Standing-room only crowd turns out for Diversity Partnership Institute
February 18, 2006
What does a white man bring to the table in a discussion on racial inequality?
Allen G. Johnson – keynote speaker and white man – asked the audience this question at the annual South Puget Sound Higher Education Diversity Partnership Institute last week in the University Center.
The Institute is the annual gathering for members of the South Puget Sound Higher Education Diversity Partnership, and this year’s event saw a standing-room only crowd of about 250 people.
Johnson is the author of two acclaimed books on race and gender issues, “Privilege, Power, and Difference” and “The Gender Knot.”
White people – and white men in particular – are born into positions of privilege and power they did not earn, Johnson said. He has made a career of attempting to use that platform of power to address inequalities.
As Johnson explained, meaningful conversations on privilege and oppression are often hampered by feelings of guilt and defensiveness by those in dominant groups. As a result, important discussions on opportunities for change don’t happen – or happen very badly.
In answer to his own question, Johnson said he has dedicated his life and career to giving voice to issues that some non-minorities might be tempted to dismiss or ignore if they came from another source.
Eva Frey Johnson, director of Student Involvement and Leadership and the Diversity Center, is the co-chair of the Diversity Partnership group and said PLU has hosted the Institute for the last five years. PLU will again host the annual meeting in 2007.
“PLU is geographically centered for the schools in the Partnership,” she explained. “We have the facilities, we’re committed to it and we help offset the cost for everybody.”
The cost of the day’s events, $45 per person, was part of what made it so well attended, she added. “There aren’t many professional development seminars – especially on this topic – at this price point. It made the conference very accessible.”
Johnson’s keynote address explored the historical origins of the white power-structure in America.
When the time came for him to answer questions, the first woman to raise her hand stood and asked: “So what can we do?”
“We have to become the question,” Johnson said. “Some of you might ask, ‘what does that mean, become the question?’
“It’s like the question of what is life about,” he explained. “To find meaning, you have to ask that question in your daily lives.”
In order to make substantial progress on issues of racial inequality, Johnson said, people of all backgrounds must ask themselves every day what they can do to change the existing system. Quite simply, he said, we all have to find ways to “do something.”
Johson’s keynote came on the heels of two other speakers at the Institute. Connie McCloud of the Puyallup Tribe opened the day with a blessing and some thoughts on the history of her people including the impacts of European contact. Later, Craig Campbell, manager of strategic sourcing for Starbucks, delivered an address entitled “Recognizing and Navigating Privilege in the Workplace: One Black Man’s Perspective.”
“In particular, I thought Craig (Campbell) was incredible because I think his experiences shows that you can get from a single parent household to the place he is in life now,” said Cynthia Riley, an academic advisor who attended the Institute. “He was insightful because he was so real in sharing his experiences.”
Riley said the speakers provided renewed inspiration for her as an academic advisor. “It reinforces for me things I’ve already seen and been aware of,” she said.
“I know I’m passionate about helping low-income students and helping students who are of underprivileged classes to finish their four years and be successful,” Riley said. “I’m reevaluating what I’m doing and asking myself if there are things I can be doing that can be more helpful.”
Riley was one of several PLU representatives at the session. Frey Johnson said she was impressed with the number of PLU attendees at the event, from grounds crew employees to students and senior administrators.
“Seeing that level of leadership and range of perspectives of people sitting together talking about diversity makes the conversation more authentic,” Frey Johnson said.
The South Puget Sound Diversity Partnership is made up of 13 schools in the region, including Bates Technical College, The Evergreen State College, Green River Commun ity College, Highline Community College, Olympic College, Pierce College-Fort Steilacoom, Pierce College-Puyallup, South Puget Sound Community College, St. Martin’s College, Tacoma Community College, the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington-Tacoma.