Incident inspires student reaction

The Purple Bubble may not be in danger of bursting, but its tightly packed inhabitants have no excuse to disrespect each other – this is the message of the growing movement that has emerged in response to the racial slurs in Williams Hall.

From initial confusion about the details of the incident, to an informal discussion in Paresky that drew over a hundred students on two consecutive nights, to an organization initiating concrete and far-reaching changes, a significant portion of the Williams community has been galvanized towards fostering mutual esteem on campus.

This campaign, now called Stand With Us, sprang from an open discussion organized by College Council co-presidents Morgan Goodwin ’08 and Kim Dacres ’08 last Wednesday. “It would have been disrespectful of us as leaders of the campus if we did not acknowledge how much this violently prejudicial act affects the community,” Dacres said. “Ignoring so much pain is not justifiable.”

The meeting, announced through all-campus e-mails, was originally slated for the second half of the weekly CC meeting but was pushed to 10 p.m. to accommodate those attending the 8 p.m. lecture by poet Amiri Baraka. “I was hoping to get as much of a reaction as possible,” Dacres said. “When people don’t react, silence can be read as acceptance.”

Silence was far from the minds of the more than 120 Ephs who attended last Wednesday’s meeting in the Paresky Henze lounge. In a meeting that stretched to almost four hours, students discussed respect, discrimination and accountability through both sharing personal accounts and suggesting broad institutional changes.

The focus of the discourse eventually shifted to specific actions that should be implemented to curb the pattern of bias-motivated incidents on campus, including the formation of an umbrella organization for diversity-related groups, hiring a staff officer for addressing breaches of community values, reevaluating the Junior Advisor system and mid-orientation programs for first-years and instituting a social honor code.

The meeting closed with the formulation of a pact to work towards “a respectful and affirming community.” After a series of votes on the substance and diction of the statement, the remaining 50 students signed the Pact Against Indifference and Hate and agreed to reconvene the following day.

Thursday’s gathering, also at 10 p.m. and at the same location, matched the previous day’s in turnout and impassioned speech. Unlike the first discussion, where much emphasis was placed on creating a safe space for sharing, this meeting was documented both on video and in photographs by David Rivera ’08.“I felt it was important to preserve the momemt because this is definitely going to have an impact on the history of the college,” Rivera said.

In addition, Thursday’s impassioned speeches were channeled towards practical methods of realizing community goals. By consensus, those present identified three central priorities: a social honor code, a day of discussions on respect and diversity, as well as the integration of relatively homogenous “sub-communities” – whether sports teams or ethnic organizations – into the larger student body. Individual groups then met to brainstorm each priority, before ending the gathering around 1:30 a.m. by chanting, “Stand with us,” the rallying cry that constitutes the last line of the pact.

Another clear distinction between the two days was the increased faculty and staff participation. While Wednesday’s meeting had been attended by one professor, Thursday’s saw support from around 15 faculty and staff members, who contributed opinions and information throughout the evening. “A large number of faculty are committed to making sure this doesn’t pass as just another event,” said Wendy Raymond, associate dean for institutional diversity and associate professor of history. She cited the role of Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed, as well as the unity of the current Committee on Diversity and Community, which she heads.

Raymond, who attended the Thursday meeting through the encouragement of students on the Committee, said that she had never witnessed such exceptional student leadership in her 14 years at Williams. “I can’t imagine stronger student leadership or activism,” she said. “It’s really different this time around.”

Rivera agreed. A victim of a racist incident in Spring 2005, that sparked a series of discussions and meetings that eventually petered out with neither lasting change nor consequences for the offender, Rivera said he was initially cynical in regard to Wednesday’s discussion. “The idea of me going to the meeting was to say, hey guys, this is what happened to me, we’re basically doing the same thing that happened in my freshman year,” he said.

“Obviously my perspective changed. I started seeing a different energy from what I saw back then: people were giving ideas and organizing. I saw something that gave me shots of hope.”

The nascent group met again on Saturday afternoon to refine the three main proposals. More than 50 people were present at the gathering, including first-time participants as well as faculty and staff.

One immediate outcome of these meetings is the awareness rally that is slated for tonight at 10:30 p.m. The rally will begin with an introduction by Dacres and Goodwin, followed by testimonials, performances, a march across campus and a final assembly that will culminate in a reading of the Pact Against Indifference and Hate. All members of the community are welcome to participate and bring along noisemakers as well as posters with messages of respect.

Numerous students have been contributing hours of their time to prepare for the rally, whether making logistical arrangements or painting posters. Among them is David Maldonado ’11, one of the Stand With Us representatives who visited first-year common rooms during entry snacks on Sunday night to promote the event. “I want people to understand that we’ll be together for four years, and that it’s very important, especially in a small community, that we learn to support each other,” Maldonado said, adding that he first felt compelled to take part in the student-led effort after hearing of the large turnout at the first meeting.

Maldonado noted that prior to the Williams E incident, several of his close friends had spoken with him about being deeply offended by personal encounters with discrimination on campus. “It was very interesting that two or three days later, racial slurs were found in Willy,” he said. “It was like a smack in the face, and even though it didn’t affect me personally I felt that some action could really benefit the campus.”

While the other two subcommittees – the social honor code and sub-community integration initiatives – have longer timeframes, Stand With Us is laying the groundwork through a variety of approaches, including engaging in conversation with different levels of campus leadership and establishing a web presence at pactagainsthate.wordpress.com, among others. A large-scale event for campus-wide discussion about community respect is also in the works.

Dean Merrill applauded these plans. “It’s a testament to student energy and leadership that the meetings have already reached such concrete identifiable priorities that we can work on,” she said. “They’ve taken what was a very difficult incident for any small community to deal with and really turned it into a great opportunity.”

Merrill noted that, for the administration, “the ball is already rolling” and “a lot of work” has been done. “We’re here after students graduate. We’re the folks here who are trying to implement and make changes as necessary,” she said, adding that the demographics of Williams have changed dramatically. “With this particular incident, students will have a large role to play in helping us to see what things we need to be doing, both in and out of the classroom.”

For now, Stand With Us believes that signing on to the Pact is one crucial course of action. As of Tuesday at lunchtime, the Pact had roughly 250 signatories. “I feel really good about what’s going on, but I’m still waiting for us to really stir the school up,” said Rousseau Mieze ’10, co-president of the Black Student Union. “We have a good hold on the school now, and we need to start shaking.”

Like many others, Mieze is quick to point beyond the catalyzing series of events to fundamental questions of the College’s culture. “It’s not about minorities; it’s not any student organizations,” he said. “This is about hate, and whether or not every single Williams student will decide to play an active role in making hate the minority on campus.”