WILLIAMSTOWN -- In January 2008, in a dormitory entrance at Williams College, the N-word was scrawled on several doors along with pictures of male genitals.

For one first-year student, it was the escalation of incidents that had been going on for weeks. She had been accused by her peers of calling campus security about their party, and then, night after night, the note board outside her door was defaced, including the Bible verse she wrote on it daily. The night the N-word was written on her entryway's doors. "The word ‘fag' was written over my scriptures," she recalled.

The campus community response was rapid and vast.

A grassroots campaign, Stand With Us, emerged from among students, staff and faculty. A Pact Against Indifference and Hate was composed, circulated and signed. An "awareness rally" drew an estimated 600 people. It was followed by a march through campus.

A year later, on Feb. 5, 2009, the inaugural "Claiming Williams Day" was held. Classes, athletics and other operations were postponed to allow the campus population to participate in activities designed to allow people to confront challenges, develop ideas and work to build an inclusive community.

Five years later, Claiming Williams is an ongoing practice at the college where the issues surrounding campus diversity go beyond black and white.

Williams College President Adam Falk said the day represents the opportunity "to learn as much from each other as we do from faculty and books."

"I think a lot of students feel there are important discussions to be had ," said sophomore Austin Nguyen. "Claiming Williams is an excellent opportunity to do so."

On Thursday, Williams freshmen Raquel Rodriguez, Michella Ore and Justin Jones were among the few hundred people who turned out at 8:30 a.m. for the day's keynote address by MSNBC show host Melissa Harris-Perry.

Harris-Perry also teaches political science at Tulane University, and regularly writes books and news columns on gender, race, religion and politics.

Rodriguez said the talk was one of a number of "great opportunities" that students might not otherwise have had to engage in.

Jones said he planned to attend a number of presentations, from the keynote to a performance called "Phallacies" which explores the topics of men's health, leadership and violence prevention.

Nearly 30 events were scheduled on Thursday, with topics ranging from religious identity, white privilege, mental health and stigma, socioeconomics, dating, poverty, sex trafficking, and much more through film, performance, dialogues, music and art.

"I think the day is about exploring diversity, claiming it for our campus and educating people," Ore said.

Before a rapt audience, speaker Harris-Perry shared her own search for identity and meaning, being a high school dropout, a woman of mixed race and a self-proclaimed nerd who continued a quest for college at age 16.

In her speech to students, she emphasized the concept of "being comfortable with being uncomfortable" and accepting the fact that no one individual will have the answers to everything.

"We have a deep interdependence on one another," she said. "I'm never going to fill a cavity, speak Mandarin or decode a chain of human DNA. Fortunately, there are other men and women in the world who will."

To reach Jenn Smith:
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