A recent WSO tour de force helps to provide the backdrop of Claiming Williams, but I wanted to go a bit further into the history and origins of what will happen on Thursday.

As chronicled here, the touchstone for this was a word written by someone – probably drunk – in Willy E. Just as two snowballs ignited something of a firestorm in the thread above, this incident set a group of students off, who happened to include much of the CC leadership. This led to Stand With Us, which chose three priorities out of about eight options: last winter’s rally, a student authored code of conduct, and what has become Claiming Williams.

Follow below for a discussion of the underlying tensions that provide a backdrop and impetus for Claiming Williams.

The problem (or perceived problem, depending on one’s POV)  at Williams that Thursday seeks to address is not one that can be neatly categorized – it would be a misstep to label this as drinkers vs. non-drinkers, rich vs. poor, or majority vs. minorities, though all of these factors are involved. It is bluntly that some people here feel an implicit rejection of them in the fabric of this college. There are places that they do not feel comfortable, things they hesitate to bring up, and situations that leave them feeling upset and alone. The first stand with us meeting was an awakening for these people – they realized that their experiences were not unique. I have heard that four hours of stories were exchanged that night.

This experience isn’t one that is new. As a participant in Voices this fall (an event of several monologues for the incoming frosh), I sat on a panel during Career Mentor Weekend this fall, when alums of various minorities came back to campus. As some of the participants in Claiming Williams shared their stories, especially a black peer, the room was energized because those alum had had the same experiences. I said this in an e-mail about the event last fall:

…These alums that have been brought back to Williams share a common thread with current Williams students in their experiences of diversity. I saw first hand how, after a few introductory questions, the topic quickly served to how Williams handled diversity – how the college serves people who come from situations like those of the alum we talked to.

They wanted to talk about this, even with only 4 students to talk to. I saw 4 or 5 hands raised at one point.

I think that having them for a weekend isn’t good enough. The problem I have heard of is a feeling of isolation – people so far removed what the norms of their birthplace that they shrink back into whatever seems familiar…

It’s reasonable to conclude that the faculty who have worked with these students have seen these problems, and thus institutional support for initiatives of this sort have continued to grow. Stand With Us had sizable group of supporting faculty. So on the night of that meeting just about one year ago, elements of the institution and of the student body became convinced of a problem that they felt empowered to confront.

However, note my language above: “I have heard that four hours of stories were exchanged that night…” I didn’t go to that meeting. My involvement with Stand With Us came out of hearing about it, but I was never there to hear the stories, and neither was the vast majority of the student body. Many saw a group of students marching, rallying, and generally raising hell about a word on a door, and many of those people have yet to be convinced otherwise.

Faced with this disproportional response that literally invaded their dorms, disturbed them in the library with bullhorns, and sought to sort them into a “with us or against us” dichotomy, some were understandably annoyed. They see a group of students with massive institutional support making lots of waves without the reasoning behind those waves, and push back. They decry a culture of political correctness and scoff at the offense of others. The problem is exacerbated when other students see their actions and mentally sort them into being a part of the problem.

This has created the dichotomy that I observe on campus today: one group of students and faculty who see problems and work against them, and another group of students who see the work of the first group as unnecessary and even harmful. Neither group assumes good faith in the other.

This is the setting into which Claiming Williams enters on Thursday. I’ll discuss past attempts to bridge the gap later this week.

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