Learning at Williams


2531312800_797150c886Williamstown I did two  short hitches at Williams College before going over the fence for good a long, long time ago, so it was with mixed feelings that I returned to talk to a couple of groups of smart students and their dynamic faculty members.  I’m not sure what I think about it quite, but it was educational for me in some surprising ways, so here’s some notes:

  • The Mohawk Trail between Greenfield and North Adams really is beautiful in a wild and rugged way that I didn’t remember.  I was so committed to seeing New England as elite and precious back then that I missed some scenes that seem taken whole and dropped here from my years in the West.
  • North Adams was a grey, beaten up de-industrializing mill town then, and now it’s doing its darnedest to rebrand as an arts haven with lofts, museums, and whatever.  Who would have guessed?
  • In dinner with Professor Ed Burger’s small multi-departmental class on innovation, I was first surprised when one student in this seemingly apolitical group of art, math, English and philosophy majors so clearly analyzed the need for a book on what is happening in contemporary organizing and the assault on ACORN to focus on a discussion of power and then intrigued by a round robin argument all of us had about the value of Facebook activism and the need to build internet connectivity tools for the low and moderate income constituency around North America and the world where I organize.

  • In visiting with professors and students after speaking about Citizen Wealth at Griffin Hall at Professor James McAllister’s invitation, there were two stunning insights, one, when it turned out that half of the group really had no idea about the current pimp-prostitute scam/scandal at ACORN, and in talking about the strategies for dealing with crises faced by the organization, the differences in out “insider” oriented decisions would be made versus “outsider” based analyses.

And, though it hardly felt comforting, I had to both appreciate the manners and grace, and realize the terrible historical truth that I was reminded of by Professor Cathy Johnson:  a 40 year life span is amazing and rare for pressure and interest groups in American civic and political life.

It’s hard to handle that kind insight though while reading the papers and internet alerts arguing about ACORN’s lawsuit challenging the recent Congressional defunding action as an unconstitutional bill of attainder and the rightwing blogs and releases by Congressmen Issa heralding what they believe is now some kind of impending bankruptcy by ACORN and already counting coup.

Williamstown and Williams are probably fine places.  They just didn’t work for me, it seems.  One professor offered that the cultural shift of dropping me in this odd stew in a remote corner of the Berkshires might have helped propel me towards organizing.

If true, I have a debt here larger than any others walking around with a diploma and a number behind their names.