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A cultural engine for rural places

A cultural engine for rural places

Bennie Moses-Mesubed leads a workshop at the CEAD Conference in February 2020.

Oct. 13, 2020 LA GRANDE, Ore. – In the predominantly white setting of rural Oregon, the Student Diversity and Inclusion Office at Eastern Oregon University plays a distinct role. 

Director Bennie Moses-Mesubed said her work serves dual purposes. On one hand, she works to equip white students with intercultural competence training focused on understanding power, privilege and oppression, and how it impacts interactions and people’s perceptions of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Meanwhile, she works to support students of color and other traditionally marginalized students. Her office provides tools to help these students navigate through institutional inequities and empowers them to transform barriers and challenges into opportunities for success. 

Her position at the university has allowed Moses-Mesubed to reach beyond the borders of campus and shape policy for the region and state. She’s a member of the Oregon Commission on Asian Pacific Islanders, and was recently selected to join the governor’s new Racial Justice Council. She said that participation in both groups has allowed her to share the experience of living in rural communities and her perspective on higher education. 

“Equity and inclusion is different in rural contexts,” Moses-Mesubed said. “It’s always about building relationships, finding common ground, and coming into a conversation recognizing that we have different backgrounds and lived experiences. But meeting people where they’re at allows us to support each other through our DEI journey to where we want to be as a community.”

She’s also serving as vice president of the COFA Alliance National Network. Founded in Oregon in 2014, the nonprofit advocates for people from the three Pacific Island nations in the Compact of Free Association (COFA) treaty with the United States: The Republic of Palau, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.  

Staff in the Student Diversity and Inclusion Office

“I’m very proud of this organization in Union County because they’re able to see the gaps that people in rural areas are facing,” Moses-Mesubed said. “Pacific Islanders are rural people, we identify culturally with ideas of knowing your neighbor, community support and sharing resources. We’re attracted to small communities because islands are small, and that perspective really helped with some of our rural COVID initiatives in realizing that when someone needs help, we mobilize and support those who are most vulnerable in our community.”

Since the establishment of EOU’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion in 2018, Moses-Mesubed has built a staff of equally involved individuals. Katie Harris-Murphy, who coordinates the Native American Program and other SDI initiatives, has connections with the Pendleton Round-Up. Mika Morton, Assistant Director of SDI who oversees international students programs and study abroad, participates in Oregon’s restorative justice work. 

“Many of our faculty and staff of color are involved in our communities,” Moses-Mesubed said. “We’re involved in things that elevate who we are as an institution, but also allow us to continue to make a difference in the communities we live in. I’m really seeing the connection between the work we do within our campus, here in our community, and how we shape policies and action at the state level.”

Harnessing the voices of traditionally marginalized people from rural Oregon has become a passion for Moses-Mesubed, and an educational opportunity for EOU students and the entire community. 

“We’ve been able to cultivate opportunities with local leadership and create pathways to sharing our unique perspectives and lived experiences,” Moses-Mesubed said. “SDI is involved in many kinds of activities: providing exposure to cultural traditions and celebrations, and organizing the only large diversity, equity and inclusion conference on this side of the state.” 

She said that by enrolling ethnically diverse students, EOU continues to enrich the region and offer opportunities for community members to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives.  

Learn more about the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion at eou.edu/mc.