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Cleaning the River

Martin Luther King Faculty/Staff In-Service
January 21, 2008

I will speak plainly. My comments are not directed toward any individual, but are addressed to the entire University, the Ferris community. The Jim Crow Museum, my life's work is here, my livelihood and professional responsibilities are here; this is my community, my home; so, today I lift my voice to reflect on diversity at Ferris.

Those of you who have heard me speak know my fondness for this quotation from H. Ross Perot, "The activist is not the one who says the river is dirty; the activist is the one who cleans the river." Mr. Perot and I do not agree on much, but his words about activism ring true to me. Cleaning the river is a metaphor for taking action.

I want Ferris to be a rainbow university, meaning a university where all people are welcome. Who could be opposed to us having students and teachers from Peru, Liberia, Norway, China, Egypt, Brazil, Taiwan, Kenya, and Italy? Ferris is almost 125 years old, but in many ways we are a young institution - a university that was sheltered and isolated from many of the cultural changes that occurred in the larger society. A rainbow university has room for people that are straight, gay, bisexual, and transgender; people who run fast and people who ride in iron chairs; people who are rich and privileged and people who barely have enough money to attend the University; people from Paris, Michigan and Paris, France; whites, yellows, reds, browns, blacks and every shade; atheists, agnostics, deists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, Wiccas, and others are welcome. Marxists can teach at a Rainbow University, and so can Evangelical Christians. By rainbow university, I mean a tapestry of colors, cultures, worldviews, lifestyles, and abilities all woven into its design.

A rainbow university is one that encourages responsible dissent. Vietnam and Gulf War veterans must have a home here, and so should the people who would rather go to jail than fight in a war. The positivistic empiricist who believes only what he or she can see and the metaphysical thinker who believes in Intelligent Design should both be welcome to teach CHEM 121, ENG 311, or WELD 311, if they are trained and qualified to teach General Chemistry, Advanced Technical Writing, or Welding Automation and Robotics. When I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a professor who was fired or forced to retire because his or her views were "too radical," I feel sad for the teacher and I feel a deeper sadness for their students. The pursuit of diversity is more than the quest for more faculty, staff, and students of color, it is, I say again, the respect for the worth of others.

I want to be at a University where all views are heard, including the one that holds that diversity is a silly, sometimes devious, attempt to force liberal ideas on young, unsuspecting minds. I believe that view is wrong and not well-thought out but I don't want to stifle it. I believe in the triumph of dialogue.

Becoming a rainbow university does not mean we ask every group to walk like, talk like, and act like the majority group; no, it means that we respect the worth of others, that we open our arms to them, that we give them every chance to succeed, that we replace the they with a we. Being a rainbow university does not mean that you have to join the NAACP, become an atheist, or date a gay person, but it does mean that you help create a university where all people believe that the university belongs to them as much as it belongs to any of us.

If we say we are welcoming but do not take actions that indicate a climate of inclusiveness then our words are hollow. Not all people who believe in God are Christians; let us find a way to make sure that all groups are comfortable here-including helping them find physical spaces for worship. Let us make sure that International students are advised, befriended, and placed in jobs. Let us make sure that all buildings are accessible to people who cannot walk. Let us reach out to all groups that have been marginalized at this institution and say to them, "There is a home for you at Ferris." Then, take action. And when these groups talk we must listen, really listen. Diversity means doing things differently and doing new things.

We must deal with our prejudices. There are parts of this University where women and minorities do not feel welcome, and truth be told, they are not welcome. At a recent University-wide discussion, an African American student referred to Ferris as a "white school." He did not mean a predominantly white institution; he meant a university where peoples of color are too often viewed with suspicion. He meant that sometimes in classrooms teachers subtly and not-so-subtly mock and demean peoples of color. Having a Ph.D. does not make one immune to prejudice; indeed, it often means that one can better rationalize one's prejudices. There are pockets of privilege here that approximate a "Good ole boys network," where prejudice and ethnocentrism are entrenched.

We are a state university. We are not a white university; we are not a Christian university; and we are not a straight university; those groups must be welcome here-and we must open our arms and hearts to people who are not white, Christian, or straight. We are a state university charged with educating all the sons and daughters of this state, not just the ones who look like, talk like, and act like you or me.

Cleaning the River

I enjoy reading the biographies of great men and women who cleaned the rivers of this country; some are well-known social reformers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar E. Chavez, and Jane Addams come to mind; others are less heralded, for example, Reverend George Washington Woodbey, who in the early decades of the 20th century was the most eloquent black socialist preacher in the United States. Their worldviews, strategies, accomplishments, and personal demons were obviously different; however, there are common threads.

These social reformers believed that change was possible, not easy but possible. Was Martin Luther King, Jr. naive to believe that he could mobilize poor people to undermine the racial hierarchy that was entrenched in southern and border states and in parts of the North and West? Was Cesar E. Chavez naive to believe that he could organize migrant workers and, what's more, make middle-class white families throughout the nation care about migrant workers? Was Jane Addams naive to believe that she could be a voice for poor people, an advocate for labor reform, and a founding member of the NAACP? Was George Washington Woodbey naive to believe that one person, a black man in the early 1900s, could offer a critique of American capitalism that is still used today?

I ask these questions because sometimes when I say to a colleague that I want to help build a truly diverse institution they smirk, and behind the smirk is the belief that I do not understand the magnitude of the obstacles, or the idea that I am jockeying for professional advancement, or maybe the conviction that I am suddenly naive. I will speak plainly: you cannot be the Chief Diversity Officer of an institution without believing that change is possible. Too often skepticism, cynicism, even fatalism, masquerade as objective critiques. I understand Ferris' history, the written and spoken histories; I understand the political, territorial, and personal battles, the divides that strain us, the hopes, fears, hubris, and past failures, the times that we, and I mean all of us, have ripped the guts out of this institution; yes, I know where the bodies are buried; I understand the obstacles, but I see something else: a university that is growing and maturing. I am reminded of the words of the anonymous slave preacher who said: "Lord, we ain't what we oughta be; We ain't what we wanna be; we ain't what we're gonna be; but thank God we ain't what we was."

We are not perfect but there are good changes occurring here. When I arrived here eighteen years ago the opposition to diversity and diverse populations was public, applauded, and mainstreamed.

Social reformers not only believe that change is possible but they believe that they, individually, can and must be a part of making the change. Go anywhere, anyplace, and the people you meet can tell you what is wrong with that place. This is especially true at universities. Go to UC Berkeley, Jackson State, Kent State, Georgetown, Oklahoma State, you name the university, students, faculty, staff, administrators there will tell you what is wrong with those places. Their critiques, often harsh, often correct, cannot and should not be discounted; however, the critiques rarely include the answer to a basic question: "What can I, the critiquer, do?"

Institutions change when individuals make the change. Change is not inevitable or possible without human intervention. There is an adolescent belief that time changes things. Listen to these words about the neutrality of time from Dr. King:

“It is a strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.  Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.  I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

I ask you this day to become a part of the changes that are occurring at Ferris. Become an advocate for change. When you see a Ferris video that does not include participants from diverse backgrounds raise your hand and say, "I think we can do it a different way." Make sure that search committees are themselves diverse. Volunteer to serve on search committees to make sure that jobs are advertised in publications that cater to diverse populations. And when minorities are identified make sure that they are treated fairly. Participate in workshops and colloquia that deal with diversity, but more than that, organize the workshops and colloquia. Invite colleagues from different backgrounds into your office, home, and life. Participate in the strategic planning process and make sure that diversity related issues are discussed. I guess what I am saying is: do something. Creating a truly diverse institution is a job big enough for all of us.

In the past we lacked a plan and although our efforts were sometimes well-intentioned the results were not sustained. It was like throwing seeds on the ground without having first tilled the soil. We are building a rainbow university and I am asking for your help. Read the University's diversity plan. There is a copy on the table in the back. Offer criticism. Offer suggestions. But a plan without action is printing ink as embalming fluid: dead words. Think of ways that you can help implement it. Remember it is a general plan. The real nuts-and-bolts (forgive the cliche) work will occur in the divisional plans. To date, Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Administration and Finance have completed early drafts of their action plans. Ask to be included in the thinking that goes into those plans. Go to the meetings. Speak plainly. Ask to be involved in the implementation of those plans. I am tellingly you that change is possible if you help.

David Pilgrim, Curator
Jim Crow Museum
January, 2008
Edited 2012