Toward racial justice and inclusion

Dear Williams students, faculty and staff,

Institutions of higher learning are essential contributors to the project of creating just and equitable societies. Why? Our campuses are charged with educating the next generation of leaders, providing them with the tools they need to become problem solvers and positioning them to take on the complex issues that we and those before us have not yet solved. Our mission is undermined if anyone graduates without the foundational skills they need to help foster just and inclusive communities wherever they go next. And our mission is hampered if any members of our community feel unsupported by this institution as they seek to achieve their educational ambitions.

This spring and summer have provided clear indication, once again, of how much work our society still has to do to become fully equitable and just. Nationally, accounts of racial violence, voter suppression, the uneven impact of COVID-19, and the Black Lives Matter movement have kept us clearly attuned to the ways in which anti-Black racism continues to shape life outcomes in this country. The fight for racial justice at the national level also resonates on campus. While Williams has worked to expand access and affordability and made real progress, we must recognize that structures of privilege, bias and racism continue to affect how we interact with one another.

What, then, can Williams do to ensure that all who come here to study and work can thrive? We need to suffuse our commitment to inclusion throughout every part of this institution. This isn’t a project that can be owned by one office or individual. We must all commit to removing barriers and creating equitable communities through long-term solutions embedded in our collective culture.

This letter provides a detailed accounting of a broad range of activities and initiatives being moved forward by a large number of individuals and departments. By providing this much information, I want to make clear not only how broadly the commitment to inclusion is being woven through our institutional fabric, but also how many members of our community are dedicated to this work. Indeed, as long as the letter is, it doesn’t capture the full picture, since such work is increasingly being integrated into every aspect of our day-to-day lives at Williams.

Nor do we imagine that these efforts are enough: They need to be considered as steps in a long-term investment. I’m dedicated to that work and will continue to move it forward because I believe deeply that students can only reach their full potential when they’re challenged to learn in an environment that tolerates no barriers to their efforts. Staff and faculty, too, must be supported fully to thrive and to grow. If we want to cultivate a community of lifelong learners, we need to be equally committed to everyone’s wellbeing.

Following is a preview of just some of the efforts underway or planned for this fall toward those goals:

In terms of racial justice and equity, we’ve made progress on the plan I announced in June, by allocating our first tranche of funding to racial justice organizations and initiatives in Berkshire County and nationally. You’ll find details on the Racial Justice page of the OIDEI website. I’m grateful to the students and colleagues who advised us on the allocations. We’ll also launch a program this fall through which students can access internships, fellowships and other co-curricular offerings on racial justice topics including policing and the carceral system; equality of educational opportunity; and political participation. The Davis Center will share details as soon as the program’s website goes live.

With regards to our academic mission, faculty and staff in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) will continue hosting discussions about inclusive pedagogy and support community-building among faculty. Carl W. Vogt ’58 Professor of History and OIDEI and Davis Center Faculty Fellow Carmen Whalen is meanwhile developing an initiative through which faculty will be able to help each other incorporate intersectional, interdisciplinary, relational and comparative approaches into their scholarship and creative work.

Williams will also host the next Creating Connections Consortium (C3) summit, Racial Healing and Transformation: Becoming the 21st Century Academy. The college is a founding institution of C3, which is committed to diversifying the academy, and the summit will bring together students, faculty and staff from liberal arts colleges and universities around the country, to discuss and present research on this critical topic.

As recommended in last spring’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion working group report, the OIDEI team will reach out to campus units during this academic year to help them develop their own diversity, equity and inclusion plans. In addition, the Faculty Steering Committee, which is elected to represent faculty concerns within shared governance, is thinking through a faculty-wide initiative that would generate actionable ideas to suffuse diversity, equity and inclusion throughout our academic work, particularly as that work relates to other aspects of the student experience, college affairs and the broader world.

In our ongoing work on inclusion, we’ve welcomed a number of new and wonderfully talented staff to OIDEI in the last year. They include Davis Center Director Eden-Renée Hayes, Assistant Director for Intergroup Relations and Inclusive Programming Aseel Abulhab ’15, and Program Coordinator Natalie Montoya-Barnes. Dialogue Facilitator Drea Finley has meanwhile joined the broader OIDEI team and is based in Jenness House. Welcome to all! We’ll soon launch a search for an associate director of inclusive learning environments, as well. And to support their work and the campus we’re also re-starting the Davis Center renovation that was paused last spring in the wake of the pandemic. Vice President of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leticia Haynes ’99 will share details as the project progresses in a campus message of her own.

Another area of focus has to be Williams’ institutional history. During this academic year, the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC) will, as part of their charge, consider how the college can create a communally accountable institutional history that addresses our relationship to slavery, to the native populations who lived or live in this region, and to other aspects of our institutional past, and to recommend ways we can document, acknowledge and engage in restorative actions to address that legacy. The CDC will involve the campus and broader communities in its research, so that people can share their knowledge, recommendations and views.

A major focus of our discussions about institutional history has been the Log murals. For those new to Williams, the murals, found on the walls of the Log, attracted concern because of the artist’s portrayal of Native Americans and of the relationship between the Mohawks and the British. You can read details in the 2016 report of the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History. This fall we’ll relocate the murals and associated fixtures out of the Log to the Library’s Special Collections facility. There, the items can be preserved as artifacts for scholarly study, rather than displayed as decorative objects in our alumni and community gathering-space. I’ll send an email next week detailing how and when the relocation will be done.

A complementary topic of concern is the need to accept our responsibility to the Native American tribes of our region, many of whom were displaced by settler colonists. I’m pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement to provide office space on Spring Street to the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribal Historic Preservation Extension Office. Colonists pushed the Stockbridge-Munsee people westward out of this area into Indiana and then Wisconsin during the late 17th and early 18th century. I’m happy we can offer the Stockbridge-Munsee Community a space in the region from which they can do important preservation work for their people. I’m also excited about the potential for collaboration with them on programs that will complement our growing investment in Native American and Indigenous studies.

In the area of residential life, Senior Associate Dean of Campus Life Doug Schiazza will lead a working group of students, staff and faculty this year in reimagining the college’s residential system to help all students thrive. Our goal is an integrated four-year program that includes affinity options like those already available on many other campuses, and which I believe can be successfully combined with a commitment to teaching students to engage across difference. There will be opportunities to share your own views on the topic once this work gets underway.

We’re also continuing to evolve our approach to campus safety in ways that take into account nationwide discussions about policing. What methods do we rely on for upholding our rules and reducing or navigating conflicts? And what do our choices say about us as a community? Director of Campus Safety Dave Boyer and his staff have been meeting with members of the OIDEI team to explore ways to integrate practices that support the kind of Williams we want to build. They’ll also partner with students and OIDEI to consider how a Campus Safety advisory committee of students, staff and faculty might support these efforts. I’m grateful to everyone involved.

Relatedly, we’re working with Williamstown leadership to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the college and the Williamstown Police Department. More details will follow as the draft evolves, but our goal is to define and make visible our shared conception of the police’s role and responsibility on campus, and those of campus safety in off-campus areas of town. This effort predates allegations about the Department, which I addressed when they were made public in August, but the MOU will be especially helpful in light of those issues.

Mental health is an ongoing concern, and students have raised their voices to talk about their particular needs and wants. The Integrative Wellbeing Services team has developed several groups and advocacy opportunities focused on diversity and inclusion, specifically for students of color, along with efforts that support students in safely exploring gender identity and sexual orientation. Examples of this year’s new or expanded offerings include a weekly group focused on Black culture; EnGender, a safe space for trans and gender non-conforming students to connect weekly; RARE, a healing circle for women of color that includes narrative and ritual practices to address various forms of trauma; and Around the Table, opportunities for virtual shared meals to foster connection amongst all students. Please see the IWS website for details.

As I mentioned in my introduction, all of Williams should be a learning community. Everyone at Williams has needs and opportunities for growth, so our inclusion efforts have to encompass staff and faculty development, as well. As I mentioned earlier, OIDEI is helping college units develop diversity, equity and inclusion plans. This fall we’ll also launch Communities of Williams (CoW), a series of gathering spaces for staff and faculty interested in sharing identities, experiences and interests. The program will be a way to meet people, find support and learn across difference in ways that elevate the voices of historically-marginalized people and foster a community of belonging. Director of Human Resources Danielle Gonzalez will share details about how to get involved.

Finally, given the significance of the November presidential election, many people on campus are organizing programs and conversations about race and democracy, the election, voter suppression and related topics. To highlight one upcoming example, the W. Ford Schumann ’50 Program in Democratic Studies, directed by Chair and Professor of Africana Studies Neil Roberts, will host a virtual conversation next Tuesday, September 22, with Carol Anderson, professor of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. I encourage you to attend her talk and participate in some of the many other programs you’ll hear about this fall on related subjects.

Since we’re on the topic, I urge everyone at Williams to vote this November! Students, if you need information about how to register or are confused about state residency rules, please visit the EphVotes website for help.

With our diversity, equity and inclusion work taking so many forms, and rightfully occupying so much attention, the Board of Trustees has created a committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as I announced last June. The committee will oversee our strategic commitment to this issue and partner with campus on key initiatives.

As I said at the outset, the project of working for racial justice and inclusion requires a many-faceted permanent commitment. Our colleagues in OIDEI, among other areas, have done tremendous, often unseen labor to move Williams forward. So have many, many faculty, staff and students, as well as alumni, families and friends. Every one of you deserves our deep thanks.

I also want to step back and acknowledge the many grassroots initiatives, protests and actions through which students, alumni and others have described the experience or experiences of what it’s like to be a person of color at Williams. Those efforts have been fueled by a commitment to Williams, and a determination to make this a better and more inclusive community. What I’ve learned from such engagements, among other experiences, has influenced my thinking about how we can and should enact our principles more fully.

This project is a Williams project, and an American project, and a democratic project, and a human project: a quest to learn how we can live together peacefully as we should, treating everyone as worthy of equal respect, and endowed with equal rights. It’s work we’re doing for the college, but beyond that for each other.

As you receive further updates about the initiatives I’ve described here and others beyond, I encourage you to ask yourselves what contributions you can make, and then to push yourselves even further. I promise that I’ll keep pushing, too.

With very best wishes,