Olympic College welcomed people from an array of different backgrounds last week to celebrate diversity and social justice at the college’s 6th Annual Diversity Conference. With three dynamic keynote speakers and a variety of informative breakout sessions, people left equipped with useful knowledge they could immediately begin applying to their lives.
The conference’s theme of “Identity-Culture-Power” was reflected in the messages conveyed by the speakers and the wide range of topics covered by the breakout sessions. Topics included challenges facing transgender students, equity and inclusion in education, implicit bias, and many others. Session leaders offered expert perspectives, initiated discussions, and suggested next steps for participants to act on what they had learned — serving the conference’s goal of helping people build connections to advance diversity, equity, and social justice within their spheres of influence.
Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, delivered Thursday’s morning keynote.
Echohawk laid out the progress of her organization, which is a nonprofit dedicated to meeting the needs of homeless and low-income Native people in Seattle. The club’s mission is to provide a “sacred space to nurture, affirm, and renew the spirit of urban Native people.”
The club is in the process of constructing a new building that will include housing for Native people. It will include indigenous artwork throughout to celebrate the Native people who historically inhabited the area. “We wanted to honor the Coast Salish people and honor their perspectives,” Echohawk said.
“The focus of our building, the focus of our work, is that it is time for the Native community to take back our rights, to care for our babies, to care for our elders — because we weren’t allowed to do that for generations,” Echohawk said. “This building counteracts that and we’re going to be taking care of our community. It’s part of our healing as a community, to get to love each other, to support each other, and to house each other. Housing is a human right.”
Echohawk encouraged people to practice kindness and what she called “cultural humility.”
“Equity is really about kindness,” she said. “Kindness is seeing the humanity in someone else and not making assumptions … Cultural humility is stepping back and looking through another person’s culture. Cultural humility is that ability to put aside your assumptions and listen to someone else’s ideas about what’s right. Cultural humility is kindness.”
Yosimar Reyes delivered Thursday’s afternoon keynote. Reyes is a nationally-acclaimed poet, educator, performance artist and public speaker. His work is informed by his experience as a queer undocumented immigrant.
Reyes came to the United States when he was 3, carried on the back of his grandmother and grandfather, who raised him and his siblings. He uses his grandparents as an example of changing the way people look at immigrants. People don’t look at undocumented immigrants as entrepreneurs, for example, even though they often are, he said.
For example, Reyes said his grandmother used to wake early to collect bottles to take to a recycling plant in exchange for money. As an older, undocumented immigrant who did not speak English, it was one of the only ways she could earn money, Reyes said. The check she’d get from turning in those bottles paid the rent. People often stigmatize other jobs, like selling food or fruit on the street, in a similar manner, Reyes said.
“We get conditioned that these jobs are the last resort … but if you think about it, these people are entrepreneurs because they’re creating their own jobs, they’re their own bosses, they’re creating their own networks of survival,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what undocumented people have to be: entrepreneurs.”
Activist, educator and lawyer Edwin Lindo delivered Friday’s closing keynote.
Lindo, who is a faculty lecturer at the University of Washington School of Medicine and runs a justice-focused community bookstore in Seattle called Estelita’s Library, titled his address, “Stop Negotiating with Injustice,” and explained why he felt there could be no middle ground when it comes to fighting injustice.
“There’s a line, and the line is justice,” he said. “And if I’m negotiating with you and you’re telling me that you want to find a middle ground, you’re asking me to move past justice and into injustice. And I can’t do that. Negotiating is for business, not for lives.”
In the end, Lindo encouraged people to take what they’d learned at the conference and work together to enact change.
“Hopefully in solidarity we can work together to address the issues that we learned in these sessions, to address the issues that we have in our schools and in our organizations, in our systems,” he said. “But we always have to remember that it is through the power of the folks most marginalized, that it’s through the power of organizing, that we win. As Frederick Douglass said, ‘There is no progress without struggle.’ And for better or for worse, it’s true.”