“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.” – Maya Angelou
I am the bi-racial daughter of an extra-marital affair, born in Vancouver, Washington, and placed in a foster home at birth.
At the time there was a movement to avoid placing black children with white adoptive parents. Then and now, children of color spend more time in foster care and make up a disproportionate number of children in the child welfare system than their white counterparts.
I was lucky. In 1972, when I was 5-and-a-half months old, my amazing parents, Paul and Marianne, who happen to be white, took a leap of faith and adopted me. They understood that there were things they didn’t know about raising a black child, but my mother always told me growing up, “I can’t teach you how to be a black woman, but I can teach you how to be a strong woman. You’ll have to figure out the ‘black’ part yourself.”
That day in December, I was given a gift. The gift of life; the gift of two parents who wanted a child to love and provide for; two parents who, although they happened to be white and I’m bi-racial (black and white), gave me what every child deserves: loving parents, a safe home and a healthy environment both physically and mentally. As two white upper-middle-class psychologists, my parents also provided me the gift of privilege, their middle-class privilege. In fact, their white middle-class privilege.
As a child, I benefited from belonging to a highly educated family. It was an expectation that I would go to college. I had the privilege to travel and the privilege to learn about other countries and cultures. I had the privilege to spend a summer session at Georgetown University’s Junior Statesman Summer School as a high-school student, travel to student conferences throughout the West Coast, and spend every summer in high school on a college campus at volleyball camp. Because of my family connections and privileges, I had social capital. Robert Putman in “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” describes that capital as a “social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” These networks and an understanding of the social norms of the dominant culture made my transition to a predominantly white university easy and natural.
These privileges and this social capital shaped who I was becoming, my perceptions of the world and my place in this world as a black woman. I learned that who I am is a product of my environment. I had many opportunities in my life that other children of like circumstances did not. Other children that spent years, not months, in the child welfare system, bouncing from foster home to foster home, children whose families are broken up, split up and torn up. Children who are born into circumstances that did not provide all the opportunities I’ve had. This understanding of the privileges I had growing up make me want to give to others, to pay it forward.
So this is why I do what I do. As a full-time faculty member at Highline College, I feel a need to give back to students and help them get access to education at all levels, specifically higher education. I work to provide an environment for students to develop a love for knowledge and learning. I am driven to push against systems that act as gatekeepers to educational opportunities.
According to the 2016 Report Card on Washington State Budget Support for Public Higher Education by a nonprofit group called the Young Invincibles, “While the African-American and Latino attainment gaps are below the national average, the African-American gap has grown by a disturbing 11 points since 2007.” The attainment gap measure is the post-secondary degree attainment rate between the white, non-Hispanic population and two demographics: African-Americans and Latinos.
Education has the possibility to change lives. It can be transformative and liberating. I see this every day in my work as the coordinator of the new Umoja Black Scholars Learning Community at Highline College. Through Umoja, educators and learners commit themselves to academic success, personal growth and the self-actualization of African-American and other students. Our community helps students experience themselves as valuable and worthy of an education. This endeavor to “teach the whole student – mind, body and spirit” is done throughout our program, in our classes, workshops, study sessions, advising and social events.
The goal of the Umoja Community is to increase persistence and degree attainment for primarily black/African-American students, but we serve students from all backgrounds and have members of our learning community from multiple ethnic groups and cultures. Faculty members are given extensive training in culturally responsive pedagogy, which is supported at Highline College since only 26 percent of our students identify as white/Caucasian. The Umoja program is time-intensive for me as an educator, but the results are worth it. During our 2015 pilot year, 85 percent of students persisted from winter to spring quarter, 100 percent of students eligible attained 15 college level credits within the current year and 77 percent of students registered for the following academic year.
You may be reading and think, “This is a lot of work. Why would anyone choose this intense work?” I chose this work while at Highline because institutional research data showed that there was a significant difference between the percentage of black students (36 percent) that complete 15 college level credits in one academic year compared to their white counterparts (57 percent).
I chose this work because it’s in my soul. It’s a driving force of my core being. When I looked at these numbers, my heart ached. It sparked me into action. The researcher in me wanted to know why this was happening; the instructor in me wanted to know what was happening in our classrooms and what we could change to support black students’ academic growth. The administrator in me wanted to know what policies allowed this to happen, and the social justice activist in me wanted to make a change and do something. So I let my heart lead me, and in the midst of my tenure process I answered the call. I asked myself, “If not me then who, if not now, when?”
This tells you only part of the story. What drives a mother, a daughter, a wife, a tenure-track instructor to stick out her neck and take on a systemic challenge like this? Why are these students important to me? I asked myself this many times. Still, on challenging days, it always returns to the fact that it’s in my soul. All students deserve the benefits education provides and access to education that is culturally responsive and meets students where they are and where they’re from.
Education has the possibility to be an agent of change in their lives and the lives of their families and communities. As Maya Angelou said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” As I see it, in today’s world… we need more education.
Liz Word holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Master of Arts in Communication from Washington State University. She’s spent over 15 years working across the state’s universities, including Washington State University, Central Washington University and Seattle University. In addition to being a tenured Communication Studies faculty member at Highline College, she has co-developed the Umoja Black Scholars Learning Community.