"I’m not quite sure how to react to injustice,” Yuria Osawa, a student at Linfield College said. "I also want to get to know people who I share the same experiences with."
"I wanted to hear about the experiences of people of color at other colleges and figure out new tactics for advancing social matters," added Elena McKnight, a student from Reed College.
"I wanted to learn about leadership styles from other people of color, not just old white men—so different, diverse leadership styles I can actually relate to," stated student Fonzy Miranda from Whitworth University.
Thoughts like these drew more than 150 students of color—and other underrepresented groups such as first-generation college students and LGBTQIA+—from 10 institutions in the Pacific Northwest to Whitman College to attend the first Change Now! students of color conference last Saturday. Participants also came from Gonzaga University, Seattle University, Pacific University, University of Puget Sound, Willamette University and Walla Walla University. They chose from among 15 student-run workshops on topics ranging from immigration to Title IX to protests. A Diversity Innovation Grant from the Whitman's President’s Office funded the daylong program.
"I think it’s important for students of color to feel empowered," said Cassandra Otero '18, a conference moderator, prior to the gathering. "It's incredibly important that we unify and realize we're not alone, we're all together, we have shared experiences, and our experiences are valid," added the sociology major. "We're valuable, our voices need to be heard, and we're capable of educating each other and ourselves."
Kazi Joshua, vice president for diversity and inclusion at Whitman, conceived of the event after realizing that liberal arts schools in the Pacific Northwest did not offer collective meetings for students of color and that on predominantly white campuses, a myth often arises that they are too few in number to be considered or make a difference. "What I wanted to do was to say: Listen, there are students like you who are also doing exciting work, contributing to the community, learning and growing and thriving," he explained before the conference. "Let's bring everybody together so that you know that you are not alone; there's actually a network of people like you at all these schools."
President Kathy Murray reinforced these values in her opening remarks. "As learning communities, we need to continue to develop our capacity for empathy for the ability to understand, even to share, the feelings of others, and to experience life as if we were standing in someone else's shoes," she said. "We need to put that theoretical concept into action as we engage in what will almost certainly be difficult dialogues within and beyond the reach of each of our campus communities. These difficult dialogues will be even more productive if we remember to extend grace to each other."
Alisha Agard '15, a sociology major, and Ashley Hansack '15, a sociology-environmental studies major, delivered the keynote address, "Why Campus Activism Matters Beyond College: Our Journeys from Campus to Community." "You have to fight," said Agard, fellowship coordinator at the Seattle-based Washington Bus, a nonprofit that mobilizes young people statewide about politics and leadership. While at Whitman, she cofounded its Power and Privilege Symposium and organized for Martin Luther King week—to "make a mirror for myself" on campus—and was the first in her family to go to college. She continued, "You have to make life what it is for yourselves." Attending this conference was a step in that direction, added Hansack, a program associate at T.R.U.S.T South LA, a community-based effort to stabilize neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles. "I want to encourage you all to branch out, talk to people that you’ve never seen before," she advised.
The workshops provided such exchanges. In "Boycotts, Protests and Sit-ins! Oh My! A Comprehensive Guide to On Campus Dissent," four Reed students from the group "Reedies Against Racism" shared experiences about protesting a required first-year course because of its Eurocentrism. "What Does 'Asian Pacific Islander' Mean to You?," led by four Whitman students, unfolded as an open discussion to foster understanding and build networks. Subjects spanned assimilation, whiteness and creating Asian Pacific Islander groups on campuses.
"Sometimes when part of your identity is underrepresented on campus, it can feel very lonely. So a big part of this conference is trying to create networks to get people together, talking about change, talking about making strides in representation,” observed Zach Turner ’17, a conference moderator and philosophy major. "There can be a resonance between people who have, because of their identity, felt left out or unfairly treated."
The conference, he concluded, isn't necessarily "a reactionary thing" in response to politics of the day. "It’s more like a proactive thing, gearing toward the future, the future being relatively soon—Change Now!"