By Tyler Leeds
When Teryl Young first came to Central Oregon eight years ago from Virginia Beach, Virginia, he immediately felt out of place.
“My wife’s parents lived over here, and the first stop I made was in Crescent, and I felt terrified,” said Young, 40. “I kept asking, ‘Where’s the city at?’ And, more importantly, ‘Who’s going to hire somebody like me?’”
It wasn’t so much the size of the population as its composition. As an African-American man on the High Desert, Young immediately recognized that he’d “stick out like a sore thumb,” which was affirmed, he said, by the uneasy looks he got in restaurants and the heightened police attention he encountered while driving.
“I was going toward Best Buy, and a police officer was riding right next to me in the other lane, but when he looked over at me he slowed down,” Young said of an incident from 2012. “He pulled right behind and I knew what was happening. I knew it was coming.”
While being pulled over stands out in Young’s memory, the smaller things crept up everywhere, including in classes at Central Oregon Community College. As a result, Young began incorporating his experiences into course discussions and organizing presentations on African-American history across campus. His goal, he said, was to reframe the discussions on race he encountered on campus, but this work speaking out also earned him the college’s 2014 Diversity Achievement Student Award at the end of the school year.
“When a classroom is empty, no one would sit next to me,” Young said. “Everyone would fill up on the other side until there was nowhere left but near me. That’s when I started thinking about all this.”
As a criminal justice student, Young’s own experiences in Bend developed into an interest in the discriminatory history of American law enforcement, something embodied today, Young said, by the disproportionate number of black men in jail and prison.
“A lot of people came into class not knowing enough about the history of this sort of thing,” Young said. “That’s why I started doing Black History Month displays, to teach the history of how we got to where we are today, looking at the war on drugs and other things.”
Karen Roth, COCC’s director of multicultural activities, said one of the criteria for the Diversity Achievement award is whether a student has worked to create a more respectful campus.
“I think the work he has done has helped us to look at the patterns of bigotry and biases embedded in our society and to see what still might be here with us today,” Roth said.
Young’s work hasn’t targeted only fellow students, as he also participated in a panel last summer for faculty and administrators on what it’s like to be African-American on campus. He’s also had an impact on the criminal justice curriculum, pushing for a course focused on race that launched this summer.
“Recognizing and promoting awareness of these issues that plague the criminal justice system is important work, and the classroom is a safe place to discuss them,” said Heather Van Diest-Kolb, an adjunct professor of criminal justice who teaches the new course. “In a class here in Central Oregon, the majority of students are Caucasian, though I do have some minority groups. But for Teryl to talk about his experience and help others understand is very valuable.”
After he gets his associate’s degree, Young wants to begin a career in computer forensics. But for now, he says, he will continue to work on “putting the history of the criminal justice system in context.”
“I want to show people not that they don’t know anything, but that sometimes we’re not taught important things,” Young said. “And when we’re not taught history, that’s when a lot of the biases can develop.”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org