MinCo’s role on campus examined

What is the Minority Coalition (MinCo) at Williams College and what service does it hope to provide? There are different answers to these two pivotal questions to different people; indeed, different people are apt to place varying levels of priority upon the myriad services that MinCo provides on behalf of its 14 current member groups.

What most people seem to agree on, however, is that MinCo affords at least three absolutely critical services to members of the minority community at the College. First, it offers a support system for students who might feel overwhelmed or discouraged by a sense of being “different” from the “majority” of students on campus. Secondly, it offers an advocacy and awareness body and a voice for all constituencies on campus, no matter how tangential their numbers might make them appear. Finally, it offers a central funding body which considers funding requests outside of the context of the regular College Council (CC) structure. According to MinCo Chair Samara Poplack ’03, this structure avoids having CC “choose between putting up more nets for the water polo team and inviting a speaker for BSU heritage month, so that they’re not comparing apples and oranges and we can just compare apples and apples.”

Many members of MinCo seem to agree that the most important service that the many groups within the coalition offers students is support: “A lot of MinCo’s job is to offer a support system,” said Rory Kramer ’03, former MinCo Chair. “Its first goal has always been to support the people who do not feel as much support because of their different backgrounds from the majority of the school.”

Furthermore, Kramer stressed the individual nature inherent to the decision to each person’s degree of involvement in the organization. “What I’ve heard and what I’ve seen from people who are involved is the idea that they felt the need to have a community of support. For some people who aren’t involved, they don’t feel the need to have that community,” Kramer said.

“People [join a MinCo group] for personal reasons; [it offers] a support group for everyone to feel comfortable expressing their culture if you want to do that through a group. MinCo and its groups are trying to offer a sense of community, a sense of belonging to something at Williams while not having to in any way deny any part of your culture and to embrace it and maybe learn new things about your heritage.”

To a degree, MinCo’s role as an advocacy body can be understood as an extension of its support apparatus in that it offers not only a sounding board for minority concerns but also then a greater political body through which those concerns can effect change.

A classic example would be the Muslim Student Union’s (MSU) response to the controversy last fall surrounding the Record’s publication of an advertisement submitted by David Horowitz, which claimed “Arab and Islamic Jew-hatred” was the root cause of the Middle East conflict. Because the College has a small number of Muslim students, MinCo helped rally support for their cause and managed to make the controversy regarding the advertisement – which ostensibly affected only a small number of students – a campus-wide issue of which everyone was made aware.

“When the Record published the Horowitz ad last year, few people realized that a number of students felt insecure and threatened by the message it seemed to forward,” said Nikhar Gaikwad ’06, Asian Theater Project (ATP) MinCo Rep. “As the primary minority advocacy body, MinCo had a strong agenda to step up and inform students of the immense hurt the advertisement had caused, and to demand that they take a firm stand on the issue.”

“The Horowitz issue, which ideally should have been important to all students, was especially important to members of the MSU,” Poplack said, “which is one of the smaller student organizations on campus. Presenting their concerns and needs to MinCo so that MinCo could actively support them was useful because MinCo is a much larger entity, one that has political power that was used to advocate on their behalf, and to make the campus aware of the issue.”

MinCo, Gaikwad went on to say, is in some respects one vehicle for fighting student apathy. Minority issues, he said, are hardly free from student disinterest, and through its advocacy powers, MinCo is in the unique position to inform the campus on the full host of minority issues.

The advocacy work that MinCo does is actually a function that springs directly from its Constitution, which was amended as recently as last year. That document stipulates within its Statement of Purpose and Function that MinCo intends to serve as: “An active voice in constructing a stronger community that is more aware of minority concerns.”

Indeed, this sentiment also follows from the more fundamental Statement of Existence, which indicated that MinCo was conceived so as to offer “a stronger and more unified voice against prejudice and prejudicial discrimination” on behalf of minority students on campus.

One aspect of MinCo that is often overlooked by outsiders is the invaluable service the body provides with regard to allocating funds to its member groups. Poplack and Gaikwad particularly stressed the significance of MinCo in this regard, citing the import of having one body that is not compromised by the pressing needs of other valid but nonetheless unrelated campus groups so that it can distribute funds to all 14 member groups in a fair and even-handed fashion.

For all the good that MinCo does, however, it is an unusually controversial body. Indeed, some students on campus feel that MinCo actually serves to further divide a campus that is, from all accounts, highly stratified along racial, ethnic and other such lines.

The recent controversy apropos of Nate Winstanley’s ’04 decision to run for the position of MinCo representative to CC has in the eyes of some reinforced the concept that MinCo is a divider, not a uniter.

The decision of Winstanley, who is an openly gay, white member of the student body, to run for a position in the MinCo hierarchy compelled certain students to demand across the MinCo listserv that somebody who was not, in the words of one student, “extremely white” run for the position.

“I personally dislike a certain element that runs through MinCo, and that is the side that seems to cast the white students on campus as some sort of evil doers when it comes to minority issues,” Esa Seegulam ’06 said. “When Nathan Winstanley decided to run for the Minco/CC position, there was an e-mail sent by a certain [member of the minority community] encouraging, or rather pleading with the minority community to step up and nominate themselves because the only candidate so far was ‘extremely white’ as he described him.”

Seegulam continued: “I was appalled and disgusted by this openly racist statement, but even more so when I saw that there were now many more write-in minority candidates running for the position. It was then that I truly realized just how much minorities on this Campus refuse to have white students deal with anything that concerns them.”

Seegulam further admonished MinCo for contributing to a culture already steeped in stratification in which differences are highlighted because, in his view, the MinCo groups fail to focus on “integration and peaceful coexistence,” saying that “until we can have a white person run for such a position without raising the eyebrows of the minority community, we would not have achieved [the] goal [of integration and peaceful coexistence] in its truest sense.”

In contrast to Seegulam’s assessment, Gaikwad was quick to praise the job of MinCo in fostering the spirit of integration among the various member groups, though he did not explain whether that pursuit of integration was extended as fervently to include non-minority members of the community.

Poplack and Kramer said any allegations levied against MinCo accusing it of being a divider are unfounded and the product of misinformation and misconception alike.

Indeed, both expressed disappointment at low turnouts by non-minority students at MinCo functions and stressed that all MinCo functions are open to the entire campus and that MinCo groups schedule the events that they do in the hope that people will take time out of their routines to go see and hear what is being offered.

Both Poplack and Kramer alleged, furthermore, that the idea of complete integration or color-blindness, while nice in theory, is “too utopian,” as Poplack put it. Moreover, so long as society remains rife with divisions that are drawn along racial, ethnic and religious lines, MinCo will continue to be necessary, they said.

“I think MinCo is a response to the things that are causing division,” Kramer said. “It’s not there to give minorities a community to hide from the rest of the community, it’s there to make them feel strong enough to embrace the rest of the community and it’s a tough thing to do and at times that takes being insular.”

Kramer addedthat everything MinCo does is open to the community and the goal is to create a campus that welcomes cultural connections and interactions. Too often, Kramer and Poplack both lamented, however, activities or lectures or parties organized by a MinCo group will attract the same group of people each time.

As to why the non-minority community fails to engage the issues and concerns of the minority population, each person can offer his or her guess. Perhaps, as Kramer believes, it is in part a matter of “white privilege,” which makes it easily avoidable for members of the non-minority community to involve themselves in the dialogue on diversity issues because, simply, that dialogue is not thrust upon them by society.

“People who society constantly tells ‘this is your identity, this is your identity’ and does [so] through how it treats you with security at the mall or whatever it is,” Kramer said, “they often are forced to have that dialogue so they have it a lot. People who don’t have that experience don’t have that dialogue.”

Kramer said that the cause of the lack of discussion is a “weird dichotomy of [people] who know a lot about that dialogue and [others] who don’t, which makes it sort of uncomfortable because it’s. . .uncomfortable to be like ‘I’m ignorant, tell me’ – it’s a bad position to be put in, and it’s an ugly position to be put in and people shouldn’t be put into it.”

The fear of sounding ignorant was echoed by Poplack, but she was also quick to offer theories of her own. Poplack understands that low turnout is sometimes the result of the busy schedules with which students at Williams experience are intrinsically imbued.

She was nonetheless concerned that part of the reason for low turnouts from the non-minority community may be that they are simply disinterested in learning about other cultures. Educating oneself in the ways of other cultures is as much as a part of the Williams experience as anything else, Poplack insisted.

“I’m not perfect and I don’t think anyone else is perfect but I think all that we can ask people is that they make an attempt to educate themselves and if you’re at Williams and you’re not making an attempt to educate yourself I think that’s really sad,” she said.

The moment some students step on campus they realize they need to have an involvement with the MinCo community, Kramer asserted, while others will only need that support after two years or after a “blow up” campus issues such as incidents like the Horowitz ad, among others; still others will not need that support at all.

Perhaps, as Kramer hinted, MinCo is a necessary campus body specifically so that students have the luxury of a coalition of groups that is prepared to respond to their individual needs, whether the need is the celebration of a particular heritage, the support of people who share common experiences – as Poplack suggested – or any other of the many number of reasons that exist.

“There are some people who walk around this campus and go ‘whew, thank god the BSU exists otherwise I wouldn’t be able to be here,’” Kramer said, “or ‘whew, thank god there’s this pan-ethnic coalition otherwise I wouldn’t be able to be here,’ and there are some who can go all four years without ever feeling that need and there are some who will go two years and then feel the need – it’s something that needs to be there so that when people do say ‘that group helps me be able to express myself fully’ it’s there and ready to go for them all.”

“Individual MinCo groups are a vital part of the Williams Community,” Poplack said. “They offer members a range of activities, including but not limited to the opportunity to participate in social events, to hold discussions on topics of interest and to attend lectures by professors and visiting speakers.”

Furthermore, Poplack and Kramer spoke to the importance of the MinCo groups in fostering a sense of community among minority members within the broader scope of campus and to make non-minority members more aware of diversity issues at Williams.

“Without [the MinCo groups], Williams would lose out not only in terms of cultural programming, but also socially,” Poplack said. “Much of the dialogue we have on campus regarding diversity is because of the work that these organizations do. The loss of that dialogue would be detrimental to everyone at Williams, and would probably only increase the stratification found on campus.”