Situated just outside of Colonial Williamsburg, the unassuming Meridian Coffeehouse hosts a wide range of music and art events and serves as a hotspot for DIY culture here in America’s Historic Triangle. Owned by the university and operated by students, The Meridian seeks to provide students with a space to truly be themselves. To learn more about how The Meridian approaches its goals, style team member Anna Kashmanian sat down with Faith Burke and Mia Naples — The Meridian’s general managers — to hear their experiences and perspectives running this historic arts venue.
AK: How would you describe what the Meridian is to someone who has never heard of it?
FB: The technical term people use is a DIY arts space. But I like to think it’s essentially a house owned by the school but operated by students for the purpose of a creative art community center. So music, art, poetry writing, anything along those lines – you can do it in the Meridian.
MN: I think a lot of people mostly know us from doing music on the weekends, but not a lot of people know that we also do stuff during the week. Students have their own shifts and can do basically whatever they want – sometimes it’s just doing homework and chilling out, a lot of people need a space to do that that isn’t swem or their dorms. People also do really cool stuff with [their shifts], like I think my favorite shift is arts and witchcraft, which is on Wednesdays at 7. They’re doing something really cool and they usually get people who haven’t been at the Meridian before. It’s good stuff and a lot of people don’t know that we do it.
AK: What made you two want to get involved with The Meridian?
FB: I think for me, I was just coming into my freshman year, had kind of no idea what was going on, and then this was just like, so aggressively unusual. Like, it’s just like, everytime people come they’re like “what is going on,” because it’s this random house in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg that is then this bizzare arts space that has so much weird history and so many opportunities to be totally self made and do whatever you want with it. But I think what kept me here was how genuinely lovely all the people were. And it was very rare for me coming from a high school where I didn’t feel that loved and accepted that people were just like there to immediately be like “we want to hear your voice, everybody has a say, and we want to love you for who you are, whoever that may be.”
“we want to hear your voice, everybody has a say, and we want to love you for who you are, whoever that may be.”
MN: I wasn’t very sure what I was getting into, but I came and I think I came by myself and [there] just was [an] immediate wall of good energy. Which sounds really cheesy, but again everyone was there just be be present and like make music whether it was good or bad. And because Talk to Plants did ‘The Gift,’ which isn’t even a song, it was someone reading a short story and like noise in the background. That was when I was like “Oh my god, this is it! This is the thing I’m supposed to be a part of.”
“Oh my god, this is it! This is the thing I’m supposed to be a part of.”
AK: So as you mentioned, DIY music venues are typically associated underground music independence from mainstream media, and accessibility. The Meridian easily fits this definition, and for many people on campus, represents what DIY culture is. What do you think the Meridian contributes to campus life and why is that so valuable?
FB: I think we have a lot of hope for what it contributes, and we want it to be a place where people come and share their voice and be themselves. I think it definitely opens up a lot of opportunity for those who may not feel they have a space on campus, whether that be the type of music they play, how they’re perceived, or sometimes it’s just competitive to get involved in AMP or things like that. Or maybe what they perform doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the general school activities, or maybe would be looked down upon in some way. We try to create a space for that.
AK: DIY culture is often synonymous with accessibility, both for artists and the audience. What does the Meridian do to make itself an accessible place?
FB: That’s a great question, and it’s one we’re constantly asking ourselves. Because it can be really hard, especially on a college campus or like, the way Meridian has been run in the past, to try and find avenues to appear accepting or even just get the word out that we want to make this an [accessible] space. I think a lot of it is in our basic ethic of the Meridian, which is to be a safer space, and try and uplift the voices of people on campus who feel like their voices are not being heard – whether that’s a minority or they simply feel like there isn’t a space for [them] on campus.
We do a lot of gender-based violence training so we try and stay very aware of sexual assault. We also try and be very cognisant of the artists we bring in, so if there’s been any issue regarding that we don’t have them play. We also make it very upfront with artists and anybody who enters what our ethos is. We have like written up in there, I don’t know if I have it on the top of our head, but it’s like “No sexism, ableism, homophobia,” – I can’t remember the rest of it – “or get the heck out.” And that’s up [inside the Meridian]. But it’s like this idea that you’re not here to judge other people.
I think in terms of truly making it a diverse space, we’re trying to get a lot better about booking music and artists that are more diverse, whether that be through the LGBT+ community, or just anything else, and try and find those avenues. But we’re just constantly trying to ask ourselves that because we don’t always accomplish those goals. It’s a tough balancing act.
MN: Yeah, and a common narrative I’ve heard is people coming to The Meridian and either being freaked out by it or feeling like, I don’t know, but they’re like “Oh yeah, I went once but it was just kind of not a comfortable experience for me.” And that’s something that, in working here this year, I wanted to focus on and [make everyone] feel welcomed. Because I know we both had that experience, I wanna figure out why it is that other people don’t feel that. Or they come in and feel like they don’t belong, and that’s never something that we want to have. And I think yeah, being a safer space is a big part of that as well. I want people who have gone through things, whether that be some kind of gender-based violence, to have a place where they feel safe to come to where they know they’re not in danger. That’s unfortunately not always a reality on the rest of campus. And it’s a space even like, I try to come to when I’m dealing or stuff or, I don’t know, need a good soft place to land. This is usually where I end up. I’ve cried here so many times I lost count. And that’s part of it, not just being a safe and comfortable space. I want it to be a place where you can feel the things you need to feel as well.
AK: It’s definitely important to have comfortable and welcoming places on campus. You both used the term “safer space” to define the Meridian. Could you just explain how that differs from the term “safe space,” which people may be more familiar with?
FB: Yeah, so we used to use the term “safe space,” but we realized a couple of years ago, that that’s not always the reality. Because there are so many conflicting interests, it’s not a reality that it’s a safe space. And I think when you use the term “safe space,” while I love that term, it’s not always accurate simply by human nature. We can never actually make it a perfect haven. So it’s the idea that we’re trying our best rather than rather than it is a utopia
MN: I think yeah, people love the idea of the Meridian being this really tight knit community, but I think that’s also where some of that happens, where people don’t either feel welcome or if there are issues with some of those people it can make it harder to… not eradicate them, but just deal with them in an appropriate way that’s like, to the best of our knowledge and ability.
AK: Yeah, absolutely. What are some lessons that other organizations could take away from your experiences creating a safer space?
FB:Thinking about what kept me at Meridian, how people cared so much about what it meant to be a safer space in that they were actively trying to pursue avenues where they could get gender based violence training so people could feel more comfortable. So I think that passion, rather that it just being a box you have to check, you know? Like, “oh we got this training, so now we’re done.” But really caring about that and recognizing the issues in your own community and your own club, and trying your best to really actively pursue that. And I think gender based violence is a huge one for me at least, like people getting trained in that, just so that they’re aware. Because I feel like that opened up my world. Like you hear so much about the nitty-gritty of like any issues involving rape or sexual assault, but there’s so much more to it beyond that than just simply feeling comfortable sitting in a room. Which I think is huge.
MN: I agree. And something that I’ve been trying to work on is like being close with resources on campus – like the Wellness Center, The Haven – and getting to know those people that run it just so that even if there is an issue that I can’t handle, I can bring it to them and they’re confidential about it and they’re also gonna provide resources that I wouldn’t be able to.
FB: This is also not a perfect roadmap. It’s not like a list of things you can do and be like “we’re safe now!” It’s not a checklist.
“This is also not a perfect roadmap. It’s not like a list of things you can do and be like “we’re safe now!” It’s not a checklist.”
AK: So how exactly do you navigate booking a diverse range of performers?
FB: Yeah, so it’s definitely tough because the way it would cyclically happen in the past, I’ve heard, was like through these Facebook booking avenues. They’re called like “Dude DIY” and stuff. And so you’d get a lot of people who are kinda the same thing. And it’s not to say that like, those people also don’t deserve to, play, but trying to heighten people’s voices who are usually not popping up consistently in those avenues. I think it’s huge for a booking team to make an active effort to search for people, which is like, I’m so grateful for them. They’ve put in that time and effort.
MN: Yeah. A lot of reaching out this year, rather than waiting for people to offer to play here. Which has been really cool.
FB: Yeah, and that’s all really been due to [Kelsey and Maggie]. They play the biggest hand in going out and finding people they feel like, you know, would make that space what we try to make it to be. That was very poorly worded, but yeah [Laughs]. I think just like, actively pursuing that. And Kelsey is involved in the LGBT+ community so I think they really try to work with that as well. They’re very tuned in, I’m not as tuned into the music scene.
MN: No one’s gonna heckle you at the Meridian, which I love.
AK: Well, we’ve come to our last question. What advice would you give to someone who’s never been to the Meridian or might be intimidated to come for the first time?
MN: Come anyway. [Laughs]
FB: All I wanna do is talk to you! I am just so excited to see anybody here that like, I would love [to talk]. And also, if you just want to dip your toe in the water coming to meeting is a great way to kind of meet the people first. And that way when you come, you recognize faces and you’re like “oh I had that great conversation about midterms with someone,” and you kinda feel like you have a foot in the door. And also, I mean coming alone can be scary, but I promise that we’re here to say hello and dance with you. I’m trying to think of concrete things. Just be aggressively yourself.
MN: Yeah! Aw, that’s cute! I love that! Yeah, I would say come with a buddy if you can, but if not, we’re gonna definitely be here.
FB: We’re waiting for you!
Check out Meridian Events on Facebook to hear about all of the cool things they have planned for the rest of the semester, like a Haunted House, “We’ve Got You Covered” cover nights, Witchcraft Wednesdays, and more!
Interview by Anna Kashmanian
Photos by Sydney McCourt
Interview edited for clarity.