Berkshire student activists convene at second annual BISA conference

The Williams Center for Community Engagement hosted its second annual Berkshire Institute for Student Activism (BISA) conference last Saturday for students from Williams, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Bennington College. The 80 students who attended the conference attended several workshops centered around the theme of “framing a second bill of rights.”

“The conference was a day for us to collectively envision our future,” said Stewart Burns, director of the conference and coordinator of Community Engagement. “This year we focused on getting students involved on specific campaigns right away.”

At the conference, students attended two morning and two afternoon workshops of their choice in Griffin. The conference ended with an hour-long plenary in Paresky Performance Space, where students discussed interrelations between the issues they had covered and possible action plans.

A variety of experts from Massachusetts and Connecticut facilitated the workshops. The morning sessions, which focused on leadership skills, included topics such as negotiation skills, creating community coalitions and disaster response. The afternoon sessions were geared toward campaign building, with subjects such as healthcare reform, immigrant rights and ending violence against women.

Burns and Randy Kehler led a morning session called “Cultivating Ethical Leadership.” Kehler, a social justice activist, attended Harvard University and began graduate studies at the Stanford School of Education before redirecting his energy towards the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era. They centered the discussion on what constitutes a good leader.

Another morning session, “Mobilizing Disaster Response,” was run by Kathleen Schneider of Save the Children, an international non-profit organization. Schneider, who had returned from Tajikistan just the day before, spoke about the country’s current situation and how to formulate response plans. “Our goal in working emergencies should be to work ourselves out of a job,” Schneider said. “Unfortunately, I have pretty good job security.”

After the morning sessions equipped students with tools for leadership, the afternoon turned to specific issues. Morgan Goodwin ’08 ran one such workshop, “Youth Climate Change Movement,” using the input and ideas of students involved to shape his presentation. “Whatever people come are the right people. Whatever things we talk about are the right things,” Goodwin said.

The culminating plenary sought to pull together the variety of ideas and topics that had been explored during the day. One of the overarching conclusions the group reached was that all the issues – from healthcare to the environment to poverty – were undeniably related. They also affirmed the importance of standing up for these issues. “That’s what we’re fighting against: people not caring,” said Lily Li ’08.

The students expressed the hope that the conference would help draw the participating colleges closer together. During the plenary, Burns encouraged more collaboration in the future. Bennington student Suzanne Brundage echoed his sentiments. “There’s been a lot of talk about wanting to correspond and collaborate with Williams students,” she said, adding that the dialogue was exciting.

“Our hope for the conference was for students to come away with the skills and the confidence to make real social change,” said Torrey Taussig ’10, a conference organizer. “The most meaningful part of it was that people got to work with experts about things that they identified with and were passionate about.”