Bellevue College changes leadership, students protest in wake of mural defacement

The Watchdog/Levvy Hedera

Bellevue College has made headlines since the Day of Remembrance mural was defaced by an administrator, bringing about a wave of new leadership and the necessity to listen to the voices of student affinity groups. At the same time, the college community continues to heal from the incident.

The piece, “Day of Remembrance, #NeverAgainisNow” by public artist Erin Shigaki, had been in the works to be brought to Bellevue’s campus by Professor Leslie Lum, Professor Nan Ma, Nora Lance and Pavy Thao, since last December.

The mural depicts two anxious young children with expressions of fear, as they are about to be put into a Japanese internment camp. The art acknowledges the history of Bellevue’s involvement in the incarceration and separation of Japanese American families in Washington State. Simultaneously, the piece calls on solidarity among all communities to stand up against the imprisonment of other minorities today. Next to the mural was a description of the Japanese internment experience in the Pacific Northwest, and a sentence regarding Miller Freeman, a Bellevue business leader, known for his anti-Japanese rhetoric during World War II. The line read, “After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.”

On Thursday, Feb. 20, the administration had been informed that the line regarding Freeman had been whited out by a faculty member.

“Silence was the first response,” Professor Lum told the Watchdog. “No one told us they were going to deface the art. And even after they defaced the art, there was silence. We had to find out what happened on our own. The response was basically that API are invisible.”

Former Vice President of Institutional Advancement Dr. Gayle Barge later admitted to whiting out the passage, stating it was an act of impulse and meant to protect the Freeman family.

In an email to the Bellevue College community, Former College President Dr. Jerry Weber stated, “It was a mistake to alter the artist’s work. Removing the reference gave the impression that the administrator was attempting to remove or rewrite history, a history that directly impacts many today.”

While the administration has emailed apologies, the incident has caused an uproar on campus, speaking to the larger questions, such as the disconnect between Bellevue College administration and student cultural organizations.

On Monday, March 2, the Board of Trustees of Bellevue College informed students and faculty that Dr. Weber and Dr. Barge would be departing Bellevue College. Dr. Kristen Jones will now be serving as the acting president.

In response to the changes in leadership and continuing discussion regarding the destruction of the art, the Board of Trustees held public forums in the pursuit of giving a voice to the Bellevue College community.

“As a student, I’m tired of just letting it go and acting like it didn’t happen,” stated Amanda Chamba at one of the forums. “These things need to be addressed, and actions do need to be taken.” Chamba serves on the leadership team of the Bellevue College Black Student Union and is of the many students who has spoken out about the need to take action to ensure incidents like this will not occur on campus again. Several students at the forum also recognized the need for supporting the student affinity groups that are currently present, and connecting such groups to administration to be successful in student leadership and creating campus unity.

The effect that the incident has on campus spans farther than students alone, but also to the campus faculty. Juan Esparza, a program specialist at the Center for High School Programs, told the Watchdog the incident was, “highlighting the culture we work in, that students are studying in.” Esparza also shared how, while BC staff does go through equity and cultural training sessions, through incidents such as these, there is a need for improvement to put those training sessions into action.

The BC community has vocalized its sentiments of sadness and confusion in trying to make sense of the recent incident. “This attempt to censor the truth about our local history and erase it with whitewash brought so much suffering and opened wounds that remains in our community until this day,” stated Jordana Maciel, The Asian Pacific Islander Student Association coordinator at BC. But student’s voices on campus remain strong in trying to amend the issues the college community faces. Maciel shared, “Affinity groups are strong and united in not allowing this event to be without consequences, we want to change this institution for better.”

In efforts to further engage the BC community, on March 3, APISA helped to organize a Remembrance Ceremony, where artist Erin Shigaki restored her piece. Member of the Japanese American Citizens League, Tsuru for Solidarity and Densho came to campus to give speeches, and recognize the stories behind the art. Shigaki shared she wanted the ceremony to “be about remembrance, and not about talking heads and promises. We want things to change, but right now, we want to remember the people that have been through this.”

Students, faculty and others gathered at the courtyard. At the chime of a singing bell, recognizing each internment camp. The ceremony also held a of silence, and a minute for participants to say the names of people in their lives who had been affected by incarceration or police brutality. Stanley Shikuma, president of the JACL, powerfully ended the ceremony stating, “remembering what has happened, restoring faith in the system and the ability of leadership to lead, and rededicating ourselves to unity, will lead to a better future.”