Claiming Williams kicks off

Drawing over 100 students, faculty and staff, Claiming Williams held its “launch event” on Sunday night in Baxter Hall. Organized by the Claiming Williams Steering Committee composed of faculty, staff and students, the event was intended to generate interest in Claiming Williams Day, to be held on Feb. 5.

“The purpose of the launch, on the most basic level, was to get the … event on the communal radar – to get people thinking about it,” said Professor Stefanie Solum, a member of the Committee involved in planning the event. The event consisted of musical performances and a “Voices” style montage of monologues by members of the campus community, as well as speeches by Claiming Williams planners on the purpose of their work and the event.

While the racist incident in Williams E that ignited the creation of the forum took place more than half a year ago, Committee members assert that the need to create a place for dialogue is still prevalent, and that Feb. 5 will fulfill this purpose. “I think the seed, the core of it, stands and remains,” said Dae Selcer ’10, a member of the Committee. “What is different now is the broadening of the focus. We brought in more faculty and staff. We broadened the issues: we want to talk about challenges that may not be immediately apparent. We want to provide a forum for everyone and [deal with] the disparity between what is and what we want Williams to be.”

Narae Park ’10, one of the main organizers, said she hoped Sunday’s event would give students an impression of the inclusive nature that Claiming Williams Day will take. “That was the main purpose of having all the different voices from our community come up on stage and tell us what Claiming Williams means to them, what they’re doing and how they’re going to do it,” Park said.

Discussions regarding the planning of the event began at the start of the fall term, with the majority of the arrangements being made within the past three to four weeks. While the event was a collaborative effort from all the members of the Steering Committee, Park, Selcer, Maria Cruz from Health Services and Solum played key roles in the planning of the event.

Selcer and Henry Montalbano ’10, the emcee, opened the event. “Claiming Williams is set on two things: the first, that people should have down-to-earth, genuine dialog, and the second, engagement – it needs to be an all-inclusive effort,” Montalbano said.

Against a backdrop of photographs of last spring’s Stand With Us rally and of dates of College responses to incidents of discrimination in the past five years, Shayla Williams ’09, a Committee member, spoke about students’ response to last year’s racist incident and its aftermath – the formation of Claiming Williams.

“We talked for four and a half hours about all kinds of social issues: racism, homophobia, classism. We talked about the times we were ‘othered’ at Williams,” she said. “We met again and again and made a list of what we wanted to accomplish. Two of these things were forums to discuss these issues – one short term one which is the Stand With Us rally along with one long term one, which is what Claiming Williams is. [All the decision-making] happened within a week and a half.”

Oriana McGee ’12 from group SpeakFree then performed a spoken word piece about the stereotypes that African-Americans often face in today’s culture, and about how she hopes to change the notion about such stereotypes by finding her own identity and following her aspirations.

In a reflection about finding identity in one’s life, Rick Spalding, Chaplain of the College, made a reference to the only stoplight that is in Williamstown, saying that in spite of its autonomy, “Williams is about intersections.” He reflected on the importance of the launch event’s date, Nov. 9, which marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, on which the Nazis killed many Jews and destroyed and pillaged numerous synagogues and homes throughout Germany.

“Whether we choose to repair our windows on the world depend on the choices we make everyday,” he said. “But on each window, there’s a mandate waiting to be grasped- where random vandalism is only a distant memory.”

Following Rick Spalding’s speech was a series of short monologues from students, faculty and staff, who shared their own struggles for identity, their hopes for the Williams community and the ways in which they each were “claiming Williams.”

“Whatever institutional effort that is put in place is good,” said Dorothy Wang, professor of American studies, “But each of us has to be guided by our own compass – and act on it the way we think best.”

The jazz ensemble group Oikos as well a capella groups Ephlats and Good Question performed during the night.

The Steering Committee hoped that the event would encourage members of the Williams community to become involved in Claiming Williams. “This is our invitation not only to Claiming Williams Day but also to get involved in the planning of it,” Park said. “It was really moving to see that many students, faculty and staff out there to support the event. I hope it got people excited for the event and let them realize that they could claim Williams in whatever way they wanted to.”