All School Conference 2010:  Of spirituality, academics, humor, food, love and sex

By Mariah Martin ’11 M.A.R.

This year’s All School Conference, a tradition that began a decade ago at Yale Divinity School with encouragement from the late feminist theologian Letty Russell, featured several “swappings”—a book swap, a recipe swap, a joke swap, and at the end of the week a community pot luck where food was swapped.  The overall theme of this year’s Feb. 22-26 celebration was “Identity and Identities,” and specific days were set aside to talk about spirituality, love and sex, academics, humor, and food.

Dinner“I've felt really good about the conference this year,” said Bryce Wiebe ’11 M.Div., who along with Denice Kelley ’11 M.Div. was co-coordinator of this year’s Conference  “More than anything, Denice wanted this year's conference to be as ‘user generated’ as possible.  Most of the events came from the community, not from the two of us.  We wanted to provide forums for discussion, rather than panels of ‘experts.’ Not that panels are bad, they're not.  It fit our theme much better to allow the complexities of our community and our individual selves come to the surface.”

This year, the Conference allowed for different levels of engagement to accommodate those who could not attend events scheduled for a particular time.  For example, there was an all-day “humor room” set up, and a poetry showcase was available the entire week.

“People could engage the All School Conference even without going to any of the events,” said Wiebe.

“From the independent scholarship of students presented in the Glossolalia forum to conversations on issues of sexuality and poetry readings, All-School Conference has showcased, embraced and celebrated the depth and breadth of student life and identities outside the classroom,” said Rebecca Lenn ’10 M.A.R.  “I wish there were more opportunities like this to share our work with one another throughout the year.”

Kimberly Abeel ’10 M.A.R., who also attended the Glossolalia session, which highlighted the academic work of students, said, “It was great to hear what my colleagues are doing in other classes, as well as to have the chance to share my work with them and receive feedback. It was a lovely, collegial endeavor.”

The All School Conference began in the fall of 1999 when the late feminist theologian Letty Russell—who taught at YDS for almost three decades before her retirement in 2001—along with the Community Life Committee, student leadership and then Dean of Students Jann Cather Weaver, began to address issues of student life at the Divinity school. It was time to take a hard look at the structure of community life at YDS: What were the needs of the community, and how could these needs be met?

So, a proposal was made to have an All School Conference. It was a two-day affair, and classes were canceled while faculty and students charted a course of action. Russell, a guiding light for the undertaking, was not only a leading theologian but also a mentor to many students, known for her practice of “warm hospitality” and “speaking truth to power.”

The task at hand was to encourage YDS’s growth as a community with distinct values, and an initial outcome of the first conference was the decision to eliminate classes between 12:30 and 1:30 pm—to encourage attendance at lunches in the YDS refectory.  This was seen as a valuable time for commuter students in particular to get integrated with the broader YDS community.

So successful was the first All- School Conference that in 2001 another two- day event was scheduled, with a primary goal of carving out ways for the YDS community to have some fun and relax. Eventually, the All School Conference became an annual happening, under oversight of the Community Life Committee, with election of co-coordinators for each year’s event.

Every year co-coordinators bring their ideas to the Community Life Committee and Associate Dean of Students Peterson, who helps guide the planning process.

Wiebe believes it would be good to continue the spirit of the All School Conference beyond conference week itself:  “I think that, through the rest of the year, those of us charged with ‘Community Life’ need to continue to offer and engage in spontaneous acts of fun if for no other reason than to expose the ways we refuse the respite that we so desperately need.”