Claiming Williams elicits reactions

After a year of planning and organization, the second Claiming Williams Day was held last Thursday. Amidst varying opinions ranging from whole-hearted support to apathy and criticism, the performances, forums and various events drew members of the community together in discussion and thoughtfulness.

From Professor of Psychology Steve Fein’s keynote lecture on stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination to Lenelle Moïse’s closing keynote spoken word performance, the day was jam-packed with a variety of events. Community forums included “‘Everyone does it’ – The Alcohol Culture at Williams” and a discussion of entry life, in which students came together to talk specifically about life on campus. “Standing Together: Williams Voices,” a compilation of personal narratives, and “In Our Own Words: Williams Student Experiences,” a documentary of recent and current College students, drew on the many stories present within the lives of those on campus. The film The Philosopher Kings, which chronicled the experiences of janitors at the nation’s top colleges, was shown twice during the day, and a discussion with director Patrick Shen following the second screening. The Lehman Council-sponsored dinner mixed students, faculty and staff together in dining halls for a volunteer-served dinner.

According to Mike Reed, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity, the College relied more on inside resources this year than it did for last year’s Claiming Williams Day. Reed explained that while it was a financially practical decision, the more important reason for the shift was to involve more of the College community. “We have people that are more intimately aware of some of the institutional challenges and who possess expertise around addressing challenges of inclusion,” Reed said.

Preliminary results of a post-event survey sponsored by the steering committee showed that the majority of Claiming Williams Day participants were students, 64 percent. Of students who did not attend Claiming Williams Day, 61 percent said they did not attend because they did not want to, while 11 percent said they wanted to attend but were not available.

Of students who attended Claiming Williams Day, 48 percent of those surveyed said Claiming Williams Day somewhat changed the way they think about the College. Meanwhile, 86 percent of surveyed students who did not attend Claiming Williams Day said the event was personally not worthwhile to them, and 47 percent said the event was not worthwhile to the College community as a whole.

Of the surveyed students, 68 percent said some form of Claiming Williams Day should occur again. Of these students, 79 percent said it should occur every year, 64 percent said it should occur at the same time of year and 62 percent said it should occur in the same format.

Reed said that the event as a whole was better-attended than last year, an increase that he attributed to successful promotional efforts by the Claiming Williams Steering Committee. Wendy Raymond, associate dean for institutional diversity, said that the Committee “made a concerted effort, starting in December, to reach out to first-year students,” a group who might otherwise not have known what Claiming Williams entailed. Raymond added that having a mission statement this year provided the Committee with a more grounded focus.

The Claiming Williams mission statement says: “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, gender, sexuality and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional, and cultural change.”

Raymond acknowledged that the event was still not without critics, explaining that at the town hall discussion at the Log, several students raised the concern that white males feel marginalized by Claiming Williams Day’s focus on minority groups,as well as blamed for having “privilege.” Raymond said that acknowledging the fact that privilege exists is important. “There’s no guilt, no pointing fingers, these are just realities of our society,” Raymond said. “That’s the education part.”

Raymond said that one notable outcome of this year’s Claiming Williams Day was the showing of the film The Philosopher Kings to the custodial staff pre-Claiming Williams. “That was really powerful,” Raymond said. “It basically put a mirror in front of them. That the custodial staff understand and feel affirmed as part of our community is a tangible change of Claiming Williams,” she added.

Student feedback

“I’ve been really looking forward to [Claiming Williams] for a long time,” Krista Pickett ’13 said. “Williams is my dream school, so any day for celebrating it is great.” Pickett attended the discussion about alcohol, the entry talk and Williams Voices, and also volunteered at the community dinner. Pickett said the two most meaningful events she attended were the two discussions in the morning, particularly the entry talk, in which those in attendance broke into small groups. Pickett said that her group talked about the entry as a safe place for first-years, drawing on the anecdotes of several participants.
“I feel like the College is going through a transition for housing [and] I’ve been involved in a lot of those conversations,” Pickett said. “Hearing from people involved like JAs and freshmen was particularly valuable. It was really enlightening to hear from people with different experiences.”
Will Weiss ’12, who attended Claiming Williams Day last year, said that at this year’s event he noticed more events related to queer issues, like the discussion on how to be an ally. “I think that’s definitely a product of the incident that happened at Mission this year,” Weiss said, referring to the homophobic incident that took place over Thanksgiving break. “It’s interesting that the focus shifted based on events that happened.” Weiss said he also appreciated this year’s focus on discussion-oriented events.
“I was blown away by the Lenelle Moïse performance,” Christine Ihara ’12 said. According to Ihara, the performance embodied the Claiming Williams message. “The way her message was delivered was exactly what I believe [Claiming Williams] should be: a dynamic discussion in which individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds can truly express and communicate how social factors such as race, sexual orientation, gender, or socioeconomic class have impacted not only their experience at Williams, but their lives,” Ihara said.
Will Slack ’11 said that one valuable event he attended was “Let Me Tell You a Really Really Fast Story,” which allowed students to have brief conversations with one another about their lives and backgrounds. He said this event felt “less prescriptive” than others.
“You don’t have to raise awareness with an awareness campaign necessarily, and build bridges with a bridge-building campaign,” Slack said. “It was nice to talk to people one-on-one about their backgrounds without talking about the issues that Claiming Williams specifically addresses.” Slack added that the conversational event drove home the idea that all students at the College have unique and interesting stories to tell.

Rethinking the Day

Despite such praise of Claiming Williams, others believe the day to be inefficient in its purpose, or even accusatory toward certain students. Before and during Claiming Williams, a poster in the Paresky Center showed comments related to different aspects of the event, and reactions were both positive and negative. Students on Williams Students Online discussion threads expressed their frustration with the notion of an entire day being set aside for events that they believe are only geared for certain groups.
Kevin O’Connell ’13 said that while he liked the discussion and introspection sparked by Claiming Williams Day, one problem with the event is the focus on specific groups, rather than bringing the community together. “By focusing on and prioritizing the needs of certain individuals over others on the basis of their demographic characteristics, Claiming Williams is divisive,” O’Connell said. “There is very little that can be accomplished, so long as the interests of certain groups of people are privileged above the interests of another group of people.”

O’Connell said that intelligent discussion is paramount, and that the best way to move past differences is to recognize that as students at the College, we all have something in common and can learn from one another.
Weiss said that while he sees Claiming Williams Day becoming part of the College’s culture, attendance could certainly improve. “A lot of people who go to Claiming Williams are already difference-makers within the community,” Weiss said. “A lot of others tune [Claiming Williams Day] out. People sort of lump all the issues regarding underrepresented groups into one category, and as far as they’re concerned, if they’re not outwardly racist, then they’re not part of the problem.” Weiss said that in order to encourage participation, the College needs to be sure nobody feels vilified by a campus-wide event.

Slack suggested that part of ending vilification is separating Claiming Williams from more militant movements of the past. He views Claiming Williams as at a crossroads between existing as a response to a racist incident in a freshman entry two years ago and existing as a separate, community-building event. “We’re at an interesting transition point,” he said. “If Claiming Williams happens next year, the only people who will remember the instigating event are the seniors. The further we can move [Claiming Williams Day] from the polarizing history of Stand With Us, the better off the event will be.”

The future

Raymond said that in the past the two faculty votes to hold Claiming Williams Day were near unanimous votes in favor of it, but she also acknowledged concern over faculty not feeling comfortable saying they were opposing the event for fear of being labeled racist.
Lynch, Claiming Williams Steering Committee co-chair, said that at this point it is unclear whether Claiming Williams will exist next year or in the future. She explained that first, a proposal would need to be drafted and then the faculty would vote on the proposal. “I don’t even know if CW needs to happen every year,” Lynch said. “I think it’s important to have it, but I don’t know about every year.” She said that hosting similar events repeatedly may grow old for the student body, and it is important to “restructure [Claiming Williams] to keep it fresh.”

Lynch also emphasized the fact that Claiming Williams is only the beginning, only a catalyst for discussion on campus. “I think the College has made a lot of strides to institutionally change this place, but I think the culture has not yet changed,” Lynch said. “We’re not attempting to be a panacea for this community. Claiming Williams has not made allies out of everybody,” she said, adding that part of change is up to the individual.

  • I lked the comments of Kevin O’Connell. The day could be dramatically better if the Administration has the ability to comprehend what he is saying. I am not too hopeful. Programs such as this should promote the process of learning by allowing students to interact with one another in a personal and biographical manner. By structuring group activities which promote the fragmentation of the student body into diverse groupings, the Administration defeats its goal of Williams as a meritocracy.

    By selecting me as a Tyng Scholar many years ago, Dean Fred Copeland implemented President Phinney Baxter’s goal of making Williams less egalitarian. While I applaud the Administration’s continuing efforts in this direction, I feel uneasy about the process of Claiming Williams. Inclusiveness at Williams is earned by interaction of its students, not by Administrative fiat.

    Donald S. Martin ’52

  • Richard A Peinert, ‘ 69

    Mr. Martin hit the nail on the head. One cannot legislate tolerance. Whether the “Claiming Williams” leaders like it or not, Williams will always be an “elite” school. Get over yourselves, enjoy each other, get on with your lives. Opposites attract and the gays, Jews, African-American, WASPS and Catholics in Sage C all got along just fine without the need for a day of reflection. Once you all realize the real world does not revolve around you and you get kicked on your butt a few times, you will have better things to do than beat your breast about how unfair it is you ever ended up at Williams.

    BTW, Tyng Scholar also. I was never guilty about it having grown up on Lynn, Ma. From my comments, you are right to assume my award was not based on political correctness

  • Bill Kimbrough

    This sort of thing does more harm than good. I’ve always felt that the more we emphasize our differences the more we are drawn apart.Why can’t we just be people together?—Bill Kimbrough ’53