Tara Perry and the Strength of Community
This is the last of four articles as the campus celebrates Equity and Inclusion Month and the launch of the Equity and Inclusion Forum; seminars and offerings from the forum facilitators will run throughout the school year. For more information on workshop times and schedules, see the link at the end of this article.
How many times can you hear your teachers say “you’re not good enough” or “you’re not smart enough” before you finally start to believe them?
Tara Perry, an associate professor of Communication Studies at Western and one of the facilitators of the campus Equity and Inclusion Forum workshop series, said her entire life has been about rebuffing the doubters around her, from day one.
For Perry, growing up in Montreal with her four siblings, giving in to these words, whispered to her time and time again by those in positions of influence around her – the people tasked with helping use education and the gift of learning to lift up the lives of their students – would have been easy to do, but her mother would have none of it.
“She raised the five of us on her own, and there was never any time when we were allowed to feel sorry for ourselves. We were told to be proud of who we were, to feel that we were beautiful, and to celebrate our blackness and not run from it,” she said.
Perry says a typical school day usually included name-calling and often having to fight her way home through groups of bullies.
“I received racial taunts every day for years. It takes a toll, yes it does,” she said, and even today those memories still trigger tears.
“We’d be so upset, and my mother would have to go in to the school and talk to the administrators about how other children were always fighting with us … and she took every one of those visits as an opportunity to tell them how racism and discrimination were alive and well at their school,” she said. “Most of them didn’t listen.”
Things eventually got better with most of her classmates, and she was able to develop a crucial life skill of finding “real friends” – people with whom she is still close today. Perry, whose mother is from Antigua and father is from Guyana, brought friends to her house and introduced them to aspects of her African-Caribbean heritage they didn’t even know existed, and it helped forge many bonds which have lasted for her entire adult life.
She didn’t know it then, but these were the seminal acts of an ongoing quest that pushes her to this day – the power of building community.
“Understanding each other – building a group that recognizes the true power of our differences – is a part of everything I bring into the classroom,” she said. “Leaving incorrect or stereotypical perceptions at the door and really finding out for yourself what someone is all about is my focus, and that comes from the reality that so few people were willing to do that for me when I was young.”
Perry said that when she got home from school, first she did her school homework and then she did the homework her mother gave her.
“She would buy workbooks and lessons for us to do. She knew that we needed to learn more, to do more and be better … the playing field wasn’t level and she knew it,” Perry said.
The work ethic instilled by her mother and her genuine joy of learning – she still takes community college classes that she finds interesting – pushed a young Tara Perry out of high school and into college at a far-flung campus in Bellingham, Washington – light years away from the East Coast but just a stone’s throw from Vancouver, B.C., where her mother had moved.
“I absolutely loved Western. I basically lived in the Ethnic Student Center; again, it was all about me finding that sense of community, of needing that,” she said.
Some of the old demons of her past were still present, even at Western.
Perry, whose bachelor’s degree is in Journalism with minors in French and Communication Studies, recalled one Western professor who told her and another friend – also a black female student – that they simply weren’t smart enough to get into or make it through graduate school.
“Well, that didn’t fly. I had been hearing that my whole life,” she said. Fortunately, she had found many allies and mentors during her years at Western who were ready to counter such thinking, and chief among them for Perry was now-retired Professor of Journalism Carolyn Dale.
“I wouldn’t be here today, teaching, if it weren’t for Carolyn, it’s that simple. She and others like (former Journalism professor) Pete Steffens never gave up on us or let us give up on ourselves,” she said. “They were everything a mentor is supposed to be, and I’m so grateful to them.”
Undeterred, Perry went to Washington State University in 1994 and got both her master’s in Communication and her doctorate in Cultural Studies/Communication before returning to Western to teach.
Building Community the Western Way
Having gone through an elementary school experience that was equal parts battleground and daily learning could have resulted in a person who grew up to be embittered about differences, who fell back into a cocoon of seeking only those very like her with which to surround herself.
Or it could go the exact opposite way, which is what happened to Perry from the minute she set foot in a classroom as a teaching assistant in Pullman.
“I saw these students in my classroom struggling with real challenges: learning disabilities; their skin color; their religious affiliation or sexual orientation. All of it. And I just knew from the start that I was going to work and build community in the classroom, that I would do whatever it took to make my students know that I was their ally,” she said.
“It all comes from my mother. Respect everyone. Forgive those who wrong you. Be resilient. Care about your community. Island communities, like hers on Antigua, are like that – you need to understand differences and get along to make it work.”
Whether she is volunteering as a mentor in her beloved Ethnic Student Center, working with a student with unique needs, or leading a service-learning project focused on helping the local Bellingham homeless population, Perry says it all has community at its core – the effort to bring everyone together in an atmosphere of understanding and mutual respect.
“No matter where you are from, what you look like, or what you believe in – we want you here, and we respect you,” she said. “You being here makes us better.”
Note: Tara Perry’s Equity and Inclusion Forum Series workshop, “Understanding Diversity Through Perceptions and Language,” is from 2-4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13 in Old Main 435. To register for the class, click here or go to https://west.wwu.edu/training/classes/classdetail.aspx?id=28520. For a full schedule of all the E&I workshops, go to https://west.wwu.edu/training/default.aspx# and click on “Campus Equity and Inclusion Forum” at the bottom of the page.