New club sparks campus controversy; rapper pulls out of launch concert

The trio of juniors who founded Diverge said they were aiming to give voice to intersectionality on campus


Leeann Passaro, ‘20, is the LGBTQ+ editor for Diverge. Above, she hands out Chipotle burritos during one of the club’s fundraising events. Photo by Jordan Diehl, ‘22.

Maya Lora

One of Washington and Lee University’s newest student organizations, Diverge, made its official launch on Saturday with a concert in the Pavilion.

More than 50 students gathered to watch student performers in the smoky, dimly lit room. Performers included Lauryn McCray, ‘22, Haley Stern, ‘20, Eric Schleicher, ‘21, Lindsey Rochelle, ‘21, and Cooper Breithaupt, ‘20.

“It’s awesome to bring independents and Greek life together and I hope we can do more benefit concerts in the future for more groups,” Jack Jahries, ‘20, who serves as the head of community outreach for Diverge, said at the concert. “Diverge’s message is for everyone on W&L’s campus and I think we have a duty to bring people together and show everyone that we’re more similar than we are different.”

The original performing artist booked by Diverge for the concert, transgender rights activist and rapper Wordz the Poet Emcee (Christian Lovehall), pulled out of the performance last minute. Diverge founders Liv Cooper, ‘20, and Genna Feirson, ‘20, said he provided a number of excuses, but added that each time they found a solution to the presented problems, he still said he would not come to Lexington for the scheduled concert.

Diverge enlisted the student performers to take the stage in his absence. They released the following statement concerning the cancellation:

“We at Diverge are excited to announce that we will be hosting a concert tomorrow, February 2, featuring performers from across our student body. Due to personal circumstances, our original performer will not be able to travel to Lexington, but we are in continued contact and hope to work something out with him in the near future. We thank you for the wide breadth of feedback we have received; we appreciate your concern for W&L’s community. We care too! We welcome all further feedback and encourage you to reach out with any additional comments as we work to make our effect on campus the best it can be.”

Haley Stern, ‘20, and Eric Schleicher, ‘21, bring their musical talents to the stage for the Diverge launch
concert. Photo by Caroline Blackmon, ‘19.

Cooper and Feirson said students were still excited about Diverge’s launch, despite the change in performers.

Diverge, founded by co-founder and president Feirson and Cooper, co-founder, president and creative director, is a club the founders said is meant to focus on intersectionality. The founders said they noticed certain “inequalities” on campus that were going unaddressed, specifically women’s issues and mental health.

Diverge has five main sections in its online publication, including socioeconomic diversity, women’s issues, LGBTQ+ issues, mental health and ethnic diversity.

“Existing activism on campus—which is really strong—wasn’t getting enough attention. We wanted to be a unifying voice that could streamline all of the existing activism and get every single student involved,” Cooper said. “Rather than focusing on one singular issue in any given issue, we’ll focus on all the different ways that everyone overlaps in the whole community.”

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Andy Smithey, ‘20, said she wants Diverge articles to be ways in which Washington and Lee students can work toward solutions from many different points of view. Diverge will also focus on intersectional, inclusive student experiences and less on national issues.

Smithey added that Diverge differs from other Washington and Lee news sources focused on activism, such as the publication The Vigil, because they are trying to “be as bipartisan as possible in the articles.”

Controversial reception

Diverge’s publication launch on Friday was controversial, due especially to its relation with The Vigil, which launched in 2017.

“I’m not a fan of them,” Dannick Kenon, chief strategist and co-founder of The Vigil, said in a phone interview. “I kind of wish they had stopped doing what they’re doing.”

Kenon said he asked Feirson and Cooper not to go forward with their publication when they sent a mass email about it last year to all clubs on campus. He said he told them via email that The Vigil already existed to cover underrepresented voices, which is what Diverge was claiming to do.

Kenon said he would not have a problem with Diverge if it was simply a feminist publication, but added he felt the writers are not suited to be part of a publication focused on intersectionality.

Kenon said he fears that Diverge existing will stomp The Vigil’s voice out, especially because The Vigil criticizes many aspects of the Washington and Lee experience, especially Greek life. The majority of the contributors to The Vigil and the entire executive staff are independent students.

“They [Diverge] provide an alternative that doesn’t really criticize the problems on W&L’s campus,” Kenon said.

Taylor Reese, ‘19, sent out several tweets on Friday after the publication’s launch criticizing its content and echoing Kenon’s concerns about the existence of two similar publications.

In one tweet, she wrote (with explanatory parentheses added by the Phi), “If you wanna use your privilege for good, GREAT! support orgs like QB (QuestBridge), FLIP (First Generation Low-Income Partnership), Amnesty (International), GU (Generals Unity), etc. get INVOLVED. donate to the lending library. help make expensive social events more financially accessible. COME TO OUR EVENTS.”

Taylor Reese, ‘19, a co-founder of the First Generation Low-Income
Partnership chapter on campus, tweeted her thoughts about the Diverge articles on Friday morning.

In another Tweet, she referenced the Vigil, and wrote, “do we really need two? can we not all just get behind the one that already existed?”

Reese told the Phi that she was not available for an interview but stands behind her statements on social media.

Kenon said he would welcome some writers from Diverge’s staff to write for The Vigil, but would not want the more “typical” students on his staff, meaning straight, white, Greek students.

After The Vigil’s original outreach to students in July 2017, Kenon told Cooper and Feirson in an email that he felt having two publications dedicated to the same mission would hurt The Vigil and the voices it represents and said he would welcome them both in The Vigil’s next publication.

Cooper and Feirson responded in an email that Diverge is meant to focus only on “experiences that happen on campus” and that they “intend to reach all corners of campus, including those who are not typically involved in these conversations. We also plan to do things like bring speakers to campus, thus differentiating us even further.”

Cooper, Feirson and Kenon continued to swap emails, but the founders ultimately decided to go forward with Diverge.

Founders’ Defense

Diverge’s mission on its website reads:

“Diverge is a platform to amplify intersectional perspectives on Washington and Lee’s campus that don’t always have the chance to be heard. We strive to begin and maintain a conversation between all members of our community about the multifaceted identities on our campus. We believe that in order to make a positive change in our community, all members need to be engaged in this dialogue.”

It launched with five articles, on experiences concerning mental health, racism, coming out, gym policies and financial conversations, respectively.

Cooper and Feirson said they welcome the criticism of their organization and publication because it is the only way for them to get better. They added that they disagree with the perception that they believe they can accurately represent minority experiences on campus.

“[We’re] not pretending to be able to because we know that we never will,” Feirson said in a phone interview.

Cooper and Feirson said they want to highlight the experiences of all students on campus.

The founders also defended the existence of their publication in addition to The Vigil’s presence.

“[The] thing is, it’s never a bad thing to have more progressive voices, never a bad thing to have more conversations,” Cooper said. “Nothing negative can come from that.”

Cooper and Feirson added that part of the motivation to start Diverge was that the white, Greek students on campus may not know about existing activism, but their publication could connect them to it.

They added that while they welcome criticism, students should address their problems to the executive board rather than individual writers. They said that the writers are being brave and vulnerable in telling their stories and that if anything goes wrong, it is the fault of the executive board.

Diverge sold stickers, t-shirts and Chipotle burritos to fund the concert. The club also asked for donations from fellow students, alumni, Washington and Lee employees and other community members to support their cause. They also have GoFundMe and Venmo pages.

The club currently has 16 executive members and five writers.

Caroline Blackmon, ‘19, and Maddie Smith, ‘22, contributed to this report.