“No,” I told her, “I just feel like I’ll be able to do wonderful things there.”
Since coming to this school, I’ve never looked back. It quickly became apparent that the PLU community shared my passion for social justice. Early on I started spending time each week in the Diversity Center as a Rieke Scholar, facilitating conversations with my peers about issues relating to justice, privilege and equality. Through my time in the Diversity Center, I became introduced to numerous social issues to which I had previously never given much thought: immigration reform, LGBT rights, and socioeconomic inequality. At first it was overwhelming: how could I, one lone college student, make even a tiny dent in all the social injustices that seemed to keep piling themselves at my feet as quickly as I learned about them? Where was I to begin?
My first big step with the Diversity Center was planning for Tunnel of Oppression. Each year, a number of clubs and organizations on campus collaborate to put together Tunnel of Oppression, which is an event held in spring semester. For the event, each organization puts together a scene or visual display relating to a particular social justice issue that they are passionate about. These scenes are put together one after another to create an interactive exhibit in the Chris Knutzen Lecture Hall. On the day of Tunnel, students and community members are led through the long, winding maze of scenes, and through this experience they are given an opportunity to learn about different aspects of oppression, both on a local and global level.
My first year at PLU, the Rieke Scholars made me project coordinator for our Tunnel of Oppression scene. It was a responsibility I never imagined I would be given, especially as a freshman. We decided to focus our particular scene on the social stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the so-called “Parkland Youth”—the less-privileged teens living in the Parkland community, whose socioeconomic status often led to tension with students at PLU. Being able to attend a private four-year university is a social privilege that we need to recognize, and our Tunnel scene attempted to shed light on the economic inequalities that divide groups of people from one another. Living on the PLU campus, it is easy to take one’s privilege for granted; this sense of entitlement creates a mental separation from the community around us—a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “Lute-dome.”
Our scene for Tunnel of Oppression utilized actors to present scenarios in which PLU students came into contact with Parkland Youth; the subsequent interactions revealed the numerous stereotypes placed on the Parkland Youth by PLU students, and challenged viewers to re-examine the way they perceived members of the Parkland community. We wanted to create an experience that would bridge gaps by forcing PLU students to check their own privilege. On the day of Tunnel, a large group of students visited PLU from one of the local Parkland high schools in order to walk through the exhibit. I heard reports afterward that many of the high school students had been deeply moved by our scene, and that they wanted to keep coming back for Tunnel of Oppression every year.
This is the kind of change we aim to make as Rieke Scholars: taking small steps toward creating a more unified, socially conscious community. But the scope of Tunnel does not just encompass Parkland. Tunnel scenes focus on national and global injustices as well as issues close to home. Last year I recall PLU’s Latinos Unidos club created a powerful scene which depicted an undocumented immigrant being deported and separated from her family. This year the Queer Ally Student Union is preparing a scene exploring the challenges faced by LGBT athletes and their teammates in the Sochi Winter Olympics. Oppression takes countless different forms, and the importance of Tunnel is that it introduces PLU students to new issues with which they may not have previously been familiar. Creating awareness is the first step toward enacting positive change in the world, and my experience with the Diversity Center and Tunnel of Oppression have strengthened my desire to reach out to my community and invite them to be part of the change.