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Dr. Jill Gill

Past is prologue


Dr. Jill Gill always wanted to be a teacher.

When she was in first grade, she was certain that she wanted to be a first-grade teacher.

"But then I was absolutely sure that I wanted to teach the second grade, the third grade and every grade after that," Gill told Boise Weekly.

Her dreams only got bigger over the years, leading her to Boise State's College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, where she teaches multiple courses on American history and serves as the department's graduate director.

"I'm a Bronco through and through. They're going to bury me in orange and blue, with an Idaho state flag over my coffin," she said.

But it's not that Gill doesn't challenge Idaho with coming to terms with its own checkered history. In fact, Gill served as guest editor for the latest installment of The Blue Review (enclosed in this issue), which deconstructs Idaho's past and present race relations.

Talk to me about some of your first personal awareness of racial conflict.

I was pretty poor when I was a graduate student at Temple University, so I found housing in west Philadelphia, where I was very much a minority. It was very tense and racially charged. I did a lot of listening and watching; a lot of really gritty conflict, fear and anger. And I began to understand how central race is to every aspect of American history: religion, economics, culture, war.

I presume that this was pretty far, physically and culturally, from your own upbringing.

I grew up in Seattle, but it was a pretty white bubble. I remember the first time I got on a train in Philadelphia and I looked around to realize I was the only white person in the car. I felt nervous at first, but then it started me thinking about race in a new way.

But I'm guessing that a fair amount of your students at Boise State haven't experienced anything like what you saw at their age.

I tell them, "We're going to go on a journey together." Every person has important information for our dialogue, even if they grew up in a white bubble.

Idaho was one of the last states to acknowledge the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday [1990], and even then, legislators insisted that it be called Idaho Human Rights Day. Wasn't that an insult?

It was a compromise to get the holiday passed. And yes, that was a way to dilute the Martin Luther King aspect of the day.

Do you think Idahoans would embrace, or even recognize the next Martin Luther King?

I don't know. It would depend on what form that person came to us as.

But aren't Dr. King's disciples and inspirations all around us now?

If that new version of Martin Luther King came to us as a gay man or woman, Idaho would have a horrible problem with that. If he or she came to us as a Latino activist, they would probably have a problem there, too. It appears that the only kind of activists that Idaho likes are states' rights activists. For some reason, any other kind of activist isn't considered a patriot; he or she is considered a socialist or radical.

A good amount of your scholarship has focused on Idaho's history with the Aryan Nations.

In many respects, there were positive and negative impacts from that experience. The Aryan Nations have been very good for us in that we were so embarrassed; that it inspired the very first grassroots human rights movement in Idaho. We have human rights task forces, the Anne Frank Memorial, the Black History Museum; they're all running off of the energy from our fight with the Aryan Nations. But the negative piece of that is that it simplified our dialogue. We wanted our fight against the Aryan Nations to absolve us and prove that we were always good people. And that's not the whole truth.

And how does our racial history shape Idaho's present?

There are so many relative stories that involve civil rights in all of your headlines: the current debate over states' rights, the debate over Medicaid expansion, immigration, LGBT rights.

Where does your passion for all of this come from?

I've always been interested in religion, human rights and social justice. We're talking about all of the stories and narratives where you wrestle with the truth of being a human in this complex world. In all of that, I have a role to play as a historian and I take it with great responsibility.