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Williamstown's Diversity Committee Holds First Meeting
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:00PM / Tuesday, July 28, 2020
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The Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee holds its first meeting Monday. Seen here are: Top, from left, Bilal Ansari (by phone), Andrew Art, Gina Coleman; middle, Aruna D'Souza, Drea Finley and Jeff Johnson; bottom, Mohammed Memfis, Kerri Nicoll and Jane Patton.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — For the town's newest committee, there is no time like the present and no time to lose.
The Diversity, Inclusion, Race and Equity Committee held its inaugural meeting Monday evening and decided that, for the foreseeable future, the panel will meet on a weekly basis.
Early on in the virtual meeting, Jane Patton suggested that meeting frequency was one of the operational steps the panel might want to take in its first meetings, noting that weekly or twice-monthly were options and that the committee formed by the Select Board this month is, "in a marathon, not a sprint."
The nine-member group agreed that it has the energy to go with the more ambitious schedule.
"We're probably a couple of hundred years behind in meetings, so we should meet every week," Jeff Johnson said. "Even in a marathon, there is so much pre-planning before we even begin."
And even before that second meeting on Aug. 3, the committee has some work to do.
On Monday, it agreed to bring to its next meetings stories of residents' experience with encountering bias in the community.
"Perhaps, if every committee member brought something to you, a story from either our personal lives here in Williamstown or from our friends who have concerns that have driven the creation of this committee," Gina Coleman said. "Then, thematically, we could see at our first meeting where those themes are going, what should we hone in on. Because, collectively, we'll have amassed some of these stories.
"That might guide us in the direction of where we should start our work."
Meanwhile, the town manager, who sat in on the committee's first meeting, agreed to set up a general email address for the committee so it can collect such stories directly from residents, who also will be welcome to share their personal stories at future DIRE Committee meetings and listening sessions.
For now, the agendas for those meetings will be organized by Mohammed Memfis, though the committee purposefully did not elect Memfis or any other member to be its chair.
Patton, a veteran of multiple town committees who has served on the Select Board since 2013, asked early on if her colleagues wanted to nominate a chair, but after an extended discussion and after few names were suggested, it settled on the idea of, for now, rotating the task of leading meetings.
"As long as we have some sort of idea what our schedule is going to look like and what responsibilities for whatever future meetings we'll have will be, then we as a group will be able to say, ‘Would you be comfortable doing this?' " Memfis said. "Just on a symbolic note, getting at what Drea [Finley] was articulating, it means a lot if we have a group that has equity in its title, for us not to create a hierarchy, even in name.
"It just comes down to us saying, 'How are we going to plan for this?' and making sure that everyone walks away with a bit of work for the group."
Memfis, a rising senior at Williams College, joined the video conference from his home in Atlanta.
His presence highlighted the demographically diverse nature of the committee, which includes members with long-standing in the community as well as relative newcomers to town.
Andrew Art, for example, grew up in town and attended its public schools before going away to college and settling in the Washington, D.C., area for about 25 years, he told his fellow committee members. Art, a lawyer, returned to town in 2017.
Johnson has lived in Williamstown since 1975 and is a familiar face to many through his involvement in youth sports as the father of two Mount Greylock students.
"I'm trying to provide a voice for all of us to come to some realizations about something we've been trying to fix for a long time," Johnson said. "I'm proud to represent Williamstown, a place I love."
Bilal Ansari's routes in the town go back to his ancestors, who escaped slavery in the South and found refuge in the hills around Williamstown, he said. In the last century, a racist incident in 1962 drove his family members from the town, but he returned in 2011 as an employee of Williams College.
"I worked and fell back in love with the place," Ansari said.
He is one of several members of the committee who identified themselves as employees of the college.
Finley is one of the town's newest residents, arriving in April.
"I'm indebted to you as a community already and honored and humbled not only to be part of this community but this committee," said Finley, who self-identified as a community organizer by trade "among other pieces."
Like Finley, Kerri Nicoll is a trained dialogue facilitator and said she is excited to bring those skills to the committee. As one of MCLA's two faculty fellows on diversity and inclusion, the social work professor said she does a lot of work with students of color and LGBTQ students.
Aruna D'Souza is an author who moved to town to work for the Clark Art Institute in 2010. Though she later left the museum, she stayed in town and said her professional interests dovetail with the work of the DIRE Committee.
"Much of my writing has to do with questions of institutions and how they often reproduce, structurally, the kinds of inequalities and oppression that structure our larger society," D'Souza said. "It's very much thinking about how big events are reproduced in microcosms, in spaces closest to our homes, the spaces where we live and work, even in communities that seem so out of the way and isolated like ours sometimes does."
Memfis said he has been involved in a lot of campus activities around inclusion and diversity at Williams. He also has gotten involved in the community by working at the Williams Youth Center.
Coleman is a Williams grad and lifelong educator who stayed in Berkshire County after graduation and came back to Williamstown in the mid 1990s to serve as Williams' associate director of admissions.
"I raised two children of color in this community," Coleman said. "That is really the main reason I feel the need to serve, as I have to show them that I am willing to represent them in our home community.
School-age children was a common denominator for most of the committee members.
Five of the committee members mentioned offspring in the Williamstown public schools during their brief introductory sketches on Monday evening.
"My daughter has inspired me by being really involved in the multicultural students association at Mount Greylock," D'Souza said. "I think her activism has inspired me to get more involved in my local community, and I'm really honored to be joining all of you in these conversations."
Patton, who called the first meeting to order as the member from the body that created the committee, recognized at the outset that the nine volunteers on the panel's roster represent just part of the interest among community members.
"I know there are some folks who were disappointed that they didn't make this first cut," Patton said. "But I think this is a committee that will be around for years to come, as it should be. So there will be opportunities for folks to join at a later time or perhaps help us with a project or what have you.
"In a strange way, I would be disappointed if the folks who didn't make this initial core committee were not disappointed to not have been named. That speaks to their passion and care for what we're trying to do."
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