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Students and staff at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, are teasing out how to define and express issues of racism and oppression on campus almost one year after an annual event there provoked a national conversation on free speech and civil rights. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano visited the liberal arts school to survey the toll of last year’s “Day of Absence” for people who supported it, felt left out or left campus altogether.
In the spring of 2017, Evergreen State College, a public liberal arts school in Olympia, Washington, erupted with protests, and youtube videos of the unrest went viral.
Hey hey, ho ho racist teachers have got to go.
Students confronted biology professor Bret Weinstein in his classroom. Weinstein, who identifies as politically left, had announced he was boycotting a decades-old event created by students of color at the school. Now he was being accused of racism.
If one spoke in a way that challenged the narrative that was being advanced, then one was portrayed as in particular, racist.
I'm not resigning!
Evergreen is a bastion of progressive values. Classes offered include "alternatives to capitalism" and "climate justice". Yet in the days following the protests, students demanded the administration fire the professor and tackle what they call years of institutional racism. They barricaded campus spaces, wrangled with campus police, and stormed the president's office.
It's not an accident that all of our administration is white. That's not an accident
Since the events, five faculty and staff have resigned their positions. That includes evergreen's chief of police, Professor Weinstein, and his wife Heather Heying, who is an evolutionary biology professor.
We've been grieving. I, at least, have been going through a mixture of feeling betrayed– feeling angry. Feeling dumbfounded. And really, you know, mourning the loss of an institution that I loved.
Every spring quarter since the 1970s, Evergreen has hosted a "Day of Absence" event, where many students, faculty and staff of color gather off campus for a day to talk about race, privilege and other issues, while white students, faculty and staff are able to voluntarily participate in related conversations on campus. But tensions mounted last April when a request was made to change things up to allow participants of color to hold the Day of Absence activities on campus, while white allies participating in the Day Of Absence activities were asked to go off campus.
Rashida Love helped organize the Day of Absence Events at Evergreen. She believes the country's university system is designed for white Americans.
It's difficult all the time to kind of navigate your way around institutions that are not created for you. And people felt that even more, I think, in the political climate.
She says a 40-person planning committee, which included white members, made the change to the Day of Absence event as a show of solidarity with students who were feeling increasingly unwelcome at the school.
In the months following the 2016 presidential election, Love says flyers for black, transgender and undocumented student programming were torn down from college spaces. Racist graffiti appeared on and off campus. And even before the election, gay and immigrant student organizers reported being targeted by the kkk.
And so this was an opportunity to say, "No, you do belong here. We're gonna take up space. And we're gonna show everybody that we belong here and that we bring value to this institution."
Student activists like Juan Carlos Ruiz-Duran believe racial tensions started well before last spring.
JUAN CARLOS RUIZ-DURAN:
It was definitely out of feeling unheard or unrecognized. And so the result of that was to really get their attention without the administration being able to get out of it.
He and other students had been protesting what they said was a culture of anti-blackness by Evergreen campus police and the Olympia police department. In 2015, two unarmed black students were shot and wounded by an Olympia police officer for allegedly stealing beer and assaulting the officer with their skateboards.
According to school data, 29% of the student body is not white. And Evergreen reports a lower retention rate for students of color than for white students. Students of color are also less likely to feel like they fit in. Sophomore Justin Puckett often feels like an outsider in his classes.
It can be kind of draining to have just to just be the only black person or the only a person of color in general and be looked at to speak for the black community as a whole, which I have experienced. It was about the use of the n-word. A faculty member asked if it was okay for white students or other white people to use that word and looked at me.
One senior told us the school doesn't know how to support students like her who speak English as a second language and don't qualify for federally-funded programs. She says she was turned away from one such resource available to first generation and low-income students because she is undocumented, and that the school offered her no other options.
For someone who's like already in a situation where they are afraid to ask for help, being told no it's like another setback. Because I had to go out of my way to find those answers to my questions which I feel like as an institution and you should be prepared.
Participation in the Day of Absence event was voluntary. Yet Professor Bret Weinstein says he felt pressured by the administration to participate.
There's a very big difference between people deciding to absent themselves from a shared space in order to make a point, which I support, and people deciding to absent somebody else, which I'm absolutely opposed to.
The changes to the Day of Absence event came on the heels of other major changes on campus that Weinstein and Heying felt were being forced upon the faculty with no room for discussion.
In 2015 Evergreen's president created an Equity Council. Among other proposals, it called for mandatory anti-bias workshops for staff and faculty and prioritizing diversity in all future hiring decisions. The council also proposed only hiring faculty who can incorporate race into their teaching, which Weinstein opposed.
The idea that we should prioritize a racial viewpoint on, who knows, maybe even organic chemistry, over somebody who is adept at understanding how to convey a difficult concept, is preposterous, just at an educational level.
Weinstein objected to the Equity Plan.
When I voiced concern over the effect they were gonna have on the college there was a tremendous backlash– that accused me of opposing the proposals because I opposed equity itself.
Weinstein sent an email to protest the changes to the Day of Absence, arguing that encouraging another group to go away was quote "a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself".
That email was circulated widely and fueled attacks that led to the charge that he was a racist. He says it brought threats that eventually drove him and his wife, Professor Heather Heying, off-campus over safety concerns.
You asked me a question.STUDENT: You're going to listen I would like to answer it.STUDENTS: Hey hey, ho ho, Bret Weinstein has got to go.
Whatever one thinks of Bret, he's not a racist.
Senior Odette Finn was a student of both Weinstein's and Heying's and identifies as multi-racial. She says she never saw racism as a problem at the school, but that her opinions about her experience weren't tolerated by many of her peers.
I wasn't against Bret and I was against their methods and the protests, I was deemed a traitor. They explained that we are trying to give voice to those who don't have a voice. I thought it was very ironic that– the people who were telling me that they wanted to give a platform for minorities to speak weren't listening to mine. It creates a campus where you're just really scared to say anything, so you just keep your mouth shut.
Weinstein spoke to the media, and some homed in on the viral youtube videos as the latest example of a growing political correctness culture on college campuses.
Believe it or not it was far crazier than the video you just showed.
Some like, Fox News, mischaracterized the day of absence as a mandatory event where all whites were being forced off campus.
This year, student activists demanded that all white people leave campus or else.
What happened next alarmed those on both sides of the debate. In June, two months after the Day of Absence, Evergreen received a threatening phone call.
POLICE PHONE CALL:
Yes I am on my way to Evergreen University now with a 44 magnum. I am going to execute as many people on that campus as I can get a hold of.
The call caused the school to shut down for several days and hold its graduation ceremony 30 miles from campus. Two weeks later, a Portland-based right wing activist group held a "free speech" rally at Evergreen.
Throughout the spring and early summer, many students and faculty of color were flooded with violent and racist emails. Among those who received threats were Rashida Love and her family. In November, she resigned from her position as Director of Evergreen's Multicultural Advising Services.
It was terrifying. It was really scary. People had Googled me to the point that my parents' address and their phone number had been made available.
Do you have any regrets about any of that?
What I would say is some of the reaction that came to Evergreen was deeply unfortunate. And I absolutely wish it had not happened. Do I feel responsible for it? No. I think the behavior on Evergreen's campus was exactly the kind of bigotry that would lead to that overreaction by the far right. And that is on the people who behaved that way, not on me for exposing it.
Weinstein and Heying filed a lawsuit against the college and received a 500-thousand-dollar settlement in September. They resigned as part of the agreement.
When you look at those videos from last spring, they were calling him a white supremacist, racist, and, you know, shutting him down. Can you understand why some people view that as liberal intolerance?
Definitely. I think if that's the only thing you ever see about this event– or about anything that's happened at Evergreen, then I can definitely see how people are like, "Oh, these are just privileged, spoiled kids, who are, like, crying racism whenever they get the first chance." But what those clips leave out is the fact that those students for years had been going about things the, you know, quote unquote "right way." People get tired.
The tactics might not have necessarily been the most appropriate but I think. We should all focus more towards the message.
The college has hired a Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion to do just that… It is also implementing the Equity Plan, which, among other things, includes new trainings for staff to better support undocumented students.
Meanwhile, Evergreen's administration has not decided if the Day of Absence Event will happen this year.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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