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UW-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage resumes travel for 2022

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, is a somber moment for Civil Rights Pilgrimage participants, and Destini Wilson (second row, right) says walking the site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday beatings was deeply moving.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will return to travel for its 2022 Civil Rights Pilgrimage trips scheduled for Jan. 7-17 and March 18-27.

Participants in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage (CRP) tour, which outlines the path of the civil rights movement, will travel to Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Gulfport and Jackson, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee.

Students can participate in the CRP independently or they can enroll in a three-credit travel seminar offered through women's, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS 222 in UW-Eau Claire’s online catalog). Students who enroll in the course will use their tuition to pay the special course fee that covers the cost of the trip.

As always, Blugold faculty and community members in the Chippewa Valley are invited to take advantage of the opportunity to see, hear and learn about the civil rights movement from the experts, many of whom lived through it and will share powerful firsthand experiences. 

Student-planned immersive learning

The 2021 Virtual Civil Rights Pilgrimage was a tremendous success, exceeding expectations of the planners and a broad spectrum of attendees, from the campus, community and long-distance participants.

“Talking 313 people into going on a virtual bus trip was no small thing, but it was truly the best week of my entire pandemic experience,” says CRP founder Jodi Thesing-Ritter, executive director for diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire. “We were able to offer retired faculty, current and retired K-12 educators, retired community members, college students and alumni an intergenerational immersive experience that turned out far better than we could have imagined.” 

According to Thesing-Ritter, the success of the virtual trip was entirely the work of her student coordinators, two of whom are back this year as the student leads in planning the road trip.

“Out of necessity and a refusal to let the CRP slip away last year, the team pulled together a phenomenal program that delivered the essence of the CRP really well,” she says, emphasizing that the heart of the CRP lies in experiencing firsthand the sights and sounds of this living history.

“Now those past coordinators, Destini Wilson and FranChesca Riley, each bring their valuable experiences as past CRP travelers as well as virtual trip coordinators. They bring context to make the 2022 trips all the more meaningful.” 

Fran Riley

FranChesca Riley, third-year psychology major and two-time CRP student coordinator

Riley, a junior psychology major from Waukesha, credits her first CRP trip with her decision to change her major from information systems to psychology, and even with the choice to stay at UW-Eau Claire at all.

“As a student who had spent all of my life attending predominantly white school systems, I was struggling to figure out who I was when I arrived here,” Riley says. “All the history that I learned on the CRP trip and realization of all the things I had not learned in predominantly white institution education systems have shaped my plan to be part of changing those systems.”

Riley, who will pursue a career in school counseling, hopes to work with young students of color and help them to connect with their own cultural histories and identities. She hopes to fill in what she feels are often gaps in the history, and to help young students of color situate their identity within that broader historical context.

Destini Wilson

Destini Wilson, third-year criminal justice major and two-time CRP student coordinator

For Wilson, a returning CRP coordinator and criminal justice major, the most rewarding part of resuming travel will be witnessing and facilitating the identity growth that students inevitably experience on the journey.

“I’ve known for quite some time that I want to be a lawyer,” the Eau Claire native says. “Before traveling on the CRP as a freshman, I planned on business law. But after taking in the stories and experiences of so many incarcerated African Americans while visiting Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Memorial, I now plan to practice criminal and social justice law.”

Thesing-Ritter explains how these impactful and often emotional encounters with history help not only to tell previously unknown facts of the timeline, but to reshape some of those facts into empowerment for students of color.

“For many of our students, this trip is the first time they are immersed in positive reflections on the history and culture of people of color in this country,” Thesing-Ritter says.

“While it is, indeed, a troubling set of negative circumstances they learn about, they are framed within such uplifting perspectives of power. Many students say out loud that it’s the first time they truly feel ‘proud to be Black.’ Our K-12 systems so often rob students of ways to absorb that history with pride and strength.”    

New to the CRP coordinating team this year is graduate student Joshua Gonzalez, who is fulfilling a graduate assistantship in UW-Eau Claire’s Center for EDI Training, Development and Education as part of his master’s degree in student affairs administration from UW-La Crosse.

Gonzales, who says he plans to work as a “boots on the ground” type of student affairs administrator, will infuse some of what he is learning through the CRP into his future work.

Joshua Gonzales

Joshua Gonzalez, graduate assistant in the Center for EDI Training, Development and Education

“It’s super important that everyone understand their cultural and racial identities — it’s how we all better understand everyone around us, whether they look like us or don’t look like us,” he says. “One issue is that white people often feel like they don’t really have a racial identity, since whiteness is seen as such a norm.”

Gonzalez, the son of Mexican immigrants, says that because he has been able to “pass as white” for much of his life, he struggled to place his identity within various contexts. The CRP planning and his assistant work are solidifying his desire to actively teach this kind of identity work in the future.    

“Comfort often has to come to us through discomfort,” he says. “Anything I can do to become more comfortable with myself is only going to make me better able to help others understand themselves. I’m sure that parts of this trip will be uncomfortable, but getting to the other side of that discomfort is exciting.”    

For additional information, itineraries and updates for the CRP or to register for the trip, see the Civil Rights Pilgrimage website