Remarks delivered at the Equity Council Community Forum on November 16, 2016.
For many years, Evergreen has struggled to find a paradigm of teaching and learning that addresses the many differences in backgrounds, orientations and life experiences of our students. When I arrived at Evergreen a year ago, a group of faculty and staff talking about diversity and equity asked me to help improving the college’s work on these issues. As I become involved, I learned about inequities in the retention, persistence and graduation of many of our students, particularly those from underrepresented and underserved groups. It became clear that a council of dedicated faculty, staff and students would be needed to tackle the problem of equity gaps in our students’ experiences. And late last spring, I established and charged what is now Evergreen’s Equity Council with developing a plan for institutional change – systemic change that would enable Evergreen to acknowledge and address equity gaps here and in Tacoma.
These gaps are not unique to Evergreen; they occur on almost every college and university campus. They are pervasive across the country and very problematic here at home. The gaps reflect a failure by colleges and universities to adopt a student-centered approach to teaching and guided by a commitment to equity. I sincerely regret that egregious gaps exist for students at Evergreen. And students, on behalf of the college, I apologize to each of you for the ways in which you have experienced their effects. That this has happened and continues to happen is wrong and must be corrected.
The Equity Council has wisely chosen an ambitious goal for the college: developing a new paradigm for student learning and success at Evergreen that would, by its very nature, transform how we think about student success and how we invest college resources in ways that advance equity and inclusion. The Council’s plan offers a theory of institutional change, a set of compelling goals and a strong framework for improving the learning of all Evergreen students.
Nearly 30 years ago when I was a faculty member at UW, a colleague and I uncovered systematic evidence of institutionalized racism in the court system of Washington State – repeated instances in which African American youth were subjected to racially biased decisions by judges and court personnel. I was deeply shaken and angered by what I read in case file after case file of black youth accused of crimes and how our courts were treating them. My intense desire for change drove me to devote many years of my career to studying, fighting against, and eliminating racial inequities in Washington’s juvenile courts. Ultimately, laws were passed in the 1990s, progressive reforms were achieved, and racially biased decision-making was dramatically reduced in many areas of the state. And yet racial biases persist and undermine aspects of our justice system today. And I have come to understand that eliminating bias and inequity anywhere is a lifelong struggle everywhere.
At Evergreen, some members of the faculty and staff have toiled for years to reduce inequities experienced by students and to increase the success of our underrepresented and underserved students. Just as my colleague and I launched a campaign and fight against racial bias in our courts, today, we launch a new campaign to fight the systemic causes of inequities at Evergreen. At the heart of our campaign and the council’s plan are goals that place student learning at the center of all of our work, goals that aim to substantially improve the experiences of students and that close the equity gaps.
I call on all of us, both as individuals and collectively as a college community, to embrace this campaign, this struggle and these goals. By pursuing them we can remedy equity gaps across the college, increase the successes of our students, and strengthen Evergreen’s programs.
To be clear, the Council’s plan does not propose a one-and-done project. It enables us to embrace a new way of thinking about our mission, our culture and our work. And because we seek a culture of teaching and learning at Evergreen that will always be equity minded, our work in pursuing these goals will never end.
Evergreen has an abiding commitment to social justice. But how well are we walking the talk? How effectively are we pursuing social justice and equity on our campus, in our programs, in our services, in our everyday work and study? We must do better. Inequity anywhere and anytime at Evergreen, is a threat to equity everywhere and every time at Evergreen. It must be eliminated.
Ideals inspire our beliefs about this college and its mission. They are embodied in the five foci of learning and the six expectations of graduates. But we don’t always live up to our ideals do we? And for some of us this message is hard to hear and even harder to acknowledge.
For some students, their realities at Evergreen come pretty close to college’s ideals and they leave us inspired by the learning and growth they came to expect and enjoy. For many other students, however, their realities at Evergreen don’t even resemble the college’s ideals. These students leave us disaffected and disappointed and they believe that we have failed to deliver on the college’s ideals.
This divide in the experiences of our students is unacceptable. Without an institution-wide commitment to and creation of a culture of inquiry, grounded in equity, we will not close the divide. And some of our students, or perhaps many, won’t achieve their dreams of the education we promise them. And now more than ever we must deliver on this promise.
Our focus today is the Council’s goals that we must and will embrace. However, I would be remiss if I did not state that fully embracing these goals and integrating them into every aspect of our work will require taking concrete steps over many years. The goals cannot be achieved overnight or even over the course of a year. The work must become part of all that we do now and in the future.
For those of you who are seniors, I appreciate your patience with those of us working day-to-day to make Evergreen better. To those of you who are first-year first-time college students, I am confident that if we embrace these goals today and integrate them fully into the life of our campus, by the time you graduate you will have witnessed significant changes in our college and its culture. It will be a more equitable, supportive and welcoming campus.
In 1900, sociologist and race activist, W.E.B. DuBois wrote “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”
Now, 116 years later, we remain a society sharply divided not only on what DuBois referred as the “color line” but along many other lines. If we can create a more equitable and just community at Evergreen, our students will be the ones who work to close the divisions in our country and create a more equitable and just society.
Friends, the Council’s goals and our work together are critical to the success of students and the future of this college. We must engage this work. Therefore, I ask each of you join the Council and me in endorsing and embracing the Council’s plan for Evergreen and this critical commitment to all of our students.