On a chill winter afternoon in Tacoma, Tiffanie Beatty, her sister Talana, and their friends JD and JC huddle around a glass table in the sisters' inner-city apartment playing Scrabble. After Tiffanie's sister takes a turn, JC, a rap artist, chides her, "That's a proper noun; you can't use proper nouns, girl!" Midway through the game, Tiffanie spells out the word "beginning." "It's a little late in the game to be spellin' beginning," says JC. "Well," says Tiffanie, laughing, "I have just begun."
Beatty has indeed begun a journey that has taken her from one of Tacoma's toughest neighborhoods to a position as a campus leader at Whitworth College. And soon she will head back to the inner city, where her roots are planted among boarded-up buildings, bullet-marked street signs, and the stubborn dreams of hardworking families. "When I think of Tacoma, it's just home for me," Beatty says. "Tacoma is not a perfect place to live, but it's real; it's a city of hidden treasures."
Beatty and others are seeking out and lifting up treasures where distorted vision and despair too often obscure the beauty beyond the rough edges. She is one of 40 students from urban Tacoma who enrolled at Whitworth through a program – the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative – with the audacious goal of transforming the campus as well as the participants and their home communities.
Act Six scholars represent six continents and speak 13 languages. Two-thirds come from low-income families and are the first in their families to attend college. And they are thriving. Cadre One participants, who enrolled in 2003, boasted an average GPA that equals that of the overall student body and were active as participants and leaders in athletics, community service, international-study programs, music and student leadership. (See individual scholar profiles accompanying this article.) And all 11 scholars in Cadre One, along with one from Cadre Two, graduate this spring – a remarkable 100-percent four-year graduation rate that far exceeds national averages for students of any background.
Building on the program's success at Whitworth, Act Six affiliates have been added at colleges in Tennessee, Oregon, and Alaska, with several others in the planning stages. But the numbers only hint at the deeper impact of Act Six.
"The program brings together the ideas of social and spiritual change," says Professor of English Doug Sugano. "The students are aware that they have a responsibility to themselves, to their families, and to their neighborhoods. And they also have a new responsibility to the campuses at the schools they're attending." Tim Herron (left), the national director and visionary behind Act Six, started at Tacoma's inner-city Lincoln High School as a math teacher and college advocate; he grew tired of watching his strongest students lose their traction in college. "We had a lot of kids going off to college, but way too many were coming home [before graduating]," Herron says. "It breaks your heart for the individual kid but also for the community and the city. You recognize more systemic issues at play."
After a year of research and planning, Act Six was launched as an initiative of the Northwest Leadership Foundation, which works to develop leadership for the social and spiritual renewal of Tacoma. "There are wonderful things that you find most powerfully and uniquely alive in the toughest parts of the city," Herron says. "It's all about how we see. The Act Six scholars become evidence of another reality, another way of seeing the city, through God's eyes, as a place of great hope rather than despair. It's really about leadership."
Act Six develops leaders through a deceptively simple four-step model:
Step 1: Recruit and select diverse multicultural cadres of promising urban student leaders.
Step 2: Train and prepare these groups of students, equipping them to support each other, to succeed academically, and to grow as serviceminded leaders.
Step 3: Fund and send the teams to partner colleges with scholarships covering full tuition and more, depending on financial need.
Step 4: Provide strong campus support, ongoing leadership development and vocational connections to inspire scholars to serve their home communities.
As much as anything else, the key to the success of Act Six is the leadership training that takes place over nine months before participants even arrive on campus for fall classes. Every week, Act Six staff members lead rigorous workshops on intercultural communication, leadership and community development, as well as study skills, time-management strategies and bonding experiences within the cadre. Several times throughout the year Whitworth faculty and staff travel to Tacoma to participate in the training, and the scholars make two additional visits to campus. "Those training times are really an opportunity to lean into leadership," Herron says. "What does it look like? How do we learn to communicate across cultures?"
The "Act Six" name derives from a biblical passage in Chapter 6 of the Book of Acts in which Hebraic Christians respond to complaints from Grecian Christians about their widows being overlooked in the distribution of food. "The gist of the story is that a group is chosen to represent the under-represented," says Assistant Dean for Intercultural Student Affairs Esther Louie, who oversees the Act Six program at Whitworth. "Act Six students adopt that story as their motivation and purpose." Sugano admires the spiritual foundation Herron has laid for the program. "He's telling everybody that the foundations for the early church are actually multicultural; it was an issue then and it's an issue now," Sugano says. "When faculty and students buy into a program like this, welcome it, want to foster it – it raises everybody's consciousness about multicultural issues. Those are the institutional changes that will make Whitworth a better place."
And Act Six students are charged with being agents of change. Louie, who speaks of the students with a familiarity born of many shared laughs and tears, says they touch every facet of campus life inside and outside the classroom: as athletes, musicians, resident assistants, culturaldiversity advocates, teaching assistants, and officers for student groups such as the Black Student Union and the International Club. Cadre One scholar Fa'ana Fanene was elected president of the student body for 2006-07.
"It's not just me trying to change the campus," says Fanene, who led weekly ASWC meetings and spoke on behalf of the student body at convocation, graduation and trustee meetings. "The campus has changed me, too. It's a growing experience. [I'm] a better person because of it."
Sophomore Jeremiah Sataraka is inhaling as much of college life as he can. As a cultural-diversity advocate in Warren Hall, secretary for the BSU, activities coordinator for the International Club, and a participant in the student-led gospel choir as well as the Whitworth Choir, Sataraka admits he's overcommitted, but it's with a purpose. "Working with other Act Six students to help promote community within Whitworth is something that I really love," he says. "I think we're here to shake things up a bit, to bring that different perspective that the college needs."
Act Six scholars embrace the Spokane community, as well. Tara Yi, a senior biology major, worked for three years in Young Life's junior-high WyldLife Program. Holy Chea, a communication major in Cadre One, is a volunteer relief staffer at Excelsior Youth Center, a program for atrisk youth. "I'm there to give them hope," Chea says. "When I'm done with college, I want to go back to Tacoma and work in a program similar to Excelsior's."
Future employers already recognize the leadership potential and service ethic of Act Six scholars. MultiCare, the largest healthcare provider in southwest Washington, provides financial support for three Whitworth nursing students in exchange for their commitment to work in one of MultiCare's inpatient facilities in Tacoma after graduation. "In healthcare, the patient's outcome is a function of both the medical treatment and the patient's mental status; our diverse patients may well do better, in part, as a result of our diverse employee population," says Multicare Human Resource Director Jody Smith. "We are delighted to participate in the Act Six program. The caliber of the students is very high."
But Act Six is not without its challenges. Cross-cultural clashes have sparked heated discussions and ignited emotions – as might be expected when a relatively homogeneous community is joined by multicultural, inner-city students who've been commissioned to help engage differences, challenge assumptions and broaden campus discourse. Act Six scholars are prepared for the challenges they face, and are supported by staff and by one another. But being change agents can be painful and exhausting, even for the willing and well-equipped.
"We are not the only ones who need to bring about this change," says Cadre One scholar Sha'Nay McQuirter, who founded and directs Whitworth's Exceptional Praise Choir; the group boasts more than 40 participants, most of whom are experiencing gospel music for the first time. McQuirter voices frustration at times over perceived passivity on the part of the student body to engage multicultural issues. "Change means creating a slice of real-life experience," she says. "And a reallife experience involves not always being comfortable with questions and topics that are tough – injustice, inequality, the poor, socio-economic status, racism and gender inequality. The world is still an unjust world; we have a lot of work to do."
The other challenge is the commitment – financial and otherwise – needed to sustain a program of this magnitude over the long term. Whitworth has long been committed to understanding and celebrating diversity, from the WWII years, when the college welcomed Japanese Americans who might otherwise have been confined in relocation camps, to the sixties, when African Americans from New Jersey's inner cities joined the Whitworth student body, to recent years, when the establishment of new staff positions and strategic benchmarks for intercultural competency have been top priorities. Act Six extends that commitment with annual investments of more than $500,000 for financial aid and countless staff hours spent administering the program, mentoring faculty and supporting students. While the percentage of ethnic-minority students has held steady at about 10 percent as Whitworth's overall enrollment has grown, the number of African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American students has climbed from 156 in 2002 to 199 in 2006. "
The program requires big investments, but it also delivers big rewards," says Whitworth President Bill Robinson. "The Act Six program has brought to Whitworth an extraordinary group of students who have enriched our campus through their leadership and service, even as we have taught and mentored them. So, it would be morally irresponsible for us not to explore ways to expand Act Six to other schools."
While Whitworth was the first school to commit to Act Six, in 2001, affiliates have since been launched at Tennessee's Crichton College, in 2004; at George Fox University, outside Portland, Ore., in 2006; and at Sheldon Jackson College, in Alaska, this year. More than 40 officials from 13 colleges in Washington attended a January summit at Whitworth to learn more about Act Six. Pacific Lutheran University has signed on to enroll its first Act Six cadre in fall 2008, and several other schools are in the planning stages.
"What Whitworth did was huge," said George Fox University president Dave Brandt at the diversity summit. "I'm most appreciative of Whitworth for taking the lead on this program so that we and others could learn from their experience." Now Act Six begins its next and, some say, most important chapter. Graduating scholars are encouraged, but not required, to return to their home communities to invest their skills, passion and vision into urban renewal. Many in Cadre One will heed that call.
Lauren Thompson, an education major, wants to return to Tacoma to teach. "My passion is for the inner city," she says. "I wanted to go to Chicago or L.A., but through Act Six I realized there are the same problems here at home. I don't have to leave to help fix the world." For Beatty, who graduated in May with a psychology degree and plans to work in leadership and community development, Act Six has been a journey toward finding the past and future treasures of her home community – how it has shaped her and how she can now help to shape it. "I've been able to see Tacoma for what it really is," she says, "by going away, missing it, being critical of it, and then owning it – I guess you can say by loving it."
Andrea Palpant Dilley, who graduated from Whitworth in 2000 with a degree in English and Spanish, is a writer/producer/director for Spokanebased North by Northwest Productions. She and her colleagues are completing a documentary-style video on the vision and personalities that drive Act Six. The video will be available by the end of June online at www.whitworth.edu/whitworthtoday.
Visit www.whitworth.edu/actsix for additional information about the Act Six program and its scholars.