50 Years Of Activism, Education Highlight Seattle Central College's History

Sep 22, 2016

Sheila Edwards Lange, the current president of Seattle Central College, stares out her fourth-floor office window at a changing city. From this building on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, she can see the Space Needle, Key Arena, Puget Sound and some mountains off in the distance.

But she can also see cranes – symbols of a booming city and all the change that brings with it.

Seattle Central College has been at the center of many of this city’s changes over the last five decades. And it’s about to embark on a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary.

If you live in Western Washington, you’ve probably seen its campus on the news as both the scene of rallies crying for unity and peace, and demonstrations involving tear gas and burning barrels. Both have happened here.

The 50-year-old campus has long been a center for social activism, and Edwards Lange says that’s an important part of Seattle Central’s history.

“It’s led to important change in our region that opened doors for people for whom the doors were closed,” she said.

This campus saw the height of the civil rights movement, demonstrations over the Vietnam War, protests against capitalism, and cries for equality for minority communities of various races, sexualities and backgrounds.

“When people came together to talk about what was happening in our community, and what they’d like to see changed, many of those conversations started here on our campus,” Edwards Lange said, “and worked their ways into policymakers and legislation that change our region and, in fact, our state significantly.”

Four years after the college was established, Mildred Ollee began teaching here. Eventually she would become Seattle Central’s president, from 2003 to 2010. She remembers rallies and marches and campus occupations. That’s part of the mission here, she says. It’s not just coursework and a degree, but growth for people in the way they relate to the world.

During her time here, it was called Seattle Central Community College.

“The community college as we know it is a social justice movement all in itself,” Ollee said. “It is social activism.”

Community colleges brought post-secondary education to people who never had access before. In addition to courses preparing people for the workforce, the colleges taught English to those with a different first language, and created opportunities for people who might not have had access to larger, four-year institutions.

Two years ago, Seattle Central College and its counterparts across the city dropped the word “community” from their titles. But not from the mission, said Edwards Lange. Access and opportunity – and service to the community as a whole, not just its student body – are still crucial parts of Seattle Central’s purpose.

Edwards Lange wants students to be able to live nearby, which is getting harder to accommodate as prices rise in Seattle. She also wants the college to be able to grow – another challenge in such a dense neighborhood.

The city’s rapid changes are both opportunities and impediments to those goals.

“I hope the president who’s sitting here 50 years from now will look back and say we did a great job slowing that divide, that we did a great job providing that training so that students from Rainier Beach and West Seattle and Queen Anne can have access to the jobs of the future,” Edwards Lange said.

And more access to college means more opportunities for a homegrown workforce, she said.

“We import talent from California, Wisconsin, China, India, everywhere, because we’re not doing a good job as a region providing access for local students to get the training they need for the jobs of the future,” she said.

Ollee can recall struggles to secure property for the college, or to accommodate growth within the confines of a busy neighborhood. She says she hopes the president who celebrates the college’s centennial, in 2066, can be as proud of Seattle Central’s history as she is.

“I want to see us continue to believe in transforming ourselves as an institution, in transforming the people we come in contact with, and in transforming our city so we more clearly understand what we need to do with people to help change their lives,” she said. “And [I hope] that we’ll have the space and the buildings to do that.”

Ollee smiles.

“I had to add a little protest in there,” she said.

“Well,” Edwards Lange replied, “that’s the Seattle Central way.”