April 13, 2022 The Time is Now
By John Johnson, vice president for diversity and inclusion.
I try to avoid speaking in the first person for these updates, but it felt important for me to do so in this one. I’m in the middle of my 10th month at the college and in that time, I have observed many things. I have seen students come together to support each other in moments of trauma and loss. I have seen staff go above and beyond their assigned duties to provide care and resources to others. I have seen faculty passionately commit to their students’ learning and their own professional and intellectual growth.
I have also seen institutional inertia interfere with progress. I have seen faculty, staff, and students experience pain due to the lingering effects of entrenched white supremacy and the willful obliviousness of their peers and colleagues to power and positionality. I have seen a campus community wrestle with its own histories, navigate a global pandemic, and engage in both moves to innocence and progress towards transformation.
Over the course of my career in higher education, which is approaching three decades, I have been a student, staff, faculty member or administrator at 10 institutions, each different in terms of location (south, west, north), size (1,000-45,000) and admission practice (private and public), among other features. Many of the issues that we face at Whitman were present at my previous institutions. Many institutions struggle with climate issues. Many institutions have a hard time cultivating and sustaining trust within and across institutional units. Many institutions struggle with the recruitment and retention of those who were not envisioned as its intended original population.
But Whitman feels different to me.
Without a doubt, my experience and perspective of Whitman is limited and biased by my privileges and position, but what I find here in Walla Walla is a community rich in possibility. I have frequently said that we will win with culture. If we create a culture that practices diversity without dominance, equity without benevolence, inclusion without othering and belonging without assimilation, we can win. And I believe we are moving swiftly in that direction as an institution. I see it in the faculty pushing for curricular reform. I see it in the staff advocating for improved flexibility and working conditions. And I see it in the students, lifting their voices and taking action to create the kind of campus where all students feel welcome and can thrive. Examples of this kind of student effort can be found in the Inclusion Fellows, who continue to serve the campus community despite a vacancy in the Intercultural Center Director position, and in the volunteer organizers for Sex Week.
The influence and impact of students was also evident this past February, when more than 1,000 members of the Whitman community participated in the Power & Privilege Symposium. I want to thank the student organizers and presenters for this year’s symposium. The theme, Beyond the Bare Minimum, reflects a frequent refrain of the students for the institution to do more, to do better. This signature Whitman event emerged in response to community trauma. A blackface incident in 2006 activated student leaders to respond to racial climate conditions. They sought out and secured assistance from trusted faculty and staff to organize an event to discuss and address issues of racism at the college.
Sixteen years later, Whitman’s results from the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates indicate that racism on campus and in the local community remains a central area of concern for many students. The Division of Diversity and Inclusion pledges our support to the next group of student organizers of P&P and want to invite students to apply to serve as next year’s P&P executive director(s). We have much work to do and I hope we can do it together. The time is now!