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Students advocate social justice in state legislature for Western Intersectional Lobby Day

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training in public universities, healthcare equity at the forefront of student lobbying

The Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia. The Capitol is closed to the public due to COVID-19, but students will still get the opportunity to lobby virtually. // Photo by Piutus via Flickr

By Sophia Pappalau

Western Washington University students will meet with Washington state legislators virtually Monday, Feb. 15 for Western Intersectional Lobby Day to advocate for legislative action extending specifically to race and social justice issues within Washington’s public universities.

WILD was organized jointly by the Associated Students Student Advocacy and Identity Resource Center and the Ethnic Student Center; the two offices collaborated on a general legislative agenda. The general legislative agenda advocates for impoverished people’s financial aid, funding for healthcare equity studies, protections for foster youth and support for undocumented immigrants. 

“[WILD] is really centering around underrepresented identities and how we can advocate specifically for underrepresented identities,” said Nicolle Ballard, the AS VP for Governmental Affairs.

WILD organizers will provide students with comprehensive training on how to lobby. 

Yara Bautista-Penafiel will be lobbying for student concerns at Western for the first time.

“I'm a newbie at this, so I'm really happy that they are offering some type of training and guidance so that hopefully when [WILD] comes, I'm more comfortable than I am right now,” Bautista-Penafiel said.

WILD’s core organizers are AS SAIRC Representation and Outreach Coordinator Mariam-Renee Wolters, AS ESC Assistant Director for Club Logistics Daniela Rodriguez and AS ESC Advocacy and Programming Coordinator Chelsea Joefield.

Wolters, Rodriguez and Joefield determined the agenda by choosing legislative bills dropped during the Jan. 21 legislative session that pertain to each department’s mission, Wolters said.

Legislation at the forefront of student lobbying is Senate Bill 5227, Ballard said. If passed, the bill would require all public universities in the state to establish annual diversity, equity and inclusion professional development and training for students, faculty and staff.

Lobbying for the bill constitutes part of a nationwide debate that rose to prominence in September 2020 after former President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. The executive order prohibited federally funded institutions from providing any workplace training that espoused “anti-American” and “divisive” concepts, such as the conviction that “an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” 

In academia, the debate revolves around the utility and necessity of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training and whether such programs can be reconciled with academic and intellectual freedoms in higher education institutions. 

While President Joe Biden rescinded Executive Order 13950 on Jan. 20, the debate persists in state legislatures across the nation. 

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, legislators or legislative staff in at least six U.S. states are offered implicit bias training. The state legislature in Arkansas has proposed a bill that would prohibit K-12 and public colleges and universities from teaching courses that advocate for “overthrow of the United States government,” and promote “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” a race, gender, political affiliation or social class.

According to SB 5227, the Washington state legislature found that “developing and maintaining a culture of belonging and support for students, faculty and staff at institutions of higher education is essential to student success, and that faculty and staff play a key role.” It found that DEI training would help establish this kind of environment.

A study conducted in 2001 found that students who socialized across racial lines and discussed race issues reported them as positive educational experiences.

Bruce Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State University and head of the Oregon chapter of the conservative National Association of Scholars, has voiced criticisms of diversity initiatives in the past. Some of his concerns are based on the grounds that such initiatives have a perverse effect on institutional quality by imposing partisan ideology on curriculum that is peripheral to student and faculty success.

Evidence suggests that emphasizing cultural differences across racial groups can lead to an increased belief in fundamental biological differences among races.

“DEI [training] is precisely what you would not want to do if you want to build a civilized campus environment,” Gilley said. “DEI teaches people to hate one another based on their skin color or their genitalia. Well, to divide the world into oppressor or oppressed categories.”

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