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November 2009 | Return to issue home
Meet Terryl Ross: Committed to Diversity
Terryl Ross, College of Education alum and director for Community and Diversity of Oregon State University, speaks with us about his work on issues of diversity.
A longtime Seattle-area educator and activist, Ross obtained his Ph.D. in educational communication and technology at the UW. With a strong background in public relations and film, he arrived eager to work with video as an educational tool, particularly for community colleges. And the field of education was a good fit.
Yet education wasn’t the natural choice. As he explains, before UW, he was conflicted about where to focus his career path. As the first black manager for the chamber of commerce, he felt conflicted about his position. "I realized that I was helping rich people get richer," Ross explains. "I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me or were from my background. So I did some soul-searching, turning to my dad for advice.
"Whenever I asked my dad for advice he gave me the same answer," Ross recalls. "He would say, 'It’s your life, son. Live it.'"
This request for advice was the only occasion when Ross’s father gave him a different answer. He said, "Education, son. Education. The greatest equalizer is everyone having an education."
A Vietnam vet who was struggling with cancer from Agent Orange, Ross’s father was a strong role model and an advocate for education. He had enrolled himself into higher education at age 55 and obtained his associates degree, which irrevocably changed him. It also altered Ross.
Ross states, "It changed the way he felt about himself. And it changed me to see that in him. But still, at the time, I thought education was the last thing I’d do. And yet here I am an educator."
Ross as a Student
After beginning his cohort classes at the College of Education in 1992, Ross realized that, "about a third of my classmates shared my personal commitment to social justice, to grass-roots activism and to shared dialogue around tough issues." Ross used his belief in the power of the Internet, which was slowly gaining recognition around campus, to connect people. It helped him to create a "de facto community" of like-minded, social-justice-oriented students.
"When you are committed to social justice you seek out other people," Ross explains. "We found that there really weren’t enough of us in any one college, so we created a community amongst ourselves, reaching out to people all over campus. One or two per department wasn’t a lot but when you put all of us together it was pretty powerful. Since I was on e-mail, I became a list-serv…people would e-mail me messages and I would forward them out to the group.”
In November 1994, Ross sent out a meeting invite to the group, asking them to gather on- campus for dialogue and discussion. The response was tremendous.
"The room was just packed," he recalls. "We had more people than the room could hold and we went around the room, introducing ourselves."
While some knew one another, the group was composed mainly of strangers, of people who knew one another as online names, but not as real faces, bodies or voices. They connected in that special meeting as they each shared their background, individual passions and one story about their UW experience.
"Nobody left," Ross recalls. "I will never forget that. Everyone stayed to hear each other’s story. We laughed and we cried. It was a strange moment because you had this immediate community with people you had never seen before. And that was the beginning."
The Beginning of What?
Ross is, perhaps, best remembered for his work on MOSAIC, the Multicultural Organization of Students Actively Involved in Change, a group that is credited for heralding diversity efforts at the University. In collaboration with many other groups like the Minority Think Tank and the Multicultural Alumni Partnership, MOSAIC championed the diversity cause at UW.
Ross recalls, "MOSAIC started out as a support group for people who felt homeless in their own departments. And then something powerful happened. It became a movement."
MOSAIC made great strides for diversity efforts. In its first year alone, MOSAIC co-sponsored the first annual UW Diversity Summit, co-sponsored the first annual Bridging the Gap Diversity Breakfast, presented a grant-writing workshop, and organized the first diversity event for then-new UW President Richard McCormick.
Ross was working hard to advance diversity on campus and he met regularly with McCormick and other administrators. "At the beginning, McCormick didn’t even like me" he chuckles. "But later everything changed in a really profound way. The administration went from seeing problems to seeing solutions.
"Personally, I think we wore them out," he continues. "I had been a student for so long, eight years at that point. One day I looked at him and said, 'You know, if I have to, I can stay here two more years. I just remember the look on his face.'"
According to Ross, what started as a support group had became the backbone of diversity efforts on campus. And it was all due to timing. As if predestined, the three MOSAIC leaders were on campus at the same time, ready to move forward together.
"The efforts came from the College of Education," Ross proudly states. "The three leaders were all College of Education students: Cynthia del Rosario, Jim Rodriguez and me. We had this amazing synergy that allowed us to be better than we were individually. We were quite different from each other and we used this to our advantage. We also worked well with the other diversity leaders on campus.
"And it worked. We did a lot of things to change the University. And I’m proud of the fact that people who were students with me at the time, Cynthia, Ed Taylor, Sheila Lange and Tom Halverson, are now leaders at the University."
Diversity on Trial
When asked what MOSAIC related experience influenced him the most, Ross quickly relates his anecdote about Diversity on Trial. William Lutz, UW junior and conservative UW Daily journalist, criticized McCormick’s stance on diversity and Ross responded. His response led to further dialogue in The Daily, after which Ross challenged Lutz to a moderated public debate.
"I never ever thought he would accept it," Ross recalls. "But he said yes so quickly. And I got scared—I had never debated anyone before."
The president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington moderated the debate, which centered on a theoretical affirmative action situation at a fictitious university. Read about the debate scenario and outcomes.
"It was a powerful event," Ross recalls. "And it was a good, fair debate, which changed both of us. I admired him for standing up for what he believed in. I thought he was a bigot and he wasn’t, he just had a very different perspective. And he respected us, even writing a letter to his conservative friends praising us for being so open-minded and criticizing them for not showing up and participating. It was a 'teachable moment' for me about the power of research, community, and dialogue."
Ross asserts that the I-200 issue in 1998 was another major point. Yet the pinnacle, he states, was the signing of the Diversity Compact in 2001, which has paved the way for current UW diversity efforts. Read about the Diversity compact or read Ross’ 2001 special article for The Daily on the Diversity Compact.
"At that point, McCormick got it, and it changed the UW forever." Ross recalls. "For example, we asked for one million dollars for diversity efforts. But he said, ’One million won’t do it, let’s make it 25 million.' It took us so long to reach that place but it worked, too bad we were not able to have one more year together. McCormick eventually saw us as allies. He gave me a gift before he left, which was a big deal for me personally."
So, Just What is Diversity Work?
When asked why diversity is such an important issue, Ross responds with care. "The biggest issue facing us today is not the economy, food production, oil or water," he states. "It is our inability to get along with each other. And the world hasn’t figured this out yet. It’s scary to me. We have enough food to feed everyone in the world but we don’t distribute it effectively based upon socio-political factors. For so many people diversity is about politically correctness, but soon we will all see, it’s really about survival.
"It’s a tremendous opportunity to be a diversity officer for a Pac-10 school," he continues. "I come from a poor, working-class, black family. I’m here to help people get along and it’s not about me. The thing that really motivates me the most is that I’ve seen the power of what happens when people come together—very few people have experienced what I experienced at UW."
Ross has footage of his time as a student, of MOSAICs efforts and the University’s response. This January he will launch his documentary footage, which chronicles an important segment in the history of diversity efforts at the University as well as Ross’s personal growth.
"It was a transformative experience for me," Ross solemnly states. "I came [to the UW] as a narrow-minded black nationalist and left as a fighter for social justice for all people."
Even now, Ross still has a call to arms for the University.
"The University of Washington has everything it needs to be an elite diversity institution," he states. "Yet one of the things it doesn’t have is an ethnic diversity course requirement. It’s the 21st century, you know, and every student needs to leave the UW knowing how these issues affect themselves and America."
November 2009 | Return to issue home