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Roberta Wilburn reports on increase of diversity at Whitworth

Mary Stamp

Diversity among Whitworth University faculty, staff and students has increased in Roberta Wilburn’s nearly 10 years at the School of Education. 

Roberta Wilburn recently honored for diversity initiatives.

Now more than 23.6 percent of domestic students are from “underrepresented” groups, and there are 80 international students. “Underrepresented groups” include immigrants, Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans.

“We have come a long way, but we have not arrived,” said Roberta, associate dean for graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives.

Recognizing her work, the YWCA recently presented her with the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Justice Award at its Woman of Achievement Luncheon in October.  Whitworth has also received the 2016 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity award from Diversity, Inc.

Roberta serves on Whitworth’s Institute for Diversity Committee, the U.S. Diversity and Global Perspectives Task Force and chairs the Diversity in Education Committee.

When she first came in 2007, she said she was the only African American on the faculty and administration.  Rhosetta Rhodes was hired four months later as director of service learning. She is now the vice president for student life and Title IX coordinator dealing with sexual harassment and violence against women on campus. Roberta is also a Title IX investigator.

Now there are also African-American professors of history and psychology, and an African professor teaching English.

Before she came, there was a Middle Eastern and two Asian professors.  Stephy Nobles-Beans, who started as an administrative assistant in 1996, is now coordinator for diversity, equity and inclusive ministries.

Five years ago, Roberta was on the search committee that brought Lawrence Burnley to Whitworth as assistant vice president for intercultural relations.  Now the university is doing a search to fill that position again.

For the graduate program, which has a daytime class and 14 evening classes, she has hired a Samoan and an African American as adjunct faculty, and a full-time marriage and family therapy faculty member from Guyana in South America. 

Helping her recruit students is her assistant director, a former student from Ghana.

“We recruit students through the Spokane NAACP, Spokane Public Schools and more,” she said. “It helps just to be a face—a person of color.”

Income is a factor in drawing and retaining students.  Scholarships and graduate assistantships help students with tuition.  As a private university, Whitworth depends on tuition to sustain its work. In graduate studies, there are scholarships based on diversity, disability, leadership, church work and financial need to help draw diverse students.

Last year, Roberta trained more than 300 chemical dependency professionals, mental health counselors and social service workers on diversity and cultural sensitivity in workshops with Spokane County Regional Support Network. 

“Many white students, like professionals in the community, may lack knowledge because of having few interactions with people of color,” she said.  “The training helps them understand interactions with behavior as a cultural difference not pathology.  It’s important to understand ‘the other’.”

Roberta builds awareness among students in several ways, including partnerships with World Relief and Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute and Mukogawa Women’s University in Japan.

• For seven years, Whitworth students have gone through a simulation of what refugees experience.  They learn of problems refugees encounter, fleeing their homes because of persecution or war, spending 10 or more years in refugee camps and settling in a new culture.

Many refugees experience trauma, rape, language barriers and no previous schooling for girls.  World Relief supports refugees for three months. Then they are on their own to adjust, unless congregations or agencies walk with them. 

• Whitworth’s one-month January Term is designed to expose students to diversity, but graduate students often have jobs, so few can leave work to travel elsewhere.

Roberta connects them with Japanese students at Mukogawa.  Every fall, a professor brings 25 to 45 students from Japan.  Whitworth hosts an International Education and Diversity Forum bringing Whitworth students together with Japanese students for a speaker, cultural entertainment and workshops. This year it is from 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17. Mukogawa students practice English, and Whitworth students learn about Japanese culture.

• She increases student cultural awareness by inviting guest speakers to classes, people from the many cultures in the Spokane area—Iranian, Hmong, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and Slavs.

• Along with celebrating cultural events and heritage months, Whitworth is infusing diversity into its curricula.

Roberta said it’s hard to recruit African-American faculty because candidates see few African Americans living in the area. 

“It’s a small population, but bigger than many think,” she said.

When Larry came to learn about Spokane, she invited African-American leaders to meet him.  In recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color, it’s important to have faculty and staff of color, Roberta added.

“Many need to feel connected,” she said.  “So there is a Black Student Union, as there are Hawaiian and Hispanic clubs.”

In education, Roberta said the goal is to provide safe spaces to encourage students and faculty to have “courageous conversations” they might otherwise shy away from having.

She also meets with human resources staff and search committees on best practices in recruiting diverse candidates for positions.

Roberta was teaching at LeMoyne Owen College, a historic black college, and did not have Spokane on her radar when Whitworth reached out to historic black colleges to recruit.

“I had asked God to enlarge my territory, and I was obedient to going where God sent me,” said Roberta, an ordained nondenominational minister. She wanted a position where she could do both ministry and higher education.  She had felt limited to share her faith in secular college contexts.

“Whitworth’s mission and vision on educating mind and heart integrates faith in education,” she said.  “I did not want to compartmentalize faith to the weekend.  At Whitworth, I can be myself as a Christian every day all day.

“God created us to be different.  Through diversity, we can listen to each other, learn from our perspectives and be better for it,” said Roberta, who has faced ageism, sexism and racism in her career.

“Few women or people of color serve as higher education administrators,” she said.  “Most are male, and some may discredit someone like me because of gender and race, regardless of my credentials and experience.”

She will speak in November to faculty and staff at Gonzaga University on challenges of being an African-American woman in higher education.

At Whitworth, there are women faculty, and women deans in education, and in arts and sciences.  Men are deans in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), theology, business and administration. 

In Spokane Public Schools, she said most elementary teachers are women; most principals and administrators are men, but the superintendent, Shelley Redinger, is a woman.  Roberta encourages schools to find mentors with whom students can identify.

This year’s campaign demonstrates that the United States is not in a post-racial era.

“Now what was hidden has surfaced so we know there is more to do, and we know the importance of mandates for cultural, racial and gender sensitivities in higher education.  As a society, we need to live with people of different races, religions and cultures.  Everyone deserves respect,” said Roberta. “We need to celebrate diversity, not see it as a problem.  We need to look at our gifts. We all have something to learn from each other and to give to each other.  As we bring people together, it makes us all better.

“We need to start with preschool children, because racism and sexism are not inherent in children.  They learn those attitudes.  If we want people to accept and respect others, we need to teach and model it.  We need to challenge racist, sexist and anti-cultural jokes that demean,” she said.

“We need education that reinforces respecting and helping each other,” Roberta said. 

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