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Stand up if you’re the first person in your family to attend college.
Stand up if you identify as mixed race.
Stand up if you’ve ever felt excluded.
Welcome to the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington’s Essential NU seminar, “NU Inclusion,” in which you’ll confront topics like engagement, diversity and discussion.
He’ll ask you to recognize when you’re an “only” and he’ll ask you to consider how you contribute to the discussion of diversity on Northwestern’s campus.
“People don’t learn this stuff best by being talked at,” Washington says. “Folks are most likely to explore if they’re given the good questions and given opportunities to engage.”
Washington is the president and founder of both the Washington Consulting Group, a multicultural development firm based in Baltimore, and the Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI).
The SJTI was founded in 1998 to help people understand privilege and to create inclusion where exclusion previously existed.
“Diversity is not going anywhere and if they’re going to work in the world, it’s important to prepare them for that,” Washington says. “That’s the responsibility of higher education.” College students in particular, he says, are in their “own little world,” and he admits he was too at that age. Being thrown into a melting pot on a college campus magnifies the differences between Evanston and their hometowns.
“Part of the experience of NU, it invites them to see the world of others,” Washington says.
NU’s Class of 2018—famously regarded as the most diverse class in Northwestern’s history—is comprised of 41.7 percent students from minority backgrounds, nearly seven percent more than the Class of 2017.
Northwestern has a difficult history with these issues of diversity and inclusion.
In Spring 2012, Jazzy Johnson (Comm. ‘13) was one member of a group of students who pushed for better educational campus resources and inclusive spaces. She’s worked as a program assistant in the Office of Campus Inclusion and Community since its founding in Fall Quarter 2012 and says the office “has to exist” at Northwestern to provide for students who fall outside the realm of what’s “normal.”
“The important thing is for us to realize that every one does not walk around this campus or this world with ease, as many of us do, which is a big part of the definition of privilege,” Johnson says.
Just a few years ago, conversation through programs like Sustained Dialogue, a student-run discussion group that Johnson oversees, was an afterthought. But now, both Johnson and Washington see the future of Northwestern improving through productive conversation.
“[Washington] sets the culture of talking about difference up for the students,” Johnson says. “That’s what he jumpstarts for us. It’s not weird to talk about this. It’s not awkward to talk about this.”
Dubbed the “Engagement Specialist” on his Washington Consulting Group bio, Washington believes thought-provoking questions are the best way to learn. By engaging with their own experiences, he says, college students can begin to understand how those experiences are shaped by the privileges they may or may not enjoy.
“We all matter,” he says. “If we’re to build an inclusive community, we must understand ourselves as well as others and that understanding starts with building relationships.” Washington says this work is guided by four lines from a song sung at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral:
“If I can help somebody as I pass along, If I can cheer somebody with a word or song, If I can show somebody that he or she has traveled wrong, Then my living shall not be in vain.”
To Washington, this is more than just words sung to a tune; it’s more than an empty promise made in a moment of inspiration. They’re words to live by. “It’s about living a life that’s about a contribution” he says. “My purpose here on the planet is to be a service. I believe that if I helped someone, then my living shall not be in vain.”