Since the faculty voted last spring to set aside a day for Claiming Williams for the second year in a row, a new Claiming Williams Steering Committee has convened and is in the process of planning another event for Feb. 4. The Committee is currently soliciting ideas and proposals from the campus community for this year’s event.
Rick Spalding, College Chaplain and Committee member, said that this year’s event should be viewed as a fresh approach to raising serious questions about diversity and inclusiveness. “While these questions are perennial, what will be different this year is how we raise them,” he said.
According to Wendy Raymond, biology professor and associate dean for institutional diversity, this year’s event will mark numerous differences from last year. “People told us over and over how much they benefited from the discussions,” she said. However, she also remembers that participants reported not having enough time to participate in all the events in which they were interested. Raymond said that this year, with a smaller budget, one consequence will be fewer speakers and performers. According to Raymond, this may just be a blessing in disguise, as it will call for a more flexible schedule and encourage community participation.
Raymond said that one improvement she would definitely like to see is in how Claiming Williams is advertised. She said last year the tag “Examining privilege, building community” received a lot of negative feedback, especially surrounding the word “privilege.” Raymond said that because the multiple meanings of privilege were not articulated well, some people felt as if they were being blamed. “The steering committee is working to develop new and creative ways to entice people to participate in conversations around issues of unexamined privilege and think about the differences in our privilege levels,” she said.
Both Raymond and Spalding agreed that they would like to see more participation from the College community this year. Raymond said a survey taken after Claiming Williams last year estimated over 1000 participants and that she would like to see even more of a turnout this time around.
Giselle Lynch ’12, one of the current co-chairs of the programming subcommittee for Claiming Williams, noted that last year she was “sick of complaining about Williams” and decided to channel her discontent into getting involved on the Steering Committee this year. “I didn’t really feel like I belonged at Williams,” Lynch said. “I didn’t feel that I was smart enough or rich enough.” She said that while she thought the College would be progressive on issues like race, class and other similar issues, she didn’t see that progressivism among her fellow students. “Maybe I had preconceived notions, but I didn’t think I was that far off,” she said, noting that the Steering Committee is working to prompt conversation about these very issues.
“We’re looking to start conversations that are pretty taboo on the campus, not to enlighten people,” Lynch said. She said that one of these topics is how Williams was originally a school for all white, rich males. “Although the school has changed its institutional policies, the culture hasn’t adapted to those institutional concepts,” Lynch said. “I do think that there are a lot of people that don’t feel that they can ‘claim’ Williams.”
Lynch said that last year’s event generated a lot of positive energy but said that it should not be seen as the paradigm for a successful event. According to Lynch, the Claiming Williams Steering Committee is working in tandem with the Black Student Union, Queer Life and other minority student groups in order to broaden its perspective.
“I don’t want people to think that this is missionary work,” she said. “We’re not claiming to do everything, we’re just one avenue for provoking some kind of change … we want people to acknowledge that there’s something wrong and do something about it.”
To Spalding, one important question that Claiming Williams asks is, “How can the College help make it possible for every single member of the community to feel that they belong?” This was essentially the purpose of Claiming Williams last year, he said, and will be again this winter. “I don’t expect to be finished with these questions anytime soon,” Spalding added.
A winter 2008 incident involving racially offensive graffiti in the Williams Hall “E” entry was the main catalyst for last year’s Claiming Williams day, which was held in February 2009. In May 2008, Shayla Williams ’09 and Claire Schwartz ’10 presented to the faculty a proposal for Claiming Williams, which was approved to take place on the first Thursday of spring semester. To accommodate the change, the first day of classes was moved to the preceding Wednesday, which will also be the case in February 2010.
According to this year’s Claiming Williams mission statement, “Claiming Williams invites the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff and faculty can equally ‘claim’ Williams. By challenging the effects of the College’s history of inequality that are based on privileges of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional and cultural change.”