Toward building an inclusive Williams: As the Davis Center enters its fourth decade, reflections on its values, mission and future

Leticia Smith-Evans

As a student at the College, I, like many today, was engaged in many ways — Kusika, Gypsy Melodies, Black Student Union, Junior Advisor, to name a few.  I also co-led Students Promoting Awareness, Respect and Community (SPARC), an effort housed in and supported by the Multi Cultural Center (MCC), now the Davis Center.  I spent time on campus, facilitating conversations for students, and off campus, working with local schools to facilitate conversations about inclusion.  It was some of the most important work I did as a student; it was challenging yet rewarding. As a young alum, I remained involved — supporting current students and serving on the Williams Black Alumni Network’s (WBAN) steering committee. Through that work, I was able to see how the College evolved as it  became increasingly diverse.

It was an honor to return to campus as the second vice president to lead the College’s office for diversity, equity and inclusion. Today, that office — the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) — strives to build bridges between and among constituents on and off campus, while simultaneously developing pathways to opportunities so that everyone at the College thrives and has a strong sense of belonging. 

As part of OIDEI, the Davis Center’s central mission is building an inclusive community. Through its four-decade history, the Center has played a critical role in shaping and meeting the College’s goals around diversity, equity and inclusion. Its primary focus has always been on working with and supporting students from historically underrepresented and often marginalized groups.   

As the College has become increasingly diverse, some have said that the campus culture has not kept up with the changing demographics. The needs of students and other constituents have changed. Recent structural changes reflect new approaches to furthering inclusion across campus. As always, we will continue to center student needs. Broad institutional support of the Davis Center, reflected by the building project, vision and structural changes, will help ensure that the Center is poised to meet the current and evolving needs of the campus community, particularly the students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups.  

Over the past few years, we’ve come to understand that there must be particular attention given to the following: 

First, fostering inclusive learning environments: At Williams, the social and the academic are intertwined and overlap, necessitating fully inclusive learning environments.  Yet students continue to express concerns about challenging interactions, based on their identities, both in and out of the classroom.  We must ensure that all students feel a strong sense of belonging everywhere — from the classroom to the athletic field, the dining hall to the stage.  We know that all of these places and spaces should welcome and embrace everyone. 

Second, positioning every member of our community as life-long learners with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion — whether they are a pre-frosh participating in our summer programs or a tenured faculty member.  While we currently facilitate workshops across campus on these topics, we aim to reach more people, and deepen and broaden the scope of this work.

Third, supporting positive inter- and intra-group relations by integrating restorative practices.  

We hope to equip all members of our community with the tools to engage in respectful dialogue, even when doing so is challenging.  We’ve received numerous requests from students for support resolving inter- and intra-group conflict.  We seek to help facilitate conversations that bring people together around powerful, yet respectful, dialogue.  

I have now been the vice president for four-and-a-half years, and over all my years of being connected to Williams in so many different roles, I remain as committed as ever to helping Williams become the most diverse, equitable and inclusive place it can be. Indeed, my commitment to this work is the reason I returned, and I believe deeply that Williams should be a leader here as it is in other areas. These goals can only be achieved when we work together and ensure that students, faculty and staff are welcomed and valued and have positive experiences at the College where they live, work and engage.  

Leticia Smith-Evans Haynes ’99 is the Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.