By Doug Hoagland
Katherine Ramirez, a senior at Fresno Pacific University, felt a deep sadness as she stared at the words on the plaque: “Ballie Crutchfield was lynched in Rome, Tennessee, in 1901 by a mob searching for her brother.” The words tore at Ramirez. “They broke my heart,” she says.
The plaque is part of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL—one of several stops Ramirez made in July on the Multicultural Peace Collaborative Learning Tour. She was joined by three other FPU students: Jackeline Para, Elijah Gonzalez-Chandler and Laury Ann Duyst.
Mennonite Central Committee, an international Christian relief agency founded by Mennonite and related denominations. was one of the sponsors, and the Center for Anabaptist Studies at FPU helped finance the nine-day tour through the South. Twenty-six students from Anabaptist colleges and universities took part.
The tour was “an emotional roller coaster,” says Ramirez, a pre-law/sociology major from Fresno. “But I learned something new at every stop. It was a fantastic opportunity.” Among the stops were:
- The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, where civil rights activists on the first march for voting rights were beaten in a bloody 1965 incident. The attack was broadcast on television and prompted national support for the marchers and their campaign.
- The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, GA. King is buried there.
- A “Peace Camp” in North Carolina, where students discussed peace and reconciliation.
At the camp, Ramirez listened to other students tell their stories—where they’re from, their dreams for the future and their struggles in achieving their goals. “We each brought the words that were close to our hearts,” she says. Taking time to hear others was meaningful. “I feel there is so much talking being done today, but not many people are actually listening,” Ramirez says.
Know the history
Parra, a senior criminology major from Tulare, says the tour filled in important blanks in her education. “The social injustices that have happened in the South are part of American history, but we don’t learn about them in elementary, middle or high school. Nobody touches on those topics, and I believe they should,” she says.
Parra and other students walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, following in the footsteps of the marchers brutalized by law enforcement officers. “We were able to walk across the bridge and not be met by police,” she says. “It’s a very sacred place, and we honored those people who had to endure violence and terror in the past.”
Opening up that past was one of the tour’s goals, says Dina González-Piña (MA ’98, BA ’90), executive director of West Coast MCC, which has offices in Fresno and Reedley. “We wanted to expose the students to our nation’s history of race and racism, and then help them learn how they can navigate different viewpoints,” she says.
González-Piña organized the tour with two friends and colleagues—an East Indian staff member with Multiply, the mission agency of the Mennonite Brethren church; and an African-American Mennonite Brethren leader on the East Coast. “The three of us have been working on a journey of racial understanding, and the tour came out of our relationships with each other,” González-Piña says.
Relationships were built on the tour. “It was amazing to see how a group of individuals with different life experiences and perspectives could come together peacefully to have discussions,” says Gonzalez-Chandler, a senior from Visalia with pre-law/sociology majors.
In a planned debate at the Peace Camp, she and another student argued the pro-choice/pro-life sides of abortion. “It was tense, but it never got to the point where we couldn’t talk to one another,” Gonzalez-Chandler says. “I learned how important it is to listen to people. We may not agree, but you have to recognize another person’s opinion is based on their experience and knowledge.”
Inspired to act
After returning from the tour, Gonzalez-Chandler and Ramirez were inspired to initiate a project at FPU called the Butterfly Effect. It’s designed to provide information and support to FPU students who are undocumented or who came to FPU on visas from countries around the world. (The project draws its name from the fact that the monarch butterfly is the symbol of resilience and hope in the immigrant community.)
One goal of the Butterfly Effect: train resident advisors, peer mentors and student government leaders at FPU how to become allies of undocumented students. “The Peace Camp ignited in Katherine and Elijah a spirit to become advocates and bridge gaps they see on the campus,” says Patty Salinas, FPU’s chief diversity officer and executive director of Intercultural Integration. “They’re passionate about their work, and they’re already making a difference.”
Gonzalez-Chandler wants to continue such work when she graduates, and she’s considering volunteering with MCC and then becoming a community organizer. “We’ve definitely made progress in this country, but we still have a long way to go,” she says.
Photo provided by FPU tour participants.