When voices are missing from any conversation, a vital method of learning is missing, too.
“I really believe the best environment is heterogeneous,” says Maria McLeod, an assistant professor of Journalism at Western Washington University.
“On any given topic, people bring their own experiences to the conversation. That's how we learn. Everyone addresses a topic differently. A heterogeneous campus, a heterogeneous classroom is really important to me as a teacher. We need their voices in the classroom; they're part of the curriculum.”
McLeod has been trying this past year to find missing voices and reinsert them into conversations. She created and produced “First Person: Diverse Student Stories,” a series of monologues using the words of real Western students. A companion project featured photos of students and highlights of their stories; those were posted to Western’s Facebook page.
Support for the project came from a Spratlen Diversity and Inclusion Grant, established in 2014 by Thaddeus Spratlen to fund work that promotes a broader range of voices and experiences at the university.
Spratlen was motivated both by a desire to honor his late wife, Lois Price Spratlen, and to give back to a community that welcomed his family with open arms when they arrived at Western in 1961.
Progress toward a more diverse and supportive community is a hot topic around campus. All year, for example, students, faculty and staff in the Teaching-Learning Academy have been addressing the question “How do we move beyond conversation to achieve self-sustaining equity and inclusivity at Western?”
“I hear all the time at Western, ‘What do we need to do?’ ” McLeod says. “Truly, students say, ‘I want to be heard. Even if people don’t agree with me, I want them to hear my story.’ ”
When others know they exist, students feel more like people, she says. Like they matter.
“They feel like they belong,” she says. “Like people are listening and paying attention.”
Spratlen says that’s exactly what he hoped would happen in funding the grant.
“It should foster support for appreciating and accepting differences as cultural norms,” he says.
Lois Price Spratlen, who died in 2013, had a long and distinguished career at the University of Washington. A professor of psychosocial nursing, she became university ombudsman for sexual harassment in 1982. In 1988, she became the first woman, African American and nurse to serve as university ombudsman, a role she held until 2009.
Thad Spratlen joined the UW faculty in 1972 as the first Black faculty member of the Foster School of Business. He established the school’s Consulting and Business Development Center in 1995, which among other things studies minority- and woman-owned businesses and increases employment opportunities in underserved communities by supporting small businesses. The center’s Minority Business Executive Program is one of just three in the country. He retired as a professor emeritus of Marketing in 2002.
But the time the Spratlens spent at Western and in Bellingham — with their five children — always stuck with the family as an important part of their history. The couple’s three daughters (Pamela, Pat and Paula) all attended Campus School. It had closed by the time the sons (Thadd and Townsand) were in elementary school.
“That was a transformative decade for me personally and professionally,” Spratlen says. “I have a great deal of attachment to and appreciation for Western regarding my hiring in 1961 and through the 1960s supporting my development and career as a professor.”
Spratlen taught business and economics at Western for nearly a decade. He was the first male Black professor at the university, he says (Eunice Faber, the first Black female professor, taught Spanish from 1959 to 1984). It was a time in the country when adding a person of color to the faculty was as likely as not to cause protests, he says.
“But we had the opposite of protests,” he says. “We were welcomed. President (James) Jarrett, Dean (Herb) Taylor and others actually showed up to help us move in. We definitely had positive experiences that were not typical of what African Americans experienced back then.”
That’s why he wants to continue to see Western grow, to continue to realize the promise it has shown since those days of the 1960s. Spratlen sees a Western “that reaches out past group differences, whatever they may be, toward greater understanding and appreciation.”
“If you look back over the years at the university, Western has always had a willingness to take on multicultural perspectives,” he adds. “Western also over the years has been very accepting of innovation and change. I hope that over time, this grant can grow into something that will support many different forms of diversity and inclusion.”