Students of color are often lumped into a single category without recognizing their differences. So it takes extra effort to identify their unique experiences on a campus as diverse as Oregon State.
Helping people understand and accept different perspectives is how Luhui Whitebear is building a community where all students, staff and faculty can feel welcome.
“I want people to feel really connected to OSU,” Whitebear says. Her efforts to make connections, particularly her advocacy in reclaiming indigenous identity, was recognized with the Outstanding Diversity Advocate Award at the annual University Day celebration in September.
As assistant director of the Native American Longhouse Eena Haws, one of seven cultural centers on campus, Whitebear is the only staff person whose full-time job is working with indigenous students.
It’s a step forward from what Whitebear experienced when she arrived at Oregon State as the first person in her family to attend college in 1998. Communication was strained when people didn’t understand or accept her cultural viewpoint.
“Sometimes, I felt really shut down,” she recalls. “What I needed to know was that I belonged.”
Whitebear earned a degree in ethnic studies in 2003, then worked for 10 years as a college advisor for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. During that time, she earned a second bachelor’s degree in anthropology online through Oregon State’s Ecampus.
In 2013, she returned to Oregon State to work at the longhouse and complete a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. Now she’s finishing a Ph.D. program in women, gender and sexuality studies. Her research focuses on intergenerational storytelling within indigenous activist circles.
Whitebear says even within a culture, perceptions can be shaped by dominant voices. One heartbreaking example is how federal laws and policies quell the response by law enforcement to violence against indigenous women. Whitebear’s testimony about the problem led to the passage of legislation earlier this year requiring Oregon State Police to conduct closer investigations of missing and murdered indigenous women.
As she finishes her dissertation, Whitebear is mindful of the example she’s setting. “I am doing this for our community,” she says.
Because advocacy isn’t telling someone what to think or say. It’s empowering people to find their own voice and teaching them how to use it.