Students win awards for civil rights education

Molly Johanson

During spring break, three seniors were given the chance to expand their knowledge of the civil rights movement beyond the Walla Walla school system.

Credit: Halley McCormick

Seniors Shannon Morrissey, Libby Watkins and Alyssa Fairbanks, along with Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt traveled to the Office of Civil Rights in Seattle on March 21 to give a presentation about their experiences teaching the civil rights movement in Walla Walla Public Schools with the Whitman Teaches the Movement initiative. The three were also recognized with Civil Rights Education Hero Awards.

“Just the opportunity to be the guest speakers at the OCR was just really cool . . . as seniors in college, we have something to offer; they were interested in what we had to say. That just felt really powerful . . . They’re people who got involved in their work because they wanted to change the world when they were in college. It was cool for them to see the next generation of activists,” Morrissey said.

The Whitman Teaches the Movement initiative began this past fall as a one-time engagement with the community. In a partnership between Whitman, The Southern Poverty Law Center and Walla Walla Public Schools, 100 Whitman students volunteered to teach about civil rights in local elementary, middle and high schools in the weeks following Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The repercussions of the movement have gone on to have many positive impacts in the lives of students and communities.

The invitation to come to the OCR was extended by Attorney Tim Sell, who read about the Movement in the news. The visit served as educational for both the OCR and the students who presented.

“I learned, they learned, it’s cool. Talking with the OCR about it made it seem all the more relevant. I want to go to law school. I’m really interested in civil rights and education . . . I hadn’t even really thought about the fact that there was an office of civil rights of the department of education. It’s really cool though because all of a sudden it just fell into my lap,” Watkins said.

Leavitt noted that the opportunities that are created by the Movement are just part of the mission of the Student Engagement Center. Because of the success of the Movement, the SEC plans to hire for a position that organizes community outreach events. In looking towards the future, Leavitt plans to possibly expand the scope of the Movement program to include education about civil rights locally in Walla Walla.

“The college is trying to find ways for students to deepen their understanding of this piece of land that we’re all sharing here . . . You can have experiences here [in Walla Walla] that can translate at an incredibly high level of importance and significance,” said Leavitt.

In addition to connecting the college to the OCR, the Movement initiative has created a strong connection with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kate Shuster, who conducted the Center’s initial research project about the state of civil rights education in America and put together the curriculum for Movement, just released a new study titled The State Standards We Deserve. Shuster continues to work with Whitman in the evaluation stage of movement.

“Whitman Teaches the Movement was a huge success. Whitman students seem to have learned a lot . . . Whitman Teaches the Movement is a model program for other colleges and universities across the country,” said Shuster in an email.

The program evaluation was conducted by Morrissey, junior Ethan Robertson and first year Fabiola Ochoa. With the help of Shuster, the group plans to have a report ready by the end of April. In addition, Leavitt and Community Service Coordinator Interim Kelsie Butts are preparing a report which will serve as a how-to-guide for other schools who would like to conduct a similar service project.

“This is such a cool opportunity. It’s just like a win-win-win . . . everyone gains so much,” said Morrissey.