Looking back, Agenda chairs offer perspective and advice

Ashley Mashian, BP Staff

Rachel Lester, Features Editor

It’s a position that leads the entire student body every week, held by an elite few who must juggle an intense workload of APs, college applications and extra-curriculars as well as managing fellow students and school administration.

When Leona Fallas was elected Agenda Chair this week, she joined a line of more than a dozen people – mostly boys — who have held the post before her. In interviews with The Boiling Point, they offered some advice, and a sense of what she might find.

“You need to have a lot of energy to command the Shalhevet community,” said Jeremy Lowe ’10, who as last year’s Agenda Chair was famous for bouncing into Town Halls to rock music, wielding a microphone like a rock star.

“Each person brings a different energy,” said Jeremy, who was universally known as “J-Lowe.” “They have to be somebody who has the community’s best interests in mind –you can’t just take the position and put it on your college applications.You really have to do something.”

All three of this year’s candidates promised to make things happen for the student body, particularly during the weekly Town Halls that punctuate every week. Along with her fellow candidates Justin Brandt-Sarif and David Rokah, Leona promised more interesting and relevant topics.

Louis Keene, Agenda Chair ’07-08, said that’s exactly what the job is all about: leading the hour-long meetings when administrators, faculty and students from all grades share everything from announcements and team triumphs to impassioned debates about current events and moral dilemmas.

“From coming back every year and watching Town Halls,” said Louis, who was known for his sense of humor andfor naming random students“mensch of the week,” “and from my experience leading, the most important skill is being able to center the topic to best explore the tensions of the issue at hand.

“You can’t let the discussion get too off topic, but you have to be able to laugh at silly comments before re-focusing the group.”

Officially, the job of the Agenda Chair is to lead meetings on Mondays to plan Town Hall’s agenda – hence the committee’s name – and then to moderate the Thursday discussions.  But every part of the job can involve balancing competing interests, past chairs said.

Leor Hackel, Agenda Chair 2004-’05, worried about cutting short the announcement line.

“I probably had to pay the most attention to balance: balancing the needs and inputs of different members of the community, or balancing the different parts of the job,” said Leor.

“I felt bad saying no,” he continued, “especially when announcements from community members ran way overtime every week!–and often didn’t.  But you have to make those decisions sometimes.”

Rochelle Emert, who was chair in 2005-06 – and the last female chair until now — said it was sometimes hard to be a bridge between students, faculty and administration.

“The Agenda Chair must question and consider how [a topic] may affect the larger Shalhevet community,” not just members of the Agenda Committee, said Rochelle. “Consequently, the Agenda Chair isn’t always the most popular person at meetings.”

History teacher Dr. Jill Beerman is Director of the Just Community and has spent 16 years at Shalhevet, at least five of them as Agenda Committee Faculty Adviser. She thinks understanding Town Hall’s purpose goes beyond entertainment.

“I think an Agenda Chair has to be someone who understands what the function of Town Hall is,” Dr. Beerman said, “which is to give the students an experience of democracy and of expressing their opinions and listening to others’ opinions. I think [he or she] has to know and like the student body, not in the sense of being popular, but have an ear of what the students want.”

With these higher purposes in mind, this year’s Agenda Committee voted to ban videos, undercutting what had become a popular — and winning — campaign strategy.  Candidates would film a funny video of themselves and play it in Town Hall instead of (or in addition to) a speech.

This year, candidates were required to make a two-minute speech, and could make a video in addition, which could be no more than two minutes long.Jonah Braun, Agenda Chair in 2006-07, thought that was a good idea.

“When I ran in 2006, nobody had a video,” said Jonah. “Creativity is great, but it doesn’t really say anything about what students want to achieve.”

Jonah, who just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, had some advice for Leona.

“Be very, very patient — the administration can be a pain to deal with and you might have days wishing you never would have made such a commitment,” Jonah said.

Whatever its difficulties, the job seems to portend well for former Agenda Chairs’ futures.Leor was recently accepted into a Ph.D. program at Columbia University.Rochelle writes for political and public interest blogs, and Jonah Braun just graduated from the University of Wisconsin after being sports editor of its daily paper.

Jonah thought there might be a connection.

“However, the learning experiences you will gain from being Agenda Chair will be invaluable to you,” he said. “Stay positive, be patient, and try to listen to everybody who has a suggestion. Sometimes grass-roots efforts will make your life a lot easier.”