Westmont Magazine Promoting Racial Justice on Campus
Senior Organizes Series to Give Students a Safe Place to Discuss Racial Justice
Her pale complexion hides the fact that Charlene Martinez is Latina. She says her appearance made it easier to be accepted by Westmont’s mostly white student body. But hiding her racial heritage was painful and at times troubling.
“There were these asides and little things from different students, just saying really discouraging and disparaging comments about people of other races,” Martinez says. “I wanted to fit in so I didn’t say anything. I’m half-Mexican, although I don’t look it, so it feels awkward walking that line of not fitting in in both places.”
When Martinez returned to Westmont last spring after spending her junior year studying abroad in England, she says the racial tension on campus was high. That semester there were controversies surrounding the loss of an Hispanic professor and comments from the campus pastor.
“I was just taken aback,” says Martinez. “There was all this miscommunication and lack of language to describe what people were feeling about race and racial issues.”
Martinez met with Campus Pastor Ben Patterson and Provost Shirley Mullen and came up with the idea of establishing a special discussion series on racial justice. She hoped to start the healing process by allowing students to meet in small groups where they could learn how to voice their concerns and feel safe enough to ask difficult and emotional questions.
The positive response to the proposal was overwhelming. More than 50 students signed up, agreeing to do at least an hour’s worth of reading and reflection every week. The group met every Monday in lieu of chapel that morning.
“It wasn’t as easy as showing up at chapel and sitting down for an hour,” Martinez says. “We needed to read, think and come ready to discuss. I was amazed that some of these people did it. We’re all very busy here. It was wonderful.”
In the groups, students talked about what it means to be a minority at Westmont and in the United States. One student mentioned being called the ‘n’-word in high school and the teacher didn’t say anything. The group then talked about how shocking that was, that school is a place where students should feel safe, and how one person isn’t the voice of an entire people.
“We wanted it to be a safe place for students to talk about these issues without fear of offending another,” says Elena Yee, director of intercultural programs. “Another goal was that these groups would inspire continued conversation and eventually action, which I believe has happened and will continue to happen.”
“There were some students who felt kind of disenfranchised by this institution,” Martinez says. “Now, most of them feel reconciled to the college. It’s reaffirming, especially because I’m a senior and it’s been something I’ve been struggling with this whole time here. I finally got to be in a group of people who said, ‘Hey, I don’t get it, but I want to get it,’ That’s a huge step.”
The students met in six different groups. A faculty or staff member and a student facilitator led each group.
“I began to hear white students talk about and own their privilege,” says Yee, who was a facilitator. “They also got excited about exploring their own cultural heritage and worldview. When I heard students of color express their appreciation for white students who were willing to engage and take initiative, I knew it was making a difference.”
Westmont is in the process of assessing the racial justice series. Both Martinez and Yee say they hope it will continue in some form next semester.
“As Christians, it’s our job to fight these injustices,” says Martinez. “That’s what Jesus did. If we want to be like Christ, we need to work for racial justice.”