Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 13, 2022

A quarter century with Riverways

Interview by Danielle Marie Holland

Photo of Christine Stickler standing in front of rainbow-colored butterfly wings.

Christine Stickler, retiring director of Riverways Education Partnerships

After 25 years of service to the University of Washington and our local and statewide communities, Christine Stickler will be retiring July 2022. Stickler, founder and director of Riverways Education Partnerships, has transformed the learning and growth of countless students, connecting over 1,000 UW students with thousands of students in rural and tribal communities across Washington state. Riverways Education Partnership is a K-12 outreach program, and part of the Community Engagement and Leadership Education (CELE) Center, where programs are centered around community-engaged learning, democratic engagement, leadership education, student success and place-based initiatives.

In the past two+ decades, Stickler has created pathways connecting 10,000 UW students with tutoring and mentoring opportunities in K-12 schools and organizations to address inequities in education. She has strengthened bridges between the UW and community colleges through the Riverways Guides program connecting Native UW students with Native youth to envision pathways toward higher education through community college. With unwavering commitment and steadfast vision, she has built dynamic partnerships including Neah Bay Elementary School where storytelling and digital literacy are used to support students in imagining their futures.

As Stickler prepares to retire from Riverways Education Partnerships, she shares her thoughts on her accomplishments as director, the transformation of undergraduates through the outreach program, and the enduring impact of relationships and storytelling.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It has changed me in every way you can imagine

How has the experience and work of Riverways Education Partnerships impacted and changed you?

It has changed me in every way you can imagine. I became aware of the amazing state that we live in. I spent the last 25 years traveling to remote, rural and tribal communities getting to know the community members. The reason the program is as strong as it is today, is because relationships were formed. I’ve been the incredibly fortunate recipient of the friendships that come from going back to community. That’s number one. Number two is the chance to have worked with literally thousands of undergraduate students who have been drawn to a program that said, “Do you want to experience life outside of Seattle? Do you want to experience what it means to travel to a tribal community and learn from the people that live there?”

A quick story about Pipeline

Riverways was formerly called the Pipeline Project. We got the name 25 years ago as part of an initial funding grant from Coca-Cola. After 20 years, the name had too much connotation to the school-to-prison pipeline. We worked with First Nation students and with Tami Hohn, a Native language and law professor at UW. Tammy came up with the name Riverways, which we all absolutely loved. It’s beautiful.

Then there was Riverways

I think of all the undergraduates that I’ve been able to meet, have them do the experience, who then came back to be a team leader. Many of those students are now close friends of mine — my life has been changed by the people that I’ve met. I’ve gotten to work with some incredible colleagues at the University of Washington, [including] community partners, UW alumni and colleagues that have enriched my life and shown me things I never would have dreamed of.

And the K-12 students! In 2006 I met Auston Jimmicum, member of the Makah Tribe, in our Neah Bay program when he was in elementary school. Auston came to UW as a freshman, became part of the Neah Bay: Telling our Stories Program and went back to his community. Now he’s in law school at the University of Idaho.

When I think about it, the bittersweet part about retiring is that I feel I’ve had one of the best jobs in the world. I’ve loved it. I’ve been able to show my passion and have a way for that passion to develop and be nurtured. I don’t know how many people can say that about their jobs. I feel blessed.

How has the program evolved over the years?

We’ve connected on a deeper level with American Indian Studies Program and Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies (CAIIS). Their support has meant the world to us. With funding from CAIIS we started the Riverway Guides program. We’ve been able to hire Native UW students, previously community college students, who mentor kids in tribal communities. They encourage them to consider community college as a pathway to higher ed. That idea came to be because of our relationship with CAIIS and the AISP. We also have had an amazing partnership over the past 16 years with Polly Olson, tribal liaison at the Burke Museum. She introduced us to the Yakama Nation. These partnerships have grown over the years and have enriched the program. Not only do we have really strong partnerships now, but we have built solid funding.

I believe with all my heart that the relationships form the basis of the work.

What do you see as the current state of educational justice and where things are moving?

One of our goals was looking at issues of educational inequity anywhere we found it and trying to be part of the solution or part of the resources going towards dealing with those issues of inequity. In Seattle, it was targeting schools that had the lowest test scores and the least access to resources. Around the state, we learned by our travels to rural and tribal communities. What we are asked to address when we go into those districts is the idea of making sure there’s no barriers in the minds of the kids we’re working with, that they have a pathway that could lead them to higher ed if that’s what they choose to do, and that there are resources to support them. That if they do come to the University of Washington, resources like First Nations and the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House will provide them a home away from their communities.

Can you speak to a highlight you’ve had in collaboration with undergrads?

Staying around for 25 years, one of the beautiful things about it is that I’ve had a number of students who did the program as elementary school students out in rural tribal schools and ended up at UW. That said, this program had such an impact on me, I want to be part of it and go back out. One of our alternative spring break programs, Literacy Arts, is where students go into the community for a week and help kids write stories and publish a book about identity and place. I’ve had undergraduates come up to me and go, I still have my book!

Right now we are in the midst of putting out the magazine for this year, themed “A Poem Is a Possibility.”
We were able to work with Washington state poet laureate, Rena Priest, who is just amazing. She trained the UW students on how to do poetry with youth in a way that they didn’t even know they were writing poems! It was just beautiful!

The incredible richness we have in this state

I believe we’re at a very exciting time. In the last three or four years, I’ve seen a seismic shift towards recognizing the importance of the incredible richness we have in this state. Recognizing the Indigenous and rural communities. We now have more outside funding and University attention. My goal was that my legacy would be that the person that came into this job would not have to struggle for funding and would be able to just focus on the work, so we’re in a better place today than we’ve ever been in 25 years.

The importance of stories

What are you most excited about in this next adventure in your life?

My passion is writing with kids and helping kids to discover the amazing voice they have. So my dream is, I want to see if in six months or so I could possibly write a grant and work with arts organizations to get a mobile publishing center. An RV that would go around to rural and tribal communities and help kids publish their writings.I am also really excited about doing some arts and writing activities with refugee immigrant communities here in Seattle. Art and writing is what I want to do. One of the things I’ve learned so powerfully over the years is that people are desperate to tell their stories, and don’t have the chance or opportunity to do it.

I just feel blessed that I have had a program that has allowed so many people to find that place, to share their voice and to share their story.