Shruti Chaganti, an undergraduate at James Madison University, loves to talk politics. But until recently most of her conversations with her peers were about “weekend escapades and drunk stories,” she said.
Now Chaganti wears a piece of orange cloth dangling from her backpack as a symbol that she will embrace all-comers who want serious discourse. “It isn't that [other students] don’t have ideas about politics,” Chaganti said, “but that they either feel a social stigma or are scared and uncomfortable to talk about it with other people.”
Chaganti is one of thousands of students at James Madison who have donned orange bands as a symbol of their willingness to get down to brass tacks. Orange Band estimates that perhaps 8,000 of the ribbons have been given out.
In 2003, during the lead up to the United States’s invasion of Iraq, Kai Degner, who graduated from James Madison in 2005, and a few friends sensed that people were afraid to talk politics and world affairs for fear of being shouted down – as a warhawk or as unpatriotic – by someone with a differing opinion.
Degner and his friends started handing out strips of orange fabric on campus to anyone who was willing to be approached by strangers for civil discussion.
The Orange Band Initiative founders partnered with student groups on campus to hold two weeks worth of themed discussions that anybody could attend. The topics ranged from international politics to local crime.
The group “One in Four,” a men’s group dedicated to combating rape, held one discussion session on sexual assault, and Hillel, a Jewish student group held a discussion on Middle East politics.
Within weeks, about 2,000 orange bands were wrapped around wrists or strung from backpacks at James Madison. Some of them were decorated to express a topic that the wearer is particularly interested in discussing.
Degner was out of the country and could not be reached for comment, but Andy Perrine, James Madison's associate vice president for communications and marketing has worked with Degner on the Orange Band Initiative, which is now a certified nonprofit, fit in perfectly with the brand name that JMU is establishing. Degner said that JMU wants to build in image from its namesake’s legacy. “James Madison helped create the idea for modern citizenship,” Perrine said. “When I saw what these students were doing, I said, ‘oh my goodness, it’s the sort of thing that links to our brand image.’”
Perrine himself has actually donned an orange band, and been approached by students for some healthy discussion.
One of Orange Band’s early splashes was when Degner got three students who had returned from Iraq to sit for an open forum. C-Span came to campus to broadcast the event. Other than one faculty member who used C-Span’s presence as a bully pulpit, Perrine said that Orange Band events have been uniformly civil.
Even though Degner has graduated, Orange Band has spread to a few other campuses, and Degner is working on a plan to start Orange Band chapters at institutions. He recently built a “mosaic” on Orange Band’s Web site, where people with Orange Bands – they can be ordered over the Internet – or simply with passion for a topic, can place a box in the digital mosaic that, when the cursor is over it, displays their topic.
“We need to take a closer look at capital punishment,” reads the box from Kristin in Connecticut.
“How is a fetus not considered life?” asks the box from Dezaray in Virginia.
“I believe by simply talking openly and respectfully about the things we care about most we can turn the tide away from partisan bickering and apathetic attitudes. Simple.” That box is from Kai, in Harrisonburg.