Navigating the world of politics on college campuses can often be a tricky one. According to Gallup, almost 70 percent of college students believe that colleges and universities are not friendly to free speech or representative of political diversity. But college-aged students still overwhelmingly favor having those diverse political ideologies open for dialogue on their university campuses.
Now, a group of students at American University in Washington, D.C., have sought to promote ideological diversity on their campus by creating The American Agora. Created in February 2017 by students Bobby Zitzmann and Avery James, the Agora seeks to be a “space for all manner of ideas to be aired and analyzed.
Both staff members and columnists represent varying political ideologies, ranging from the more traditional Democrat and Republican to radical libertarianism and libertarian socialism. The American Agora’s executive board were all drawn together by their mutual love of debating politics.
“Honestly, [creating the Agora] was as simple as having some ideas and wanting a place to put them at. I’ve always had an interest in discussing politics with people and when Bobby suggested we really go for it and run a site with all sorts of divergent political views, I was pretty hype about it,” says Avery James, managing editor.
That view was echoed by Alex de Ramón, director of foreign affairs. “I got involved [with The American Agora] because most of the original writers and staff were friends of mine. All of us were interested in politics and debating issues out loud in our [dorm’s] lounge anyway.” It ultimately just made sense for the friends to come together and establish the Agora.
The website features a variety of columns covering both domestic and international political issues, as well as debates between staff writers on a specific issue.
When asked about his favorite column, Brad de Ramón, outreach director, said he most enjoyed writing “White News: Evaluating Charlottesville Media Coverage.”
“I wrote [this piece] a week after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, V.A., last August. As a Communications student, I care deeply about news media and how they report on issues.
“When anchors and reporters kept asking guests about what President Trump was saying instead of the issues of racism and terrorism, I grew frustrated and disappointed. Media outlets have a rare position to influence the topic of conversation at American dinner tables, and they missed their opportunity,” says Brad de Ramón.
The Agora will also resume its podcast production in the fall of 2018. According to James, the podcast had “fallen to the wayside” due to technical issues, but was set to be resumed under his management. James seemed enthusiastic about the podcast, noting how much fun it had been to produce during the previous year.
Although The American Agora has seen great progress since its founding a little over a year ago, James noted that there will still ways to improve representation within the Agora.
“I think the Agora has a good range of viewpoints at the moment. Just off the top of my head, we’ve got a critical commentary on the Iran deal, and that’s right alongside free speech concerns and a critique of arming teachers. These recently published pieces are rather all over the place, at least as far as typical partisan politics goes.
“But we definitely could expand further. There are definitely underrepresented groups we could look to both in terms of political ideology but also just core identity,” James says. “I honestly think the sooner we get to expanding the spectrum of views and backgrounds further, the better our site will be for it.
“I’d also like to diversify our staff more and get a variety of different issues that we may not be covering right now because we don’t have the expertise,” Bobby Zitzmann, editor-in-chief, told The Eagle, American University’s newspaper. At the time of publication, The American Agora does not have any women on its staff, although the executive board does hope to hire more women writers in its future.
Still, The American Agora has seen growth since it was established. The staff currently features nine established columnists, and executive board members write columns as well. The board has plans to expand the number of columnists in the near future.
Alex de Ramón noted that The American Agora was able to actively recruit writers from the Class of 2021 which allowed the staff columnists to grow more.
The group was even able to organize a guest speaker from the House of Representatives during the spring 2018 semester.
“My favorite part [of working for The American Agora] has been watching the site grow…it has been cool to see an idea grow into an actual website and become an outlet for others to express their thoughts and arguments,” says Alex de Ramón.
“This semester we were able to invite Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) to campus and it was really awesome to see that come to fruition and have him come speak for us.”
James noted that “enthusiasm” was a huge factor in why the site had grown so quickly. “I hope I’m not giving you a simplistic ‘I was interested because I was interested’ sort of response here, but enthusiasm really is the key to getting these things off the ground.”