Research incorporated into pilgrimage

Story by Eric Larson

On April 4, 1968, shots rang out across the Lorraine Motel parking lot in Memphis, Tenn., as Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, was shot and killed on the balcony outside his room.
Although historically viewed by some as the end of the civil rights movement, the impact left behind by King — as well as the many other actors in the political faction — has been far from forgotten.

Jodi Thesing-Ritter, associate dean of students at the university, assembled a unique trip two years ago to allow students to visit sites of historic importance in the movement.  Called the Civil Rights Pilgrimage tour, the 10-day trip has been offered every winter and spring break since 2008.

“The entire trip was just life-changing,” said senior sociology major and past coordinator for the program Tony Och, who first went on the tour in January 2009. “I knew right away that once I got back home, I wanted to get involved in student affairs and educate people about diversity.”

After the first trip launched in 2008 (as sort of a test run) Thesing-Ritter, along with several past-participants of the trip, began research — taken pre- and post- journey — to determine if students’ perspectives had been changed.  Her main goal, she said, was to decide if the trip reduced racism in participants.

“I figured, ‘Hey — it’s important to assess what we’re doing,’’’ she said. “I wanted to involve students as coordinators and engage them in the bulk of the research.”

Thesing-Ritter selected junior psychology and women’s studies major Elsa Kraus, along with five other students, to take the reins of the project.

“The background of what we’re doing is to basically determine the attitudes towards racism from the students who participate,” Kraus said. “We wanted to know if attitudes do change after the trip … and if so, how? Our overall question was: is social justice affected in people?”

Initially just focused on studying racism, Kraus soon involved sexism into the project as well.

“I learned on the trip that discrimination still exists … a lot of women leaders in the civil rights movement aren’t even recognized,” she said.

In conducting the research, Kraus and the others issued three surveys — the modern sexism scale, the racism scale and the white privilege scale — to students before and after the trip.

The surveys, she said, are strongly used to determine changed perspectives.

The modern racism scale, for example, has the majority of its questions in a Likert-type format, asking participants to either agree or disagree with statements.  Questions include: “Over the past few years, the government and news media have shown more respect for blacks than they deserve,” or “Blacks are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights.”

After conducting and analyzing the results of several trips, Kraus accompanied Thesing-Ritter to the Wisconsin College Personnel Association Conference on Oct. 21-22 in the Wisconsin Dells.  There, Kraus and Thesing-Ritter presented “Responding to the Challenge of Social Justice through Immersion Experiences,” which covered the preliminary design of the research thus far.

The presentation was well-received, and Kraus was awarded an honorable mention for her work.

“The conference was awesome!” Kraus said. “Over one hundred people, namely professors, showed up — it was a very professional environment.”

Looking to the future, Kraus said she and her team plan to continue gathering data and, hopefully, publish and submit their findings to the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity.

“This entire research experience has been great for everyone involved,” Thesing-Ritter said. “A lot of these students will go on to graduate school and continue researching … but even if they don’t, learning the basic principles of assessment is a good life skill to learn.”

The 2011 pilgrimage trips are planned for Jan. 7-17 and March 18-26.  Stop by the Student Senate office for more details.