Claiming Williams Day engages community in diversity

Claiming Williams echoes themes of the “I am Williams” photo project, highlighting individual stories of community members.
Claiming Williams echoes themes of the “I am Williams” photo project, highlighting individual stories of community members.

The College community gathered last Thursday for Claiming Williams Day, a series of discussions, lectures, movie screenings and exhibits designed to embrace diversity on campus. With a schedule of 30 formal events, students were able to engage in a variety of thought-provoking presentations and dialogues concerning issues surrounding our cultural variety.

Since its creation five years ago, Claiming Williams has represented a campus-wide initiative to combat racial intolerance. In Jan. 2008, there were a series of discriminatory incidents targeted at students in a first-year entry. The word “n****r”, accompanied by drawings of male genitalia, was written on several doors. This episode represented an escalation for one first year student in the entry, whose whiteboard featuring her daily scripture was regularly defaced with vulgar pictures and language.

Stand With Us, a coalition of students, faculty and staff, emerged in response to these incidents. Though Stand With Us represented an immediate reaction to the incident, it was also formed to look at how the College vocalized its views on diversity going forward. According to the history section of Claiming Williams’ website, “Claiming Williams Day arose from Stand with Us – from their priorities and the hard work of a sub-committee. The hope was that the community would work pro-actively to prevent hurtful, hateful incidents, rather than just responding afterwards.”

Grassroots in its genesis and implementation, Claiming Williams relies on community participation. “The events you see are all proposed by members of the Williams Community – students, faculty, staff and even alumni this year,” Maximiliano Magaña ’14 of the Claiming Williams Steering Committee said. “The Committee works hard throughout the academic year. We participate in all steps of the planning process making sure the event will stay true to its purpose. We hope the day’s events foster healthy discussions on respect and diversity year-round, not just on Claiming Williams Day.”

This year, Tulane Professor of Political Science Melissa Harris-Perry gave the keynote address, titled “What Difference Does it Make? Politics, Activism and Scholarship.” U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz spoke in the workshop “Avoiding Hate Crimes and Building Advocacy.” As the first Hispanic and first woman to represent Massachusetts as a U.S. Attorney, Ortiz gave her insights into building advocacy and awareness of bias incidents.

The popular performance piece Phallacies, designed by students and Assistant Director of the Davis Center Taj Smith to confront unhealthy attributes of traditional masculinity, was featured for a second year at Claiming Williams. The forum “Fighting the Invisible: Breaking the Grip of Stigma on our Community’s Mental Health” gave students an opportunity to break into discussion groups and talk through. Lunchtime dialogues addressed issues from this year’s Williams Reads book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich to being racially mixed at Williams to the history of and campaign for Asian American studies at the College.

In the afternoon, events focused on community forums. Students filled MainStage at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance to capacity for “Creating a World of Tolerance: An Afternoon with Esera Tuaolo.” Tuaolo, a former NFL player, discussed his journey as a gay man in the hyper-masculine culture of professional football. In “Heart to Table: Who Feeds the Williams Soul?” a panel of Dining Services staff members answered questions from community members about their day-to-day and experiences at the College.

Films also played a part in promoting contemplation at Claiming Williams. Mosquita y Mari, a coming of age story about two Chicana teenagers caught between familial expectation and a desire to be themselves, brought up issues of identity. After the screening, director of the film Aurora Guerrero joined the audience for a discussion. The Philosopher Kings turned the camera lens on custodial workers at major colleges and universities, following their lives in and out of uniform.

After dinner dialogues about being a first generation student at the College and politics, activism and scholarship, events continued to engage students and community members. Bill Bowers, an acclaimed American mime who studied with legendary Marcel Marceau, performed his one-man show Beyond Words. Communicating with the audience through monologue, music and movement, Bowers described his life in small town America. In “Who are You Calling a ‘Ho?’ Challenging the Sexual Culture on Campus,” Director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School professor Diane Rosenfeld highlighted issues surrounding sexism and campus culture. Student-led band Homage closed out the day by playing music that helped them dig deeper in a concert titled “Harmonizing Home: A Claiming Williams Musical Event.”

While numbers on attendance have not yet been released, Claiming Williams seemed to attract a lot more participants this year. “Everything I went to was packed,” Dean Bolton said. “I went to things from the opening at 9 a.m. to the event on sexual violence at 8 p.m. and they were all packed. I was impressed that even at 8 p.m. people were willing to stand for one hour and a half event.”