Every Sunday night, for many years, Williams College students cozy up with snacks around an armchair in the student union for Storytime, what has become an institutional tradition. A group of students known as the Storyboard picks people at the college to tell their stories for a small crowd. A childhood anecdote. A professional success. A moment that shaped their lives. It’s a moment that highlights the intimacy of the small college and the simple joy of sharing both life’s pain and pleasures.
But in September, Storytime stopped.
The student organizers want to pause while they figure out whether Storytime needs to be reworked -- to figure out whether the practice best reflects “the needs and diversity of a community.” In other words, they want to know whether the current format is properly highlighting the voices of underrepresented or minority groups -- even though those students appear well represented in Storytime and promoting diversity was even part of its original mission.
Storyboard hasn’t decided how long the break will last.
“The abundance of campus conversations surrounding identity and privilege, inclusion and equity, along with individuals expressing their discomfort with Storytime instilled our conversations with greater urgency,” the Storyboard members wrote in a recent essay in the student newspaper, The Williams Record.
“This prompted us to think more critically about the ways in which Storytime might feel like a space for consuming other people’s pain rather than a space to affirm people’s cypher, narrative or spoken word. As we examined how Storytime further perpetuates these issues, our conversations generated many more questions than answers, and we reached a point at which we were so unclear about our mission that we felt to continue to organize weekly Storytimes would be irresponsible.”
In February, the college had put on a play called the Underground Railroad Game, a racially focused comedy, which prompted conversations among minority students on their representation at the institution, said Bilal W. Ansari, the group's adviser and assistant director of the Davis Center, the campus multicultural center. This also led to the Storyboard group re-evaluating its event.
"Williams and other colleges and universities across our nation are all struggling to create more meaningfully diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environments," Ansari wrote in an email. "I see the student leaders of Storytime struggling similarly and I tell them often I am so proud to be working with them on this very important issue."
Storyboard did not respond to further request for comment, but according to the Storytime Facebook page, the ritual was established in 2005. The Facebook page also features photos of students laughing, slung over chairs and on the floor, always gathered around a focal point -- the storyteller in a chair.
According to the college's profile of Storytime's founder, Pei-Ru Ko, she wanted to transfer from Williams during her first year there. Over a cup of coffee with an administrator, Ko expressed frustration that the institution talked a lot about diversity in a general sense, but that never seemed to advance to more in-depth conversations.
The administrator, Steve Klass, now vice president of campus life, told Ko, “If you think those deeper stories are out there, why don’t you create a space where they are encouraged?”
Ko did. She convinced a handful of students to hear out a student on the second floor of the Paresky Center, the student union -- and since then Storytime has become a “cherished tradition,” the college wrote in its profile.
Storyboard feels now that the weekly assembly has become “too insular,” the members wrote to the Record. They contacted Ansari to help advise them on how to change the Storytime format.
The students are considering how they should pick the storyteller of the week and whether they should give priority to students with an “underrepresented experience” or “marginalized identity.” Storyboard wants to avoid making these minority students out to be the sole representative of their group and “tokenizing” their stories. Storyboard’s members have also published a survey asking students for feedback.
The Record’s editorial board commended Storyboard for taking a break to revamp the system.
The editors suggested that Storyboard change the question-and-answer format of the night so the speakers feel like they have more “control of their narratives” -- instead of attendees just asking questions, the board recommended they be written down so the teller could pick which ones he or she wants to answer. They also advocated for more transparency in picking the speakers, because those who are familiar with Storyboard process are more likely to be selected.
“As Storytime enters this new chapter, we would like to remind the college community that Storyboard does not bear the ultimate responsibility for the viewpoints or interpretations of its audience members. It is on the listeners to keep an open mind and acknowledge any role they may have in the tokenization of a speaker,” the editorial board wrote.
A Williams spokesman, Greg Shook, said Storytime is completely organized and run by students, so the college has no role.
Ansari, the adviser, said that the group has only received praise for pausing the event.
"Many of us long for the chance to hear the as-yet untold stories that can make our campus a richer and more grace-filled place," he said. "But our student leaders are being praised for showing deep empathy and cultural humility in their efforts to better represent all student voices on Williams' campus."