BY LEAH WILLINGHAM '17
Sunday marked the start of the first-ever Mount Holyoke Building on Our Momentum conference. The 2-day event hosted programs examining diversity and inclusion in college admissions, arts, STEM fields and residential life.
Member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee Kathleen Pertzborn said the event was meant to bring the campus “together to experience and engage with each other’s ideas and concerns about our diversity, equity and inclusion at the College.”
One of the most well-attended conference sessions was Unpacking Whiteness, which had to turn students away from Hooker auditorium because the number of attendees exceeded the space’s capacity.
In its description on the BOOM website, Unpacking Whiteness was described as an “open discussion about partaking in activist work as a white ally on campus with a goal to brainstorm on how to productively and respectfully engage in allyship work on campus and in the world more broadly. ”
Facilitator Lillie Benowitz ’17 said the session was an important start to “talking about whiteness and how white privilege functions on campus.”
“Our aim was to give an overview to students and allow white-identifying students to begin thinking about this complicated topic,” Benowitz said.
The session, which involved a combination of presentation and small-group discussion, was a reflection of a larger movement by a group that Benowitz is a member of, Disrupting Whiteness. The group aims to mobilize white students to take responsibility in efforts to make Mount Holyoke a more welcoming place for students of color.
Genesis Dicarlo ’18 said she was impressed by the presenters, but said the event still “left something to be desired.”
“I feel like really basic terms were used, which is fine because white individuals’ understandings of racism and white privilege are all different, but the speakers had to use basic terms because everyone was not up to where they needed to be,” she said.
Benowitz said the campus will see more from the organization in the coming months.
“I think that while people were engaged in the workshop, we also have gotten really productive feedback about how to improve for the future and be more impactful.” She said Disrupting Whiteness is “just getting started planning educational opportunities and providing resources about anti-racist work for white-identifying students.”
Kai Chuckais ’20 said if the event is continued to next year, it could be benefited by more POC inclusive spaces.
“A lot of the presentations that didn’t specifically say for POC people were very white-dominated spaces,” Chuckais said. “Although that is a good thing, because people are out learning about what they don’t know, it also creates a weird atmosphere for POC that want to be in that space.”
One panel, for example, about people of color in science fields, was filled entirely by white professors, Chuckais said.
“One of my professors was on that panel and said, ‘Well, we didn’t want to burden the other POC professors, because they’ve already been doing so much with this day of diversity that to have them manage it all and then step into another presentation would be too much,’” Chuckais said. “They wanted to help out and be a part of that. But I was like, ‘you can’t lead a discussion about POC in STEM when you are a white person.’ That doesn’t make sense.”
The conference was also filled with a variety of smaller gatherings, such as Enough talk. Let’s move our bodies. Payton Cooke ’18, who attended the event, described it not as a lecture, but as “a performance of sorts.”
At the event, participants were gathered into small groups of 10 people. The first exercise was to feel a partner’s pulse. Cooke described said this was an especially powerful experience.
“After a while you began to feel connected, realizing as the session leader talked how amazing that tiny little beat and what it represents are,” Cooke said. “It was a new perspective to face someone else’s life on so basic a level.”
Cooke said over time, “the group became more connected to each other but also to ourselves. We don’t always realize in our cognitive society that we are already something: a physical collection of small miracles across times.”
Cooke said the event stuck out because “it didn’t highlight our differences but celebrated the fact of ourselves and our common bond as human beings.”