Whitman Teaches the Movement Expands Civil Rights Education

Lorah Steichen

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Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen

In response to the failing grade Washington state received for its civil rights education standards, Whitman College created the program Whitman Teaches the Movement (WTTM) two years ago to supplement Walla Walla Public Schools’ lack of civil rights education. Now entering its third year, WTTM is undergoing several changes that seek to expand and streamline the program.

Whitman’s Student Engagement Center (SEC) partners with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Walla Walla Public Schools in sending Whitman student volunteers into second, fifth, seventh and 11th grade classrooms to teach civil rights lessons. Whitman student volunteers will teach lessons throughout the district during the first two weeks of February.

This year, WTTM is expanding its curriculum in order to broaden the civil rights movements it studies.

“This year we’re really working to incorporate other civil rights movements that have taken place that don’t fall into the traditional 1960s Civil Rights Movement [teaching model],” said WTTM co-coordinator senior Maggie Ayau. “[We’re] trying to raise awareness about the labor movement that Cesar Chavez started, for example. [We are] trying to involve Walla Walla students with that aspect of civil rights, and the fact that it’s not [just] something that happened a long time ago and that doesn’t affect anyone anymore.”

This additional component to the program will likely take place later in the semester, separate from the original set of lessons in February.

“We’re committed to having a piece of the project extend into the semester and be educationally worthwhile around the Latino population, [which] we think about in southeast Washington as being the main racial minority group here,” said Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt.

WTTM is also adding an outreach component to the program this year. After two successful years, WTTM is seeking to promote their model of civil rights education to other schools in the region. Program coordinators will host an event on campus where representatives from other colleges and universities throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho will be able to learn about how they can implement a program like WTTM at their institution.

“We’re trying to expand the scope of Whitman Teaches the Movement to invite other colleges and universities from the region to adopt a similar model of civil rights education … So the hope is that this Teaching the Movement won’t be specific to Whitman but that it will start to spread and engage a lot of other college campuses,” said Ayau. 

Lastly, the program is making some logistical changes. WTTM has previously taken place during the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This has meant that the student volunteers were trained before winter vacation.

“This year we’ve decided to have the training for student volunteers occur when everyone returns from winter break. And our thought for this is it makes it a little bit more streamlined on everyone’s part, and then that way, the trainings are a little bit more recent … It keeps the main happenings of the program to a few weeks,” said WTTM co-coordinator senior Allison Bolgiano.

Kate Shuster, who works for the Teaching Tolerance program at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has worked closely with Whitman in developing the WTTM program. She believes that the success of the WTTM program demonstrates the positive impact that institutions like Whitman can have on their local communities. 

“In three years, the initiative has matured into a model that others are looking closely at to adopt in their own communities. This is a testament to the excellence of Whitman’s Office of Student Engagement, particularly the work of Noah Leavitt,” said Shuster. “Through this and other programs, Whitman shows what a modern liberal arts college should look like –– combining rigorous academics with a genuine commitment to improving the lives of its students and community.”

Applications and more information about Whitman Teaches the Movement can be found at whitmanteachesthemovement.net.