Building an equitable community: Making change to ensure staff can thrive

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Williams College claims as its mission, “to provide the finest possible liberal arts education.”  Achieving this lofty goal depends not just upon the students and faculty, but – crucially – upon the efforts of the College’s administrative and support staff. The College community, before it can engage in any learning, must be safe, well-fed and in clean surroundings. The resources beyond the classroom that support members of the community and make them feel welcome are too numerous to count. All of these contributions to the College’s mission come from our staff – partners in the College’s educational mission that truly make this institution what it is.

As the reporting in this and other issues of the Record, along with the panel on staff issues at Claiming Williams and the Faculty-Staff Initiative Report, have documented, there are deep and abiding concerns amongst staff at the College. Many staff – particularly support staff – feel their voices are undervalued in decisions that directly impact them and that they are considered as less-than-full members of the College community. They have expressed concern in many areas: compensation and benefits, workplace culture, equity and inclusion and participation in decision-making processes. This should be worrying to all of us as members of the College community; if staff do not feel that they are seen as full and equal members of our community, then we are failing in building a truly inclusive and equitable environment.

We see two inextricably linked priorities in reshaping our community’s culture around how we treat and value staff, especially support staff, at the College: appreciation and empowerment. We must first make explicit strides to elevate and express our gratitude for the often unheeded work that staff at the College do. But appreciation alone is not enough and will not deliver the tangible improvements that will make staff feel truly welcome at Williams. The College must also make structural changes that give staff the voice they deserve in decisions affecting them.

With regards to appreciation, this cultural shift will come about through small daily actions on the part of students and faculty. Just as we value and tout personal relationships amongst students and faculty as one of the College’s strengths, this should extend to staff as well. Students and faculty can enact a broader cultural shift through making the conscious effort to get to know the staff they interact with on a daily basis. Other recent grassroots efforts to recognize staff contributions – such as the student-organized Dining Services Appreciation Week – also model the type of public appreciation that can center and validate the important work that staff do.

There also must be a structural effort to center staff voices in decisions that affect them, such as those surrounding benefits, schedules and workplace culture. The College is in a perfect position to engage in this work as it begins its strategic planning process. The coordinating committee should ensure that support and administrative staff have ample opportunity, in a variety of formats, to lend their voices on various issues. Additionally, the coordinating committee should ensure that support staff are represented on the committee’s working groups. Too often, inclusion of staff voices in planning efforts and committee work is done via administrative staff, whose concerns and perspectives might differ greatly from those of support staff. Finally, the College should guarantee staff’s ability to fully participate in this process, by ensuring that they can attend relevant meetings or providing time off from job responsibilities to participate in these campus-wide conversations, particularly for support staff.

The College must also work to strengthen the perception of a robust reporting process for issues of inclusion and equity amongst staff. As staff members noted in this issue, many feel unable to report concerns about workplace climate due to fear of retaliation or belief that their concerns will not be taken seriously. The College should reaffirm its commitment to taking the concerns of staff seriously and reassess whether the current systems of reporting and accountability are adequate and appropriate.

Staff are a vital part of our community at the College and are essential to the College’s core mission. We owe them nothing less than the respect and sense of belonging that all of us hope to have in this community, and it is imperative the College pursue the changes that will grant all staff at the College the appreciation and empowerment they deserve.