Staking our claim

Fifty-two weeks ago, Claiming Williams was born. In response to a core-shaking racist incident and the vehemence of the Stand With Us movement that followed, students hoped to channel some of the campus’s newfound energy into lasting institutional and cultural change. Claiming Williams Day, the culmination of the year-long effort of a few of those students together with supportive faculty and staff, was envisioned rather nebulously as an agent of this change, as a day for both self-reflection and inclusive dialogue on the issues we face as members of the Williams community. Those are attractive terms, ones that speak both to the optimism and the uncertainty that characterized many people’s experiences last Thursday. We are pleased and impressed with the successes of the day and hope that Claiming Williams will happen again, with future planners heeding the many lessons from this first run.

The jury is out on whether there will be another Claiming Williams Day next year, but we believe that its continuation is imperative. The problems of indifference and misunderstanding are not over; if the College is content merely to cling to fond memories of the only day we have specifically designed to discuss these problems, it may as well close the book on solving them.

One way to sustain this important tradition of dialogue is to further institutionalize Claiming Williams Day. The student co-chairs who organized this year’s day, Claire Schwartz ’10 and Shayla Williams ’09, were immensely dedicated, but they will graduate – and there is no guarantee that equally impassioned underclassmen are waiting in the wings to fill their roles. Just as the College announced its commitment to environmentalism by opening the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives with Stephanie Boyd at its head, it should consider creating a permanent staff position in charge of Claiming Williams and year-round events in that same spirit.

Another benefit to making Claiming Williams an annual occasion is that with every passing year, the campus can move further away from the for-us-or-against-us undertones in the Pact Against Hatred and Indifference and the vociferous march at the climax Stand With Us, and move toward the culture of conversation pioneered by that same movement.

Early signs look promising, and those that devoted themselves to planning this program deserve immense praise. From a logistical standpoint, the orchestration of Claiming Williams required an unwieldy amount of organization and, on the whole, things went off almost without a hitch.

The abundance of panels, discussions and lectures was a major strength of the day, giving people the freedom to choose their level of involvement in the discourse. Even those who opted not to attend any of the events found themselves in discussions about the issues raised. It is impressive and auspicious that so many community members attended the lectures, forums and performances available throughout the day. Packed theaters in the ’62 Center at all hours demonstrated that there is a critical mass of students, faculty and staff who are invested in navigating the terms of change.

This critical mass took advantage of the 26 events offered throughout the day, each meaningful in its own way and successful to a varying degree. In the forum on campus alcohol culture, students with diametrically opposing relationships to alcohol stood up and listened to one another. At “Let Me Tell You A Really Fast Story,” strangers swapped stories about childhood pets and holiday traditions. At the community forum on queer life, students, faculty and staff talked frankly about their successes and frustrations. In sum, a lot of good conversations began on this day.

From a logistical standpoint, there were some glitches that will require reconsideration for future events. One notable source of complaint was the dinner served in all dining halls. The meal simple enough for student volunteers to prepare sparked grumbling from a variety of sectors, notably the lactose intolerant and athletes who were disappointed at the lack of protein after their afternoon practice. Conceived with the noble intention of students getting to step into the shoes of dining services staff, the idea caused more aggregate frustration than warm fuzzies, and unnecessarily made several groups feel cheated.

Organizational details aside, the problem with Claiming Williams is that people on this campus – most notably students – do not agree about what is going on. A large and heartening number of students took part in the events of the day, but there was not, for many, a sense of cohesion or singularity of purpose. And then there were those who convened to claim Williams by drinking, and those who just weren’t compelled to attend at all.

There are still fundamental disagreements about what Claiming Williams Day meant and what it tried to accomplish. Was the alienation felt by some students who self-identify as “privileged” – as white, affluent, or perhaps those who were just disinterested – a nasty side effect of the day, or its intended symptom?

Whatever the case, it is clear that a rhetoric of victims and villains gets this conversation nowhere, fast. Intended or not, the first half of the slogan “Examining Privilege, Building Community” struck an unfortunate chord with a number of students and turned them off the event. On the other hand, there are still people who feel wronged and victimized by things said and written on this campus. How do we include the “privileged” while also acknowledging and respecting the sentiments of those marginalized by that privilege? The assessment panel emphasized the importance of “productive anger” – but how can the campus bind that productive anger with the other, significant portion of students who don’t feel it?

Questions like these are an instantiation and a reminder of the frustrating and perplexing work whose necessity Claiming Williams reveals. That is to say, trying to understand one another is hard. The more that we do to make all members of our community feel included in this trying, the more authentic the resultant understanding will be.