A new center at the University of Washington aims to help people figure out how to better communicate about race, equity and diversity.
University of Washington professor Ralina Joseph thinks what we’re seeing in the nation today could be the start of a new civil-rights movement. And at times, college students are leading the charge.
“It feels like a moment at the UW — a potential moment of change,” Joseph said. “Students are more radicalized now, talking to faculty, than people have seen since the ’60s and early ’70s.”
Into this moment steps the university’s new Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity, which opened its doors on the Seattle campus at the end of May and is headed by Joseph. Housed in the Department of Communication, it knits together 40 faculty members from a variety of departments, from American ethnic studies to history and sociology.
Besides conducting the usual scholarly work — teaching and research — the center will work to foster more and better discussion around campus, and work with community and student leaders.
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The center “gives us an opportunity, at a critical time in our country’s history, to figure out how to better communicate about race, equity and diversity,” said Sheila Edwards Lange, the UW’s vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity.
Joseph, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, hopes the center will help give structure to conversations about racism, sexism and homophobia, and that those conversations will reach beyond the university and into the community.
She knows some critics may see the mission as another example of political correctness, and that naysayers may argue the country has moved beyond these issues — given that the nation elected a black president, Seattle elected a gay mayor, the Supreme Court affirmed same-sex marriages.
Yet Joseph says the data show a person’s race, class, gender and sexual orientation “dictate how your life is going to be lived.” Those factors still influence whether you’ll be able to get a mortgage, or be approved for an apartment rental, to name just a few of the implications, she said.
Those factors play out at the UW, too. Of its 4,115 faculty members, only 70 are black. Just 3.4 percent of undergraduates and 2.9 percent of graduate students are African American. And nearly half of black undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college.
The center will host teach-ins, lectures and casual lunchtime and evening conversations, as well as sponsor collaborative projects between departments.
Joseph is particularly interested in finding ways to boost the number of students of color who become faculty members. That can be as simple as encouraging professors to tell a wider, more diverse circle of promising undergraduates to consider going to graduate school.
Joseph is also interested in seeing the university do more than use diverse communities as subjects for research, or telling those communities the results of that research.
One of the center’s early partnerships is with the Smilow Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. Professors are teaching classes and holding workshops there, as well as mentoring younger students. It’s a choice, Joseph said, to form a deep relationship with a specific community, rather than spreading efforts out across the city.
Joseph believes these new conversations are being sparked, in part, by technology. Cellphone video has shed light on police brutality, and the rise of social media has made it easier for people to quickly come together, communicate and organize for change.
Social-media organizing was behind a Black Lives Matter protest in February, when thousands of students of all races marched through the University District. At the end of the march, students gave university leaders a list of demands they believed would move the UW toward greater equity and fairness.
The university is acting on many of those ideas, said Edwards Lange, the vice provost.
She believes that desire to do more than protest is an important part of the movement’s evolution. “It’s great to protest, and have vigils, but if we don’t move toward an agenda for change we’ll continue to have protests, and shootings and vigils,” she said.
Beyond establishing the Center for Communication, Difference and Equity, the UW plans other activities this coming year, including quarterly speeches. One of the first speakers will be Harry Belafonte, the singer and social activist, in October.
“The times call for it,” Edwards Lange said. “I think colleges and universities are great places to have a response to the Black Lives Matter issue that can actually lead to change.”