“Rock Your Mocs” event spurs debate

Michael McKay

While 50 degree temperature may be forcing WKU students, faculty and staff to wear warm shoes, a national organization is encouraging people to “rock” moccasins.

WKU is participating in “Rock Your Mocs” this year but those on WKU’s faculty and staff email lists woke up to a charged debate Wednesday morning, spurred by a reminder email for the event sent out by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

Jackie Pillow, assistant director of Graduate and Alumni Relations, encouraged people to participate in “Rock Your Mocs,” which, according to Pillow, would “support Native American Heritage Month [b]y wearing moccasins all day — to class, to work, around the house, to the store, etc.”

“Rock Your Mocs” started in New Mexico, and has grown to other schools with a large Native population according to the event’s website.

The email immediately caught the attention of Elizabeth Winkler, an associate professor in the English Department.

Winkler, who identifies as Cherokee, said the presentation of the email “was not well thought out.”

Winkler sent back a message to Pillow and copied all faculty and staff saying, “A bunch of white people wearing moccasins honors diversity. Take a walk in my shoes… Seriously?”

Other faculty and staff sounded off on the event or the constant amount of emails, perpetuating a large stream of replies.

After participating in the email exchange, Victoria LaPoe, an assistant professor for the school of Journalism and Broadcasing, said that she feels that the “Rock Your Mocs” isn’t the most constructive way to talk about Native American culture.

“You should go spend time in the culture, spend time with natives, and I’m not saying that people on the email list weren’t doing this — but there needs to be a healthy debate.”

LaPoe, who also identifies as Cherokee, said she reached out the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion to help foster that kind of debate. As of Friday afternoon she is still waiting for a response.

But in the meantime, LaPoe said after her response she received 15-20 emails from other faculty and staff with a range of opinions.

“To me when I was talking about education, it’s about connecting and understanding what you’re talking about, to a culture, to a group,” she said.

Winkler said a clarification email from Andrea Garr-Barnes, director of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, cleared up a lot of her original perceptions.

“We may be a little hypersensitive to slights,” Winkler said, referring to the original email.

Garr-Barnes’ email said her office appreciated input from the email exchange, adding, “Western Kentucky University’s participation in ‘National Rock Your Mocs Day’ provides campus community constituents with an opportunity to use our privilege to remind ourselves and the larger community that we have a moral obligation to use our voices in solidarity.”

Garr-Barnes and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion declined an interview request.

Richard Miller, chief diversity officer, said in an email that “Rock Your Mocs” is one option people can consider to “express their understanding and appreciation for the contributions Native Americans have made to our country.”

Winkler said it was good sign that the campus had the kind of debate it did online.

“At least we’re paying attention,” she said.