There are a lot of ways students can be leaders at Williams, and one of the most underappreciated ones is to be an activist. Activists make us uncomfortable by shaking our community out of its collective contentment with the status quo. They demand that Williams be more inclusive and fair. They were activists who took over Hopkins Hall in 1969; they said “stand with us” as they marched through the libraries in 2009, and formed a group called “Students Against Silence” in 2011. Two weeks ago, activists wrote an open letter to the community, and ever since there have been heated late-night conversations in entry common rooms and in dining halls as Williams tries to make sense of it all.
The letter written by Cinnamon Williams ’16 and Ahmad Greene-Hayes ’16 has a base of support, although most students object to parts (if not most) of it. Troubling for both its inaccuracy and offensiveness is the accusation that Williams is currently complicit in “white supremacy.” While white privilege exists at Williams, the “white supremacist” accusation – which came up in the letter, the comments on the Record’s Facebook page and in the All Campus Entertainment (ACE) moderated forum in Griffin 3 – cannot be part of any reasonable dialogue.
So too is the claim that the Williams administration is not committed to addressing institutionalized bias and discrimination. The collective work of student activists and administrators in the 1960s to dismantle fraternities and recruit more minority students and faculty bears evidence to the contrary. More recently, the College set up a bias incident reporting website and hired Meg Bossong ’05 to improve sexual assault prevention and response at Williams.
Also present in the letter was their protest of Bloomberg’s imminent arrival in Williamstown for Commencement. While I admire Bloomberg’s overall tenure as mayor of New York and am thrilled he’s coming to campus, Cinnamon and Ahmad’s letter reveals an uncomfortable truth that will rattle me as I await my diploma on June 8. Some of my classmates will have the person who sends them off into the world be someone that has come to represent an unjust, possibly unconstitutional policy that systematically oppresses people of color: stop-and-frisk. I have no idea how I would feel in their shoes and as a community, we should empathize with their Commencement day ordeal.
So I’m glad Cinnamon and Ahmad wrote the letter, and you should be too. You don’t have to agree with all (or most) of it to appreciate the courage it takes to challenge your community to improve. For most of its history Williams was an all white male institution, and the letter slipped under the Record’s door illustrates that we still have a long way to go to make Williams a place where every student feels safe and included.
But there’s another type of activism that’s just as important: being a change agent within the institutions that need to improve. I’ve seen some students reject this version of activism in the last few weeks. At the ACE forum, some students shot down the idea of joining ACE to help it better represent all students. Check out the barrage of comments on the Record’s Facebook page, and you’ll see ridicule of writing op-eds or joining the Record staff.
I hope these students change their minds because student leadership organizations at Williams like the Record, College Council (CC), ACE and the JA system need those voices. Obviously, this is easier said than done. All of those institutions tend to be whiter than the student body as a whole. As anyone who has ever had to represent his or her entire race, gender or sexual orientation in a classroom can tell you, constantly being the dissenting voice is challenging. So I do not suggest this form of activism lightly or propose that it will be easy. Williams needs activists in CC who will speak up and explain why a policy or budget may marginalize low-income students. We need activists in the Record who will call out language in an article that is too flippant about sexual assault.
Being that type of person is courageous, and that’s what activism is. It was courageous of Cinnamon and Ahmad to put their name on something they knew the majority of their classmates would disagree with.
We need more of that, because there is still work to be done to make Williams a more inclusive place where we all feel at home. The entry system enjoys the support of about 90 percent of the student body, but the 10 percent who did not have a good entry experience tend to be overwhelmingly first-generation and students of color. Williams’ varsity sports teams tend to be whiter and wealthier than the student body as a whole. Fortunately, there is also progress. Low-income students can now get financial support to buy their gear so they will not be priced off the field.
We may not all be able to claim Williams equally, but we’re all here together. This wonderful school will continue to improve, and both types of activists have a role to play.
Max Heninger ’14 is a political science major from Lake Oswego, Ore. He lives on Park St.