I’m pale, short, blonde, and when I tell someone I just moved to Walla Walla from Southern California some immediately assume I’m from swanky Newport Beach.
By appearances only, you wouldn’t think I could contribute any diversity to the Walla Walla community or the Whitman College campus.
But we are defined by so much more than the color of our skin.
I am a white woman with a Chinese last name. My mother is Canadian, hailing from a family of Ukrainian wheat farmers who settled in northeast Alberta and western Saskatchewan for the similarities in climate and soil to “the motherland.”
My children are considered “hapas” — an Asian/Pacific Islander term of endearment for mixed-race babies. And, in fact, I am definitely not from a wealthy So Cal beach community (more on that later).
I came to Walla Walla to lead Whitman’s Office of Communications and, although the environment here is very different from where I was raised, I immediately felt comfortable.
That’s because people here know the importance of having a campus and community comprised of those with varied experiences and global perspectives.
We’ve even developed a program to help facilitate the sharing of those varied experiences throughout the community: Whitman Teaches the Movement.
Why is something like this so important? Consider the Richard Sherman incident.
Social media exploded with polarized opinions only seconds after his energized — and apparently overconfident — statement about being “the best corner(back) in the game.” People labeled him a “disgrace,” “classless,” and even a “thug.”
But the best label I could find for Richard Sherman was offered by Isaac Saul of The Huffington Post: Richard Sherman was a teacher. He was teaching us about ourselves, our levels of tolerance or ignorance, of compassion and understanding.
Saul described how the incident emphasized that “we’re still a country that isn’t ready for lower-class Americans from neighborhoods like Compton to succeed,” and how “no matter what you overcome in your life, we’re still a country that can’t accept someone if they’re a little louder, a little prouder, or a little different from the people we surround ourselves with.”
Richard Sherman and I have things in common. We both hail from the same rough South Los Angeles locale — he from Compton and I from North Long Beach, just a single freeway underpass between us.
I remember SWAT team helicopters and men outfitted in full riot gear landing on our high school football field during the famous Rodney King riots. Our schools were fully fenced and had metal detectors at the door.
Sadly, college recruiters don’t come to those campuses — entire student bodies are written off as lost causes, not worth the time.
Coming from a neighborhood like that, he and I had a lot to overcome to get where we are today, so I understand his confidence and pride.
However, I’m also careful to recognize and respect that while we may have been neighbors with similar socioeconomic circumstances, I still probably had a leg up in life due to my pale complexion. That’s just a sad fact.
So, can we dismantle racism and promote tolerance and understanding through education?
Whitman Teaches the Movement attempts to do just that by exploring a series of topics related to social justice, equality, education and American history. Led by the Whitman College Student Engagement Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Walla Walla and Dayton public schools, WTTM opened on Jan. 27 with the event “Why Civil Rights Education Matters in Walla Walla in 2014,” followed by “Why The Movement Matters: Learning from America’s Civil Rights Struggles.”
All WTTM events are free and open to the public and events are scheduled for the coming year.
In my mind, WTTM is congruent with the vision David Leonard described in a 2012 submission to Ebony magazine, wishing that “The civil rights movement would be a history told not through King and one great speech, but people like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, heroes and sheroes who refused to accept American Apartheid.”
His piece, titled “Dear White Folks: You Need Black Studies Classes (and here’s why),” was written from a perspective of a white male who actually did take black studies and Chicana studies classes, returning to a “sea of whiteness” with a completely changed perspective.
This change of perspective, this acknowledgment of stories and struggles beyond the one-time lesson on MLK and his “I have a dream” speech, is what WTTM is all about.
This month, aside from the on-campus discussions and events, Whitman College students are volunteering in second-, fifth-, seventh- and 11th-grade classrooms throughout Walla Walla and Dayton to teach civil rights lessons.
These lessons will cover several civil and social justice movements, including Cesar Chavez’s major contributions to the labor movement. Hailing from Southern California, these discussions have already found a place in the mainstream public school curriculum there — Mendez vs. Westminster is a lesson all So Cal schoolchildren can recite — and I’m happy to see those lessons are finding their place here.
Thinking beyond Walla Walla is also important for Whitman College as it presents and encourages use of the WTTM model at other college campuses. Colleges and universities throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho are currently learning from Whitman and the Walla Walla community how to implement a program like WTTM successfully on their campuses and communities, and the benefits of doing so.
As the program expands within Walla Walla and beyond, I hope you will come to WTTM event (the next will be in March for Cesar Chavez Day), engage in conversation with your children about what they are learning in the classroom this month, and seek out more information at www.whitmanteachesthemovement.net.
I’m delighted to be part of the Whitman College campus and the community and I look forward to seeing what we will build next, together.
Michelle Ma joined Whitman College in January to lead the college’s communications and public relations efforts as chief communications officer. She welcomes feedback and conversation from members of the Walla Walla community and can be reached at email@example.com or via phone at 509-527-5768.