soon to hear testimony on the legalization of marijuana.

Addiction is an important topic in Windham County for Mott, who doesn't see there being many job opportunities for young people. She said she sees a lot of stigma around drug use, which isn't having a preventive effect. It's only increasing self-hatred.

"We have a parallel community that lives under bridges and by the side of the river. It works pretty well for itself and it's totally off the radar," Mott said. "That's why I'm doing this."

Rather than assigning papers, Mott said all the writing needs to be prepared to be put out to the general public. Marlboro College's new speaker series is intended to inspire them to publish opinion pieces, YouTube videos, articles, podcasts and other forms of media. Students are required to attend the talks that start at 4 p.m. at the college's Ragle Hall. They are open to the public.

On Oct. 16, freelance writer Samantha Dodge will deliver "Second Glance: Re-examining the Role of the Placebo in Healing." On Oct. 23, Brown University historian Edward Widmer will give a talk called "Did the Civil War Ever End?" On Oct. 30, the governor's liaison to criminal justice programs Bobby Sand will discuss "The Hope and Promise of DUI and Other Drug Courts." On Nov. 13, Islamic perspectives on addiction will be explored in "An Incurable Pain" by Amer Latif, a religion professor at Marlboro College.

Every fall will see a new "Speech Matters" topic introduced. Next year, Mott plans to cover incarceration. And she's looking to tackle Islam some time in the near future.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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