Claiming Williams spreads stories

Now in its third year of existence, last Thursday’s Claiming Williams Day saw an abundance of discussion-oriented events and a significant increase in student attendance. This is the event’s first year since its faculty-approved institutionalization last spring.

“I think students are really looking to broaden and deepen their conversations with each other,” said Carmen Whalen, associate dean for institutional diversity and facilitator of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee. She cited this as a reason for the focus on storytelling this year. “It’s an opportunity for us to get to know each other and to think about how our personal stories connect with larger issues,” she said.
For the first time, this year’s Claiming Williams headed with a theme, “Our Stories, Our Community, Our Responsibility.” The day played host to a range of events, including campus-relevant discussions such as “Yard by Yard: Student Stories on the Complex Role of Athletics at Williams,” “The Road Less Traveled: Non-traditional Students at Williams” and “Exploring Contexts: Culture and Religion in Storytelling.” The day also featured community forums such as “Let Me Tell You A (Really Fast) Story,” which allowed students to meet and greet in an impromptu-interview setting.

“HerStory,” one of the only events to feature participants from outside the College, was a performance in which four women confronted stereotypes and challenged perceptions. Although the event was not discussion-based, Whalen emphasized the importance of all Claiming Williams events’ inclusion of an interactive component, and noted that the performance was followed by a Q-and-A session with the performers. “Even there we wanted interaction,” she said.

Carrie Greene, academic program coordinator at the College and member of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee, said the fact that nearly every event was student-run probably “had a lot to do with the strong turn-outs for almost every event.”

According to Greene, the “Yard by Yard” discussion about athletics yielded 300 participants and “Non-Traditional Students” yielded 140. The “HerStory” performance in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance yielded 380 people, 95 percent of whom were students. Other theater events included the film The Color of Fear, with 206 people; a discussion hosted by Diane Williams ’02 following the film, with 81 people; the film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics and American Sports with 138 people and the post-film discussion, with 90 people.

“[The non-traditional students] panel was full,” said Malik Sharpe ’14, who presented at the panel. Sharpe, who said he classifies himself as a non-traditional student because his experiences and path to Williams are anything but typical, was pleasantly surprised by the showing on Thursday.
“It was so nice that people were there to listen,” Sharpe said, and he admitted that he finds that too often at the College, “people don’t listen enough.”

The Claiming Williams day was founded and first initiated in 2009 after the Stand With Us movement, which developed after a racial slur was written on a dormitory door in 2008. Since then, the day has existed as a venue for communication about issues that students find prevalent and pressing on campus. Often, the day serves as an open forum for students to express themselves to the College community about issues – oftentimes differences in race, sexuality and socioeconomic class – that may be uncomfortable.
“I was around for the racial incident that happened,” said Johannes Wilson ’11, a member of the Steering Committee. “That was my freshman year. It had a really big impact on me.”
Wilson said he has “done a lot of work with people from underrepresented backgrounds.” In addition to working with the Steering Committee the past three years, he has also been involved with the Queer Student Union and the Minority Coalition.

“The mission statement of Claiming Williams just lines up with the rest of my interests,” Wilson said of the initiative’s intention to foster and discuss diversity on campus.
Wilson said that over the past three years of the event’s existence, he has noticed some change in the tone of the day, including its energy.

“It felt a bit more urgent,” he said of the planning that directly followed the Stand With Us movement. He also acknowledged that the initial Claiming Williams fostered long-lasting, tangible effects, including the creation of the group Anything But Str8 in Athletics.

Wilson urged that although Claiming Williams has become very much about sharing experiences and stories, “we need to make sure that change is part of our goal.”

One change that accompanied Claiming Williams this year was an increased focus on athletics. Following an all-campus forum in the fall about the role of athletes on campus, several events either focused directly upon athletics or included student athletes and coaches alongside staff, faculty and other students on discussion panels.

Lisa Melendy, associate director of athletics, served with Marshall Creighton, assistant football and baseball coach, on the Steering Committee.

“We are involved because we are committed to the goals of Claiming Williams Day,” Melendy said. “It is important for athletics to be involved in any effort which is centered on building understanding and community.”

Troy Whittington ’11, tri-captain of men’s basketball, said the Steering Committee approached him and asked him to tell his story. “I agreed, and the rest was history,” he said. “I chose to do Claiming Williams this year because I feel like it’s an important day and very intellectually valuable to those who approach it with an open mind and try to take something away from it. I wanted to contribute to that in any way possible. Athletics should be addressed because it is a huge aspect of inter-group interactions around campus and to ignore it would be silly. It plays just as much of a role as race or gender does on our campus.”
As the Steering Committee goes forward in planning next year’s Claiming Williams events, its facilitators will keep an eye out for student feedback. This year, in addition to posting an online survey after the day, event organizers handed out evaluation cards at each forum or discussion to obtain more event-specific feedback from participants.

“This is a growing and evolving process,” Whalen said. According to the Steering Committee, some important growth the process has already seen in the day’s institutionalization.

“You lose a lot of time just trying to get [the day] on the schedule,” Whalen said. “That time can now go to making it flourish, to involving more students, to working on more proposals and to thinking of ways to sustain the discussions throughout the year.”

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