Posted April 20, 2016 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

Day of Absence & Day of Presence

Students Engage in Conversations About Race and Racism as Part of Annual Event

By Chloe Marina Manchester

On April 6, Students, staff, and faculty celebrated the annual Evergreen Day of Absence event, followed two days later by its counterpart, Day of Presence. These events were created to address issues of race, inclusion, diversity, privilege, and allyship on the Evergreen campus and beyond.

For Day of Absence faculty, staff, and students of color were invited to the Lacey Community Center to participate in a full day of educational programs and workshops designed to address social issues around race from the perspectives of people of color. The activities included a wide variety of offerings including a journaling workshop on the theme “the complexity of belonging,” a capoeira workshop, and small-group discussion titled “empowering ourselves and mentoring others.” The events in Lacey ended with a keynote address by Leticia Nieto, an artist and faculty member at St. Martin’s College. Nieto’s address focused on the transformation of social identity from a state of marginalization to one of belonging.

On campus there was a similar full day program designed to address allyship and anti-racism from a majority culture or white perspective. While these events were geared toward white students, and because some people may not completely identify with a single racial group, students were invited to go to whichever event they would feel most comfortable attending.  Evergreen alum Dalya Perez led a workshop called “We Don’t Fit into One Box: The Politics and History of Mixed Race Identity,” at both sets of programming, which discussed the social and cultural challenges faced by those with multiracial backgrounds

The events at Evergreen included a workshop that explored race the United States Constitution, led by Evergreen faculty Helena Meyer-Knapp; as well as a session on racism in art history taught by Evergreen visual arts professor Lisa Sweet. The on-campus events ended with a screening and discussion of the film “Selma.”

On Day of Presence, the campus came back together as a community to attend more workshops and lectures designed to honor the diversity on this campus. Among those present for these events was Dr. Maxine Mimms, a renowned educator, former assistant director of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, and co-founder of Evergreen’s Tacoma Program. She was interviewed (a term she viewed rather loosely) by the director of the Evergreen TRiO program, Felix Braffith.

Mimms was seated on a couch, something she loved because her friend and well known poet, Maya Angelou, would always have a couch at events. Mimms requested to have Evergreen president George Bridges come out of the audience and sit next to her both to create “equivalence” between her and Bridges, a white man, and because she wanted closeness with another person. Mimms said that we (all people younger than her) have forgotten the importance of touch, of closeness. She says that education only uses seeing and hearing but that we need to “start touching each other, to increase that sense.”

The Evergreen Day of Absence was started as a grassroots collective action by Evergreen faculty and staff of color in the early 1970s, thanks in particular to the efforts of Ernest “Stone” Thomas, who would go on to become Dean of Student Development.

Over the years it grew to become a day for all members of the community, no matter what race, to explore and discuss issues around race and anti-racist action as well as celebrate the diversity of our world and the Evergreen community. In 1992, Day of Presence was added to bring the Evergreen community back together to honor unity and difference as a whole campus.

The original concept behind Day of Absence comes from a play of the same name by African American playwright, Douglas Turner Ward. This was presented in 1965 as a “reverse minstrel show,” in which black actors wore whiteface as a social commentary on race relations in the United States.

The play satirized the American South’s refusal to see African Americans as equal members of the community. In the play, the people of a southern town wake up to find all of the African American community members gone, leaving everyone else to face what life would be like without those important members of their community. Day of Absence mimics this, encouraging white students to discuss race, and work toward dismantling racism.