Tents of Truth event opens eyes to discrimination past and present

Kate Fraser, Staff Writer

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Almost 500 students attended the fifth annual Tents of Truth event on April 2-3 at the Mesa cafeteria quad. The event, aimed to increase awareness of discrimination, took participants through a variety of scenarios in which they experienced the effects of discrimination firsthand.

The event is coordinated by the Cultural Advisory Council, whose mission statement – “One World…One Mesa College…One Human Family…Connecting through conversations and celebrations of Diversity” – rang true as Mesa’s diverse student body faced intolerance head-on. Powered entirely by volunteers, Tents of Truth “depends on the collaborative efforts of the Black Student Union, MECHA, Women’s Empowerment Union, Mesa Academy, Puente, Chicana/Chicano Studies, Black Studies, Mesa College Diversity Committee and the Humanities Institute,” said Sue Shrader-Hanes, Clinical Coordinator at Student Health Services and Co-Chair of the Cultural Advisory Council.

After completing a pre-test questionnaire and signing a disclosure (the experience could be upsetting), participants proceeded through a series of five tents. Tent 1 imitated a classroom setting, and worked through three scenarios of discrimination at school. Shrader-Hanes welcomed the group to a gay world where the participants have been observed exhibiting heterosexual behavior. In a mock counseling introduction, Shrader-Hanes informed the students that they will be given shock therapy in order to “correct” their sexual orientation. Afterwards, disabled students talked to the class about being judged and isolated for their disability on campus, and a student taught the class in another language to recreate an ESL student’s experience.

“Gay people are nothing new,” said Shrader-Hanes later. “Discrimination is completely inappropriate at this time in history.”

Mesa student Myrella Thomas attended the event with her Black Contemporary Social Problems class.  “We’re all going through a struggle, no matter who we are, what we look like – everybody is going through something, a personal struggle. Everybody,” Thomas said. “And we sometimes assume that the other person is not going through something because we don’t know, so we’re blind to that. We think, okay, our life is so horrible until we find out what someone else is going through.”

The second tent recreated a border crossing. Students, taking the role of immigrants entering the United States illegally, crawled through dark tunnels and were caught and harassed by border patrol agents. The recreation was intense and intentionally frightening, leaving some students shocked or upset.

This led immediately into the Impact tent, featured graphic photos and video to reveal the consequences of discrimination if allowed to fester.

Next, students stepped into a school bus and were led by Starla Lewis, Professor of Black Studies, through a visualization of being an African American child participating in the desegregation of schools. With eyes closed, rows of students imagined a school day filled with abuse and fear, and then pictured the pride of ultimately overcoming adversity.

Tre Oconer, a member of Mesa’s Outreach program, said that it’s “always the bus” that makes the most impact. “You’ve been talked to in other languages, you go through border patrol, and then you get to the bus,” he said. “It’s emotional.”

For Lewis, the visualization recreated her real-life experiences. “I picked the bus because I was part of desegregating schools as a child,” she said.

“I believe that integration only works with education,” Lewis said. “We keep thinking we just throw bodies together, but if the bodies come together with the same myths, lies, and stereotypes about each other that we’ve had in the past, then we’re going to have the same conflicts.”

Lewis said that she decided to lead visualization on the bus because it let students feel the experience instead of just being told about it. “Connecting the head and the heart is really what the bus is about.”

After exiting the bus, students were directed to the fifth and final tent, the Tent of Peace, Tolerance and Civility. Inside, students discussed the experience, received famous quotes related to creating peace, and ate a complimentary lunch provided by the Fusion Cafe via the Culinary Arts Program.

Christal Longaker, another Mesa student, was pleased with the event, “I think it’s really great that they’re getting the word out and putting it in perspective to make people really think about discrimination and the ways that people discriminate against others without even noticing it”

“People need to take more time and more effort into speaking out about things like discrimination and getting the word out there that we are all the same. It’s about equality, and it’s just all about love,” Longaker said.

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