Speaker urges students to help

By Dick Mason, The Observer February 18, 2013 10:56 am

Tamara Henderson challenges EOU students during diversity conference

The sense of urgency bubbled in the voice of Tamara Henderson of Portland Saturday at Eastern Oregon University.

Henderson, the keynote speaker at the Celebrate, Educate, Appreciate, Diversity conference, told EOU students there is no moment like the present for them to step forward and right some of the wrongs they see in the world. 

“Now is the time. This is your chance to challenge yourself. Now is the opportunity. Be the difference you want to see,” said Henderson, the college and career coordinator for the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland.

Henderson’s address launched a conference that featured 14 workshops given by about 20 presenters. 

Henderson said college students have an uncommon opportunity to make a difference because of the resources they have access to.

“There is no other place where people with Ph.D.s are sitting in their offices, happy to talk to you,” Henderson said. “There is no other place where you will have so many support resource tools.”

 Henderson said the history of the student movement in the United States essentially dates back to 1906, when seven African-American students at Cornell University founded their own fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. The young men did so at a time when African Americans were not treated well at Cornell. This explains why the six black students at Cornell in 1905-06 left after just one year. 

“This (forming an African-American fraternity) was an enormous step, requiring amazing courage,’’ Henderson said.

She explained that the seven men made themselves targets by forming the fraternity.

“Because they came together everyone knew what they were doing,” Henderson said.

The African-Americans became known as the “Seven Jewells” and all went on to have successful careers. Alpha Phi Alpha became a national fraternity and its members later included Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice and Olympic track hero Jessie Owens.

Henderson cited a number of other examples of college students organizing to effectively address injustices. They included the five-year boycott of California table grapes, which ran into the early 1970s.

 The boycott was a major success, resulting in the United Farm Workers union getting a contract with growers providing fairer compensation. Henderson noted that students had no self interest in the boycott, for what they were seeking did not benefit them. 

“The students were not affected but they saw injustice and said we are going to do the right thing,” Henderson said. “It did not improve the lives of students. Students used privilege to right the wrong.”

 Henderson also urged students to reach out to the many students from different nations and regions at EOU. 

“Surround yourself with people who are different than you,” Henderson said. “It is important to go outside the box, to meet a great new set of friends.”

She told the students that even if  they later travel internationally, they will not have the opportunity to learn about different cultures and develop friendships with people from different lands that they do now on campus. 

Reaching out to people from different cultures and becoming involved in student movements may not be comfortable for some students at first but the rewards can be immeasurable, Henderson said. 

“If you want to look back and have no regrets, put yourself out there. Look back and say, ‘I did everything I could to be involved,’” said Henderson, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, who was the Southern Oregon University student body president in 2001-02.