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Selma internship inspires students to action back on campus

| Shari Lau

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series leading up to “Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversation,” an exhibit and related programming to be hosted by UW-Eau Claire during the month of October. The goal of the “Risking Everything” exhibit and events is to engage the UW-Eau Claire campus and the greater Eau Claire community in conversation about the civil rights era and its lasting significance.

When UW-Eau Claire sophomore Matt Passineau headed out for a summer internship with the Freedom Foundation in Selma, Alabama, he went there thinking about what he could do for the community. When he returned a month later, all he could think about was what the community did for him.

Passineau, a social work major from Wisconsin Rapids, has always been actively involved in volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, but said there was something different about his time with the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to underrepresented youth in Selma.

“The Freedom Foundation internship was different because it gave me hands-on experience working with people,” Passineau said. “I got to build relationships with kids who are going through real situations. The people at the Freedom Foundation welcomed me and gave new meaning to the word ‘family.’ I knew that I wanted to continue this type of work so I changed my area of study from pre-pharmacy to social work.”

Passineau and four other UW-Eau Claire students fully immersed themselves into the Selma community, earning the trust and respect of fellow Freedom Foundation workers and community members, a practice best suited for making real change, said Ronald Smith, certified nonviolence coordinator for the Freedom Foundation Freedom School.  
 
“The UW-Eau Claire students immediately became a part of us,” Smith said. “When you live in a community, you get integrated into it. You are seen as a part of it instead of as an outsider coming in. It’s a more effective way to make change. The students’ work ethic and dedication to our mission was incredible, and we appreciate the support we have gotten from them. We needed this program to grow and evolve, and the young people’s creativity has helped us do that.”

As part of the internship, students participated in nonviolence training and become certified to train others in the principles and strategies of nonviolence that were used during the civil rights movement. Knowing Selma’s history of violence and segregation, as well as the continuing resistance to racial equality that exists today, the students had to learn how to communicate in ways that would be positively received, said senior Kayla Larmour, a political science major from Coleman.  

“We had to look at our own demographics and be cautious so as not to come across like we were telling others how they should be living and what they should be doing,” Larmour said. “We became a lot more self-aware, and overall the training was well received.”

Like Passineau, Larmour felt immediately connected to the Freedom Foundation and said she felt a real sense of community there.

“The feeling in Selma isn’t something you experience everywhere,” Larmour said. “It has a heavy atmosphere, but the people from the Freedom Foundation are some of the most passionate I have ever met. It’s inspiring to see them remain positive in what can be a negative and volatile environment.”

What struck Passineau and Larmour most about Selma’s atmosphere were the blatant acts of racism and segregation prevalent in the city, they said.

“It was eye opening,” Larmour said. “Racism happens everywhere, but I didn’t realize that until I went to Selma. It’s so blatant there that it helped me to see how subtle it is here, something I wouldn’t have been able to see without having it right in front of my face. Those subtleties, called microaggression, are why a group of us are starting a UW-Eau Claire chapter of Students Unite to help combat racism on campus. Selma opened up a window to see social injustices. I didn’t see it before because it didn’t affect my daily life. But now I’ve seen how it affects others, and I want to help.”  

Passineau is also working on getting the Students Unite chapter up and running. Bringing people on campus together regardless of race, ethnicity and religion is key to building a truly inclusive campus, he said.

“The Freedom Foundation taught me that we can’t make change alone,” Passineau said. “We have to work together as a community. We can do a lot of things on campus to make things better for all students, but we have to do it together.” 

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students Anna Kerber (left), Kayla Larmour (third from left) and Matt Passineau (right) participated in a summer internship with the Freedom Foundation in Selma, Alabama.