An increasing number of students are drawn to Pittsfield, Mass., to work in and learn from the community.
By Abe Loomis
In the fall of 2017, Halle Schweizer ’21 walked into [email protected] Street, an alternative high school program in Pittsfield, Mass., with high hopes and an offering: a party-sized sandwich platter from a local deli. Ten minutes later, she watched as a section of the sub she had purchased for the students bounced off the head of one of their teachers.
Schweizer, who, with classmate Michael Crisci ’21, was working as a classroom mentor, says she was startled. Back on campus, snacks were a tried-and-true way to boost attendance and break the ice at meetings. But that day, the eruption of rowdy camaraderie served as a teachable moment for the Williams students.
“It was crazy, it was wild, but we knew that we wanted to be there,” Schweizer says, recalling that first visit with a laugh. “These were kids who had vibrant personalities, who had so much potential, so many talents and so many things to share about themselves, and I remember being so excited to get to know them better and to get to know the teachers and to support them in what was just a really hectic space.”
EOS, shorthand for Educational Opportunities for Success, is just one of several programs drawing an increasing number of Williams students to Pittsfield as volunteers, paid staff or researchers seeking to learn from and have an impact on the community. In part, their engagement reflects a commitment by the college to boost experiential learning opportunities, whether on campus, in the region or around the world, says Paula Consolini, Williams’ Adam Falk Director of the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA).
At the same time, there’s been “an uptick in the number of students interested in working with under-resourced students and the incarcerated,” Consolini says. “I’d conservatively estimate a 15% increase in participation over the past two years.”
There has also been an uptick in innovation. Student-initiated programs fostering sustained support for communities close to campus are springing up with new regularity. EOS Mentoring (the Williams pipeline to [email protected] Street), Justice League (a mentoring program at Pittsfield’s John T. Reid Middle School), Dig Deep (a book club for young men of color at Taconic High School) and others have launched and rapidly expanded in just a few years. And they continue to operate even after the founders move on or graduate.
Participation in EOS Mentoring has increased tenfold since 2017—with 20 Williams students working there last semester alone.
“When we first started the program, it was just Michael and me,” Schweizer says. “Now, there are more eyes, more ears, more people to listen to the kids, more people to help tutor, more students to help promote discussion, more students to play games. The power of presence is so essential to the work that we do.”
“I see a lot of the same issues in Pittsfield as I do back home in New York City,” says Crisci, “This experience gives me an understanding of how populations are living, and economics is at the center of so many of their issues.”
[email protected] street is located in a flatiron-style building that houses several state offices on Pittsfield’s Eagle Street. The high schoolers enrolled there take classes in science, math, English, history and deportment, focusing on social and behavioral skills. Working with CLiA to coordinate transportation, Williams students make the 20-mile trip several times per week, leading activities such as tutoring, painting or cooking, playing Uno and other games with the younger students, or just checking in with participants about their weekends or lives at home.
The high schoolers are considered “at risk,” a label that Schweizer and Crisci work to unpack with the Williams students they train to work at EOS. The program takes a “trauma-informed approach” to educational support, Schweizer says—responding to a thrown sandwich, for instance, with concern and compassion rather than judgment or anger.
“A trauma-informed approach doesn’t mean making excuses for problematic behavior or ‘diagnosing trauma’ in students who display inappropriate behavior,” she says. “It means facilitating with empathy and with an understanding of the varying contexts from which students come to school every single day.
“Particularly in EOS,” Schweizer says, “where we work with a population that has experienced a lot of trauma in the aggregate, these students are considered ‘at-risk’ because their current circumstances at home, in school and in their respective social lives make them more susceptible to juvenile delinquency, poverty, substance use, dropping out of school, etc. Many of these kids are just looking to feel accepted and find some predictability in their lives.”
Schweizer and Crisci—who met at Williams during a five-week program for incoming students from under-represented groups, including those who are among the first generation in their families to attend college—say their work at EOS is one way to support students in circumstances not far removed from their own. Both describe themselves as coming from low-income backgrounds, and both have a desire to share with others some of the advantages they have accrued at Williams.
“I see a lot of the same issues in Pittsfield as I do back home in New York City,” says Crisci, who, like Schweizer, is an economics major. “This experience gives me an understanding of how populations are living, and economics is at the center of so many of their issues. I grew up in a primarily Latinx area that was lower income. Coming from that background, Williams is a very different atmosphere, and so it was important for me to stay grounded in the work that I was interested in doing. For me, it’s always important to be doing work that’s giving back.”
The youngest of three siblings, Schweizer grew up in Kankakee County, Ill., an hour south of Chicago. Her parents divorced when she was 8. Her father was addicted to alcohol, and she was raised by her mother, who worked nights in the beauty department at Walgreens while attending college full time, earning an associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s in social work. Even as their family struggled, Schweizer says, her mother impressed upon her that there were others in greater need—and that helping them was important.
“I would say my mom is my main inspiration in the work that I do at Williams,” Schweizer says of her community engagement. “Obviously, she didn’t make a high wage at Walgreens, but what money she did have she always was sure to give back to people who had even less. Now that I’m at Williams, where I’m surrounded by an abundance of wealth and resources, I’m in a position to do even more. I can model what she gave me and the skills and values she showed me and incorporate those into my new setting.”
Attending Williams was daunting at first, Schweizer says. She graduated from a high school where fewer than half the students went on to a four-year college. She had never heard of Williams before she applied through QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects students from low-income backgrounds to leading institutions of higher education. She cried when she learned she was accepted, she says, but they weren’t happy tears. “It was more like, ‘Holy crap, I’m going to Massachusetts,’” Schweizer says.
Then her mother, who by that time was assisting a client at a courthouse in Illinois, bumped into a judge she knew and casually mentioned Schweizer’s college plans. “Like me, she was used to people saying, ‘Where’s that?’ or ‘What’s that?’” Schweizer says of her mother. “But this person actually recognized Williams and said, ‘Wow, good for her. That’s amazing. That’s such a good school.’ My mom said, ‘Oh, I’m surprised you know it.’ He said, ‘Trust me, the right people will know Williams College.’”
As the realization dawned that she had enrolled at an elite school with a far-reaching network, Schweizer says she felt both thankful and excited. But it also prompted some difficult feelings. She says she is acutely aware that being poor in America can be considered a personal or moral failing rather than a function of circumstance, and her awareness sharpened her sense of the role that class and luck play in shaping experience. She sees those factors at work in the lives of the young people she works with in Pittsfield, where almost 50% of public-school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
“So many of these students experience things that they didn’t ask for, they didn’t sign up for,” Schweizer says. “Many of them are stigmatized as ‘bad’—disrespectful, druggies, dropouts and so on. And they know it. They aren’t [blind] to the ways people view them. I can’t fully empathize with many of the things they have experienced. But what I can relate to is this: knowing there is a stigma attached to you, and that other people can see it. I can relate to that feeling—I’ve felt it at Williams—and I think we all enjoy getting to know each other beyond the stigmas.”
Finding common ground is where the work often begins, says Schweizer, who plans to work as a youth-advocacy lawyer. During one early visit to EOS, she says she bonded with a Pittsfield student over a shared love of football.
“He had a Tom Brady jersey on, and I’m from the Chicago area,” she says. “I said, ‘Wow, I’m not super-excited to see you wearing that jersey, but I’m happy to see you anyway.’ He was kind of taken aback. I think he’s used to that kind of bantering with his peers, but he didn’t expect this random girl from Williams College to come in and converse in a similar way.”
Those kinds of interactions—and the willingness of Williams students to keep showing up—lead to deeper relationships, says Spencer Fraker, a science and math teacher at EOS. His students, he says, are sometimes hesitant to trust people.
“A lot of what the Williams students have brought to our program is the ability to develop positive relationships, because they come back week after week,” Fraker says.
Crisci agrees. “Most of the work that we do is building relationships and friendships with the students,” he says. “A lot of the students we’re working with don’t have people that are necessarily there to listen to them and their ideas and thoughts, and so [a lot of it is] really just us being consistent and listening.”
Crisci, Schweizer and their peers have also found ways to harness resources back at Williams. High schoolers from EOS and middle schoolers from the Justice League mentoring program have taken field trips to the Williams College Museum of Art and participated in sessions in Lasell Gymnasium with members of Williams’ basketball teams. Crisci says the visits spark curiosity and creativity, provide opportunities for bonding and fun, and expose the participants to life beyond middle and high school—and beyond Pittsfield.
Over time, the effects of the steady engagement have been palpable.
“When we first started EOS, it wasn’t like we were embraced with open arms by the students,” says Crisci, who is researching the efficacy of such programs through a Sentinels Summer Research Fellowship and who plans to study criminal justice reform. “What Halle and I had to learn quickly is that we had to be consistent to build those relationships. The more consistently we’re there, the more accepted we are there—and the more Williams students who are interested in this work can go [to Pittsfield] and experience this as well. It’s our third year, and we can definitely see the growth in how they’re actually excited to see us now. It takes time to build community.”
A similar passion for building community led Jaelon Moaney ’19 to establish Dig Deep, a book club for young men of color at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, in 2016. Run by The Society of the Griffins, a Williams group dedicated to fostering “a brotherhood for men of color while creating equitable pathways to success at Williams College,” Dig Deep brings together 20 to 30 high schoolers and a similar number of Williams students to discuss in small groups a single book each semester.
During the program’s first year, Dig Deep delved into Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter from the author to his teenage son about living as a Black person in the United States. Conversations within the group soon turned to questions about how to talk with family members and peers about the complex themes Coates addresses in his book.
“Coates asks, ‘How do I live free in this Black body?’” Moaney says. “The students wanted to know how they could express these ideas to people at their school who weren’t in the club, or how to talk about them with their communities. So, we switched roles and gave them a chance to practice. That way they came to sit in the driver’s seat.
“One of the central missions of The Society of the Griffins is to tap into the local community,” says Moaney, who served as the group’s president for three years. “We find that our book club members take these conversations into the locker room and the classroom and their own clubs—and that’s the point. We want these conversations to move in spaces where the students are the ones facilitating them. That’s a very empowering experience.”
Empowering others, particularly young people, is one of Moaney’s guiding principles. Now a legislative correspondent in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, Moaney aspires to serve his home state in elected office. His LinkedIn profile
features a photo of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay—a nod to the fact that his family has lived for 10 generations in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Moaney grew up in the town of Easton. As a high school senior, he held a seat on his local school board; at the end of his term he successfully advocated for a second student seat. He led youth Bible studies at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Chestertown, where he remains an active member, and participated in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
At Williams, he majored in political science. His senior honors thesis, “‘Something on the Inside, Is Working on the Outside,’” is a 160-page book that explores the past and present of the Black tidewater communities of the Chesapeake. The work includes a long chapter on the history of Maryland’s political battles over education and the ongoing racial and economic inequalities of the Eastern Shore.
Moaney has since released several episodes in a related video documentary series and is an advisor to Chesapeake Heartland, a project sponsored by Washington College and the National Museum of African American History and Culture that is designed to shed light on lesser-known African American contributions to that history.
“1619 has a distinct meaning for the Chesapeake Bay,” Moaney says, noting that the area is the first crucible of the African diaspora in North America and the birthplace of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. “For those of us that didn’t leave and just stayed there the whole time, we’ve seen it all the way up until the present day. So, I think a lot of what has influenced the work I was able to do at Williams, and that I’m doing now, I inherited. I wouldn’t describe it as revolutionary. It’s just what I’ve seen my ancestors do before me.”
As a Williams student, reaching out to the surrounding community via Dig Deep was a natural outgrowth of that work.
“This is something I had been used to at home,” Moaney says. “Speaking to people. Getting into the communities and listening and seeing what they actually need and then coming up with a solution. And I wanted to know about the children of color in the region. Not just Williamstown or North Adams, but Pittsfield and Berkshire County as a whole.”
He says he recalls attending a Black Student Union meeting at Williams and “asking some of the older students, ‘What have you been doing locally? Are there really desperate areas of need?’ Williams keeps you really busy, but I had some time on my hands and wanted to devote that time back.”
Like Schweizer and Crisci, Moaney felt a pull to get off campus and do good.
“Williams is a beautiful place,” Moaney says. “It’s a very prestigious place. But beyond the campus and beyond the town of Williamstown, the prospects for life are very different. I needed to do this work to understand, not what it meant for me or my family to have me attending Williams, but what it meant for me to become a part of that community. Because I was living there.”
Schweizer echoes Moaney’s sentiment. “It would be really, really easy to get caught up in ‘Williams College’ and all of the fanfare that surrounds it,” she says. “We recognized that we wanted to stay humble and remember how we got here and why we’re here and remember all the people we know and love that just haven’t had the opportunity to be here.
“There are so many people who deserve these resources and this wealth and access that don’t have it,” she adds. “We want to share that.”
Abe Loomis is a writer in New York. Additional reporting by Julia Munemo, contributing writer for Williams Magazine.