Friday, October 23, 2015

Thought Leader…education and civil rights

Today I wrote a 'thought leader' piece to share with the UW-Eau Claire online community about an upcoming event for our Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversations series.  It felt appropriate to share some images that have been in my mind since our first trip and that inspired my writing...

Thought Leader…education and civil rights

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.”

Now, more than ever, I believe this to be true.

I’ve seen it happen in the eight years of leading the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a 10-day immersion trip providing students the opportunity to visit sites of historical significance to the civil rights movement. But that change didn’t happen overnight and would not have happened without inspired students leading the way.

Early in the fall of 2007, a colleague invited me to meet with a group of four Resident Assistants who believed that teaching UW-Eau Claire students about the civil rights movement would support their diversity education goals in their residence hall. They wanted to create an alternative spring break experience that would allow students to travel and learn.  It sounded a bit like a pie in the sky idea, but anyone who know me knows that I live for helping students make their ideas a reality.  So I worked to connect them with folks on campus who could bring their idea to life.

In December the students invited me to lunch. It was finals week and they hadn’t gotten much traction for their idea, but were determined to make it happen for Spring Break.  Sarah Gonzalez, now an alum, asked whether I’d be willing to go on the trip and co-advise their efforts. I reluctantly agreed. But, I needed to take my son (now 8…then 3 months old) because he would still be nursing at the time of our trip.

When I said yes that day, I thought about what a great learning experience the trip would be for the trip coordinators and the students participating.  What I didn’t know was that this trip would transform my own life and cement my own commitment to using education to change my little corner of the world.

With the help of Kimera Way and generous donors to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Sarah Gonzalez, Chris Neilson, Katie Lashua, Tim Kenney and their residence hall director, January Boten, made that first trip a reality.  In March of 2008, January and I left Eau Claire with 42 students.
First Civil Rights Pilgrimage Participants March 2008

The first trip was almost nothing like the trip I now take with more than 100 students twice a year. 
111 Civil Rights Pilgrimage Participants March 2015

Yet that first trip is so important to me because something happened to me on that trip.  I have always been drawn to support multicultural understanding and have dedicated much of my career to increasing diversity on our campus.  I was proud of my work and believed I was doing all I could.  After all, I was on spring break with 42 college students, my 12- and 10-year-old daughters and my nursing baby. But I had more to learn.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, while touring the Little Rock Central High School exhibit at the National Park site, my 10-year-old took my hand and walked me over to a picture of an empty hallway of Little Rock Central High School taken in the year following the desegregation crisis.  She told me about what she had read about the ‘lost year’ of school, when they closed all of the schools because they didn’t want black and white kids to go to school together.  I cried. My fourth grader could see the unfairness of it all in a way that I never could before I saw it through her eyes. 

The next day we were in Memphis and had the chance to meet Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine students.  Following her presentation I had the chance to talk to her and ask some questions about education.  Afterward, she hugged me and said we needed to do more about the issues with education today.  And, I knew she was right.
Minnijean Brown Trickey when she came to UWEC in 2011

I returned to campus and with a number of motivated students from that first trip began to work on the foundation of the program we now call Blugold Beginnings.  Today, UW-Eau Claire Blugold Beginnings serves as a comprehensive college access program designed to help all students, regardless of race or socio-economic status, achieve their post-secondary education dream. Blugold Beginnings now serves thousands of students in our region using college students as tutors/mentors.
Blugold Beginnings Mentors Fall 2008

As we close this terrific month of programming and exhibits showcasing the history of the civil rights movement, it seems fitting that we close with a Blugold Beginnings event at the Chippewa Valley Museum showcasing the Risking Everything exhibit and the important role that college students played in making change during Freedom Summer.  Learning this history of where we’ve come from and being inspired by the change-makers of the past, has motivated me to do more to increase access to higher education for all people.  Blugold Beginnings does just that. Our UW-Eau Claire students are making similar change today through their work to increase access to education.
Blugold Beginnings Mentors Fall 2015

UW-Eau Claire has demonstrated to our region, through the investment in this program, that we are an educational institution that will be a change leader. And although I don’t know what may come next, I’m confident that when the next student comes up with an idea to … we’ll again answer “yes.” We will follow Nelson Mandela’s example and use education as a powerful weapon to change our world for the better.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Day 7
This pilgrimage has been one of the most life changing experiences I have had.  I was so unaware of all the inequality and problems that still go on to this day.  I loved actually going to all the places that we learned about in school.  It is one thing to learn something, but to actually see it in person is a whole new experience.  It allowed me to get a different feel and gave me a different perspective on what I learned.  For example I had learned about the Little Rock Central High School, but until I was able to see it I didn’t realize how large the school was and that the size of the school itself was used as an intimidation method to nonwhite students.  I think it was also important to learn more about the problems in the past to compare them to present day issues.  There are many similarities, but there were also differences, which was encouraging to see that we have made progress.  However, there are still many issues that we saw on the trip such as segregation, and a lack of female representation in the portrayal of history.  I think that we have to be careful that we do not continue to leave people out of the story, who were crucial in shaping our history.  That is part of something that I have to do, now that I have returned from the trip.  Others and myself need to make sure that we spread the word, and tell others about what we learned.  Since I became more aware of the social inequalities and inappropriate judgments that people make about others, I want to help stop others from using these offensive words.  I want to educate people on what is offensive to others and help inform people on a language that is inclusive to all.
This image of inspirational posters show that we must continue to work and never stop trying to make change.  While the other picture of the capital in Montgomery shows that there are still forces and institutions that may hinder or try to get in the way of change, but we cannot let them prohibit us from continuing on in making this world a place where all can feel safe. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Blog #7

               I think, above all, that this trip has taught me how prevalent racism and segregation still are today. There were so many disturbing things about racism in the south that really hit home with me. Seeing pictures of happy slaves made me think that southern students are taught differently about the civil war than we are. Additionally seeing how many people still took pride in the confederate army really opened my eyes. Last but not least, hearing the stories of segregation in schools and fraternities/sororities was extremely troubling. 

            Although it’s easy to point my finger at the south and say how bad racism is there, this trip also made me open my eyes to the injustices all around me. Knowing that Hmong students were recently singled out on our campus, and that Eau Claire is a hub for sex trafficking, makes it obvious that there’s still a lot of work to do in our community. In order to make a change I will no longer be a silent bystander when I return to Eau Claire. Every slur I hear will be an opportunity to teach someone about the injustices behind that slur. I will fight for equal opportunities for all people, and check myself whenever I experience internal racism. Additionally, I will be engaged and informed about the world around me. I will use my citizenship to bring about systemic change and support causes that advocate for it.

Blog #6

            Today I would like to talk about the blatant discrepancies in education that took place in Little Rock, Arkansas.  We learned a lot about the preceding events that led to the Little Rock nine integrating into Little Rock Central High. When Little Rock Central High was built, another school for African American students was also built. However, the “black” school, was 1/3 the size of Little Rock Central High and it’s teachers were paid a fraction of what the white teachers made. Additionally it did not have the same technology or learning resources as the “white” school. When the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools, the Little Rock school board surveyed the interest of the African American students and got an overwhelming response. In order to limit the number of African American students who would integrate, the school board put restrictions on their offer. The students who decided to integrate could not participate in sports or any other after school activity. Henceforth, the students who decided to stay at the “black” school were getting a lower quality education because of their lack of school funding, and the students who decided to integrate were also getting a lower quality education because they couldn’t explore their interests in clubs or sports. Education is the most important component to success, and we can’t expect people to be successful unless they’re given an equal education as their peers.

            In order to make social change it’s imperative that you are engaged in politics. To put it frankly, you can’t achieve systemic change without changing the laws that the system follows. Although this may sound daunting, this does not mean that the only way to achieve social justice is to become a politician. In order to promote social justice an engaged citizen can do many things. They can “vote with their dollar” and only shop at companies they support. They can vote in elections, and write letters to their representative. They can challenge laws they don’t agree with and take a stand. Systemic racism will not change unless engaged citizens force it to change.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Blog #5

           I think a major difference between New Orleans and other southern cities is their history of slavery. The French (who first populated New Orleans) learned early on that it’s better to have loyal servants than fearful slaves. Also, the type of work needed in New Orleans was different than the plantation type of work. New Orleans needed handymen to build the city, and the slaves were very skilled craftsmen. The slaves living in New Orleans had better living conditions (only when compared to plantation slaves) and were able to do more things.

            We learned during the bus tour that slaves in New Orleans would sometimes have weekends free and they were able to congregate and play music and dance. This was a stark difference to the lives of slaves who worked on plantations. Many of the plantation owners knew that the slaves could communicate using drum beats across long distances, but in New Orleans they were able to express themselves freely during those weekend gatherings. Additionally if other people wanted to hire the slaves during the weekend, both the slave and the slave owner would take a cut of the profit. Plantation slaves were never paid for their work, so this is a big difference as well.

Blog #4

           I chose to upload a photo that represents the problem of segregation in the schools of Selma. I was very surprised to find that Selma’s private school only consists of 1% minority students, whereas the public school consists of 99% minority students. Not only are their schools not integrated, they’re not even desegregated.  When we watched the RATCO documentary, we learned that, for many of the kids, RATCO is the only time when they play with kids of a different skin color. How sad is it that in 2015 it’s still acceptable to have schools that are so blatantly segregated.
            I’ve had interesting experiences with school integration in my hometown. In Eagan, the elementary school you go to depends on where you live. My elementary school encompassed a lower-income neighborhood and had a much larger percentage of minorities than the surrounding schools. I never thought anything of it until I went to middle school and heard everyone refer to my elementary school as “ghetto”.  My elementary school received the exact funding that the other schools received, and was the exact same model as the others, but the only difference that mine had more minorities.

             Additionally a couple years after I’d left the elementary school, the district was getting into legal trouble because of the radical concentration of all the minorities in a single school. Instead of trying to do a better job at integrating the schools, the district had a different idea. They converted my elementary school into a “magnet school” which meant, legally, it could have a larger number of minorities than the other schools in the area. Racial segregation is present in many different forms all over America.