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AVIE Cohort Creates a Foundation for Change

By Clarke News  |  May 19, 2021

On Thursday, May 6, Clarke University students hosted the premiere of “The Forgotten People,” a documentary highlighting the history and culture of the Marshallese community in Dubuque. The film was a year-long project produced by the Activism and Values Informed Education (AVIE) Clarke Compass Award winners.

Hayden DeGross ’21, Rashaud Colbert ’21, Kylee Allen ’22, Mariah Pellino ’21, Samantha Wiederholt ’21, and Desaray Bordner ’23 received funding from the AVIE scholarship to create an action plan against systemic racism – though how they did so was left up to them. Clarke alumna and Board of Trustees member Jenifer Westphal ‘84, who sponsored the scholarship, said this was largely by design.

“It was intentional to not give you a syllabus. You don’t know where philanthropy will take you,” said Westphal, who, teary-eyed, addressed the students after viewing the film. “I’ve been involved in philanthropic work for a very long time. Through my husband and our foundation, we’ve been able to help so many people. And I think some of the tears are joy in the fact that you all could have this experience, and that’s exactly what the Compass scholarship was set out to do. Everybody wants to do huge things, to change the world, but I’ve learned in my philanthropic work that it’s one person at a time, one place at a time.”

The students were given a stipend and paired with mentors to aid in their planning and research. Initially, they had sought a more focused event for their project, considering collaborations with local school districts and healthcare facilities. But as the students worked with members of the Marshallese community and heard their stories, they realized that creating awareness could have a greater impact.

“Originally, we thought we were going to focus on this very medically-driven project and help and advocate through that,” Pellino said. “After talking to them, it was their language, their culture – these are the things that were more important to them.”

“That was the most special part – having the opportunity to listen to their stories and then trying to take those and express them to the greater public in a really meaningful way,” added DeGross. “It was a nine-minute video, but I think we had somewhere between two, two-and-a-half hours of footage. Every single person in this project had their place and had their role, and it wouldn’t have come together if we didn’t have everybody.”

The film features three members of the Marshallese community describing how atomic testing conducted by the United States following World War II turned the islands into a fallout zone. Stan Samson, pastor of the Marshallese Paradise Church in Dubuque, is featured in the documentary and shares the devastating impacts of the testing.

“My mother was one of the kids who was outside playing – and here comes snow. They thought it was snow. So, she would pick up the flakes and eat the flakes. It was bad,” Samson said. “One of the islands was gone; people were sick.”

With their homes made unlivable, a third of the Marshallese population relocated to the United States, including Dubuque, Iowa. Soon, the Marshallese faced new challenges like language barriers and work documentation issues. At the end of the documentary, the AVIE students present ways viewers can support the Marshallese people, such as petitioning the Marshallese language to be added to popular translate apps like Google and Microsoft.

The film is already receiving recognition from groups like the City of Dubuque and the Dubuque Community School District. Looking forward, the students and mentors feel it lays a solid framework for the next group of AVIE scholars – and the community- to build from.

“This was the second time I’ve seen this video; this is the second time I’ve cried; this is the second time I’ve gotten goosebumps, and the second time I’ve felt like I need to go out into the community and take action,” said Dean for the College of Professional and Graduate Studies Paula Schmidt, Ed.D., who also served as a mentor for the program. “I think what [the students] have done is so far-reaching and long-lasting.”

To view the film and learn how you can support the Marshallese community in Dubuque, visit https://www.clarke.edu/intranet-current-students/avie-marshallese.