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Open Letter to The Evergreen State College

A proposal to advance Evergreen’s commitment to learning and co-creating across significant differences in the globalized world through the Critical Edge Alliance & Critical Edges.

Introduction by the Editorial Board

Our friends Phelan and Thea first wrote this letter together two years ago in September, when Phelan was teaching in China, Thea having graduated from Evergreen State College and before leaving for China. They have experienced a volatile phase in the US and on campus, with people winning and losing while fighting for their ideas. They, like many other students, also witnessed how Evergreen’s status as a progressive critical college has been changing and might be becoming something less than its ideals. In this letter, they wrote down their analysis of the crisis at Evergreen and a potential way forward by building strong ties with critical students and universities internationally, to strengthen and revive Evergreen’s mission so as it stays relevant to our time and enables students to build a possible better future. 

We think this is an important letter to share with students, faculty, and staff in other Critical Edge Alliance (CEA) universities, as they experience internal and external struggles similarly. We hope that the CEA members can discuss the changing environments, nationally and internationally, that affect their universities and find ways forward together!


Social justice, internationalization, and Evergreen State College’s mission

Article by Phelan Okeson and Thea Pan

Purpose of this proposal

We are writing this proposal to you on behalf of students and faculty who wish to see more vibrant exchanges and collaborations between Evergreen and the international academic and cultural communities. We first share our understanding of Evergreen’s mission and argue that it calls for an internationalization in a globalized era. Then we explain in more detail the existing challenges, opportunities, preparations, and proposed steps to advance Evergreen’s commitment to learning and co-creating across significant differences in the globalized world through the Critical Edge Alliance & Critical Edges. 

Evergreen’s mission today

Not just another four-year College:

Evergreen was founded in a void of higher education in Washington to be “escape the bounds of tradition in order to create a new and different option” (Planning for the Evergreen archive). In response to the rapid social changes in the 1960s, the founders did not want to create just another copy of the “neat and tidy” a 4-year higher education institution, but an institution that could respond to the society through its education process. Evergreen was created to evolve and innovate to meet the new demands of different times and the future, without being restricted in “any rigid structure of tradition.” While we uphold Evergreen’s core tenets around social justice, commitment to local and global social justice, diversity, environmental stewardship and service in the public interest, we need to reflect critically on Evergreen’s current practices to examine if they still meet the challenges of our current time.

Globalization has linked all our local communities into an interconnected global community. We no longer can only focus on local systems to make sense of our societies, we must see and live beyond the immediate to understand the complex causes, realities, and problems of the global web of interconnections. As Evergreen’s recent vision goes: “Our model of learning prepares students for the way the world happens now, layering academic disciplines so students can focus on how they want to uniquely impact our ever-changing world.” In order for Evergreen’s education to be relevant to our times, it has to embody international perspectives―knowledge, theory, and practice―as well as the lived-experiences of the members of the institution and their greater global community. Adding this global lens would help enrich Evergreen’s interdisciplinary pedagogy, enhance Evergreen’s commitment to serve both a local and global community, and further enable students and faculty to grow and innovate from engaged learning across significant differences.

Beyond just faculty, students have played a powerful role in shaping the college’s spirit and life. They have taken their ideas and knowledge about the world and engaged in student activism across the world, pushed for institutional changes and creations, brought energy and activities to the campus, and created rich and authentic learning communities. When we ask ourselves, what Evergreen should evolve into in the 21 centuries, it is vital to include the young minds and actions of the students to contour and enrich Evergreen’s essence and life. 

Students in the Evergreen Multicultural Scholars Program take a class led by faculty Chico Herbison. The two-credit program is a week-long pre-orientation session that focuses on issues of race, diversity, equity, privilege and allyship. (2015)

Concerns seen by students

Some critical challenges: 

Whether within academia or without, we live in a highly divisive climate in a highly divisive world. This led to a clash between student protesters and the administration last Spring. Both liberal and conservative media latched on to these events not to understand or report them, but to use them as a tool to promote their agenda, amplifying the two sides and characterizing events dramatically. Regardless of the truth or authenticity of this reporting the result has been a devaluation of Evergreen in the public’s eyes and a dip in enrollment.

In a national climate where there is growing skepticism towards liberal arts education this threatens not only the school but its underlying pedagogy and belief in education that is student-centered and emphasizes the development of character and life skills as opposed to technical skills that serve only employment and business interests.

The fate of the college is now uncertain. To continue to champion liberal arts, student-centered learning and interdisciplinary education. Evergreen needs both to reaffirm its commitment to its core values to maintain its traditional support base and to rebrand itself in order to attract new enrollment and ease the skepticism of an establishment critical of progressive education. 

We, as students, have observed that a fair number of Evergreen students sometimes experience frustrations, disenchantment, or a deep sense of confusion despite the abundant and inspiring academic programs, the creative and caring faculty, and the various academic support services. Something is lacking in Evergreen’s institutionalized learning process that could further awaken students’ sense of purpose and engage students intellectually, socially, and emotionally in the learning process. This reality hinders students to thrive in Evergreen’s unique environment or to find their path to create impacts for the public interest in a fast complex and changing world. 

Evergreen’s academic programs provide less and less opportunities for students to learn about international history, culture, politics, or language. international programs have served as important windows for Evergreen students to learn about the experience, the diversity and the complexity of the world. These programs, however, have been shrinking as the faculty teaching them retire and their positions remain unfilled. This lack of internationalism limits us to only an American perspective. Even if we are trying to capture the perspectives of minority communities and cultures within America, we are all subject to the same fundamental national culture.

International presence and minority students on Campus:

Evergreen has a small base of international students. While the school itself is small, their number seems disproportionately low. While the College has made extraordinary efforts to support and create opportunities for minority students to thrive. There are less explicit efforts tailored to the international minority students. The current reality is that international students come to Evergreen to “enjoy” the unique academic experience, and in the larger cultural context consuming the US culture. The College has little explicit processes or opportunities for international students to bring out what they could offer to the community culturally, academically, or professionally. This implies insufficient educational design in which international students could become better ambassadors of their background and facilitators for meaningful exchanges. This also means we have untapped potential for building more intentional and inclusive community that allows US and international students to engage in deeper exchanges, learn from each other, and build new understandings.

At Evergreen, even though we emphasize celebrating cultural diversity and learning from one another. There lack sufficient opportunities for students from different backgrounds to truly see each other. Such a lack of cultural encounters determines that students are rarely confronted with a situation where they can to put their words into practice and engage with individuals from other national cultures. Without this, students cannot open up to the foreign and make it not foreign, but familiar, albeit different. This engagement is necessary to overcome implicit biases and misconception. 

Beyond the interaction of members of American and other national cultures, there is the further layer of interaction between international and minority students. Just as our perceptions of other nations are colored by stereotypes, media representations and a deceptively monolithic view, international students may have little to no authentic exposure to the experiences of minorities in America. By enhancing international dialogue, we can build better understanding between ethnic groups based on friendship and shared experiences. In this respect, we have unexplored but meaningful experiences of cultural encounters which could be subject for research and education around the topic of inclusivity and multicultural education.

Opportunities with the Critical Edge Alliance

Evergreen helped initiate and became a partner in the Critical Edge Alliance in 2014. The CEA, at its core represents all the fundamental values of Evergreen: a commitment to social justice, student-centered learning, interdisciplinary teaching and research, and intercultural discourse. The Alliance also represents a true breadth of perspectives, encompassing a plurality of nations of radically different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and education systems from 5 continents. 

The CEA serves as the rigorous base of a global, critical academic network in which creative, experimental and scholarly research, and action-oriented projects can emerge from faculty, students and administrators. Various stakeholder at Evergreen have been engaged over the past several years trying to share knowledge, start collaborations, build networks, attend conferences, co-create curricula and engage in other experimental exchanges. One of CEA’s explicit goals is to share increase cross-campus collaborations on various levels and raise their visibility to the international community, allowing them to become trans-national collaborative ventures.

If Evergreen faculty and students start to connect more deeply with colleagues within the Alliance, we could instigate unprecedented diversity, creativity and collaboration in terms of curricula, pedagogy, knowledge, methodology, and student participation. The CEA network is a valuable opportunity for Evergreen to embrace a global community, gain new insights on its local realities, go beyond previous limitations, open up new possibilities, learn new modes of inquiry, and find like minded comrades to work on meaningful projects. On a practical level, this means finding tested, innovative practices for institutional improvement on college level, discovering new connections for research and knowledge production for faculty, and opening to a broader world for the personal development and learning of students.

Evergreen State College’s Tacoma Campus in the 1970’s.

Actions and Challenges

Student-led Engagement: 

Over the course of the past two years we, students from four CEA universities, created a student-driven international magazine, Critical Edges. Our vision is to open a window for students around the world to see and know each other through sharing experienced and ideas, as well as question the possibilities of our education and look for ways to improve it. We have established an editorial board, release schedules and meeting times. We have outreached to contributors and published and distributed a magazine both online and physically in multiple countries. In order to carry this project forward students have had to learn a great deal of project management and coordinating skills, involving collaboration by citizens with different software systems, languages, and local time zones. The act of collaborating has required of us the very self-driven skills that Evergreen rightly prides itself on instilling in its students.

Faculty-led Engagement

Evergreen faculty has contributed enormously through the innovation of their academic programs. They have brought their pedagogical practices and research to share with the CEA community and inspired students and faculty alike. As just one example, Evergreen’s Gateways for Incarcerated Youth has been promoted as one of the alternative approaches for inspiration on CEA’s website. In addition, there have been faculty exchanges thoroughly the CEA network through which faculty play important roles in sharing knowledge and experiences to facilitate new learning. Lastly, some faculty, although they did not participate in the conferences or exchanges, have supported students in their programs to embark on an international learning journey, or allowed them to pursue personalized learning goals that let them work with the CEA network and imitate projects.

Administration Support 

Evergreen’s administration has demonstrated consistent and sincere support in building and promoting the CEA and its student magazine. It was Evergreen’s Dean of International Studies who helped started this Alliance. There have been financial awards for students and funds for faculty to attend annual conferences and Evergreen’s students and faculty appreciate these opportunities. However, so far there is no formalized processes that enable faculty and students to engage with the CEA network or build new paths for collaboration, exchanges, and knowledge production. Perhaps there are ideas and interests, but people don’t know how to turn those ideas into realities without institutional support.

Challenges 

At Evergreen, this alliance does not have a formal place in the Evergreen structure, has no budget and relies almost entirely on students and faculty acting above and beyond the mandate of their roles at the school. The lack of a clear budget and funding, and of official support for publicity and recognition, has created difficulties in raising awareness and involving more community members in this international venture.

We have noticed an apparent lack of interest and motivation in international educational experiences by many students and faculty. This could result from many complex reasons. Foremost could be a lack of awareness. Students may know generally of the existence of opportunities but lack a sufficient sense for them to identify an interest or a means of financial assistance to make them accessible. Likewise, faculty may feel unprepared for the leap teaching with a global community may require. We need to make both aware of the breadth of opportunities and the financial tools to make them achievable as well as the benefits these opportunities and experiences can bring them. We need to find ways to stimulate the community’s curiosity, interest, and attention towards a broader international community and engage them in a richer, more diverse, and courageous academic praxis. 

The students of Andean Roots: Linguistics and Ecological Agriculture in Peru practice unit and currency conversions in preparation for a class trip to Peru. They also practiced taking measurements in metric units. (2017)

Call for Action

Our Proposal

We suggest the College make a commitment to providing adequate support increase CEA’s visibility among faculty and students, and to make the passionate effort of the students and faculty involved in this project sustainable. This could include an officially incorporated point person to share updates, make announcement, conduct outreach, build networks and so on. As the CEA now mandates each member college identify a student representative, creating a student position for this work would be ideal. Another aspect would be financial and/or credit support to recognize faculty/student work. 

We suggest Evergreen faculty and students build an Evergreen CEA community and stay connected to the global community. Faculty, students, and the student magazine who have participated in the CEA could be the starting base of this community. Right now while there are a number of involved members there is not a regular office, meeting place or schedule of events, other than magazine publication and annual conferences. By building such an CEA community within Evergreen, members could start having more regular conversation, create shared goals, and build processes to allow for more collaborative curricular action projects with the larger CEA network. 

We suggest formalizing a process through which faculty and students could start collaborative curricula, projects, and research with the CEA network. The Critical Edges has served as liaison to a point but have not been able to put out general calls to faculty, announce events or dialogue with the community of staff at Evergreen at large in the way that we would like to. Some schools have begun to run join classes and seminars on a preliminary basis, but unfortunately thus far Evergreen is not part of them. We want to explore suitable academic processes in Evergreen for faculty and students to solicit ideas, make connections, build joint projects, get approved, and implement projects with other CEA institutions. This will also partly depend on whether the CEA also has a process for connections across institutions. So, Evergreen should coordinate with CEA to design a complete process. 

What We Will Provide:

  • An opportunity for the school to invigorate its mission and revive the creative potential of its faculty and students through discourse with a like-minded global community. with something new, novel, timely and positive opening up a whole new area of action for the school, but at the same time reaffirm all of Evergreens core values and enabling them to be put into practice on a hitherto unheard of scale.
  • Passionate student volunteers to help, facilitate and identify other interested students and faculty, conduct research, build connections, engage in conversations, and suggest potential institutional processes. We hope our own costs and lost time can hopefully be offset by the grants we ourselves will be pursuing.
  • Tangible benefits in the forms of a magazine in the short term, and an academic journal (an allowance for this has already been approved at another school), joint research on important global topics, and meaningful learning opportunities both for the students and faculty.

September 18, 2018

The Evergreen State College

Dancers gather outside at the Longhouse Carving Studio Grand Opening Celebration (2012)

About the Authors

Thea Pan comes from People’s Republic of China and graduated from the Evergreen State College in 2018. Her passion lies in studying the history, systems, and philosophy, and innovative approaches of education, as well as practicing action-oriented, inclusive, and critical pedagogy to build new relationships between people which is different from that of a traditional banking model of education. She is a co-founder of Critical Edges, and is currently a student of Education at Oulu University in Finland.


Phelan Okeson comes from the USA and graduated from Evergreen State College in 2017.
Since graduation he has been living and working in the People’s Republic of China in an attempt to broaden his cultural understanding. Most recently he began teaching at an ethnic minority-serving college in Hubei province, where he hopes to do research on the language and culture of the local non-Han peoples. He is a co-founder of Critical Edges.

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