In a darkened classroom, a soft voice fills the air with a call to action. It is 1965 in Delano, California; the man speaking to the hearts of hundreds of farm workers, shown onscreen pressed together worriedly in a church, is civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. The workers have gathered to decide whether to strike against the grape growers in whose fields they struggle under appalling conditions—whether to risk their livelihoods to fight for equality, justice, an end to exploitation.
Over the next 40 minutes, Chavez—once a field worker himself—co-founds what will become the United Farm Workers union, leads thousands of workers through a five-year strike on grape growers, marches 300 miles to the capital on a sprained ankle, finds a public supporter for the movement in Bobby Kennedy and then loses him to assassination, undertakes hunger fasts to promote the principle of nonviolence, inspires Americans across the country to stop buying grapes completely and, applying united pressure to the very powerful, paves the way to fairer, safer conditions in the fields.
The lights go up at the end of Viva La Causa to a silent roomful of Whitman students and visitors. Kate Shuster of the Southern Poverty Law Center looks out over the class.
“Okay. What didn’t you know, before the movie?” she asks.
This could be something of an uncomfortable question. American students who haven’t worked to learn about civil rights movements on their own, outside of school, might have to answer: all of it. Or, Cesar Chavez is maybe a name I’ve heard before, or I knew there was a fight that had something to do with unions but that’s really all.
Civil rights education in American classrooms is, according to comprehensive research from the SPLC, woefully inadequate, which is why Shuster is here. The students gathered to watch Viva La Causa mean to learn from her—not just about the farm workers’ struggle itself, but about how to teach it, in this case to high school kids who might not otherwise learn about the movement at all.
Four years ago, Whitman College took offense to the low bar set for civil rights education in Washington state schools, then took action. Led by Associate Dean of Students Noah Leavitt, the Student Engagement Center collaborated with the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Program and Walla Walla’s public school system to create Whitman Teaches the Movement, a program in which Whitman students go into classrooms to deliver targeted lessons on civil rights to primary and secondary school students.
Shuster has been involved since the beginning, helping to train the college students on the content—and how to deliver it to students, some of whom are just a few years younger than they are. Tonight’s movie is followed by a discussion on how to get teenagers to engage with what they’ve just seen.
“Get to the good stuff, the ‘how does this apply to our lives,’ with at least 20 minutes left,” Shuster advises. She fills the rest of the training sessions with pedagogical quick-tips, logistical concerns and example language for facilitating conversation.
The Cesar Chavez training represents an expansion of WTTM, as this is the first year the volunteers will cover the farm worker movement in classrooms. Other already tried-and-true lessons, penned by the SPLC, are taught to students in grades 2, 5, 7 and 9 and cover the Greensboro sit-ins, Jackie Robinson, feminism in the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, respectively. (A modified version of the farm worker movement lesson was taught last year, but this year is the first for the full version.)
“We’ve stuck with the same curricula because they’ve been successful,” said program organizer and WTTM Community Service Intern Sophie Schouboe ’15, but “the student volunteers kept saying we should do something related to the farm workers.”
Schouboe, a psychology major who has been a part of WTTM since her first year and run it twice, listened to the feedback and worked with Shuster and SEC Outreach Coordinator Susan Prudente to incorporate the new training into the program.
It’s been a lot of work. Schouboe started recruiting volunteers in the fall, co-hosting an event called Social Justice Yesterday and Today with Students for Education Reform, and has spent many hours arranging the schedules of the volunteers and the public school teachers whose classes they will visit—42 volunteers going into 34 classrooms this year. She attends all four training events and is able to teach any of the curricula if a spot opens up.
“The program this year is coming at a really interesting time,” Schouboe said. In surveys, the volunteers explain why they are volunteering, and this year, she said, “a lot of students mentioned Ferguson.” For students wanting to further their own knowledge about civil rights in the U.S., “it’s good timing.”
Schouboe herself had a vivid experience in high school that inspired her to get started with WTTM: over the course of a 10-day trip around the American South with other high school students her junior year, she had the chance to talk with Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the famous Little Rock Nine, and to meet the daughter of assassinated civil rights pioneer Medgar Evans.
“That stuck with me,” she said. “When I started with WTTM, I learned a lot more, but [that trip] helped make the civil rights movement feel more real.” Her motivation for WTTM work comes partly from a desire to share her perspective with the community.
Allie Donahue ’16 echoed the sentiment. After taking a class called The Rhetoric of Civil Rights, which tied the 1960s’ civil rights movement to more recent LGBTQ movements, “I wanted to pay it forward in some way. I’m looking forward to getting to talk to the kids and share emotional, personal connections.”
Volunteers make the movement more tangible for young people, learn more about American history, strengthen ties with the local community and even get some teaching experience—WTTM is the kind of win-win that quickly becomes contagious.
At a roundtable discussion about a year ago, representatives from 13 other Washington campuses brainstormed the possibility of instituting similar programs in their own communities based on the Whitman model. Since then, Shuster said, at least four have taken up the mantle: Eastern Washington University, Seattle University and the University of Washington have plans developing, and Whitworth College in Spokane is so ready to go that it sent representatives to sit in on Whitman’s training sessions before their own version launches in fall of 2015.
Sophie Schouboe’s counterpart at Whitworth is a junior communications major, Elizabeth Porter, who is overseeing implementation of Teach the Movement at that school. Whitworth’s program has attracted interest from several public schools in Spokane—not to mention homeschool groups—and there are plans in the works to train students in the college’s education department to facilitate Teach the Movement as part of their coursework.
Porter, whose program’s goals include reaching lower-income students in the area, said she was glad she made the trip over to Walla Walla for the training.
“I’ve loved it. It’s been really great to see it finally—[the training] gives us a really good idea what the classroom setting will be like,” she said.