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ASU Project Humanities hosts 'Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes' educator Jane Elliott

November 3, 2017

Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott hates what’s happened to this country lately.

“We are less civilized now than we were 500 years ago,” Elliott said. “We should be over this. I thought we would have reached the point where we all realize there’s only one race — the human race.”

Best known as the elementary school teacher behind the famous “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, Elliott is coming to ASU to help people recognize, identify, and appreciate the differences on which power is assigned, and some of the ways in which we are conditioned to develop some of our self-perceptions and perceptions of others.

ASU’s Project Humanities is hosting “An Evening with Jane Elliott” on Nov. 9. The event is part of the initiative’s fall 2017 programming for its ongoing campaign, “Humanity 101: Creating a Movement.” Elliott’s talk begins at 6 p.m. at Central High School, 4525 N. Central Ave., Phoenix. Admission is free and open to the public. Go here to reserve a seat for the event.

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Neal A. Lester

“We had no idea when we considered inviting Jane Elliott as our fall signature speaker that ASU and the Valley would respond so enthusiastically,” said Neal A. Lester, founding director of ASU’s Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English. “When Eventbrite tickets became available, it was like a Beyoncé or Adele concert. They went like hotcakes.”

So much so that Project Humanities had to move to a much larger venue to accommodate the demand. Lester believes the reason is Elliott’s no-nonsense, straight talking approach to combatting racism. She introduced that approach when she exploded onto the national consciousness in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time Elliott was a third grade teacher in an all-white elementary school in Riceville, Iowa. She involved her students in an exercise in discrimination based on eye color. It demonstrated how innocent children could turn nasty, vicious and discriminating through special treatment. She did this by telling the blue-eyed group they were intellectually superior to the brown-eyed group, and encouraged them to openly ridicule their counterparts.

Elliott also allowed the blue-eyed group to go to lunch first, gave them extra time during recess, full-time access to drinking fountains and discouraged the two groups from playing with each other. Even she was astounded by the results — derogatory comments and insults were hurled, personalities radically changed, and fights broke out.

“Children who I considered shy and academically fair were now suddenly outspoken, arrogant and condescending,” Elliott said. “The power and prejudice quickly went to their heads.”

Elliott said the big takeaway for her was that people are not born racist, rather they are born into a racist society.

“And like anything else, if you can learn it, you can unlearn it,” Elliott said.

The exercise was her attempt to help students understand some of the reasons why blacks were taking to the streets and rioting, demanding equal treatment with whites.

“People say to me, ‘How could you do that to those little white children for one day?’ I say to them, ‘Apply that feeling to how it must feel to be a person of color in this country who has been suffering from this treatment all their life,’” Elliott said. “And it’s not just one person doing this to them — it’s a society who does this to them on a daily basis.”

Elliott, 85, said even though the exercise made her an internationally famous educator, she and her family paid a heavy price. She said teachers at her school wouldn’t talk to her, town leaders made her a pariah and she received numerous death threats. She also admitted family members didn’t like her at times.

"A man who is writing a book about the subject asked my daughter the other day, ‘Did you hate your mother?’” Elliott said. “She said, ‘Yes, I hated my mother. I hated her because she was taking away all of my friends and causing me a whole lotta pain.’ All four of my kids went through that phase — ‘Mom, if you just shut up we’d be alright.’”

But Elliott couldn’t shut up, or sit quietly and do nothing. She used every platform possible — a PBS documentary called “Eye of the Storm,” appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and numerous newspaper and magazine articles — to deliver her message.  

“It’s all the result of ignorance based on skin color — the ignorance of thinking you can do this forever and get away with it,” Elliott said. “There is nothing subtle about racism when it happens to you on a daily basis, and today that extends to [the LGBTQ community]. It’s constant for them. It’s unacceptable behavior in a democracy.”

Since then Elliot has conducted the same exercise in workshops with people of all ages in cities all over the United States and in several countries.

Elliot said America was making positive strides regarding racism until recently. She believes the surge of white nationalist groups espousing separatist ideologies, anonymous hate speech through social media and the Internet, and politicians and citizens not speaking up when they see overt discrimination, is dividing the country.

That, she said, was recently underscored when she received a threatening phone call at her Iowa residence — the first such threat in almost 15 years.

“I think we have proof now that if you don’t put a stop to racist remarks or make people aware of what the problem is, you end up where we are right now,” Elliott said.

“These are dangerous times.”

For more information, call 480-727-7030 or visit the Project Humanities website.

Top photo courtesy of

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ASU partners in one of 1st housing complexes in US for survivors of sex trafficking

November 4, 2017

Arizona State University is a partner in one of the first facilities in the United States to offer long-term housing to victims of sex trafficking and their children. Called “Starfish Place,” the 15-unit apartment complex is in north Phoenix and offers furnished two- and three-bedroom units. Families could begin moving into the facility the second week of November.

On Nov. 3, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton welcomed about 100 people to the grand opening of the complex that was originally built in 2013 and refurbished by the city. Councilmembers Jim Waring and Debra Stark spoke at the event as did Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. An actress involved in stopping sex abuse and a survivor of sex trafficking also talked at the grand opening.

“In Phoenix, we are sending a message that we will not tolerate an inherently harmful industry that deprives people in our own backyards of their basic human rights,” Stanton said. “And as a community we will embrace and help our most vulnerable.”

The apartment complex has a large grass area and features a community center with a full kitchen, offices and a learning area for kids.

Interns from the ASU School of Social Work will help staff the facility and work with tenants and their children. A $50,000 grant from the ASU President’s Office and the College of Public Service and Community Solutions will pay for the internships, therapeutic opportunities such as yoga and cooking classes and cover the costs of a program evaluation.

“We have people who are going to come in and teach children all the things they need to know to prevent them from being trafficked themselves,” said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor of social work and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. “The funding will also pay for an evaluation to make sure that if we want to replicate this somewhere else, we can hand this to the city of Seattle, the city of Chicago and say ‘this is how we did it.’”

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions, announced that ASU will offer scholarships to human trafficking survivors. The university will make available five slots in the ASU Public Service Academy, a civilian leadership program modeled after the military Reserve Officer Training Corps. Koppell says the scholarships reflect ASU’s commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness.

“This is a spectacular place and it's entirely appropriate because what this project, to me, is about is human potential,” Koppell said. “The individuals who will be living here are not merely trafficking survivors. They're individuals with tremendous potential.”

During the grand opening ceremony, Stanton thanked the many city of Phoenix agencies, local nonprofits and donors that helped make Starfish Place a reality. He also thanked a city of Phoenix human trafficking task force led by Waring and Cindy McCain.

“Without her efforts this wouldn't be possible,” said Waring, who represents northeast Phoenix. “But, it's not just here in Arizona where she (Cindy McCain) has made an impact, it’s international. And she deserves every round of applause she gets and every award she receives for her work on this issue.”

McCain and the McCain Institute worked with the ASU Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research on several studies that measured sex trafficking in Arizona and developed evidence-based training for law enforcement and professionals who work in child welfare, health care and education. Their findings helped guide new policies adopted by the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona and informed a U.S. Senate subcommittee examining nationwide solutions to sex trafficking.

“We are all here because we understand that everyone has a responsibility to fight human trafficking,” Stanton said. “Not just law enforcement — although law enforcement is critically important. Not just city officials or government. Everyone in our community has to be part of the solution.”

Actress AnnaLynne McCord, who starred in the reboot of the TV show 90210, spoke at the grand opening. McCord is an ambassador for the No More anti-sexual assault campaign.

“I had my first experience with how amazing Phoenix as a city is in fighting human trafficking a couple of years ago when the Super Bowl was here and I am just completely blown away by the continued efforts,” McCord said. “I hope that our country listens and uses this trend in other cities.”

Sex-trafficking survivor Lois Lucas told the grand opening audience that had such a facility existed when she needed help, her story might be different. Her son was taken from her and put up for adoption because she couldn’t escape prostitution. She finally got the help she needed and now helps other women recover from their trauma and abuse.

“There are a lot of survivors with children ready to get here to get the help they need to change their lives,” Lucas said. “There's just no place to go before today.

“So thank you city Phoenix and everyone involved for creating this special place for sex-trafficking survivors who don't get to just survive. They get to thrive!”

Top photo: Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor of social work and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, talks to ASU students who work on human trafficking issues.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Starfish Place is the nation's first facility to offer long-term housing to victims of sex trafficking. A nonprofit in Minneapolis, Breaking Free, established the nation’s first permanent housing program for victims of prostitution and sex trafficking in 2002.

Paul Atkinson

assistant director , College of Public Service and Community Solutions