February 14, 2014

Tunnel of Oppression open Feb. 24-27

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill.  -- Despite being a successful Southern Illinois University Carbondale student Kayce Gibbs failed the “brown bag test.” 

Gibbs’ skin color was darker than the brown paper bag organizers of SIU’s Tunnel of Oppression had so she was directed to the back of the room, just as she would have been in the 1950’s.  To ensure all participants experienced racism, the test standard was reversed and Gibbs found herself at the front of the room with lighter-skinned people ordered to the rear. 

This was one of many eye-opening experiences that Gibbs, a junior majoring in political science from St. Louis, encountered during her first visit to the Tunnel of Oppression.  Opening eyes is what the tunnel is all about, organizers say.  

The Tunnel of Oppression returns to the lower level of Grinnell Hall on the SIU campus Feb. 24-27, from 5-9 p.m., and the public is welcome.  The last tour begins at 8:30 p.m.  

At one point, Gibbs found herself looking at a tombstone, emblazoned with R.I.P., bearing her reflection. 

“That had a big impact on me,” she said.  “I realized that just because you didn’t die today doesn’t mean it couldn’t be you who dies tomorrow.  It really made me think about unnecessary violence and retaliation.” 

For Marvin Dixon, a senior communication studies major from Rockford, and Alexander Martin, a master’s student in higher education and educational administration from Normal, the world took on an entirely new look as experienced through the eyes of the late William “Corey” Gowin, a tunnel community participant.  Gowin, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair, spoke of being invisible and overlooked.  

“He talked about how we all want to be accepted and how if we work together we can understand what is happening, overcome and make things better,” Dixon said. 

“Corey made it personal for me.  He put a face on being invisible and took my blinders off,” Martin added.  “Corey and the others gave me real insight into what people experience and live with and into different cultures and social issues.” 

Aaron Adams, a senior from Flossmoor with a double major in advertising and sociology discovered during his tour that even a mundane trip to a public restroom can be traumatic for transgender individuals as they may experience oppression and discrimination for using the restroom they identify with. 

Courtney Taylor, a senior from Chicago majoring in exercise science first visited the exhibit with friends as a freshman.  She found herself “exposed to various forms of oppression that I had never really thought about before.” 

Each year, the featured themes are a closely guarded secret to assure the biggest impression on participants.  In years past, experiences have focused on race, gender, body image, class, physical ability, religion, homophobia, suicide, drug abuse, immigration, gun violence, sexual orientation discrimination, the objectification of women, child abuse, retaliation and violence, cultural biases, and various other social issues and forms of discrimination and oppression. 

“The tunnel attempts to bring about awareness of all types of oppression within society… so the viewers will be more conscious of these acts, feelings and behaviors,” Adams said.  

Martin, who has helped with subsequent tunnels, said, “One of the most common responses we get from people is that they didn’t even recognize these issues.  This gives them a front row seat to experience what is really going on in society.   It takes the blinders off for people.”  

The tour is free.  The impact is often priceless, participants say.  

“You never know what lesson you will learn and that is the beauty of the event.  Everyone takes something different out of the Tunnel and applies it to their own life,” Taylor said. 

About 75-110 students and community members volunteer each year to create the intense, realistic experiences that comprise the event.  The tours feature at least 10 different themes, each quite different, and each impacting visitors differently, Alfred Jackson, University Housing education and outreach coordinator said.  

“We want people to see the world outside their personal boxes.  It’s not always black and white in life,” Jackson said.  “Those who come will experience what it is like to be treated unfairly, to be laughed at or mocked, to be invisible. We want to increase understanding and discussion to bring about positive change.” 

 “Visitors will realize that at the end of the day, we are all the same,” Dixon added.  

The event draws visitors from hundreds of miles around.  Organizers cap attendance at about 600 each night, with a maximum of 20 people per tour.  Because of the intense nature, visitors must be at least 17.   Sponsors include University Housing and the Black Togetherness Organization. 

To reserve a tour spot, contact Andre Burns Jr. at 618/536-2054 or by email at aburns@siu.edu at least one day in advance.  Indicate the number of people attending and the preferred date and time.  Participants must arrive 10 minutes prior to their reservation to secure their spots.  Each tour wraps up with a short debriefing with staff from SIU’s Center for Inclusive Excellence, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services, and The Women’s Center in Carbondale.