Over a year ago, the sociology department attempted to find out who's going to Ethnic Student Center (ESC) events. The answers, it appeared, depended on whom they were asking.
In October 2007, Glenn Tsunokai, an associate professor in the sociology department, ran a survey that found that more than 80 percent of whites at Western that were surveyed have not participated in an ESC event; 60 percent of non-whites have not.
Of the 244 students surveyed, 79.9 percent were white, 2.9 percent were African American, 5.7 percent were Asian, 1.6 percent were Pacific Islander, 8.6 percent identified as mixed and less than 1 percent were Hispanic. The impression among about 65 percent of whites and 45 percent of non-whites was that the ESC clubs are for a specific racial or ethnic group. Yet 45 percent of whites and almost 50 percent of non-whites stated that learning about cultural diversity is very important.
The ESC was originally five organizations that were formed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, according to Michael Vendiola, ESC coordinator and activities advisor.
The original intent was to have separate “cultural centers” for each organization, but this idea was nixed by the university because it was not financially possible and there was not enough space. At first Vendiola, who was a student at the time, was disappointed, but later he realized the positive side of this decision.
“That was a blessing in disguise, because…we really got to be in tune with other [ethnic] organizations. I was heavily involved with the Native American Student Union, but being placed in this center allowed me to begin a relationship with the African American Alliance, or the Black Student Union or the MECHA [El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlá¡n] organization,” he said. “So then we began to understand each other's issues and began to understand the commonalities, of trying to overcome the different “isms” that we face. We became really tight, as organizations, supporting each other's causes.”
Currently the ESC faces the issue of creating more connections between the different clubs, which has already been fostered by co-sponsorship of events and ESC clubs attending each other's events. Vendiola said that the ESC must continue to create an identity for the clubs within the ESC as a whole, which he acknowledged to be “a slow process.”
Clubs within the ESC were formed because certain populations felt targeted, and creating an organizational support group was a solidarity-building experience, Tsunokai said. This, according to Vendiola, is essential for any college student, but especially minority populations, given the ethnic makeup of Western as a whole.
“The purpose of those organizations was to try to find a place on campus where you could go to an organization and see somebody else that's relatively like you,” Vendiola said. “It creates camaraderie, support and retains you in this school. You have a reason to stay here. And overcom[ing] the institution, that's relatively a new experience for that community. [There's] not a lot of sense of color, coming through the institution.”
However, AS Vice President for Diversity Kayla Britt pointed out that students of color feel pressured to represent themselves in the Western community, and ESC organizations experience that pressure even more as a result of their club status, which is often viewed as a platform for racial expression.
“If you are a minority population within the majority you have to learn how to function within the majority and also function within the minority,” Britt said. “But if you're in the majority, you have to learn how to function within the majority but you never have to learn how to function within the minority. They [minorities] have to learn how to live within the majority, but they also have to retain the minority.”
ESC clubs have to juggle the obligations to their support group as well as outreach and representation, a dual responsibility that is not institutionalized but nonetheless expected by the university and community, she said.
However, promotion of racial diversity at Western is good for the university, said Karen Copetas, director of admissions and enrollment planning. The more diverse the student body is, the more information about Western will be spread to a greater variety of people, who in turn will hopefully apply.
Copetas emphasized that Western does not have target goals for race and ethnicity and that it is illegal in the state of Washington to make admission decisions based on race.
The ultimate importance of a diverse campus population means no one is made to feel like they have to be a representative for their group, Copetas said.
“That's when you know you've got a diverse student body,” she said. “Western is not there yet.”
The dual responsibility mentioned above is less of a concern for other AS clubs, Britt said. While most other clubs don't feel the pressure to create large-scale events if they don't want to, ESC clubs feel obligated to step outside of their support group and educate the community about their experiences as minorities, she said.
“They [ESC organizations] create the club because they want that familiarity, they just want a support system through school,” she said. “So is it their responsibility to reach out and educate other students about their ethnic minority group? Is it their responsibility to be the ambassador for the ethnic minority group to all the other students?”
The pressure to be an “ambassador” occurs in the classroom setting as well, Tsunokai said.
“When you have very few minorities in race and ethnicity course…when they speak there's that burden that they get put on [them] where students may not necessarily see them as an individual but as a spokesperson for their race,” Tsunokai said.
Britt suggested offering opportunities for education and interaction, but ultimately allowing individuals to decide to what extent they will explore the experiences of other races and ethnicities.
“You can only do so much to create opportunity and people…have to take that step themselves,” she said. “But just try to create the opportunity as much as possible. I think that that doesn't have to be up to just individuals but also institutions, like universities, can create those opportunities.”
Tsunokai supports an educational approach when it comes to understanding different races. If social interaction cannot be engineered, education can give people a framework to act within, he said.
“What Western needs to do then is maybe have courses that are more mandated so that students can learn about it rather than bring all that pressure on the BSU [Black Student Union] to be that extra tool to get other people to realize that ‘this is the black experience,'” Tsunokai said. “If we can't engineer change via interaction…at least let's have the foundational piece of knowledge.”
The primary goal of the ESC, Vendiola said, is to empower the organization; the secondary goal is outreach. This is because organizations must focus on themselves and their abilities before they can delve into outreach, he said. But this is not meant to exclude non-members. The ESC is open to all students, Vendiola said. As an organization it tries to create programming that appeals to all members of the community, he said.
“We've always been an organization that's open to all communities. We emphasize a particular population but certainly everyone is welcome to participate,” he said.
The opportunities are available, but Britt emphasized that they cannot be forced on anyone. It's up to people to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with and decide when and where to act on that.
“You're responsible for what you learn and what you do, so if you want to learn more you have to put yourself out there,” Britt said. “It doesn't mean you have to go into the ESC and go to a club meeting, you can just talk to someone who's next to you in class. Start at your comfort level. It's a lifelong learning process. “