On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Jane Elliott, a young teacher in Riceville, Iowa, wanted her class of third-graders to understand discrimination. So, she devised her now famous Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, during which she told students with brown eyes that they had more of the chemical “melanin” and were thus, smarter, better and more deserving than students with blue eyes. She used the exercise to teach about racial prejudice.
Today, a little over 50 years later, Elliott is still teaching others about race and equality. She will be the keynote speaker at Weber State University’s 20th Annual Diversity Conference. The campus and community are invited to hear her speech Oct. 5 at 12:30 p.m. in the Ogden campus’ Shepherd Union Ballrooms. She will give a short preview of her remarks Oct. 4 at 7:45 p.m. in the WSU Davis Building 3 Ballrooms (2750 N. University Park Blvd., Layton, Utah).
Although the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise has critics, it has been cited as a social science landmark. Textbook publisher McGraw-Hill listed Elliott on its timeline of 30 notable educators, along with Plato, Horace Mann and Booker T. Washington.
During the exercise, brown-eyed students were rewarded with longer recesses and drinks directly from the water fountain.
“I watched my brown-eyed children become brilliant because I raised their expectations,” Elliott remembers of that day. “Obviously, if you have magic eyes, you can do anything.”
Conversely, the blue-eyed children were quickly shaken, subdued and even scorned.
“An educator is one who leads people out of ignorance,” Elliott said. “I was determined that no person at any age would ever leave my presence with attitudes of discrimination unchallenged.”
She has kept that promise, advocating “justice for all” before hundreds of groups across the country. She’ll bring her message and passion to Weber State, where the diversity conference has explored a wide variety of topics for the past 20 years.
“What sets this conference apart from other events is the intentional effort made to provide large-scale, safe (although often uncomfortable) opportunities to engage in the difficult discussions of our time, including (dis)ability, democracy, sexual orientation, gender, immigration and more,” said Adrienne Andrews, assistant vice president of diversity and chief diversity officer.
The original organizers of the conference include Weber State’s Barry Gomberg, Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action executive director, and teacher education professor Forrest Crawford, WSU’s first assistant to the president for diversity. They will be at the Davis campus event Oct. 4 to reflect on the theme, “Diversity 20 Years Later: Opportunity, Obstacle or Something Else Altogether?”
“WSU’s 20 annual conferences have reflected the motto: E pluribus unum, out of many, one,” Gomberg said. “By courageously exploring challenging dimensions of our differences, the diversity conference strives to build greater overall unity through mutual respect and understanding.”
Education and the desire to “break down walls of contention” inspired the diversity conference 20 years ago, according to Crawford.
“We can debate, with some trepidation, the relative value of these diversity initiatives and whether Weber State’s model of incremental progress has served us well,” he said. “However, the current diversity conference, along with those who supported and sustained it for over two decades, has cultivated untold educational forums, fostered institutional policy-related frameworks and encouraged students to incorporate diversity into their courses of study, potentially transforming systemic changes we believe are part of that tattered mosaic we aim to repair.”
The two-day conference opens Oct. 4 at 5:30 p.m. at the Davis campus with a panel discussion from diversity conference leadership, a question and answer session, short remarks from Elliott, and an overview of the next day’s events. The conference continues Oct. 5 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Shepherd Union, where participants can hear Elliott’s keynote speech and attend a number of workshops. Workshops include “Toxic Stress from Deportation Threat: Testimonios Reveal Pervasive Effects on Mixed-Status Families” and “Troubling Inclusion with the Makings of Protest: a Methodological Inquiry in Making Diversity and Inclusion Accountable.”