Indigenous People's Day Interview with Eileen Jimenez of Highline College's TRiO Program

Community Engagement
Alina Santillan

On the second Monday of October 2014, Seattle became the third place in the United States to acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day, a proposal that was originally made to the United Nations by the American Indian Movement in 1977. In the past four years, it has spread to over 70 places in the United States and has locally become a day to celebrate global Indigenous cultures.

We'll be celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day Monday, October 8th on KEXP by highlighting Indigenous musicians throughout The Afternoon Show with guest host Gabriel Teodros and on El Sonido with DJ Miss Ashley, in addition to special interviews like this one with Eileen Jimenez of Highline College's TRiO Program.

KEXP: Can you explain what the TRiO Program at Highline College is?

Eileen Jimenez: The TRiO Program is a federally funded program. Our main mission is to help low income and/or First-Generation college students persist and earn a bachelor's degree. So, we work here at Highline College with community college students so that they can transfer to a four-year institution.

How can people support the work that the true program does? 

I think there is a lot of different kinds of support that we are looking for. Sometimes we need people who are in careers that our students want to go into. I'm a counselor, but I don't know what being an engineer is like. So, if people already have that career, it would be awesome for them to reach out to us and say "I want to be a mentor to a student," then we can connect them. A lot of times our students are the first in their family to go to college, so they don't always have people who are already professionals in the field that they want to be in. And sometimes we have networking events and things like that. Also, we have donors who donate money. We have one specific donor who makes it possible for us to give five scholarships to our students. So, sometimes people can help in monetary ways, as well. Yeah, there's just a lot of different kinds of ways that people can get involved. 

That's wonderful, and hopefully, people will do that. We're talking about Indigenous communities here and celebrating them and acknowledging that Indigenous communities and Native Americans still exist. That it's not something of the past but people who are here, and they need pathways and access to success. What are the ways in which the TRiO Program is working with Native American or Indigenous communities?

All of our students mainly identify as low-income First-Generation college students, but in addition to that, a lot of our students have different intersecting identities so some of our students also identify as Indigenous students — and that's both Native Americans here to North America — and then also students who are Indigenous to what we know as Mexico. Sometimes, it's connecting them to each other, like a support group. We're also in the process of starting a three-part program that's called Indigenizing Spaces. So, we're collaborating with people here on campus and also the Indigenous Student Club to put on different events. When people think of Native Americans they think, "oh, it's just people who are native to what we know as North America, right." But I also have students who were really close to their Indigenous identity from Mexico or things like that. Sometimes it's [about] legitimizing their feelings and their connections to their families. 

For the first event, we're going to have someone come to talk to students about plant medicine. The second event is going to be someone who will work with our students to learn about storytelling, music, drumming, and things like that. And then the third event is going to be someone who's going to teach our students how to bead because a lot of our students identify beading or all these other activities as a healing practice. 

That's incredible. I don't know of another program let alone a college who has a program where they are intentionally focused on Indigenizing spaces to create a more welcoming inclusive culture. That definitely seems like culture work, whereas I think sometimes —​​​​​​​ especially now —​​​​​​​ people are so focused on diversifying spaces, but are not setting up those spaces to be culturally relevant or inclusive to the people that they want in those spaces. It's incredible that there is seemingly intention behind not just having a diverse community of people in a space, but how can we make this an inclusive community for those people? 

Yeah, and also just helping our students understand that it's not like this rubric. Some of our students know Indigenous stories — like I, myself, identify as someone with an Indigenous family history — but I think sometimes we are so quick to be like, well, maybe there are intergroup differences, right? I don't know if when I was in college if I would have gone to an Indigenous student club, because I didn't want people to think like, "oh, she's not Indigenous enough" or "she's not Native American." So even myself, as a program manager, sometimes I struggle with, do I check Native American? What do I check in those boxes when you are filling out forms. I think that's one of the things we wanted to do with a series of events is opening it up to people and having people build community. 

Just the idea of requiring people to fit into a mold in order to have access to higher education or to more money or to better jobs —​​​​​​​ and it sounds like the work that you're doing with TRiO is saying, here you can. There is access to these spaces and to better-paying jobs and education. And also we want you to stay connected to your culture because that's important. And I feel like especially right now there is this huge push to diversify spaces, but at what expense are we supporting people's identities and allowing them to be themselves in their workplaces? What are people leaving behind when they walk out the door to go to work or to go to school? How can we use music and art as a form of social justice? 

I think, especially as an adult, I feel like I am learning how music is really different for everybody and that's ok. I remember being in seventh and eighth grade, and think like, well everybody else likes N*Sync and everybody else likes like pop music or listening to KISS FM which, in Southern California, is the big pop radio station. And then my mom loves Juan Gabriel. And [feeling like] it's not OK for me to show that I like this other kind of "weird" music. I have to mainstream my love for music and what it means to be me. In some ways — thinking about what you were saying — feeling like I had to be a molded mainstream person.

As an adult and as I'm working with students, [I'm] honoring what music means to them and really thinking, "well, Juan Gabriel is soothing because it reminds me of the beautiful memories I have with my mom or with my family." One of the things that I do with my undocumented students is, we have a support group and sometimes we'll just play music that means a lot to us and to our families. With our second event, we're going to do storytelling and drumming and chanting together. So, thinking about how we can be different but also be together.

That totally makes sense. We need spaces to be our authentic selves and so rarely —​​​​​​​ especially for people of color, for native and Indigenous folks —​​​​​​​ there are not those spaces. In order to have that, we have to create them ourselves. I think that's really powerful, especially as a young person when you're growing and you're experiencing college and may be experiencing a lot of things for the first time that you haven't had anyone else to talk to with about the college experience, let alone being a person of color or Indigenous person in those spaces. 

And showing other people that it's OK to be your authentic self, you don't have to pretend to like this because you want to fit in, and you are valued for who you are. I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but when I think about that Disney movie Coco... I know it's like a really old simplistic way of looking at the Latino community, but I remember seeing the music on TV and I started crying, just thinking about how my life would've been different if I would have had a representation of my culture and my values on TV.

It probably would have made a very big difference in your life as a young person. There's this body of work that talks about symbolic annihilation and it's this study that people have done where when you don't see yourself represented in media as a child, the message that you are getting is that you do not matter. And it's really hard to undo that as an adult and to reframe that thinking when the world around you is constantly telling you that. And it's this way of symbolic annihilation of your identity. Yeah, it is very simplistic. And there are a lot of different identities within the Latinx culture and not just Coco but, yeah, I cried, too. And it connected to a really important piece in my heart, so I'm glad to know that wasn't just my experience. 

Why does music matter to you?

I don't know if I have the words to explain it, but when I'm really sad, I'll put on Juan Gabriel because it reminds me of my mom. I was a French literature major in college, and I love listening to Edith Piaf and I love listening to French music. It just it helps me be who I am in all the different ways that I am who I am. It's such an overly simplistic question and I know there isn't an easy answer. 

Is there anything else you want to share about TRiO? How can people get involved and support the work? 

Especially with the political climate in the U.S. right now, I think we are trying to be really intentional with the work that we do with TRiO and helping students feel that they belong in college and that they have the support that they need. I sometimes feel frustrated with the capacity that we have right in TRiO. Like one of the things that we're trying to do is expand our services here at the college to serve undocumented students. And sometimes there isn't the funding that we need, not even to just buy dinner for the support group. Even 20 dollars a month would be awesome, so I could order pizza for those students. We've had students who will maybe get a flat tire, and now they can't go to work and they're the only person in their entire family who works. Or they can't come to school because they need to work so that they can [afford to] fix that flat tire. Little things like that really impact the grand scheme of things. As a community, if we had an emergency fund, if we had donors, or we had people to donate their time or things like that, I feel excited that the program could do more for our students.

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