Activist and speaker Mariah Parker.
Activist and speaker Mariah Parker.

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The Walla Walla community is invited to join Whitman College in creating positive social change during its inaugural Unity Week events, Jan. 20-24, 2020.

It’s a week that brings together community members, leaders in social justice, and college students from Whitman College, Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) and Walla Walla University (WWU) with speakers and workshops aimed at transforming a passion for equality into action. 

While Whitman has featured speakers and workshops during the week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this is the first time the activities have been organized at an institutional level. It’s important that students, faculty and staff know that supporting diversity, equity and inclusion is a priority at Whitman, said Thomas Witherspoon, vice president for diversity and inclusion at the college. 

The events also serve as a launching pad for the student-organized Power and Privilege Symposium, a daylong series of discussions about equality held each February at Whitman. 

“The purpose of Unity Week is to create a platform for consistent, sustainable programming that brings community members together through events that recognize and honor the core values of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings of equity, faith, nonviolence, education, love, leadership, selflessness and hope,” said Laura Sanchez, director of the Intercultural Center at Whitman. “This is the first time that Whitman is dedicating a week to social justice-focused programming. It’s been exciting to be a part of this.”

Monday, Jan. 20: Join the MLK Peace March

Events begin Jan. 20, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with the annual MLK Peace March. The public peace march begins at 4 p.m. at the Reid Campus Center on Boyer Avenue, and travels along Main Street to the Gesa Power House Theater, where it ends with a program and reception. WWCC choir members, as well as Whitman College staff and students, will perform. Pedrito Maynard-Reid, assistant to the president for diversity at WWU, will address the crowd.

Tuesday, Jan. 21: Keynote Speaker Walks the Talk

One highlight of the week is a keynote address by Mariah Parker, an openly queer hip-hop artist and community organizer in Athens, Georgia. Parker made headlines when she was elected a commissioner for Athens-Clarke County in Georgia and was sworn-in with a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” 

Her talk, titled “Seeing the Staircase,” will share her story and discuss what it means to take the first step in faith, especially as a young woman of color and community activist inside the world of government. It begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, in Maxey Hall Auditorium. The talk is free and open to the public. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. in Maxey Museum, visitors can enjoy a pre-keynote reception featuring a curated display looking at the history of the civil rights movement in the Walla Walla area. 

The display was put together by Maxey Museum Exhibitions and Collections Manager Libby Miller and economics major Alex Hwang ’20 of Orinda, California.

“I think people are going to be surprised and interested to see what’s been put together on the civil rights movement here in Walla Walla, and what Whitman’s part in that was,” Sanchez said.

Prior to the keynote, Parker will lead students from the three area colleges, as well as a group of high schoolers, in a social justice training titled “Build Your Army, Build Your Argument.”

Sanchez is excited to see students from multiple colleges coming together for the event.

“We wanted to focus on providing opportunities to come together, opportunities to educate and learn and opportunities to take action,” she said. “The workshop is a big piece for students gaining best practices and tools for community organizing and social justice efforts.”

Thursday, Jan. 23: Dining with the Changemakers

On Thursday evening, Whitman College will host a dinner and panel discussion with regional leaders on creating positive change. The event is at 5:30 p.m. in the Young Ballroom in Reid Campus Center. Registration is required.

Speakers include Scott Finnie, director and senior professor of Africana Studies and executive director of Race and Cultural Studies at Eastern Washington University; Sandra Williams, founder and editor of The Black Lens in Spokane, Washington; Martin Valadez, president of the Tri-Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and director of Workforce Training and Education Programs at Heritage University; and Gabe Bohnee, member of the Nez Perce Tribe (Nimiipuu) of Idaho, president of the Columbia River Professional Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and Government and Tribal Affairs Specialist at Indian Eyes, LLC.

“We have regional leaders who are doing amazing, transformative type of work,” Sanchez said. “It’s another way to hear about best practices, so that action can be taken.”

During the week, Whitman will also offer Whittie Allies 101 for faculty and staff to learn about allyship — building relationship and trust — with members of the LGBTQ+ population.

Friday, Jan. 24: Moving Forward

The events wrap up with a “Continuing the Conversation” event on the intersections of race and faith at noon in the Glover Alston Center, 26 Boyer Ave. “Continuing the Conversation” is a regular event moderated by Whitman Interfaith Chaplin Adam Kirtley. 

My hope is that community members from across the region will participate, learn and grow -- but then offer their thoughts, opinions and suggest ways to become more inclusive,” Witherspoon said. “This is just the beginning. The hope is that it continues to grow and expand, and have a very transformative impact in our region.”

Support for Unity Week events comes from the Whitman College Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of the President.