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Original DIRE committee member Ansari is running for Williamstown select board

Bilal Ansari

A Williams College assistant vice president and an original member of a town diversity committee is running for one of two open seats on the five-member Williamstown, Massachusetts select board.

Bilal Ansari, 50, has deep and complicated ties to Williamstown. His great-grandparents, the Logans, were active in both the town and Williams College stretching back to the early 1920s.

“There was trauma with my father when he was a child, when he came here during the summer," said Ansari. "He was, the n-word was hurled at him and he struck back. And my father- and his mother, who grew up in Pittsfield, and her father lived in Williamstown, was never invited back because my great-grandfather's job would have been threatened from the school where he was working, and so he was not welcomed back into town. So there was a kind of disruption between my connection with the town as a child, and as a teen because of my immediate family, my father's trauma here.”

Ansari’s return to Williamstown came in 2011, when he became Williams’ first Muslim chaplain and Assistant Director of the Center for Learning in Action. When Tropical Storm Irene wiped out the more than 220 residences in the Spruces mobile home community that same year, Ansari was a founding member and president of Higher Ground, a non-profit set up to support those who were displaced.

“I thought, you know, get the football team and the rugby team and the baseball team and all the sports athletes, I could have volunteers on a weekly basis," said Ansari. "I got alumni involved, I got staff, I got my faculty involved to come volunteer and help. And that's where I fell in love with the residents- Elderly, with the working class, with the striving, retired poor. I fell in love in mud in mildew and mold and trying to serve and help as many of them I can.”

That set the stage for his first major advocacy effort in Williamstown.

“We were just looking for land to take the 80 acres that the town would get, and we were just asking for 10," Ansari told WAMC. "And there was a huge pushback by members of the town. They were well organized, they pushed back, they did- ‘Not in my backyard’ was a huge pushback against the Spruces finding any other land in town to rebuild. So the college gave us like six acres, thank God, so we got 30 of those units built on the end of Southworth Street.”

More recently, Ansari was an original member of the Diversity, Inclusion, & Racial Equity or DIRE committee in 2020, which became the space for community members to debate issues of systemic racism and equity within Williamstown. That year, between national and local Black Lives Matter protests and a bombshell lawsuit that revealed widespread racist behavior within the Williamstown Police Department, Ansari was on the front line of those conversations.

“People are now at a place where we're pressing reset, and we're able to unfold our arms, reach our arms out, shake each other's hands, look each other in the eye, and sit down and actually have a conversation about those real issues, about racism,” said Ansari.

Ansari was a powerful voice in the successful 2020 citizen petition bid to enshrine anti-discrimination and equity measures in Williamstown’s internal practices. He says the town continues to struggle with representation, noting the makeup of the town’s Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program from the Department of Justice.

“My complaint is that not one time was I invited and nor did I see any other Black person on that committee," said Ansari. "And the relationship with the police department and the town of Williamstown and its residents, not to have a Black person on that committee or asked- There's so many people that they could have asked.”

One of Ansari’s interests is expanding opportunities for Williamstown’s young people, from securing them free access to the Sand Springs Pool to developing soccer fields separate from those owned by Williams College.

“We have all this land," said Ansari. "There’s time to think about how we make this place a family-centered place, not just about the college.”

Williamstown’s annual election is set for May 10th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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