Dr. Phyllis Lee has been involved with education for more than five decades. She has been a public school teacher and counselor, university professor and administrator, healthcare administrator, and civil rights technical assistance provider to educational institutions at regional, state and local levels. She has served as an intercultural facilitator and cultural competency trainer for educational, legal and medical professions, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and business and industry and continues this work as a consultant since her retirement as the Founding Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Oregon State University. In that position, she initiated and guided collaborative efforts among administration, faculty, students, staff and community stakeholders in making significant progress toward becoming a campus that demonstrated its commitment to diversity through action.
She holds in highest regard work leading to equality and social justice. Dr. Lee’s intent is to help ethnic/racial communities and other underserved populations, individually and collectively, become informed and empowered decision makers through education, action, and advocacy. In addition consulting and actively participating in a variety of volunteer activities, she currently serves as a member of the boards of the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon (APANO), Uniting to Understand Racism, and the Community Health Center of Benton and Linn Counties. She also serves on the Community Police Review Board of Corvallis and the Benton County Budget Committee.
What are the common threads that bind together the fabric of your life’s work?
Appreciation of where I came from and the opportunities that were provided to me –not only though my family but also the communities I got to work with. One of the hardest things to come to was feeling that I had a right to take advantage of opportunities in the larger society. I still deal with that today – because there were so many indicators in which you have to prove yourself.
In your years of championing diversity, equity and civil rights, what are some of the most important lessons you have learned?
Developing a knowledge and understanding of all sides of the issue. It’s easy to be an advocate, come in to a situation and be focused on the side you’re advocating for, without developing an understanding of where your detractors or opponents may be coming from. If you don’t understand all sides, it would be difficult to look at a comprehensive approach, because you develop tunnel vision.
You have to give yourself permission To not feel like you have to play the strict advocate – either-or role. Give yourself permission to look at all sides of an issue without feeling like you’re betraying anyone – whether it’s yourself or people you’re advocating for.
What effective strategies have you learned in working across cultures?
Establishing a relationship that grows into mutual trust and respect – this takes months, or even years. Seek first to understand, and do not simply assume that by virtue of your life and work experiences – that you understand others. Hear other stories’ first before interpreting what you think they’re telling you.
How did you decide to embark on a career in education?
I became a teacher because it was a way of getting higher education. I came from a traditional Chinese family where a girl’s future was based on one’s availability for marriage, ability to cook rice without burning it and being an appropriate helpmate.
In the early 1950s, I was fortunate to be involved in Junior Achievement. Through that program, I met a banker who encouraged me toward college. He helped make that possible by providing summer work at the bank and encouraging me to try out for scholarships. My own high school counselor was steering me into secretarial school, as she was following what she thought was the appropriate advice for a young Chinese girl. When she realized I was applying for a scholarship to study teaching, she said that I probably wouldn’t get it or a teaching job because “my people” were simply not hired as teachers in the public school system.
I’ve been fortunate to have a large community of people from many ethnic and racial groups, including Caucasians, who have stepped forward throughout my life and encouraged me to give my dream s a chance. I became a teacher and learned how to work and live in a “white” world. My first teaching job was at Coos Bay, where there were only two other people of Asian descent. People in the town had very little experience with people of my ethnic background – yet I didn’t feel the “other.” They helped me become a good teacher.
It was also interesting being a teacher in Japan, and not being of Japanese ancestry. I worked for the Department of Defense, teaching children of military families after the occupation. I taught my first biracial and bilingual children there: kids whose mothers were Japanese, with Caucasian or African-American fathers.
When I came back to the States, I decided to pursue my master’s at Portland State. There, I received “on-the-job training,” learn ing how to help school districts that were out of compliance meet desegregation rules and regulations as mandated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . That was a real awakening, learning how to use my experience and background with fellow team members in way s that I never imagined w ere possible. Those years of working throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska provided many opportunities to work with many different ethnic and racial groups, school district personnel, and communities while develop ing a deep understanding and knowledge base that has helped me learn (and I continue to learn) how to address issues of educational equity and social justice.
What accomplishments are you most proud of in leading OSU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs?
I don’t see them as “ my ” accomplishments – they came about as collaborative effort s involving many people on and off campus. When I first arrived, I was asked to “fix” some problems. As I learned from my previous work in civil rights, one person can’t really fix anything. “Fixing” usually means that you have the answer. I haven’t found any one single answer that would work for all the situations and settings I’ve worked in. Instead, the TEAM approach: Together Everyone Achieves More was much more productive.
Another thing I learned is that the setting often creates problems and can also provide solutions. I became interested in the campus environment and the root causes – what creates and sustains the problem, and “What can be, must be, changed to make campus life better for all?” I also found myself becoming an ecologist exploring and promoting relationships among the entities of the university structures and the students and their home communities, faculty, staff, as well as the local and state environments interacting with OSU.
Overall, collaboration was what helped the campus “change ” in to becoming more inclusive , welcoming and supportive of those on the campus – particularly students and faculty of color and other underrepresented groups including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students and students with disabilities .
From the beginning , I worked to identify allies. I found many p eople were ready to try out new things, and they were encouraged not to be afraid to do so. We also worked at listening to and working with those who disagreed with us, not just with those already on board. From the collaborative efforts of many came a number of academic changes and policy changes.
John Byrne, the OSU president who hired me, appointed and fully supported the Board of Visitors for Minority Affairs that was comprised of leaders of the African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American communities. They were his advisory board in the fullest sense of the word. When racial/ethnic issues arose on campus, the president and others on campus reached out to these folks for advice and assistance. By the same token, the board members, who had the direct ear of the President, did not hesitate to step forward when they felt the university needed to speak up and take a stand against discrimination. They also offered suggestions and recommendations to support the academic success of ethnic/racial students and faculty. OSU was the first, and at the time of the board’s formation, the only institution in Oregon with a minority affairs board with a direct access to the President’s Office.
Another first was that I reported directly to the university president, and also to the university provost. Traditionally, multicultural affairs offices have resided in student affairs divisions, which sort of implied that multicultural affairs only dealt with students. But in reality, you and I both know that the concept encompasses the whole world of the campus. If everyone isn’t involved you can’t create any kind of change or new opportunities for anyone.
In the early 1990s, the Asian Pacific Cultural Center opened, the fourth cultural center on campus. U nique to OSU is the establishment of distinct buildings as cultural centers. Each of the centers is open to the entire campus while also serving as a home base with familiar sounds (of language) and smells (kitchens in each facility for home cooking!), a place offering a sense of security especially for students who were the first in their family to leave home for college. OSU is the only institution in the country to have individual covenants with the communities of each cultural center to ensure that the centers and their missions will always be integral to OSU. If thoughts of any changes arise, whether in mission or physical structure, each affected community will be consulted and will participate in decision.
In addition to the cultural centers, four minority education offices were opened. Students developed the focus, purpose and emphasis of each of the four centers, with faculty serving in an advisory capacity. These centers offer culturally appropriate support services to help students succeed academically and gain life skills for productive lives.
Oregon is almost 90% white, and the OSU student body reflects that statistic.. With Faculty Senate endorsement, an ethnic studies department was established at a time when nationally, such departments were waning . The department has grown by leaps and bounds. Students from all academic areas are realizing the importance of developing a broad base of knowledge about people not like themselves and learning from extraordinary professors.
Another academic change was the “Difference, Power and Discrimination” program in which specially designed classes in each of the academic areas focus on how power dynamics create discrimination that can occur in their discipline and profession . Students are required to take a course approved by the DPD program in order to graduate at the baccalaureate level.
Creating and promoting an environment and a population open to diversity, new ideas and change has been at the foundation of my work at OSU.