With a name more fitting for an old-world military general than a professor whose focus lies on civil rights, Winston Cornwall teaches only one class at Oregon State University: Civil Rights and Multicultural Issues in Education. His booming voice and friendly demeanor lend themselves to blowing up the walls surrounding discussion about racism, sexual assault, and a whole host of other issues falling under the umbrella of civil rights. In the wake of events like the Charleston shooting, which can seem far away in sleepy Corvallis, his class is even more valuable. “With tragedies like Charleston, it can be easier to ignore than to confront,” Cornwall said. “But in our class, we’re constantly asking folks, ‘What would you do in the context of education?’ ‘What would you do if you knew the victims?’”
While most of his time is spent serving as the Oregon Department of Education’s civil rights specialist, Cornwall carves out time in his schedule to teach the class every academic term, and he doesn’t appear to be retiring in the near future. Nearly 60 students take the class each term and enrollment continues to grow. “We have football players and soft-spoken teachers-in-training grouping up, students all over the map,” Cornwall said. Though it is only a requirement for those within the College of Education, the increased interest in the class spreads mostly through word of mouth.
Taking the class is a surprising academic experience, where student perspectives are valued as much as that of the professor’s. Classes often include panels consisting of students within the class who identify with marginalized groups. Panels consisting of students of color, females, alter-abled students, and LGBTQ students share their experiences regarding the challenges and dangers they face while fielding questions from the rest of the class. Cornwall sees immense value in including these student panels. “This is a student-centered and student-directed class where we hope to build a learning community where we’re all teaching each other. We’re in an academic environment where we have a lot of literature and we’re used to studying literature,” he said. “It’s one thing to read about the disadvantaged or harassment and discrimination, it’s another thing for someone to say they were sexually assaulted at a party and have many of their peers identify with this.” This can be very difficult for students as the discussions are often candid and uncensored. In one class, two students got into a heated argument and only minutes later embraced each other while crying. Emotions tend to run high as people slowly let down their defenses in a classroom environment carefully crafted to be simultaneously free and safe.
Though the course framework and syllabus is concerned specifically with multicultural issues and civil rights in the classroom, contemporary events are often discussed during the three-hour class. Cornwall believes that these events help solidify the overarching themes of the class in the minds of students. “First, we look at the law. Next, we look at intent and impact while separating facts from assumptions and opinions,” he said.
It is common for discussions to center around appropriate actions to take in the face of discrimination. Though student responses are myriad, Cornwall is happy to see an increase in understanding as the norm: “Early on, people’s actions are based predominantly on their experiences. But as they move through the class, they become more based on legal reference, on ascertaining facts, and on the experiences of their peers. We’re trying to utilize the expertise of the individuals in our class who may have similarities to the people impacted in places like Ferguson or Baltimore.”
Whether or not there are individuals in the class during a particular term that are able to help clarify certain issues, community centers within the university’s office of Diversity and Cultural Engagement are more than happy to assist. Groups such as OSU’s Pride Center are regular guests in the class.
With discussion sometimes touching on ethical basics like the Golden Rule, some of the lessons may appear elementary to some observers. However, according to Cornwall, roughly two-thirds of students who take the class have never had an instructor of color before. Rural Oregon’s monochromatic nature poses a challenge in a class where the ethos is understanding.
Through his position at the Oregon Department of Education, Cornwall is also the principal investigator and mediator for civil rights complaints. As part of the investigation and mediation process, he finds himself going to the communities where complaints arise. Many of his experiences in this capacity help reinforce for his students the notion that civil rights in our own state are a constant concern within our schools. Stories of Jewish students having property defaced with swastikas, Latino students being told to “go back to their own country,” and many other forms of harassment taking place in schools throughout the state show why civil rights are indeed a concern in Oregon’s schools.
When asked, Cornwall sounded generally optimistic about what the next couple of years of civil rights would look like here in Oregon. But before we parted ways, he shared a quote from Andrew Young (M.L.K. Lieutenant, U.N. Ambassador):
“We have come so far, yet we still have a long, long way to go.”
By Matt Walton