Come for tunes, stay for community: Meridian Coffeehouse seeks to provide welcoming safe space for students

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With sketches of pentagrams on walls, and a mannequin named Jane to welcome guests in the bathroom, the Meridian Coffeehouse can seem like an intimidating place. The Meridian first opened in 1995 under the name of Zarathustras, in reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel about the prophet and the Zoroastrian religion. It was opened as a coffeehouse and an alternative weekend hangout from Fraternity and Sorority Life. 

“In the past it was a very insulated group of people that were running this thing that was really close to their heart, and they weren’t necessarily like, ‘I want to invite other people into this,’” Stacia Phalen ’19, one of the Meridian’s general managers, said. “We definitely have been working hard to get more fun people in.”

The Meridian’s past reputation had created a stigma that made people believe the Meridian is an unwelcoming place, coining the term “Meridian Intimidation.” The term is still used today. 

“It is at its heart a DIY art space and music venue, and I feel like it’s not an environment most people on the William and Mary campus are familiar with,” Phalen said.

As the years have gone by, the Meridian has moved away from its isolated image, becoming predominantly a music venue and a more familiar and inclusive space near campus. 

The Meridian coffeehouse is only a coffeehouse by name, as it only sells coffee during shows as a nod to its roots, Phalen said. The main attractions are its shows and daily events. Every day of the week there are events such as “Truth nights” where people join to talk about conspiracy theories, Zombie Zenzdays, Arts and Witchcrafts, Self-care hours, an Arthouse Film Club and other activities. 

“There’s a lot of variety,” Emily Morrow ’21 said. “There’s always something going on every week that would interest someone.”

Along with the daily events, the Meridian hosts shows, including student bands. It also acts as a touring stop for bands from around the country. Visiting bands either message the Meridian asking to play, or staff may know student bands who could perform. Stage manager Ben Fox ’19 said sometimes the process for finding a band to play involves looking deep into the internet for a band. Occasionally there are special themed-music events, called cover shows, which tend to showcase student bands only. These shows act as a fundraising event for organizations such as the Transgender Assistance Project.

An important feature of the Meridian is that the building and events are entirely student-run. The staff schedules events and searches for the entertainment by themselves, and donations serve as the main revenue for the Meridian while students work there for free. Although students don’t pay touring bands, there is a donation jar at every show that funds costs such as their gas money. Students self-fund in some capacities while the College of William and Mary provides funds to keep the lights on and maintain the building. 

“We are able to donate to places like TAP, we’ve held other shows for things like the Richmond Community Bail Fund, we collaborated with the American Indian Student Association to raise money for preventing the Dakota access pipeline,” Fox said.

Being solely student run is an aspect of the Meridian the staff takes pride in. 

“Similar to a fraternity or sorority, we have our own dedicated space,” Fox said. “… The energy and ideas behind the Meridian are really attached to this one building, which is not something that a lot of other student groups can say.”

The Meridian is not currently funded by the Student Assembly, which gives more autonomy to the Meridian on which bands are booked for shows. 

“We don’t have to go through Media Council to get money and get approval from the school and sign contracts,” Phalen said. “Whatever the people on the staff want it to be that year, is what it’s going to be.”

Along with upkeep of the building, the Meridian’s main mission is to provide and uphold a safe space on campus. 

“There is a sign in the Meridian that says, ‘No racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, or hate of any kind, or get the heck out,’ and I think that’s the big thing, we want to provide a place for people from all walks of life” Fox said. 

The Meridian serves as a substance-free and hate-free space on campus. Its policies of no moshing or jumping, and respecting other’s space while dancing, are repeated before and after groups play at shows, while guests are encouraged to report any activity they are uncomfortable with to staff. This year the Meridian is updating its safe space policies by adding a protocol for gender-based violence, spreading the range of protection for students and fortifying its role as a safe space. Staff members are also creating a more inviting attitude by hiring a diverse set of bands to perform at shows. 

“I am really passionate about socially-conscious booking, and booking femme artists, and queer artists, and artists of color, and the Meridian gives a platform for that,” Phalen said.

The Meridian community works hard to uphold policies that keep the community safe.

“It’s a really incredible space that does foster a community within it, even if that community is smaller compared to other things on campus,” Phalen said.

With a smaller community comes a sense of family and fundamental respect amongst members that is present when going to Meridian activities or shows.

“The Meridian really does feel like this gem on campus,” Phalen said. “I never thought I was going to find anything like it.”