Friday, April 14, 2017

Understanding the past and shaping the future

I have sent this across to the editor ... perhaps it will be published. If not, hey, you read that here ;)

Thanks to Donald Trump’s election, and his statements and policies since the inauguration, students in my introductory economic geography class seem to be significantly more eager than ever to connect the academic discussions to the real world happenings. On their own!

During routine discussions on population dynamics, when my lectures usually put students to sleep reminding me of the hilarious scene in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” one question from the back row nearly jolted the class. A student asked, “Why is Portland so white compared to the other cities that I have been to?” Before I could respond, another question rang out: “Isn’t Oregon itself way white compared to even Washington?”

In my fifteen years of teaching at Western Oregon University, I have not been asked these questions even once in any of my classes. I doubt that these questions were merely a coincidence.

In responding to the students’ questions, and thanks to the technology in the smart classroom, I projected on the screen maps about the Great Migration from the American South and how very few came to Oregon. I pulled up a few photographs of African-Americans in Oregon, including about Vanport, in the Portland area. And about Oregon’s own “Trail of Tears.” The maps and photos were worth more than the proverbial thousand words.

As discussions died down, a student from a town in the Willamette Valley remarked that it now made sense to her why I am the first non-white teacher she has ever had in her entire life as a student—all the way from kindergarten through college.

Of course, as an outsider—first from India, and then from California—this whiteness in Oregon, and hence my brownness, was one of the first things that I had to quickly understand about this state that has been a wonderful home to me.

If this post-election politics has given us an incentive to understand these important issues, then we may as well put that to good use.

In the educational world of geography, there are many formal avenues for all of us to further explore and understand questions like the ones my students asked.  One such avenue is the Geography Awareness Week.  

The National Geographic Society created the “Geography Awareness Week to raise awareness to this dangerous deficiency in American education and excite people about geography as both a discipline and as a part of everyday life.”  Many centers affiliated with this activity have selected “civil rights” as the theme for the Geography Awareness Week in 2017, which will be during November 13-19.  

Civil rights has distinct geographic patterns and impacts. While we usually think of the American South, states like Oregon too have had, and continue to have, issues related to civil rights. 

We do not have to wait until the "Geography Awareness Week" in order to understand civil rights issues. As we plan for our excursions around the state during the gorgeous Oregon summer, I hope more among us will also spend some time stopping by the numerous places that will help us understand who we were and, therefore, who we want to be in the future.


Ramesh said...

Isn't Portland as a city far more diverse than the rest of Oregon ? I myself know quite a few Indians who live in Portland. Its been a mini hub for IT and so I would expect a fair sprinkling of brown skinned people there.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes ... the new brown people, of course. And, as you would have noticed in the other post, Portland has non-whites because of the kinds of economic activities that you refer to, while most other regions in the state do not ...

Note that unlike California or Washington, Oregon has only a tiny percentage of blacks because of our state's awful history of outright discrimination against blacks.

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