For her Whitman Chemistry class, sophomore Kainat Ansari wrote an essay on racism. She was asked to explore the ways in which science is racist, and to consider the measures that can be taken to make science antiracist. For Ansari and many of her classmates, this was the first time they had been given an assignment of this nature.
This is just one example of an array of assignments, seminars, classes, workshops, lectures and panels designed around Whitman’s 2020-2021 academic theme, “Race, Violence, and Health.” Throughout the year, there will be opportunities for discussions about racial violence, racism, anti-racism and COVID-19.
This is the first academic theme that Whitman has taken on, and its development has been spearheaded by Shampa Biswas, Professor of Politics and Judge & Mrs. Timothy A. Paul Chair of Political Science. In May, when people across the country took to the streets to condemn police brutality and racism—in the wake of the death of George Floyd—Biswas knew that Whitman needed to be ready to do something when students returned in the fall.
“It was very clear that there were major issues in the world that were emerging and intersecting in various ways and this was nothing like anything before, in terms of the experience of faculty, staff and most certainly students,” Biswas said. “This moment is going to leave a transformative imprint, especially on the lives of students who are going through this during a very formative time.”
On the Minds of Young People
Over the summer, a committee of faculty, staff and students began working together to develop a program of events and workshops, invite influential speakers to give virtual lectures and more. The goal of the academic theme is to help generate organized, sustained and challenging conversations throughout the year.
“Students need the intellectual tools to be able to think about COVID-19 and race and racial violence in intelligent ways. As liberal arts students, they are learning what it means to live as engaged citizens of the world, and I hope that this theme will provide them the tools to navigate a racist world and work toward antiracist futures,” Biswas said.
Ansari, from Karachi, Pakistan, is one of the students on the organizing committee. She plans to major in psychology and is passionate about advocacy and inclusion. While attending high school in Norway, she worked on an initiative that promoted inclusion for refugees in the local community.
“I knew from that moment, it was the work that I wanted to do because I felt that I could pour my heart into it,” Ansari said.
When she arrived at Whitman, Ansari quickly became involved. Her experience working on the student government diversity and inclusion committee, the Whitman Events Board (WEB) and as an international student orientation leader helped prepare her to be a collaborator on the committee.
For Ansari, the theme not only promotes awareness and recognition of global and national problems, but makes students realize that these issues extend to their campus and their friend groups, and that they play an important role as young people, now and into the future.
“You come to college to enrich yourself and I personally feel that having this theme has really emphasized the importance of educating people on the issues that really matter in American history. Imagine coming to college and not understanding your colleagues who are suffering from these issues? It is very important that we make this emphasis,” Ansari said.
Inviting Alumni to Share and Join In
To help build conversations across generations of Whitties, the academic theme organizing committee has encouraged a diverse group of alumni to give lectures, facilitate work- shops and attend virtual events.
Laura Sanchez, director of the Intercultural Center and a member of the organizing committee, has been working closely with Kimberly Rolfe, director for Career Development, and alumni to create meaningful ways for the campus community to interact around these important topics.
“I feel fortunate to be a part of Whitman, because Whitman has such strong alumni support. We can count on our alums to have open and honest dialogue with the community. These are not easy topics. We are asking them to share in a way that is very personal, and we have so many alums who are willing to do that. I think it says a lot about our community,” Sanchez said.
One of the theme events this fall, sponsored by the Intercultural Center and the Student Engagement Center (SEC), was a panel discussion, “Structural Racism in the Workplace,” with alumni Sarah Claxton Deming ’10, Adam Delgado ’12 and Kayvon Behroozian ’14. Since graduating from Whitman, the three have had successful careers in marketing, tech and law, respectively. Yet they have also experienced workplace racism—and want to help others identify it and do something about it in their current and future jobs.
“We want people to know what structural racism looks like and how it impacts individuals and groups of people. We focused on the workplace, because once students graduate from Whitman that will be their world,” Sanchez said. The workshop was not only beneficial for students enter- ing the workforce, but was also well-attended by Whitman staff, faculty and alumni.
A Virtual Silver Lining
As difficult as the year has been, an unforeseen benefit of an online semester has been the virtual opportunities it has brought forth. Guest speakers, alumni and parents do not have to worry about the long travel to Walla Walla to attend an event—they can join from afar. For students living at home this semester, Biswas noted that some have told her about the productive conversations taking place at the dinner table with parents and siblings, as a result.
“It helps people feel a sense of community. That was another reason for us to do this, because in a year when we are all far away from one another, we need things outside of classes to help us talk with each other, to build our intellectual community,” Biswas said.
And for the Whitman community, the hope is that these important conversations continue even when the academic year ends.
“Acknowledgment is very important, because people can feel ignored and invisible—recognition of this work is critical—it leads to more education and less ignorance,” Ansari said.