Ijeoma Olou appealed in an address to the students and faculty at Whatcom to be the root of change in the colleges we attend and work at during the “Awakening the Legacy” virtual event Jan. 18 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“If there is any place that could create systemic change, why would it not be in our colleges and universities? Why would it not be in a place that’s supposed to be wed to new ideas?” Olou said.
The virtual event was put on by a partnership with speakers from Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College, Western Washington University, and Bellingham Technical College was hosted by Whatcom Associate Director for Student Life and Development Dr. Kunbi Ajiboye and Dr. Fred Collins of Western.
Olou grew up in the Pacific Northwest, attended Lynwood High School, and graduated from Western in 2007 with a degree in political science as a single mother at the age of 25.
She was twice named to the Roots 100 List of Most Influential African Americans, was awarded the 2018 Feminists Humanist Award, the 2020 Howard Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanists Association, and is a New York Times best-selling author for “So you want to talk about Race.”
Ajiboye said in her introduction of Olou, “It is safe to say that Ijeoma has reignited the legacy of MLK in Whatcom County.”
Through her stories, Ajiboye said Olou has [highlighted] “Systemic oppression and mediocrity in a way that is sincere, authentic, and real.”
Olou then discussed her experiences at Western and how they shaped her attitudes about the failings of our institutions in regards to providing an honest education in race and social equity.
“Often, if I didn’t bring up a discussion of racial equity, it didn’t come up,” Olou said about her time in the classroom.
“If you wanted to know how a certain subject impacted a population of color you had to take a particular class related to race. As if race were separate from everyday ‘regular’ topics and needed to only exist on its own,” Olou said.
These experiences helped shape her philosophies on education, race relations, and social justice. Olou has spent her professional life developing these philosophies into anti-racist educational strategies.
“Her work has led to critical questions and reflects on what an equitable and just institution looks like,” Ajiboye said about Olou.
But Olou herself is quick to remind her audience that she is not some prophet sent here to enlighten the masses. Rather, she is just one of many members of communities all across this country that are too often ignored.
“One of the sad ironies of being a sought after speaker at colleges and universities is that I often find myself in spaces where people of color with more experience and knowledge on these subjects than me are having to use my words to put forth what they have been saying all along because they are not listened to by their own institutions,” Olou said.
The event featured not only Ijeoma Olou as the keynote speaker, but also a student speaker from each college. Whatcom was represented by Kunmi Ajiboye, Northwest Indian College by Heather Mullen, Western by Malik Ford, and Bellingham Technical College by Byron Devoe.
Whatcom’s Kunmi Ajiboye, who is a Running Start student and younger sister of Kunbi Ajiboye, described how being inundated with negative media images of African Americans while growing up in a community that is below 10% Black helped create negative feelings of herself.
However, after finding empowerment in voices like Ijeoma Olou’s and a stronger sense of identity after joining the group Justice for Black Girls, Kunmi began to replace these negative feelings. The significance of MLK Day is never lost on Kunmi.
“We’re all fighting for our fundamental human rights. We’re all gifted them. I’m just as much of a human as you are and should be treated as such. So it’s important to remember that it’s not just a day off. It’s a day where we should be reminded we should be working twice as hard, because if Martin Luther King were here today, he would not be happy,” Kunmi Ajiboye said.
Western Washington University’s Associated Students President and speaker Malik Ford has been putting in the work to create institutional change at his school. Ford uses a document produced by the WWU Black Student Organizations as his North Star. It is a list of demands to improve the quality of life for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) students which is available on the WWU website.
“Holding [the] necessary people accountable to make sure that those demands are either going to be accomplished or are on track to being accomplished so that black students at this university can be treated better, so that BIPOC students can have better experiences. Especially the ones that are coming after us,” Ford said.
Putting plans to action is a theme that was constant in all the speaker’s words, but Ford especially focussed on King’s complex legacy.
“This is someone who we now have put on a pedestal. Who in the past this country literally despised this man. This is something we should never forget, because I feel like people get complacent and people just don’t really think of the full picture sometimes. We need to have these constant reminders and never forget,” Ford said.
Ijeoma Olou said, “People talk about Dr. King’s dream as if he was just a dreamer. But he was a planner and he was a doer.”
Whatcom has its own team of dreamers, planners, and doers working every day to progress these goals. Terri Thayer, our Director for Community Standards & Residence Life and Interim College Equity Officer, is one of these people. She has been the interim officer since October and is a member of the Diversity Committee.
This committee works to develop and implement policies and curriculums that promote equity, diversity, social justice, and inclusion of all races, national organism religions, ages, genders, sexual orientations, marital status, veteran status, abilities and disabilities.
“Being a Native woman on campus and the work we’ve been doing on campus around land acknowledgement and really paying attention to what it means to honor the people and the place in which we exist right now and what that means to the cultural experience of our Native students. That’s important to me,” Thayer said about one of her favorite aspects of working on the Diversity Committee.
It is the hope of Ijeoma Olou that if we learn our history, talk to each other in an accountable way, and be open to each other’s ideas, we can create a more just and equitable institution here at Whatcom.