Reconstructing Storytime: Taking time off to reflect on a Williams tradition

We are Storyboard, the group that organizes and runs Storytime every week. We are non-hierarchical, which means that we do not have a leader and that we make decisions together as a board. In the past, the board has chosen storytellers based on nominations and self-nominations; the choice of the story or stories is completely up to the storyteller.

This semester, we have decided to put Storytime on hold in order to provide space and time for deeper, more public conversations about our mission and implement changes in an intentional way. The abundance of campus conversations surrounding identity and privilege, inclusion and equity, along with individuals expressing their discomfort with Storytime instilled our conversations with greater urgency. This prompted us to think more critically about the ways in which Storytime might feel like a space for consuming other people’s pain rather than a space to affirm people’s cypher, narrative or spoken word. As we examined how Storytime further perpetuates these issues, our conversations generated many more questions than answers, and we reached a point at which we were so unclear about our mission that we felt to continue to organize weekly Storytimes would be irresponsible.

At this point, we feel that this dialogue has been too insular. We want to be transparent and collaborative with the rest of the College community. To begin we reached out to Bilal Ansari, assistant director of the Davis Center to help, and we are grateful that he agreed to advise our board. Fundamentally, Storytime is a community-building event, and therefore the community must have a greater say in its mission, form and actualization. At this critical juncture, Storyboard realizes the importance of decentralizing its decision-making to our community at large, especially given the fact that our board is currently predominantly white. In an effort to begin the process of opening up the conversation, here are some of the questions of diversity, equity and inclusion with which we have been grappling:

● How do one’s identities inform one’s experience as a speaker, as a listener and as a board member?

● How can Storytime best reflect the needs and diversity of our community?

● Whom does Storytime currently serve, and whom should it serve? To what extent is it possible for Storytime to be a space for the whole campus community?

● How should our current political context inform Storytime’s purpose and format?

● How should the board choose who gives a Storytime? Should priority be given to particular types of stories or to people with underrepresented experiences and/or marginalized identities? How can we do this without tokenizing speakers and perpetuating problematic power structures?

● Given the extent to which Storytime has become institutionalized and fixed by the weight of tradition, can it change in the ways it might need to? Is the institutionalization of Storytime (i.e. as a question on the Williams application and advertised as an event for Previews) a concern? How might this be addressed?

● Is Storytime a necessary space on this campus and how might it need to be restructured to serve its purpose given the campus culture?

In the upcoming weeks, Storyboard will be receiving feedback and taking action regarding these questions in a number of ways. We are requesting feedback from an anonymous form (bit.ly/storytimefeedback) and holding a town hall meeting on Sunday, Oct. 14 at 9 p.m. in the Henze Lounge. We are also reopening applications to be on Storyboard.

We invite you to participate in one or more of these opportunities, and we welcome all and any thoughts and reactions, even if you have never been to a Storytime before and regardless of whether your feedback is positive or negative. If this whole article can be summarized briefly: Storyboard is questioning Storytime’s execution of its mission, and we want input from the entire Williams community to help shape its future.

Ultimately, storytelling at the College can and does exist beyond the event of Storytime; we hope that despite Storytime’s break, and regardless of how Storytime may change in the future, we can all continue to celebrate each other’s stories and to embrace the openness, vulnerability, love and deep listening that lie at the heart of storytelling.

Chris Avila ’21 is from Wilmington, Del., intending to double major in political economy and chemistry; Hannah Goldstein ’20 is an environmental studies major from Brookline, Mass.; Maya Jasinska ’21 is from New York N.Y. and her major is undecided; Emma Reichheld ’19 is a psychology and Spanish double major from Concord, Mass. and Angela Yu ’20 is an art history and math double major from Westport, Conn.

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