BY KATE TURNER ’21
The Mount Holyoke campus shut down to allow faculty, students and staff to participate in the BOOM Conference, a new community-wide initiative that stands for “Building On Our Momentum” and is the first step in the College’s newly born Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (or DEI) initiative on March 27, 2017.
Based on student feedback and on the findings of the newly-formed DEI steering committee, Acting President Stephens has promised that “a ‘day of community’ will be set aside each year” as a follow-up and an extension of last year’s BOOM Conference goals.
“While the topic may change from year to year, the overarching theme will be that of inclusiveness and how we build our vision for the ideal campus community together and in conversation with one another,” said President Stephens.
“In November 2016, we began a conversation across a number of energetic groups and colleagues currently engaged in diversity education and programming to explore possibilities for new avenues of progress,” explained Kathleen Pertzborn, the president’s chief of staff. “We drew some early conclusions that while there is a high level of interest and activity around DEI efforts at Mount Holyoke, most often the work is pursued with limited resources and too little sharing of knowledge or information.”
“We really get at the diversity,” Assistant Dean of Students Latrina Denson added. “This is an incredibly diverse campus. Sometimes what we lack is figuring out how to create an inclusive environment across the entire campus.”
To that end, Mount Holyoke engaged with the Posse Foundation, a diversity-focused consulting firm in order to organize BOOM, which not only attempted to start a conversation about diversity and equity on-campus, but also to measure the College’s progress with diversity thus far.
“For me, it was acknowledging where we are and then acknowledging how far we need to go, said Denson. “So I know there were some students who may have said there was no workshop that focused on this particular identity. That’s a great assessment! Why was that missing, what does that mean for us, and what do we need to do to enhance our services for that particular student population? That’s what we were asking.”
Three thousand seven-hundred seventy community members signed up as attendees for last year’s conference, while the average participant attended four of its sessions. More than 1,000 attended the conference closing, which featured noted activist Marc Lamont Hill as its keynote speaker.
“The most common question in the feedback we received directly after the conference was, would BOOM be an annual event,” said Pertzborn. At the recommendation of the newly-formed DEI steering committee, she now says that it will be.
When asked about the structure of future conferences, Acting President Stephens predicted that they would be fairly similar to the original, featuring a multitude of workshops involving the entire campus community, possibly focusing on a central theme.
“I’m not sure what it will be about,” said Denson, “because honestly, our country changes. Mount Holyoke is a macrocosm of our global society, so I imagine it to be shaped by what’s happening at the time. And, you know, about four or five years ago I could have told you what I thought it was going to be. Now I really could not tell you, because our student needs have changed too.”
The purpose of BOOM was, as its name suggests, “building on our momentum,” Denson explained. “Mount Holyoke has done so much work, so that whatever we do, we realized that we’re giving tribute to all of the work that’s already happened. And then really talking about how we move forward.”
Now that the College has decided what diversity issues it needs to work on, other conferences will have a wider scope, focusing on other themes and issues as they become relevant in the world. The College hopes that these themes will be to some extent decided by the students, and their opinion about what issues matter most.
“It’s time to commit new resources to develop an infrastructure that represents and supports our campus culture,” Pertzborn said. “Who do we want to be? What is the best we can be? It will make us a stronger community as a whole.”
“It only takes a few years for something to become a tradition,” said Denson. “Three years, right? And then it’s a tradition at Mount Holyoke. And then everyone will only know that they’re expected to come to this wonderful event and they’re expected to really interact with people who are different from themselves and learn from those people. Something like what we do for Mountain Day. We don’t make it mandatory for you to go up the mountain, but we would hope you go up the mountain.”
“We want students learning how to really advocate for others who are different than themselves,” she added. “That would be the goal.”
Mount Holyoke plans to hold the next conference in 2019. It is the first of the five colleges to undertake an initiative so integrated and extensive, although Hampshire College has run a smaller-scale version of the event. Amherst College is also currently partnering with the Posse Foundation to organize a similar event in the future.