Williams can be a deeply warm place. Its pockets of warmth arise when students get together — practicing with a sports team, escaping the icy air to gather with friends in Paresky, participating in a seminar. When we connect with each other in the midst of frosty weather, our removed location and the barrage of midterms, Williams’ community is strongest.
Last year, when it came to national politics, Williams students weren’t really connecting with each other. While a courageous portion of Williams students were vocal, many were hesitant to discuss politics with people other than close friends (maybe stemming from past disagreement on campus issues that was neither healthy nor based in trust). Without a campus-wide culture of open conversation, it was difficult to find a sense of community around national politics, or to even just stay up to date.
The Williams Forum was founded three years ago with the goal of increasing political activity on campus. In its first couple of years, the Forum made some progress on this front, inviting speakers and hosting debates. Last year, the club was less active, only co-sponsoring a few guest speakers.
This year, we revived the Forum with a new vision: to create a space where students can dig into national politics with each other. Every Friday at 7:30pm in the Mabie Room in Sawyer, we pick an issue and sift through it, determining where and why our perspectives overlap and diverge. Our conversations have ranged from the format of the presidential debates to impeachment proceedings, privacy and Big Tech and political conspiracies.
The Mabie conversations follow three simple principles. First, all participation must be motivated by appreciation for all kinds of people. Second, anyone who brings in new information must first explain it so that others can use it too. Third, we ask that people speak up when they are unfamiliar with something referenced (e.g., a term, a phrase, a political figure). We hope our conversations demonstrate the beauty of open engagement and the ability of these three principles to produce it.
While the Mabie conversations are important to our political engagement with each other and with national politics, they are only the beginning. For students to take ownership over their politics, we have to improve the way we invite political speakers to campus. One often goes to a speaker event if she’s seen it in a Daily Message or heard about it from a professor and thinks she’ll be entertained enough to sit and listen for an hour. Afterward — inspired, upset or anywhere in between — she might share her reaction with a friend, then move on.
We believe speaker events should channel student interest. After our Mabie conversations, we identify perspectives that were missing and invite those perspectives into our space. Sometimes that means we include new students, faculty or staff. Sometimes, it means that we invite political figures or thinkers from outside the Williams community. Either way, we envision a town-hall dynamic, driven by student interest, that erodes the distinction between audience and speaker. Multiple events are being organized for the spring.
We want the trust and open discussion that exists in Mabie to be the norm. On Williams campus, it’s a huge project, and we have a long way to go. But insofar as students here care about our college and national communities, deep political engagement at Williams remains urgent and feasible.