Students at Whitman College are teaching lessons on civil rights in Walla Walla Public Schools and young citizens get an important history lesson that many adults lack.

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Each year in late January and early February, college students volunteer to help younger students get a taste of an often-neglected history. And this year, with so many people feeling the need to get involved with a cause that matters, the number of volunteers are up in some places, including Whitman College.

In order to talk with each other about contentious issues, we need to have some common reference points. Agreement on current facts is essential for debates on difficult issues, and so is a shared, accurate knowledge of our history.

One of the college students, Mayrangela Cervantes, told me, “I truly believe that if we start educating those around us, we will be able to spread love and understanding, and as a result begin to see positive change.”

She’s a freshman at Whitman College in Walla Walla who participates in a program called Whitman Teaches the Movement, in which students from the college teach lessons on civil rights to Walla Walla Public Schools classes.

The program has since evolved to include other movements and issues, with different lessons for different grade levels.

Noah Leavitt, associate dean of students at the college, said he and the community-service coordinator got the idea for the program in 2011 when they were thinking about how to update the next year’s recognition of Martin Luther King Day.

Leavitt read a news story that sparked an idea. It said a national report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found elementary and middle-school students knew little, if anything, about the civil-rights movement. The report gave states grades, and Washington was one of many that got an F. (We improved to a D in 2014.)

Leavitt said the first thought was to give Whitman students the education many had not gotten earlier, and they invited the center to help. Together they came up with a way for college students to both learn about and teach the movement. That partnership between the college, the school district and the center continues, and Whitman students play important leadership roles.

I asked several students by phone or email about the experience.

Cherokee Washington and Maddy Gold are this year’s co-coordinators. “There’s kind of an air of activism this year,” Washington said. And Gold said 80 students volunteered. “It’s the climate of what’s going on in our nation right now.”

They both attended small high schools in the Los Angeles area. Gold, a sophomore theater major, said she probably learned more at her school than most about civil-rights issues because social justice was built into the curriculum, but participating in the Whitman Teaches program deepened her understanding.

She’s learned what it means to be an ally on race. “As a white person,” she said, “you have a choice whether to talk about it. People of color don’t have a choice,” since it affects their daily lives.

Because she’s learned so much, she can have conversations that other people find too uncomfortable.

Washington, a senior majoring in psychology and rhetoric, said because she is African American, female and outspoken, she is drawn to activism.

“It’s scary to join a protest” or speak out in other ways, she said, but “as a woman of color, that’s really important, not just in the classroom, but in all areas of life.”

Teaching public-school students is part of her engagement. “I don’t know everything about race and social justice,” she said, “but it’s empowering to teach them what I do know.”

Kevin Miller, a graduate of Shorewood High School and a Whitman senior, has taught a fourth-grade lesson in which students learn about an immigrant’s experience and, in pairs, take turns playing the role of the immigrant. Miller said he’d like everyone “to approach the highly politicized topic of immigration with the openness and empathy of the fourth-graders I taught.”

Cervantes, the Whitman freshman I mentioned earlier, is from Portland and said she doesn’t remember learning about immigration in school. But it is important to her personally. I asked what she wished everyone knew, and she wrote, “Immigrants are real, human beings.” Her parents came from Mexico. She said, “There is no ‘easy’ or ‘simple’ solution. This is an ongoing conversation that we, as Americans, need to be having, and must continue to have until a fair and humane solution is found.”

How can people with different views have meaningful conversations about immigration without knowing its long history? They can’t. The same can be said about many other issues.

When schools get an F in teaching vital history, ignorance rules and democracy suffers. Walla Walla schools have eagerly embraced a program that helps their teachers mold good citizens.