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Award is catalyst for further commitment to human rights

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton

While working to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in both her professional and personal life, Joan Menzies has a new catalyst for continuing that commitment as she retires this month from more than 30 years at Washington State University in Pullman and Spokane.

After receiving the 2009 Carl Maxey Social Justice Award at the Women of Achievement Luncheon last fall, she agreed to join the YWCA’s Social Justice Committee to help them pursue their mission of eliminating racism.

Joan Menzies
Joan Menzies continues quest to promote diversity.

With the award, Joan believes, comes accountability and a challenge to protect human rights.

While believing Spokane’s heart is in the right place when it comes to diversity and eliminating racism, she knows there is still much work to be done.

“I have talked to people of color in the community who feel that while we have made progress, Spokane is not a welcoming place for them,” Joan said.

The committee is working to help the YWCA address how it will move forward to acknowledge racism and how the organization can play a key community role in ending discrimination.

One effort will be to join in the national YWCA’s “Stand Against Racism” Day on April 30.  The local YWCA has gathered people involved in diversity issues to plan the day’s activities.

Along with her involvement with the committee, Joan has accepted an invitation to join the YWCA Board of Directors, beginning this month.

A member of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in East Central Spokane, she believes faith and social justice go hand in hand.  For her, being Christian or a person of any faith is synonymous with believing “we should love one another and value each person.”

Joan grew up in California, moving as her father was promoted in a national retail store.

 “Even as a child, I had a foundation with my parents who looked at fairness and discussed injustices they observed.  I remember my father being outraged about how a neighboring Hispanic family was treated,” Joan said.

In 1962, after her Catholic high school studies in La Puente, Calif., Joan attended local community colleges and ended up at California Polytechnic where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. During this time, she met her husband, Doug, who was studying to be an architect.  They married in 1966 after they graduated.

The first years of their married life mirrored the family moves of her youth as she and Doug traveled around the country pursuing careers and education.

They went from Pacific Grove, Calif., to Doug’s hometown near Chicago, to Auburn, Ala., where Doug secured a teaching job.

During her three years in the South, she was surprised by visible signs of discrimination, a deep-rooted bias beneath the surface of a cordial environment.

“I thought things had changed,” she said “until I saw separate waiting rooms for whites and African Americans,” she said.

“I was in Alabama when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were murdered and remember people cheering.  I knew I didn’t want my two daughters raised in a world that hated.”

The Menzies left the South for a year in Minneapolis where Doug earned a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. Then they returned to California.

While he worked as an architect, she filled her time with her daughters and volunteering.   A lifelong Catholic, Joan taught religious education, volunteered at a co-op preschool and decided to return to school to earn her master’s degree at California State University in Fullerton.

In 1978, the Menzies moved to Pullman when Doug accepted a teaching position at Washington State University.

There, Joan attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church where she served on the parish council.  She said the “open, progressive parish” encouraged women to take leadership roles.

She started her career at WSU in student affairs positions from 1984.  From 1991 to 1996, she was an assistant dean of students, associate director of orientation and interim director of new student orientation. 

In her work, Joan determined she needed to learn more about diversity and social justice as she became aware of the challenges students of color faced in their daily lives.  As she served as staff advisor for various student organizations, she also made a commitment to help students feel comfortable and supported.

As part of a team at WSU, she participated in a conflict resolution program that gave students, staff and faculty an opportunity to bring people together to talk, listen and resolve their conflicts.

“We addressed everything from two employees who could not work together to students who needed intervention and a neutral party who would facilitate a dialogue and allow students to come up with solutions,” she said.

In 1996, the Menzies moved to Spokane, where she continued her work with WSU at the Riverpoint campus in downtown Spokane.

After arriving in Spokane Joan was drawn deeper into activism when black students at Gonzaga University’s Law School were targets of hate.  Incidents ranged from threatening phone calls and letters to racist graffiti.

Joan joined a committee of Gonzaga and community people to address the incidents. As a result the Task Force on Race Relations (TFRR) was established.  She was a founding member.

She also was a key player in organizing the TFRR’s annual Congress of Race Relations, which brought together students, educators and community members to dialogue and identify ways to eliminate racism.

The group, later renamed the Task Force on Human Relations, has since disbanded, but its commitment continues through various diversity-focused initiatives in the community and the ongoing commitment of Joan and other members of the TFHR.

Joan, who served on the WSU Diversity Committee, has volunteered in Spokane to help plan and participate in Unity in the Community, Japan Week, the Asian Cultural Awareness Month, the Spokane Minority Advisory and Resource Team (SMART), the annual Get Connected Student of Color Career Day and many other activities and initiatives that both celebrate and address diversity.

“I was fortunate that WSU supported the work I did to address diversity and identify solutions to discrimination,” Joan said.

For information, call 455-5092.