Preach It Forward campaign seeks changes to chaplaincy

This summer, a group of students and recent alumni launched the Preach It Forward campaign by sending two letters to the chaplain’s office and administrators involved in chaplaincy hires. The first one, issued in July, was signed by 38 students and alumni; the second, released in August, was signed by five. The second letter outlined four concrete proposals: to require bias trainings for all members on chaplaincy search committees, to standardize how search committees garner community input, to reform the process of search committee membership selection and to require that “successful applicants have experience serving traditionally marginalized groups within their faith tradition, explicitly stating so in job postings and throughout hiring procedures.”

The Preach It Forward campaign, according to its Facebook page, is a “call on the Chaplains’ Office to renew its commitment to marginalized students of faith.” Currently headed by around 20 students and recent alumni, the public campaign “call[s] on the College to implement reforms that would reduce bias in staff hiring procedures” and “to prioritize the hiring of candidates who would serve marginalized students of faith, especially female and LGBTQ+ people.”

According to Christine Pash ’18, one of the students chairing Williams Interfaith this year and involved in the campaign, the letters and subsequent campaign target systemic biases and institutional systems, rather than recent individual hires. The chaplain’s office has not had a permanent chaplaincy position held by a woman since 2000-2004, although Rabbi Rachel Barenblat ’96 did serve as the interim Jewish Chaplain last spring.

“The letters were a result of issues surrounding gender-based marginalization,” Pash said. “People noticed that year after year, there are several new chaplains hired, and they all end up being male.”

The calls are particularly relevant, according to Pash, because of the anticipated departure next month of the only current LGBTQ+ chaplain, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding.

According to Tiffani Castro ’19, a student who became involved with the campaign this fall, many people were disappointed when Barenblat was not hired for the full-time Jewish chaplain position.

“People were very excited that there was a woman in the chaplain’s office,” Castro said. “There’s only so much you can speak about with someone if they don’t identify as [your gender]. There was huge disappointment when [Barenblat] was not hired – it felt like something that was being demanded was being listened to, and then it was taken away.”

Spalding said he remains committed to listening to students’ needs at the College.

“It matters to me a great deal that people know that the chaplain’s office is wholeheartedly in support of taking the opportunity that my departure creates to take another step in the direction of making the chaplain’s office even more useful to the Williams community,” Spalding said. “One vacancy out of four is huge. That’s a 25 percent infusion of brand-new energy, which is very exciting.”

According to Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass, the search process for Spalding’s replacement is already underway, and the calls made through the Preach It Forward campaign have already affected aspects of this search process.

“The second part of [our first meeting] was dedicated to a presentation and discussion on understanding implicit bias in search processes and the engagement of particular practices to ensure the most diverse pools of candidates possible,” Klass said. “This presentation was led by Ngoni Munemo, associate dean for institutional diversity and associate professor of political science. At this meeting, I also presented the aforementioned letter I had received from the campaign to the search committee so that they would read about their experiences firsthand.”

According to Pash, Preach It Forward has largely remained an effort led by students and recent alumni. “The responses were pretty much the administration’s standard response, which in the past – in many contexts and many administrators – has not lead to tangible change or satisfaction of student demands,” Pash said.

In addition to maintaining an active Facebook page and engaging in other efforts to increase awareness, students and alumni involved in Preach It Forward sent out surveys to students in religious communities on campus asking them to provide their experiences with sexism, homophobia and/or transphobia within religious communities on campus and with the chaplain’s office.

The survey asked the following questions, with the options of selecting “Yes, often,” “Yes, sometimes” or “No, not at all” and elaborating on that experience: “Have you had any experiences with [sexism, homophobia or transphobia] in religious and spiritual communities on campus?” and “Have you experienced [sexism, homophobia or transphobia] with any member of the Chaplains’ Office?” and “Do you feel comfortable approaching a Chaplain to discuss issues related to gender & sexuality?”

The idea behind asking these questions and gathering these responses, according to Pash, was to gather tangible evidence and stories to bring to the chaplain’s office and members of the administration involved in chaplaincy hires.

“The hope is definitely not to cloud the positive things that the chaplain’s office has done, but instead to gather research on these specific topics,” Pash said. “While there are definitely people who have not experienced sexism or homophobia in the chaplain’s office, [this call] is an obvious thing for a lot of people. We want more inclusion in our spiritual lives and spaces.”

Although Spalding supports the original premise behind the campaign, he “hasn’t been able to endorse some of the campaign’s subsequent steps and strategies.” 

“The survey asked students to provide narratives of sexism and homophobia that they had experienced in relation to the chaplain’s office,” Spalding said. “These surveys may unearth some painful and very important stories, which we will take with utmost seriousness. But there are a great many other stories which are apparently not welcome in the survey. And there’s no clarity about how any of the stories are being curated or will be reported.”

Emma Lezberg ’20, a member of Williams Interfaith and the Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA), finds the campaign important for marginalized students who could potentially visit the chaplain’s office.

“I personally don’t at all feel marginalized by the chaplain’s office or any other office at the College,” Lezberg said. “But if other students do, it is important to address that – and if implicit bias is affecting hiring decisions, it is important to address that as well.”

Although the campaign initially started primarily with a focus on issues of gender-based and sexuality-based marginalization, Pash said that the group hopes the campaign will remain inclusive of other issues of marginalization in religious life.

“[We have] realized that there are many other intersecting marginalizations [and] learned through critiques from other students that we were not succeeding fully in taking these marginalizations into account,” Pash said. “We’ve thus renewed our focus towards them.”