Even after serving in World War II, some of our Black and Latinx students were not permitted to live in the surrounding community. These restrictions would continue for decades.
It was disheartening for me to learn recently that Whittier College was an active participant in these agreements.
According to documents recently discovered in the Whittier Museum, and shared with me, several individuals in the “College Hills” section of Whittier signed an agreement in 1943 that included various restrictions on how the land around Whittier College would be developed.
Parties to this agreement included property owners, the Whittier Friends Church, and Whittier College. The College comptroller was responsible for managing and coordinating this program.
The real estate restrictions covered by this agreement included a “racial covenant” that restricted ownership of these parcels and occupancy to “Caucasians.” As specified in the documents, non-whites were not allowed to live in the community surrounding Whittier College unless they were “domestic servants.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2018 when Whittier College hired its first person of color as President. Ironically, according to the racial covenants, as a Black, Native American, and White, mixed-race person with Quaker heritage, I would be restricted from living in this community.
Unfortunately, I have experienced the remnants of this type of structural racism in my four years as the President of Whittier College. In addition to the many subtle dismissive and disrespectful comments I have received that reflect individual biases and ignorance, I have had some very troubling interactions including racist death threats, offensive name-calling, and race-based attacks targeted at me, my leadership team, and even my family.
And yet I persist!
I am often asked, "How do I keep going?" My answer is that I keep thinking that if this is my experience, with all the privilege that comes with my job title, my experience, and my education, what must our students be experiencing? Unfortunately, I have heard many, many stories from a broad variety of students and alumni about how they felt unwelcome at Whittier College.
Too often have I received reports about bias incidents aimed at Black, Jewish, Latinx, Asian, and LGBTQ+ members of our community. We have received pushback and offensive messages about events on campus including the Poet Pride Drag Show and our Cultural Graduations. The latter—which are attended by a multicultural cross-section of students, faculty, and staff—have a decades-long history at Whittier College and campuses across the country. Organized by our students, these inclusive events offer a safe space to celebrate student accomplishments while also honoring their respective cultures and communities. Moreover, I believe that to truly understand people who are different from us, we have to be willing to share their space.
We have come a long way as a College and a society, but in 2022 we have more work to do! So, we must double down on our DEI efforts.
We must continue to truly honor and celebrate our namesake, John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker, abolitionist poet, by embracing the ideal that every human being has value, no matter their background, circumstances, or how they identify. John Greenleaf Whittier fought for the rights of everyone. Our job is to lift up this vision. That’s why we focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in support of student success.
Equity is not a zero-sum game. A focus on DEI does not mean putting one group above others or believing that only certain lives matter more than others. Our DEI focus means finding a way, in pursuit of our academic mission, to ensure that every individual who comes to Whittier College will succeed, get an education, and graduate into the career of their choice. This is imperative not only for each individual student but it is also needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the College in a world that has changed dramatically since many of you were in college.
The demographic shifts that are forecast for higher education in the United States (fewer high school graduates and higher proportions of students of color), are already reflected here in Southern California. As is often the case, California leads the nation in reflecting the future of our society. We must be ready to educate the students we have today and will have tomorrow, and that means celebrating the diversity of our students. We must meet them where they are in terms of their expectations for an innovative, diverse, and inclusive education. And, as our recent commendation from our accrediting body validated, our vision must include understanding the importance of having diverse role models for our students, including faculty, staff, and administrative and board leadership.
Every time we fail a student, we fail in our mission. So, Whittier College will continue to focus on DEI as the linchpin of our mission. We need to give everyone who comes to Whittier College what they need to achieve their dreams. That is why we’re here, and that is the vision of JGW.
In the pages that follow, you will read about stories that represent our efforts of how we are advancing DEI in support of this vision. You will read about our recently launched WHITTIERinnovates initiative, which is designed to use technology to provide access and affordability to an increasingly diverse student body. Our new Latinx and Latin American Arts and Cultural Center will make Whittier a hub for artistic expression in our area. We also provide an update regarding our continued investment of the MacKenzie Scott gift to ensure student success.
I invite you to read our stories, engage with our students, and visit campus. Come see for yourself how Whittier College is the model for the higher ed institution of the future.