Special Audio Story from the UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories Project

The UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories project has already created close to 50 hours of audio on oral histories related to our campus history. To offer some highlights, I produced a special audio story about the Black Student Union at UW Tacoma. Take a listen, and happy Black History Month!

What we were trying to do is connect community with this academic environment, but understand that this academic environment is part of the community as well, that people that get their degrees here, they’re working in the City Hall, they’re working jobs around in the community, or they’re going to go work jobs in the community. And how can we come together to unify and get some things done, as well, such as serving in the community on a day like Martin Luther King Day? (Chana Lawson ’07)

Square image showing four portraits of four women
Left to right; top to bottom: Linda Hurley Ishem, Lisa Rankin Faircloth, Jamie McGee, Chana Lawson. Photos from 2019 and 2020.

Transcript

LISA RANKIN FAIRCLOTH
I’m driving down the street in Tacoma, and my sister calls. And she goes, “Hey, Lisa. I heard they’re building a UW Tacoma campus.” I said, “What?” She goes, “Yeah.” She goes, “Downtown Tacoma, in one of those old buildings.” “Oh, is that right?” “You need to apply!” And I said, “You think so?” She goes, “Yeah!” I said, “Okay.” I just kind of blew it off.

 

JOAN HUA [host]
Welcome to this a special audio story from the
UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories project. I am Joan Hua, the oral history project manager at UW Tacoma Library. In this story, we hear about the Black Student Union at UW Tacoma and the significant impact it has made on students and the community. In particular, the narrators recount the Black Student Union’s efforts in advocating for more diversity and organizing the Martin Luther King, Jr., Unity Breakfast, which has become a significant annual community event in Tacoma.

This story is edited from four separate oral history interviews, and the narrators are Lisa Rankin Faircloth, Chana Lawson, Jamie McGee, and Linda Hurley Ishem.

 

LINDA HURLEY ISHEM
I’m Linda Hurley Isham. I am a senior lecturer in the School of Urban Studies. I consider myself a pracademic not an academic. I was a community development practitioner for 24 years before I went back to school to get a PhD so that I could teach. 

When I first arrived in the state of Washington, I worked for, you know, my first job was with the state, and in my capacity as the director of, as the program manager for the business finance unit, I was called into hearings. And so I get called into legislative hearings, and, sitting in those hearings, I was often on the agenda at the same time as the community advocates from Tacoma, who are asking for a public university located here.

The mid-’90s, something like that. I started thinking about what I had learned in Olympia, about the University of Washington Tacoma, and knowing that it considered itself an urban-serving university—all about access for students in the South Sound region. And I decided that this was where I belonged, that I was on the wrong end of the continuum, and that I should be in the classroom at UW Tacoma, helping prepare the next generation for the people’s work.

[00:03:23]

Black students, historically, at the college level have had reasons to seek out a sense of community, right? And it’s been done through Black Student Unions since the ’60s, right? At least since the ’60s.

I don’t know how I came to … oh, oh, I know! Probably six years ago, seven years ago, around the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was teaching a class, my Race and Poverty in Urban America class, and it turned out I had some of the officers from the Black Student Union, the BSU, were in that class. And they were regularly interacting with me around advocacy and what, you know, whatever, you know, they were seeking to do, they would ask me about it, because I was the teacher, right? So, they asked me to be kind of the acting person because they were regularly, you know, at the end of my classes, they would always come, you know, gather around me and ask. So anyway, I ended up taking it on then, kind of on an unofficial basis, and have since served until this year.

 

LISA RANKIN FAIRCLOTH
Some things might happen to you when you least expect and that are predestined for you. My walk into higher education as far as a career move was predestined for me.

My name is Lisa Rankin Faircloth. I worked at University Washington, from 1992 until … 2009.

The Black Student Union was the first student organization on the UW Tacoma campus. Before there was a student government established, there was a Black Student Union. Now, how that came to be, I don’t know. I just showed up. Once again, I’d just be showing up at things. And Steve Smith took me to a meeting. And I didn’t know it was a Black Student Union meeting. He just said, “Come with me,” and I went with him. And the next thing I knew I was the advisor.

 

JOAN HUA [host]
In the early ’90s, Lisa worked in student services and eventually became the Multicultural Recruitment, Admissions, and Retention Specialist. She said the BSU were active in the community early on in UW Tacoma’s history.

 

LISA RANKIN FAIRCLOTH
The BSU would … Every year we would try to do something for the less fortunate. One student that stands out to my mind right now is a gentleman named Clarence Slaughter. He was a student who worked full time, but he took on a part-time job at a pizza restaurant, and the money he made from that restaurant, he kept separate. And he took that money and went to Costco and would buy all this food. And from that food, we found two disadvantaged families and brought them food for Christmas. And just the mere fact of a student to do something like that, just blew me away. I just couldn’t even imagine working full time, going to school, and then taking a part-time job to do that, on behalf of the student organization. He was the president at the time of the BSU. I was just so amazed at his commitment to the organization and to the less fortunate. So that just stands out of my mind in a major, major way.

[00:06:56]

Mike Wark used to be … Well, he was really instrumental in that, when there were things going on, I would let Mike know, and he would do a press release, which were free. So he would do press releases in the Tacoma News Tribune, during Black History Month for the most part, and I would have him, I would give him a list of the whole month of February, for example. And we’d have something going on every week the whole month of February. We had an event every single day. And he would run a press release and have our whole calendar printed in the News Tribune. But it was open to the community. It wasn’t just for UW Tacoma. We opened it up for the community. We wanted the community to be part of UW Tacoma. So the Black Student Union said, “We want the community coming in.”

As time went on, when we started doing the Martin Luther King programs and different things, just as time evolved, they saw that things were, “BSU, they’re hosting some pretty good things here. We need to buy into what they’re doing.”

[music]

 

JOAN HUA [host]
And the BSU did attract members in the community. Fast forward to 2005, when Chana was living in Puyallup, working at Sea-Tac Airport, and starting at University of Washington Tacoma to finish her bachelor’s degree.

 

CHANA LAWSON
My name is Chana Lawson. Before I came here for college, so, many years back, my background was that I was a military wife, but I also worked in insurance.

When I entered campus, I looked for the BSU because I just … My mother was a BSU officer. I was like, “Do they have a BSU?” And I had actually worked with someone at the airline who was a part of the Black Student Union at UW Tacoma, and I used to … she used to come, and when they would raise funds, I would buy things from her and stuff like that. So she actually let me know about, that there’s a BSU at the UW Tacoma campus. So I knew it. A couple years before I even attended UW Tacoma I knew there was one.

I grew up knowing that you have to get your education. And with the background that I come from, being African American—I have a lot of multi-racial ethnicities in my background, but African American is what I identify as—and that is what stood out to me. It was that people who were held back from education, it just … the things they went through so that we could have an education, have equal opportunities in America. I just, there’s, there’s no not going to school and finishing your education.

I had seen the Black Student Union on campus doing things, and I would show up, but then I would be like, “I gotta go to class!” I could never stay and really enjoy what was going on. But I knew they were active, and I would try to show up for some things. And I spoke to the president, it was LaTanya Boyd McKinney—was her name at the time. Because she had said, “Well, just stop by for something to eat. at least.” You know. And so I had mentioned to her that, “Well, you know some students say you guys don’t do anything for evening students. You know. What about those students that have to work during the day, and then they come in the evening?” And so they were like, “Yeah, we’re trying to do something.”

So over the summer I wound up in a course, and it was in my nonprofit management curriculum. And I met a man in there. His name was Albert Purnell. And he asked me. He said, “You know, you’re very likable.” And I said, “Well, thank you.” And he said, “You should be an officer with the Black Student Union. Did you know that they’re looking for officers for the Black Student Union?” And then I said, “No.” He said, “Well, I’ll be president because I’m already, you know, but I’m trying to recruit some people, and I think that you would be good for that position, for maybe vice president or something like that, because people like you, and you seem to be such a leader in the classroom and stuff like that.” So I had said, “Well, my mother was in BSU.” So that was another reason why I kind of wanted to get involved as well. My mother was an officer with the Black Student Union in St. Louis, Missouri. She went to Webster University. 

With Jamie—she was in one of my classes, psychology class. And I talked to her and recruited her into the BSU to be a secretary, because I said, “We need a secretary. You would be really good.” We were study partners.

[00:11:21]

 

JAMIE MCGEE
Coming to campus—this is where Chana comes along. I parked my car, I’m walking past the parking lot over there by the Outpost. And she’s coming up the sidewalk, and she goes, “Hey, you want to be the secretary for to BSU?” And I’m like, “Well, you know, I’m just, I work.” And she goes, “That’s all right. You could do it. It’s not going to be any problem. I’ll help you.”
She was the vice president. Albert Purnelle was the president. She had already met him. And we all three graduated the same time, too—2007.

When I did go here I was Jamie Glaze. Now, McGee. My last name is McGee now. I was in a military family, raised in Germany most of my years. Born in Brooklyn. And I have three brothers. I’m the oldest of my three brothers. And at the time, the two middle brothers, the two younger brothers, went to college.

Being in the church, it opened my eyes to see the struggle. And also when I came back to the States. Because Europe is a lot different, to me, than the States. I didn’t feel this discriminations and stuff like that over there as I did in the States. So when I came back to the States and visited … and that was in 1991. I saw that racism really exists and that’s still stuff … there were places that said, “No blacks allowed.” And then I also noticed that a lot of people, a lot of young people who were raised in a community have not seen beyond their neighborhoods, you know, or their city.

When I was transferring, Lisa Rankin, she just went, boom boom boom, “This is what you need to do.” You know, she would, she broke everything down. And I pretty much believe it was her, because she speaks to people, like, “This is what you need to do.” Kind of, and it was something that I, in a way, that I’m used to hearing. Very militant, you know, military-wise, you know. “Now, if you want this, this is what you need to do.” And so I just … it had to be her because she’s the only person that in my transition—and it was easy: she looked at the scores and looked at my, not scores, but my grades and courses and told me, “All this is looking good. Now go here, get this.” And I also was on my GI Bill as well at TCC. I ended up transferring here in 2005.

 

LISA RANKIN FAIRCLOTH
I just always was the go-to person. They’d always say, “Go see Lisa.” So everyone always figured Lisa had, you know. I knew Tony Meyers, who was in financial aid. I knew Bruce Metzger, who worked with the VA. So I always knew … I was just a good contact of who to go to. So they’d always say, “Go see Lisa. She knows someone to put you in contact with.” 

[00:14:45]

 

LINDA HURLEY ISHEM
I do know that, throughout the UW Tacoma history, that the black students in the form of the BSU have advocated for more representation, you know, more faculty representation that looked like them and more staff member who looked like them, who had some sensitivities to some of what their experiences might be, and they could role model and mentor, role model for and mentor them in their own academic pursuits. The black students on the campus have regularly submitted proposals or requests for more representation on our campus because it’s, it’s thin. It’s thin.

 

LISA RANKIN FAIRCLOTH
The students had a great concern that—and I’m going to be very blunt—that they had a white professor teaching African American Studies, who was Mike Honey. Wonderful guy, great guy. But he wasn’t black. And they felt that … there were African American women teaching—they had
Deirdre Raynor; they had Carolyn West. There were a few black women, but there were no black, full-time faculty members. And they said, “There’s not even one. Why doesn’t the university have at least one person in the classroom that looks like us? We’ve got black men here, black young men who are in school. Why isn’t there somebody in the classroom that looks like us that we can identify with? There’s nobody here. Why?” 

So this kept being brought up, and they would, you know, it’s kind of just complained to me. Well, I’m not a decision maker. I’m not in hiring. I’ve sat on some hiring committees, quite a few of them as a matter of fact, but I’m not the final decision maker with that. So they just kept having these concerns. That’s something we, you know, talked about. We even went to the Black Collective. They were, you know, wanting to vent there. And I said, “Well, you guys need to do something about that, you know, let your voices be heard, you know. Do a protest, do something.” So, students at the time said, “You know, we need to do that.” So what they did. They did a little protest in the courtyard, that they wanted. They felt the next hiring … I think there was a position open in the IAS department, and they said that needs to be filled with an African American male. So they did a little protest out at the new campus in the courtyard there. And they rallied. It was a good little rally.

And from that rally and their voices being heard very loud, is how Luther Adams was hired. Luther Adams came from the concerns of African American male and female students. And it started with the BSU. They were adamant about wanting to see a faculty member that looked like them in the classroom, that was full time, not a part time, not a lecture. They wanted a full-time faculty member to be hired on at that university.

 

CHANA LAWSON
I could never get enrolled in Dr. Adams’s class, but I could buy the book. I had access to it. There’s a teacher here,
Dr. Kayaoglu. Turan. He was the first professor to come and teach about Islam here. So he came on campus at that time. And I know that it was from the benefit of what had happened, is that they needed more diversity on campus with professors. 

When I was the Black Student Union Vice President, we did have him come in when we were celebrating Malcolm X, we were trying to recognize and dispel some myths about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and things like that. He came in and was one of our speakers, and we asked him right away to do that, because he had the perspective of Islam and things like that, but also those, the perceptions around people who are of Middle Eastern or African descent. A lot of people really needed exposure to that type of diverse learning. Had I not had that type of professor on the campus, I wouldn’t have had access to it. And I wouldn’t have been able to hear his viewpoints.

 

JAMIE MCGEE
And what I learned from my classes, Dr. Adams and Dr. Honey—Dr. Honey, mostly, is all about the collaboration, because he was, in his teaching, you’re just seeing how all these different organizations come together in the civil rights movement, right? So that was what was in my head. So I was always constantly saying, “You know, we got to coalesce. We got to collaborate. So, let’s talk to this woman who’s the founder of the Evergreen up here, and People’s Center.” Just because of our organization and the community and we wanting support in the BSU. And Chana was bringing a whole bunch of ideas as well because she’s very creative. And she’s also very ambitious and determined. And so we would just shoot out some stuff. And I go, I remember saying something about, in the church they have a breakfast … something. I use … something about a breakfast. And she goes, “We could do that.”

[music]

[00:20:48]

 

CHANA LAWSON
The Martin Luther King, Jr., Unity Breakfast, there was a lot of people that were against that at first.

It was 2006 to ’07, but the actual holiday was January … can’t remember the actual date, but January 2007.

We wanted to break down the walls because, even in the community and having discussions, a lot of people have perceptions about UW Tacoma that weren’t quite on point. And so, we also noticed that there was, we were like, “Okay, how can we increase community being on campus and knowing what’s here?”

But it was to breakdown silos even between the community and the campus. Like, make more people aware of what the campus was doing and the students on the campus. Some people said, “I didn’t even know, how many black students do they have there?” You know. It was to break down silos between student orgs as well and bring everybody to the table and make sure that people knew what a vital resource that the university was and what it could be if we all came together. And then, also, for people to build together and see, “How can we make change even in the Tacoma community?”

What we were trying to do, is connect community with this academic environment, but understand that this academic environment is part of the community as well, that people that get their degrees here, they’re working in the City Hall, they’re working jobs around in the community, or they’re going to go work jobs in the community. So it’s still community. And how can we come together to unify and get some things done, as well, such as serving in the community on a day like Martin Luther King Day?

People could say, “Well, Martin Luther King Day is a day off rather than a day on to serve the community.” So that’s what we wanted to change. But in that, we did feel some pushback, and we felt like that it was kind of minimizing an African American male who had given so much to America and so much to society at large. So, that’s one of the things. And with Lisa Rankin’s guidance on how to do it with tact, we were able to have some meetings with the higher-ups, like the Chancellor and some important people, to get things done. And then once we did that, everybody came to the table.

And so, we actually got Norm Rice as the first speaker, because we knew that he was skilled at bringing communities together. We did that in a quick amount of time. But in between, while we were on break, we were meeting with the Black Collective. We were presenting to the Black Collective. We were at the Urban League. We were at different places, saying, “This is what we want to do. And here’s the reason why.” And so the community came on board.

And then professors were actually sending students to the event. Maybe somebody like Dr. Ignacio was able to talk to faculty. Because people did respect Dr. Ignacio, no matter what their beliefs are or race and stuff. They respected her as a faculty member here. And then, there were some other people like Steve Smith that was over in Advancement. So a whole bunch of people had to come together to make it happen. But we also had to go to student organizations. So, having everybody at the table and having that support made a difference.

The good thing is, once everything was done, and they saw how successful it was, and we had a really good showing—because I think the first one we actually had at Mattress Factory. So you can imagine. It’s a small space, but there was like over 80 something people on that first one. But they came back, and they said, “You guys were right. You were right.” You know. “You’re right.” And some of my friends said, “Yeah, I was saying, don’t care, don’t matter. You know, don’t, why do you care? But I see why you care. This is really awesome.”

 

JOAN HUA
So today is January 22. And the last Unity Breakfast was this Monday, and you were there. How did that make you feel? It was kind of full circle for you also, but you’ve continued to say involved every year.

 

CHANA LAWSON
For me, it was great. Just seeing everybody in the room. I’m like, “Here we go again.”

And it’s supposed to happen this way, where you share your knowledge. Somebody picks that up, and then they do it, but they chart their course with it, but they keep the legacy going.

Every year this thing gets bigger. We went from the Longshoreman’s Hall. They had the Bill, William Philip Hall. We went there. Now we’re at the University Y, ’cause it’s just gotten bigger. And now it’s like, “Okay, we might have to go to the Convention Center this time,” you know. But it’s, it’s good to see that the Black Student Union continues that, and they continue to work with the university, and then that the community continues to support it.

I love that, knowing that, Wow. You start with something small. And it’s really bigger than yourself. And it just keeps going. And you don’t necessarily have to be all involved in it. It’s just going to keep going because you’ve already prepared people and left something that they can pick up and move with it.

[music]

 

LINDA HURLEY ISHEM
The black community in Tacoma or, you know, broadly—when I say Tacoma, I mean the greater Tacoma region—are very much invested in seeing our students succeed, right? And they express that through showing up for you know the MLK event or other kinds of sponsored events on the campus that are sponsored by these students. 

 

JOAN HUA [host]
This special audio story is produced and edited by Joan Hua for the
Founding Stories project at UW Tacoma Library. The music is by Chad Crouch, Loyalty Freak Music, Ava Luna, and Tchakare Kanyembe. The narrators names are Lisa Rankin Faircloth, Linda Hurley Ishem, Chana Lawson, and Jamie McGee.

The complete oral history interviews are archived in the Digital Collections of University of Washington Libraries, as part of the UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories project. You can listen to the full-length interviews there. 

UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories is a growing collection that captures the first-hand accounts and perspectives of individuals who played significant roles in the shaping of the campus community and identity.

 

Oral Histories

UW Tacoma Oral History: Founding Stories

Music

Chad Crouch, “The Ramble” and “Pacing” (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Loyalty Freak Music, “Hope and Love” (CC0)

Ava Luna, “Clips” (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Tchakare Kanyembe, “track 01” (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)

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