A Complicated Relationship

by Jordan Goldwarg '03

How do we handle disillusionment? How do we respond when a place we deeply love lets us down? How do we find healing and wholeness?

Over the years, I have heard many stories of Ephs who had a difficult time as students but who then found ways to repair their relationships with the college as alums. My story runs in the opposite direction: although my time in Williamstown was filled with a sense of belonging and a feeling of home, my relationship with Williams has become a lot more fraught in recent years.

What was the source of this disillusionment? The campaign to get Williams to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Over three years from 2012 to 2015 (which, perhaps ironically, mostly overlapped with my term on the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni), I worked with a committed group of alumni, students and faculty to craft a proposal asking the college to commit to exploring the possibility of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Working with this group was one of the best things I have experienced as an alum. It reconnected me to friends I had not talked to since I graduated, while also introducing me to a multi-generational group of new friends who are dedicated, passionate and fiercely intelligent. It was everything that Williams is supposed to be: a community, an exchange of ideas, a group striving to make the world a better place.

When we presented our recommendations to the Board of Trustees, however, we were collectively shocked by the response. As a group, we understood and expected that there would be a difference of opinion. But we at least expected a conversation.

In any effort at change, process and relationships count for a lot. And the process our group went through left me deeply disillusioned with how policy is made at Williams. For years, I had associated Williams with the values of curiosity, respect, community, learning and humility. None of these values were on display in the dismissive way the trustees interacted with our group.

Despite this response, I still count our campaign as a success. I have no doubt that we helped shift the conversation around sustainability at the College and helped win a $50 million investment in reducing Williams's emissions and increasing education opportunities around climate. And now, six years later, the conversation around divestment is ongoing, especially in light of Amherst’s and Harvard’s recent decisions to divest.

While I try not to dwell on the negative, after six years, I still find that my emotions about the divestment campaign are raw. I have decreased my involvement with the College, and I don’t find as much joy in alumni activities as I used to. Given that, over the years, Williamstown has often felt more like home to me than my actual home, it is jarring to realize that it no longer feels that way.

But I want to heal this relationship, and perhaps writing this is a step in the healing process. What am I looking for that would help me to heal? I don’t entirely know. Maybe an apology or an acknowledgement. Maybe a commitment that the college will do better in the future. Maybe seeing the college now make the (belated) decision to divest would be enough.

I don’t want to give up on Williams. Even if I am currently disillusioned with the institution, I love so many individuals associated with that institution. Like repairing the relationship with an estranged family member, I long for reconciliation, but I’m not sure where to start.

If you have had a complicated relationship with Williams, and if you have thoughts on what has helped you to heal this relationship, I would love to connect. You can reach me at [email protected].

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