In the first event of a new series to discuss the many facets of campus culture, HWS Impact: Day of Dialogue brought together students, faculty and staff to share and listen to perspectives and experiences surrounding race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ability, power and privilege in the Colleges’ community.
Organized by the Centennial Center for Leadership, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) and the Offices of Intercultural Affairs and Student Activities, the Nov. 8 event began with six students sharing personal narratives about their identities and how they view themselves within the HWS community. Student speakers included Nim Farhood ’18, Kendra Napierala ’15, MAT ’16, Afrika Nora Owes ’16, Danielle Ramos ’18, Cody Rivera ’17 and Shannon Savard ’15, MAT ’16.
“HWS Impact brought to life the stories of a few students who are part of our campus community and exposed us to so much more about the complexity of all individuals on this campus and the power of inclusion,” said Assistant Director of Office of Intercultural Affairs Darline Polanco Wattles ’09, one of the founders of HWS Impact and a facilitator for the event. “From this program, many students and staff came out with hope and with the idea that through stories and conversations with different groups we can begin to create a domino effect of impact.”
Other HWS Impact discussion group leaders included HWS Chaplin Maurice Charles, Assistant Professor and Chair of Writing and Rhetoric Hannah Dickinson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology Kendralin Freeman, Assistant Professor of Education Khuram Hussain, Associate Professor of Education Mary Kelly, Director of Intercultural Affairs Alejandra Molina and Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Rose.
In drawing attention to the foster care system, Rivera articulated what it means to be a part of a family. Following the event, Rivera said the gathering was one of the most significant experiences he’s had at the Colleges because “it created an environment where our campus community became vulnerable to critical discussion through the life stories of our students, including myself, outside of the classroom.”
“HWS Impact sparked my critical thoughts and lit fire to my body by allowing me to express my ideas and thoughts on different cultures and identities around campus,” Rivera said. “The only other time that I was able to gain this sensation, this spark of thought, was in my classes, but to be able to do it within a much larger group and context was even more impactful.”
Owes performed a spoken word poem about her personal journey. In an excerpt of her piece, she recited: ” … They tried to bury that rose. They tried to bury me. But they didn’t know that I am that rose. That rose from the cracks in the concrete at the corner of 138th street. That rose that rose from the ashes like a phoenix being reborn. Not a bitter woman, but an activist scorned. A revolutionary reborn. I wish someone told me that the most supreme element for any being’s survival is self-love. …”
Following the poem, she reflected on her experience, her initial acceptance to HWS, her time at the Colleges, and how, in her fourth year, she feels as though she has ended up where she was ultimately supposed to be. “Regardless of all of our identities, whether it’s racial, gender, cross-national or the experiences we’ve been through – family, friends – you don’t have to live to please anybody. You are not your past, you are not your future, you are your present – you are who you are now. And I’m hoping that my story will inspire some of you to understand that,” Owes said.
Savard reflected on gender binaries at the Colleges, her experience growing up identifying with both sides of the gender spectrum and the ways in which organizing the world into categories reflects a desire to identify those around us. She discussed how she has grown while a student at HWS.
“At William Smith I found community at least in some places. I found comfort in realizing finally that there are other people who also believe that the social concepts defining women were limiting. I found people who were willing to fight to do something about it, to challenge those deeply ingrained beliefs. I felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t completely alone,” Savard said.
In reflecting on the event, Savard said the stories shared during the event are the kind that “too often go unheard.”
“The dialogue that ensued was productive and focused on positive change,” Savard said. “However, positive change can only occur if we continue these conversations beyond this event and those conversations are translated into action. I think that future ‘Days of Dialogue’ are absolutely necessary for continuing these conversations and bringing new voices into them.”
Discussing her Filipino heritage – and noting that it is one of many countries with rich and diverse cultures – Ramos explored the marginalization of the Asian community and the negative effects of homogenizing Asian cultures. “Think about your privilege,” Ramos said. “How does your privilege impact your identity? Is your privilege fueling your ignorance? When you look into the mirror, what do you see? Why? Before you ask someone, ‘What are you?’ Ask yourself, ‘Who am I? I doubt your response can be summed down to one single word.”
Farhood spoke of his childhood schooling in Palestine, his gratitude for being able to attend the Berkshire School in Massachusetts and the lessons his mother and step-father imparted to him. He praised his mother for overcoming obstacles in life, reflecting on that as motivation to do the same on his journey. Farhood also reiterated the importance of recognizing that everyone is different. “We’re all unique. Because no one can be you. No one can be you – or you, or you or you,” said Farhood, pointing into the audience. “They can try as hard as they want to. They can get really close, but they won’t be able to get close enough.”
In describing her experience recovering from a concussion between 2013 and 2015, Napierala addressed disability culture in the classroom and in mainstream society, prompting the audience to engage in a continuing dialogue to help enable people with disabilities and enhance campus inclusivity. “December 2014 I got cleared to play field hockey. It was my senior year; two months too late. But that’s OK, because here I am now and now I have this absolutely remarkable experience that not many people have,” Napierala said. “I struggled so hard. I know what it’s like to struggle, and I know what it’s like when people treat when you have a disability. So here I am. And I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through.”
As the event continued, attendees divided into small discussion groups to reflect on the speakers’ stories and ideally begin to develop close relationships and an environment of trust. The event concluded with a larger discussion of ways students can make a tangible difference in the HWS community.
“In my many years at the Colleges, HWS Impact proved to be one of the most moving and empowering events I have attended,” said Molina, one of the event facilitators. “The stories shared with the audience made my educator’s soul tremble – their transparency, their honesty and their power reminded us all that it is through storytelling that communities, such as HWS, strengthen their bonds.”
Building on the initial Day of Dialogue, three more sessions will be held during the spring of 2016 to continue the conversation and enhance campus culture through awareness, understanding and change.
“We hope this event will continue annually and grow into something bigger, that also connects to courses and professors whose work touches on these ideas of identity and difference,” says Associate Director of CCESL Jeremy Wattles, one of the facilitators. “We are really excited to work with and learn from faculty to make connections across student life and the curriculum, in order to help shape our campus culture in a more inclusive way.”
In the first photo, Danielle Ramos ’18 presents during HWS Impact, discussing her Filipino heritage. In the second photo, student speakers and discussion leaders of HWS Impact gather for a conversation. In the third photo, Afrika Nora Owes ’16 performs a spoken word poem about her personal journey. In the fourth photo, students who attended HWS Impact share their own stories and reflect on the experiences of others. In the fifth photo, Shannon Savard ’15, MAT ’16 reflects on gender binaries.