State of the State combines research, community outreach

Rachel Alexander

On Friday when classes start to wind down, most Whitman students start planning their weekend activities: hanging out, going to parties or catching up on homework. For a group of 16 students, however, a typical weekend might involve interviewing community members about their access to social services or heading to Olympia to educate legislators about the challenges facing the Latino community in Washington State.

Students in Whitman’s State of the State class, which has existed since 2005, conduct community-based research on a variety of issues affecting Washington Latinos; including political participation, immigration policy and bilingual education in Walla Walla schools. Each research group is paired with a community organization which has a research need, and they spend fall semester collecting information and doing interviews related to the selected topic. Students write extensive summaries of their research and dedicate spring semester to publicizing their findings. The work sometimes involves long nights in the library, but it’s also a rewarding experience.

“It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done at Whitman, and one of the hardest,” said junior Spencer May, who is researching immigration policy.

The State of the State class dates back to an attempt to unionize the Tyson meatpacking plant located near Pasco, Wash., which began in 2002. Many Whitman students were involved in the effort, which also included attempts to educate the mostly Latino workforce about their rights and political power. Professor of Politics and Paul Chair of Political Science Paul Apostolidis was put in contact with a voting rights lawyer who was working with the Teamsters Union, and said the idea for the class came out of discussing the ways in which problems facing the Latino community were interrelated.

“There were a whole range of issues where, if you could mobilize more public policy power, you could solve more of the problems,” he said.

A clear example of this, is the low representation of Latinos in political office. Latinos make up 21.6 percent of the population in Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, Skagit, Walla Walla and Yakima counties, but have only been elected to 2.7 percent of city council and school district seats. Washington’s at-large voting system, which allows for people to vote for every seat on a council, instead of separating them into districts, is partially responsible for this. Because elections aren’t divided into districts, majority-Latino areas are often outnumbered by the white majority, meaning that their political concerns go unaddressed.

“At the end of the day, the electoral system just isn’t working,” said senior Seth Dawson, who was part of the political participation research group. “It’s leaving out important voices.”

Apostolidis said that as State of the State has grown, it has become more rigorous in its research and advocacy work.

“Our standard of excellence has gone up every year,” he said. “We started to get more and more requests to share the research with different groups.”

The influence of State of the State research is evident in Washington politics. The group maintains a website, walatinos.org, where in-depth research findings can be found. Senior Zach Duffy, who participated in the class last year and is currently the State of the State scholar, said that language from his group’s research made it into voting rights legislation in the Washington State Legislature. The connections made as part of the class can also lead to future careers in related fields.

“There’s this really great network that grows out of being a member of the class,” he said.

The class also allows students to step outside the classroom and get involved in the community, something sophomore Julia Stone found especially valuable.

“I can’t imagine my experience at Whitman not having that experiential component,” she said.

State of the State students will spend their spring semester publicizing research findings on a variety of governmental officials and community groups. What follows is a summary of the work each group has done. More information on each group’s methodology, findings and recommendations can be found at walatinos.org.

Social Services Access: Commitment 2 Community

The social services group conducted research by surveying low-income households in three Walla Walla neighborhoods served by Commitment 2 Community, a local organization. Research was not exclusively focused on Latinos, and one of the purposes was to assess the differences between white and non-white households. The group found that informal, social relationships are often important factors that lead people to seek out social services. They also found that non-white households had lower high school graduation rates than white households. Recommendations include the use of personal relationships to build trust between low-income people and social service providers.

Immigration and Secure Communities: OneAmerica

This research team focused on Secure Communities, an immigration policy created during the Bush Administration and expanded under Obama. Secure Communities aims to prioritize the deportation of “criminal aliens” through coordination with local law enforcement. However, the research team found that the term “criminal alien” was ambiguously defined, and deportation proceedings were frequently started on undocumented people who had committed relatively minor infractions. In addition, many Latinos believe that local law enforcement coordinates with immigration groups, and feared to involve police in cases of domestic violence or labor law violations for fear of being deported. Group recommendations include law enforcement holding sessions to clarify their role with respect to immigrant communities, as well as defining “criminal alien” in more concrete terms and focusing on the deportation of aggravated felons, rather than anyone with a criminal record.

English as a Later Language Education: Walla Walla Public Schools

As one of two groups focused on education, the ELL group investigated the impact of the Walla Walla Schools District’s English education policies on parent, teacher and student success. Dual language education was identified as the most useful method of instruction. ELL parents often wanted to be involved in their students’ education, but found themselves limited by socioeconomic and language barriers. Teachers also believed that punitive measures for low scores on standardized tests were unfair to ELL students. Recommendations included a reevaluation of standardized testing policies in Washington, including multiple language options. They also recommended the expansion of parent education programs to Blue Ridge Elementary and Walla Walla High School, to increase parental participation in education.

Cultural Competency: Walla Walla Public Schools

In 2009, the Washington State legislature passed an unfunded mandate supporting cultural competency training in schools as a way of reducing the achievement gap. The purpose of cultural competency training is to give teachers resources to effectively deal with racial conflict and to be sensitive to the cultural differences of their students. There are no policies mandating cultural competency training at the schools with the highest percentage of Latino students in the district: Blue Ridge Elementary, Garrison Middle and Walla Walla High School. Teachers at these schools generally feel more confident in their ability to teach in ways that affirm the cultural diversity of their students, but are often uncertain of their ability to solve racial conflict. Recommendations include hiring more bilingual staff in Walla Walla schools, working to increase participation of Latino parents in school activities and the provision of cultural competency training for teachers who are interested.

Political Representation: National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative

This group studied the past 30 years of local election in 10 counties in Washington. Due largely to the at-large voting system mandated by the state legislature, Latinos have been dramatically underrepresented amongst elected officials. This misrepresentation is mirrored by a larger lack of Latino participation in politics, a trend that is attributable to several factors, including language barriers. Recommendations include providing translation services for city council and other local government meetings, addressing electoral inequalities via sustained, multi-year efforts and allowing jurisdictions to switch to district voting systems.