Oregon Book Award-nominated poet Crystal Ann Williams started July 1 as the new diversity chief at Reed College. Her poetry collections include Kin, Lunatic, Walking the Cemetery: Detroit Poems, and Troubled Tongues, which won the 2009 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award. We spoke with her this week about her vision for diversity at Reed.
The Skanner News: What will you be doing in your new job?
Williams: My job is to coalesce those strategies that we're using on campus to more diversify our staff, faculty and student body, but also to enhance inclusivity on campus and to ensure that we become the most inclusive environment—working environment, learning environment—that we can be. So I think that in large part my position is to ensure that the kind of dynamic change that we have undertaken in the past 10 years continues to move forward and to grow and expand strategically.
TSN: What does that look like on the ground at Reed?
Williams: It looks like a place where all kinds of differences are acknowledged and valued, it looks like a classroom in which first generation students and low-income students and students from under-represented groups and students from majority groups all have an equal space and are equally valued as members of the academic community. And it looks like a model for the kind of community that I think people in Portland hope Portland is. This way I think it's just an incredibly dynamic, exciting and wonderful place to be.
TSN: What is your background?
Williams: I grew up in Detroit, Mich., although there were a few years I lived as a child in Madrid, Spain. I was originally a theater student and I received my undergraduate Degree from New York University as a continuing education student – it took me a long time to get my undergrad degree. Then I went and got a graduate degree from Cornell, and officially I'm a poet. So I have been on faculty here for 11 years. My title is actually Dean for Institutional Diversity and Associate Professor of Creative Writing. I came here directly from grad school, so I came here in 2000 and have been on faculty since.
TSN: This is the interesting thing: someone who is coming from an artistic background tackling this political, social issue. Are there ways that your artistic background has given you a particular vision for what you'd like to see take place at Reed now?
Williams: My creative work is interested in the intersection of race and class in America. That's because I was adopted by an interracial couple – my mom is white and my dad was black – and I grew up in Detroit which at the time was predominantly black but was very racially stratified. Also there were stratifications along class lines as there are in most American cities. So my personal background informs the art that I make and the questions that I ask on a daily basis, which, I think, deeply inform my desire to see that all people are sitting at the table.
I understand that when there are a multitude of voices at the table the conversation is just more interesting. I've experienced that my entire life. And I think I've experienced loving people who say hurtful things, who love me and don't mean to say hurtful things, for example. My family history is one in which I'm continually negotiating complicated interpersonal issues. I think you kind of emerge from that with a nuanced understanding of how people interrelate, and that understanding informs my sense of what this work can be and should be.
I want to make sure that readers of The Skanner know that Reed College is interested in engaging on conversation with the myriad of communities in Portland. And that I also see part of my job as extending a hand into those communities and figuring out ways that we can find intersections and cultivate them for the betterment of our students and for the city.
Read Williams' poetry on her website here