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This content was published: June 9, 2016. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

PCC students go out and support Forest Grove High Schoolers over banner issue

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The “Build a Wall” banner was meant to be a statement about “restrictions on freedom of speech.” It was interpreted by the Latino students of Forest Grove High School as racial bias in support of building a wall on the US-Mexico border. High school and college students from Forest Grove to Pioneer Square marched and protested. The banner’s author apologized for the unintended connotation.

The timing of this May protest comes only weeks after PCC concluded its month-long Whiteness History Project. It might have been the energy generated by that event that helped Rock Creek students rally in support of Forest Grove by presenting the school with a different banner that read: #PCCStandsWithFG.”

Gaetan-Dauphin Nzowo, Equity Ambassador with the Rock Creek Multicultural Center, organized an open mic event at Rock Creek to give students an opportunity to talk about the “Build a Wall” banner. He sees a connection between the college’s recent Whiteness History Month project and the desire for Rock Creek students to support Forest Grove students of color.

“Whiteness History Month at PCC told me PCC was a place where we could talk honestly,” Nzowo said. “Whiteness History Month was a turning point for me. For me, community college means ‘living in community.’ It means putting our differences aside to create a safe place. I have the right to feel safe. You cannot separate freedom of speech from the freedom to feel safe.”

Manny Romero, Rock Creek Multicultural Center facilitator, was another PCC student who offered support to the Forest Grove students of color. He said, “We wanted to show support for both current and future Forest Grove students who attend PCC. It’s hard for high school students to stand up. We help by encouraging high school students to identify PCC opportunities for themselves. We can give them tools to help them take leadership roles. Students of color need to find their own tools for empowerment. PCC can help them with that.”

Ben Cushing, Rock Creek sociology instructor and a member of the Rock Creek Diversity Council, Race and Inclusion Conversations Project, viewed the involvement of PCC students in the Forest Grove banner protest as a somewhat expected result. He said, “A lot of the work that community colleges have the potential to do is training students in skills of being responsible members of their communities and society. This is about students taking those skills and implementing them in ways that matter to them.”

The chain reaction that remains in play, started with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015. Faculty at PCC offered teaching tools to help people talk about the riots in Ferguson. What resulted was an extended often hostile email train that led campus leadership to create Whiteness History Month. Some people, like Nzowo, think the energy generated by WHM moved PCC students to support Forest Grove students of color.

“We are now engaged in global discussions about migration, climate change, illegal immigrants,” Cushing said. “Whiteness History Month was a response to what’s in the air.”

He added, “The problems faced by Forest Grove students are the same problems faced by students everywhere. What happened in Forest Grove was not just PCC students supporting Forest Grove students. It was a show of mutual solidarity. These are two vulnerable groups of undocumented students taking huge risks. This takes courage.”