Kenyan Parliamentarians visit Whitworth campus and Spokane public offices

Nicholas Sironka, a Kenyan-born, Spokane-based Maasai visual artist, addresses dinner guests. The Kenyan delegates attended several events and dinners at Whitworth featuring students, professors and Spokane community members like Sironka. Photo by Brandt Hodgson.

By Isaac Price

In September, a delegation of Kenyan Parliamentarians visited Whitworth during a tour of Spokane to learn more about how to promote ethnic unity back in their home country.  “The commission will start and end its tour of Spokane at Whitworth,” a Whitworth press release said. 

The delegation was comprised of 11 members of the National Assembly, a house of the Kenyan Parliament. Members of the delegation serve on the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a statutory body that aims to end election violence.   

According to political science professor Megan Hershey, Whitworth has had ties to Kenya for decades. 

“Whitworth’s connection to Kenya comes through political science professor emeritus John Yoder.  John knows Elwood Dunn from University of the South, who was contacted by the National Cohesion Committee in Kenya.  [The visit] came together in part by chance, in part by John’s network of connections,” Hershey said. 

The connections go beyond just Professor Yoder, however, and even include a member of the delegation.  Governor Alfred Mutua of Machakos County in Kenya is a Whitworth alumnus, and former professor Moses Pulei from the Maasai ethnic group helped John start Whitworth’s semester-long Tanzania study abroad program.   

The delegation came as part of an effort for the delegates to learn about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the US and to integrate these efforts back home.  According to Hershey, Kenya’s vast ethnic diversity makes the country prone to ethnically related violence, as exemplified by the aftermath of the 2007 election. 

“Ethnic differences there can be just as clear as racial differences here,” Hershey said.  “After the 2007 election in Kenya, about 1500 were killed and half a million were displaced, and as a result, a National Cohesion and Integration Commission was formed.  The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has been trying to give more members of the National Assembly and the Senate training on DEI issues,” Hershey added. 

Whitworth’s stance on diversity, equity and inclusion made the university a good fit for the delegation.  

“The US has been open to those conversations, however awkwardly or poorly we may be doing so.  We are a small Christian campus with a DEI office attempting to make Whitworth a more inclusive place, so Whitworth was set up well to offer this,” Hershey said. 

Spokane’s rich Native American connections made it an ideal destination for the dignitaries.  “We took them to the Native Project, a health center in the West Central neighborhood. They also went to Northern Quest and spoke with the leadership there about tribe investments in housing, clinics and education,” Hershey said. 

A key moment in the delegation’s trip took place on Wednesday night when the delegation paneled in Hershey’s African Politics class. Afterwards, several members of the delegation attended a dinner with a university research group and students from the African Politics class. Senior political science major Annika Bjornson presented alongside student peers and professors the work of a Whitworth-based research group called Democracy Lab. 

“Democracy Lab is a research collaborative that works with campus community members and wider Spokane community partners to develop civic engagement research opportunities and promote a better culture of democracy in Spokane,” Bjornson said.  

Bjornson said the delegation was very intrigued by the Democracy Lab presentation.  “They gave a lot of interesting feedback and responded overwhelmingly positively to our ideas.  They also said they will come to a future Democracy Lab event called Civic Saturdays over Zoom with 10 other legislators, and they wanted to stay in touch with our project,” Bjornson said. 

The delegates engaged positively with the Democracy Lab research group, according to Bjornson.  “They showed genuine interest in us and our ideas and were very affirming of the ideas we’re talking about as a campus when it comes to DEI,” said Bjornson. 

The visit also served her African Politics class well. “The delegates’ visit also showed us that other places are thinking about similar things to the US.  In the US you’re more divided by ideas, ideology, beliefs, whereas in Kenya more by tribes and that sense of belonging. Either way these things are hard to bridge, but that’s what both we and they want to do,” Bjornson said. 

Hershey expressed a similar viewpoint.  “[The visit] really brought East African politics to life for my students, and it felt really special that people of this station would visit Spokane, but also that they were so honest about some of the challenges that they’re facing. . . This whole semester, I’m going to be referring back to their visit in relation to what our authors write about or discussions we have,” Hershey said. 

The delegation arrived in Spokane on Saturday Sept. 11 and departed Saturday Sept. 18.  To learn more about Whitworth’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion contact lhernandezjarvis@whitworth.edu

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