For senior Olivea Boyer and her fellow Civil Rights Pilgrimage student coordinators at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, canceling a second CRP trip due to the COVID-19 pandemic just was not a reasonable option. Boyer and the team had a better idea.
“This is a moment when a lot of people are looking for growth and understanding,” says the Waseca, Minnesota, native. “It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t try to do something to help encourage that learning in some way.”
While the members of the planning team, who would have served as mentors to students on the January CRP trip, agree that the travel and visceral in-person experiences are inimitable, they believed a thoughtfully developed itinerary with attention to engaging and interactive elements could create a truly immersive online “pilgrimage.”
Take the journey, no buses needed
The Civil Rights Pilgrimage, now in its 12th year at UW-Eau Claire, is a unique opportunity to travel the path of the civil rights movement across the Deep South and walk through the places and stories in our collective history, hearing directly from former activists who took part in the fight for justice.
Registration is now open for UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff to sign up for the newly minted Virtual Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a five-day interactive online event that brings this signature Blugold immersion right to you, at home or office, free of charge.
Jodi Thesing-Ritter, founder of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage and Blugold Beginnings programs, is proud of the passion and initiative shown by her student team who took it upon themselves to make this new incarnation of the CRP a reality at this critical time in our community and nation.
“I am so pleased that our incredible student coordinators have chosen to work to keep the Civil Rights Pilgrimage tradition going in spite of the pandemic which has sidelined travel for this year,” Thesing-Ritter says. “Their deep desire to bring this experience to others through the virtual format is a testament to the impact the experience had on their own lives.”
Franchesca Riley, a junior psychology and family studies student from Waukesha, felt very strongly that opening up the trip to alumni and community members as well was an essential goal, and for a nominal charge of $30, anyone interested in this transformative experience is now welcome to register.
“This is the most accessible ‘trip’ we’ve ever been able to offer,” Riley says. “Everyone should have the chance to hear these stories and this history from the people who lived it. The value for the community is that these issues do not only affect students, and it’s not just history — 2020 alone has shown us that it’s happening now.”
B.J. Hollars, Eau Claire resident and UW-Eau Claire associate professor of English, took part in the 2016 CRP and strongly recommends the online experience.
“As someone whose life was fundamentally changed by the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I know firsthand just how powerful the trip can be,” Hollars says. “I know, too, that it can be difficult for students, alumni and staff to manage 10 days away from their regular lives to experience the pilgrimage in full. But this year's virtual pilgrimage ensures that everyone can have access to this vital experience. These stories and this history are more important than ever — everyone should take their seats on this year’s ‘virtual bus.’ The transformative power will still be felt.”
Student passion to share this vital learning
From its inception, the Civil Rights Pilgrimage has been a student-driven program, expanded year after year by testimonials from dozens of participants from all majors, backgrounds and walks of life, who almost to a person, have named this immersion as the single most pivotal experience of their academic career, or even their entire lives.
This year is no exception, and the team of coordinators are all past CRP travelers who simply felt compelled to work to bring the experience to as many other people as they could.
Destini Wilson, a sophomore criminal justice major from Eau Claire, took part in the CRP as a freshman and knew that she wanted to work to bring the experience to fellow students.
“I feel that all students should have an opportunity like the CRP, and now that it’s online more students can come,” she says. “My hope is that online participants can take in all the information and use it to try and better their communities, or better their own ways.”
In a similar way, actuarial science student Ethan Ming Fing Teow of Penang, Malaysia, was determined to incorporate those “next step” growth elements to the online event, challenging participants to consider how they will move forward with new insight.
“I took the trip in spring of 2019, and it was transformative for the way I think,” Teow says. “At first it was easy to think about all of the things we were hearing about as history. But as we did a lot of reflection during the trip, it was clear that issues that existed in 1965 still do so now, just maybe in a different form.”
“There are benefits to a virtual trip, and if we focus our planning on making this virtual event as immersive as possible, we can replicate that learning effectively.”
What to expect and how to register
Final details on some portions of the weeklong schedule are yet to be determined, but for the most part, the robust slate of virtual elements is in place and is certain to offer an in-depth and compelling journey through some of the most significant, painful and inspiring moments of the civil rights era, presented by the people who were there in many cases.
Campus participants will receive five Tier 2 credits toward their student EDI leadership certificate or faculty/staff EDI Tier 2 professional development. The Canvas course for this experience will open on Jan. 4 and remain open until Feb. 1, 2021. The synchronous activities for the virtual experience will take place from Jan. 11-15.
Sessions will include presentations from iconic civil rights historians and activists, some former Freedom Riders themselves; virtual tours of important locations, readings and discussions, films followed by discussion, faculty and alumni discussions, student presentations and an important “debrief” session to conclude the week.
“The most important part of our typical CRP trips is that absorption and reflection we do as a group — on the bus, up late nights talking,” Thesing-Ritter says. “We have a plan to virtually tap into that same visceral experience and talk through the crucial question of ‘so now that you know all this, how are you going to use it?’”
People are encouraged to consider taking this rare online opportunity to begin 2021 equipped with new knowledge, growth, understanding and motivation to act in ways to bring social justice. Past CRP participants are invited to rejoin these critical conversations and further expand on initial experiences.