Learning in Oregon; More than just Lewis and Clark

I’ve never struggled much with the concept of equality as an idea; it always made sense to me that everyone should get a fair piece of the pie.  As the oldest of three children, I needed to get to the kitchen first to make sure that two pieces of Cherry’O’Cream could be divided into three before my brother Dryller got in there to enjoy both! I was sheltered growing up in a small New Mexico town. I graduated with ninety-eight other students, so naturally we knew each other.  I had friends who were white, Asian, Native American and Latino. I heard Spanish spoken in the homes of my friends and attended pow-wows celebrating classmates.  There was not a “wrong side of the tracks”, rather some friends lived in big beautiful houses and others lived in well-loved trailer homes. These housing differences were not based on racial lines; one of my friends with the biggest house was a person of color, and I lived in one of those well-loved trailer homes. This environment, along with positive and loving parents, contributed to my simplistic belief that people are the same, and treating others as I would want to be treated is a great guide for behavior.  Through college and continuing through my professional life, I have been made better by a diverse group of cherished friends—from different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities.  We have shared tears, laughter, stories and frustrations as we’ve moved forward in this complicated country. Because I’ve found my home in Oregon, I’ve realized that I need to do more to promote social justice. In 2016-17, the same year that I became a full-time instructor, I started an intentional journey to explore equality and equity, and in particular, equity as it relates to racism.

Oregon is white. Portland is whiter-- if that’s possible.  These were relatively unknown facts to me when I moved from the Southwest five years ago. Excited to experience the beach, the mountains, and a much greener and socially aware environment, I couldn’t wait to live in Cascadia.  Along with the joys of the area, I also learned the ugly history of cultural and institutional racism in Oregon, as evidenced by Black Exclusion laws, redlining, and the continued gentrification of historically black neighborhoods.  I realized that the childlike understanding of equality, previously pursued in my life, does not lend itself to the deeper social issues of our time, or the nuanced aspects of words like equity.

 There is certainly no substitute for developing relationships with other people from different backgrounds, whether the focus is racism or another social justice area. It is the human connection, and the ability to share experiences in a comfortable, authentic way that leads to change. However, “go get some friends of color” without any other foundation is probably a recipe for disaster! I have friends of color, and regularly engage with them in very real discussions about important topics. As I actively pursued a path to broaden my understanding of racism, a few processes strengthened my current relationships and better equipped me to develop more.

First, I had to educate myself. Education meant seeking out information from experts in the field; people who have chosen this work every day.  One of the best trainings I attended was through Portland’s Center for Equity and Inclusion (CEI), entitled Reframing Racism. It was with this group of people that I really came to understand equity, and how it is different from equality. CEI defined equity as “The unequal distribution of time, resource, or focus, with the explicit intention of creating equal outcomes”. This definition resonated with me, leading to my understanding that resources are not just about money (most of us in education already know that!).  Whiteness—it’s a resource, and it can absolutely be used to promote equity.

Another educational opportunity was in the form of a presentation by Dr. Leticia Nieto, author, professor, and someone who has dedicated her life and research to understanding cultural dynamics and the very real experiences of marginalized groups of people. One recommendation she made for organizations is to provide safe spaces for people of color to meet and have community.  When asked what the white people should do for these spaces, she said, “Guard the door and bring the snacks”.  This highlighted one of the biggest lessons I learned from her: it’s not my job to speak for communities of color. Rather, it’s my job, and the job of all with white privilege, to make sure people of color have opportunities to speak for themselves.  We are all only responsible for our own story, and the ability to listen to the stories of others.

I also diversified my entertainment selections. Based on recommendations from mentors and friends of color, I watched Get Out and Moonlight. I continue to follow Insecure and Master of None and United Shades of America; I listen to Two Dope Queens.  Watching a movie or a TV show doesn’t change the world, but it does give me a different perspective and introduces me to stories I have not seen before. However, if people from all backgrounds do not watch and support and talk about these new voices, they will fade back into the whitewashed Hollywood scene--one that does not accurately portray our true America.

As I incorporated these processes and new knowledge into my daily life, I thought about what I could do within my classroom to promote equity. Each semester, after big assignments or in between rough drafts and final copies, I highlight students who have done well on those particular assignments.  This previous year, I made sure to highlight some students of color.  Maybe I did this before, maybe I didn’t, as we are often unaware of our own implicit biases. However, this year, it was the intention that made it different. This summer, as I prepared curriculum for our seven-section foundational business course, I was sure to include images of people with a variety of skin tones and backgrounds when I built presentations.  These are not huge, life-changing activities…and they may never be noticed by students. That’s not the point; the point is to continually think about ways to make sure the words I use and the actions I take, inside and outside of the classroom, promote equity and provide an opportunity for all students to feel heard, supported and encouraged on their individual paths.

To emphasis the previously-mentioned CEI definition of equity, it is our responsibility as educators to distribute time, resources and focus to equity. No matter where you are in Oregon, you can answer the following questions and be intentional in moving forward. What educational opportunities around racism and equity are available to you? What entertainment options with underrepresented stories are available to you?  What can you do, in your classroom, in your office, on your committee, to promote an environment where people of color feel validated in sharing their own stories?

Montana Hisel-Cochran is an instructor of Leadership, Global Acumen, and Professional Development at the University of Portland. She can be reached at hiselcoc@up.edu



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