From orientation activities to the entry system, Williams endeavors from the start to instill a sense of community among first-years. Contributing to this effort,the Williams Community Building Program conducts mandatory SPARC workshops within first-year entries.
According to its members, the Williams Community Building Program (WCBP) is operated by the Multicultural Center and administrated by the faculty. The program works at Williams, in other schools and in the community. SPARC, Students Promoting Awareness, Respect, and Community, is the only on-campus activity organized by the WCBP and off-campus the program deals with issues concerning prejudice in schools in a program called Outreach.
The SPARC workshop takes place a few weeks into the fall semester each year. It is conducted on a Sunday afternoon or evening. This year, 32 facilitators worked in pairs with entries.
According to Nelson Hioe ’00, a WCBP member, SPARC has evolved considerably over the past several years. The program has been refined and shortened in response to negative feedback from first-years. The schedule was simply tightened up a bit, so that less time was spent on each individual activity, without necessitating the elimination of any particular segment. The improvements have been met with approval by many students.
The group has also altered their first days preview activity for the workshop. In the past, the program comprised the viewing of a video about race relations and a discussion about the video and the individual students’ reactions to it. Reactions were extremely negative. This year there was no video, just a discussion moderated by SPARC leaders. “We found that the video really didn’t work,” said Medha Kirtane ’00, a WCBP student leader. “It just wasn’t applicable to the Williams campus. We still want a video, just a better video.” The WCBP plans to make its own video, filmed on the Williams campus, which would be more easily applied to life at Williams. This video will be in place for next year’s workshops.
Other plans for the future include encouraging the facilitators to maintain contact with the entries they work with. Usually leaders completely lose contact with the group after the workshop. The facilitators would then be in a position to invite the freshmen to various events such as presentations by guest speakers.
As for this year’s SPARC program, the reaction has been more positive than in recent years. SPARC leaders have been receiving encouraging feedback. “Of the evaluations I have read, the majority of them have been positive,” said Kendra Field ’99, a student leader of the WCBP.
Many upperclassmen bitterly recall a much longer workshop than the one currently used. “It was a big waste of an afternoon,” said Todd Merkens ’01. “There are so many other positive ways to bond with the entry.”
The changes made this year have significantly improved students’ perceptions. “My entry this year had a much better experience than my entry did my freshman year,” said Aya Reiss ’00, a JA in East 2.
First-years were happy with the atmosphere created by the workshop. “The facilitators did a good job of promoting a safe and confidential environment where I felt safe sharing things about myself,” said Carolyn Shank ’02.
Lesley Clark ’02 also liked the fact that her entry could get to know one another better, without any pressure for every individual to participate fully in every activity. “I think it was a really great way for entry-mates to get to know each other and really open up to one another,” said Clark. “Also, if you didn’t feel comfortable sharing in the group you could share later within the entry.”
The off-campus programs offered by the WCBP are collectively called “Outreach.” These involve primarily responding to requests for help from various schools in dealing with problems involving prejudice. There are, on average, between four and six Outreach programs conducted every year. However, the WCBP communicates with outside schools with a much greater frequency.
According to Outreach leaders, one of the first cases in which WCBP was involved was at Drury High School in North Adams. The agenda used was tailored to the particular circumstances at Drury, but it became the typical plan for Outreach projects. A problem with race relations at the school led the administration to request WCBP’s help in resolving the matter.
Through a day-long exercise the students talked about their experiences and beliefs. In the morning, students were broken up into “affinity groups” where the students chose which group they wished to be in. In the afternoon, the groups were created randomly. Each group had its own facilitator, usually someone from the WCBP, who gives the discussion direction and moderates the activities. The school’s own administration assists in the workshop.
Nelson Hioe ’00, a member of WCBP, has participated in two Outreach projects thus far and has been pleased with the experience. “It was really great,” said Hioe. “It’s really interesting to see what they have to say. . .how they’re influenced by both their family and their friends.”
The WCBP deals with all sorts of prejudice in their Outreach programs. Field said the WCBP is planning a workshop for this year which will address the issue of homophobia. They will work within the health classes of a school which recently contacted them.
Usually, after a program is completed, the school is encouraged to develop its own group to deal with such problems. Then when a follow-up workshop is conducted, the school’s own group will help in the facilitation of the discussion. “Our goal is not to promote group agendas just to moderate or facilitate group discussion. . .to give direction, not to determine what happen.” said Field.
According to members, the Williams Community Building Program works towards diversity and respect both on and off-campus, in classrooms for students of all years and especially within the freshman class here at Williams. Whether through SPARC or Outreach, the goals and beliefs behind the programs are the same, always seeking understanding and harmony. According to the group’s own literature, “WCBP strives to foster a sense of community in and around Williams College. Beyond simply living together, WCBP defines community as honest communication among people and groups, respect for different identities and cultures, and genuine caring for one another.”