Jaron Reed Goddard and Joshua Dawson come from different backgrounds. Together, they’re trying to turn the negative racial climate in this country into positive action.
I’m still looking for reasons to be hopeful about our nation’s future, and I think I can add a couple to my list: two University of Washington students I found, oddly enough, because of a conversation about a subject that doesn’t always inspire hope.
Jaron Reed Goddard grew up in a military family that moved around a lot before settling down in Camas, a small town near Vancouver, Clark County. She’s in law school and is the student representative on the UW Board of Regents.
Joshua Dawson, from Federal Way, is a senior majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. He’s been active in the university’s Race and Equity Initiative, which was launched by President Ana Mari Cauce two years ago to “confront bias and racism at the individual, institutional and systemic levels.”
The two students were at Benaroya Hall for a talk Sunday by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the journalist and author who has been called the James Baldwin of our times for his writing about racism in America. It was a Seattle Arts and Lectures event, UW was a sponsor (along with The Seattle Times) and several student leaders were invited.
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Dawson and Goddard have different backgrounds, but they both came away wanting to work toward a better future.
Goddard has blonde hair and fair skin, but one of the points Coates made early on is that race isn’t defined by genetic characteristics. It’s really the belief that the possession of certain characteristics should guarantee someone a particular place in society. That belief is the heart of racism, and Coates said, “There is no race without racism.”
I spoke with Goddard the day after the event. She’s read all of Coates’ books, so she was pleased that the UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity invited her to hear him.
She said challenges in her own life led her to question unequal relationships and to think about how and why people use power against other people. She saw racism in that light, learned more and began trying to get friends and family to think about their automatic beliefs. Goddard has read a lot about racism, and she has friends and colleagues at the UW who come from a diversity of backgrounds. But some people she knows haven’t had the same exposure.
Instead of telling them they’re wrong or telling them about the books she’s read, Goddard said, “I start with, ‘Why do you believe what you believe?’ ”
And she doesn’t just want other people to question themselves; “I challenge myself.” Self-reflection, curiosity, openness and a desire to learn are key for her. “There is nothing in life where you can stop working and stay proficient,” she said.
Our country needs to challenge itself.
“As a country, we have not had the reconciliation experiences that other countries have gone through,” Goddard said. She mentioned Donald Trump and disputes about Confederate monuments.
“After the election, I couldn’t see straight, I was so angry.” She said her impulse was to condemn people who embrace racist views and other destructive ideology. “But I’m in a position to do something, so I’m going to swallow my pride,” she said, and continue having conversations.
I spoke with Dawson at a coffee shop after his shift at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he’s an undergraduate researcher.
“My experience has been defined by having a black president,” he said. He was in middle school when Barack Obama took office. Last November, Trump was elected on Dawson’s 21st birthday. It represented a radical shift, and it followed years of often deadly encounters between police and black people. Sometimes Dawson felt, “I’m a black male in a system that doesn’t have a place for black people.”
Dawson is glad he was invited to the talk. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one having these thoughts, me and my peers.”
Coates is helping people understand inequality, and Dawson wants to do his part for equality by helping students younger than him see a path to success. He’s spoken to students in Federal Way and wants to draw more black students into the sciences.
Dawson talked about the high expectations his parents had for their three sons and the inspiration his mother has been. His father is from Oakland, Calif., and his mother from Ethiopia. She was badly burned in an accident as a baby, and because it took days to reach a hospital her legs became infected and had to be removed.
A photograph of her in an American publication drew the attention of a group of women in a church group who decided to pay for her education, and years later to bring her to the United States for college. Today, she serves on the Federal Way City Council.
That story about people supporting other people is embedded in Dawson’s ideas about how the world should work.
While Coates says he doesn’t know how the United States can be turned away from racism, Dawson said he remains an optimist. And he’s also passionate about increasing diversity in higher education.
It’s about support, he said: “It takes all of us.”