No, Zack Ritter is not dead; I promise. Zack is alive and well, but he has moved on from the University of Redlands to continue pursuing his dream of promoting diversity and inclusion in higher education. He is now at Harvey Mudd, one of the Claremont colleges, as their Assistant Dean of Institutional Diversity.
But who is this Zack Ritter? And why am I pegging him as a “woke Jedi?” When he first arrived on campus, many students asked the same thing. It didn’t take long for the campus to welcome him to the family.
Recent alum, Jewel Patterson, recalls the first time she saw Zack conversing with her friends. She thought, “I guess it’s just this white guy. What’s so special about him?”
Zack was the University of Redlands’ Associate Director of Campus Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) for two and a half years. He assisted Leela MadhavaRau, Associate Dean of Campus Diversity and Inclusion, with the four different centers — Center for Gender Justice, Multicultural Center, PRIDE Center, and International Student Services — within CDI, helping with anything from Diwali Dinner to women’s and DUDES talks.
“Waking [up] every day at Redlands,” Zack said, “it’s a new day for me to share some of my passion and my vision [for] the world.” His vision was [for] a society where, “everyone is valued, people get good education … [and] are able to raise [a] family if they choose to do so.”
He truly is a champion for diversity and betterment.
“That’s the thing about Zack,” junior Marcus Garcia observed. “He doesn’t fake none of his activism and what he’s passionate about. This is literally who he is and what he lives for.”
So why is Zack so passionate about bettering society? Zack credits his interest and passion for diversity and inclusion work to his family and education. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but much of their family had passed during the war, which resulted in Zack having a “pretty small family.”
“Every time there was a get together, it was very small,” Zack said. “That absence of humans in my family made me realize that history is not just something that happens in a book.” Zack stresses the importance of understanding history, which he integrates into his classes and talks.
“History affects people’s lives,” Zack continued. “Trauma in a family is passed down the generations.”
His parents also greatly affected his career choice. Both of Zack’s parents pursued careers that supported people and communities. His dad worked as a city planner and had what Zack called a more “European” or “Jewish” distrust of people that may have resulted from the trauma of living in a German refugee camp. His mom was an ESL (English as Second Language) teacher who had what Zack called, an “American-ness” that made her open and accepting towards all different types of people.
Though his parents were quite different, “the message is clear from both sides of my family,” Zack said. “Both of [their personalities] combined into me [and made me] someone who’s both a realist and an idealist [when it comes to] how the world can change.”
What many may not know about Zack is that he originally wanted to be a politician, a “social justice campaigner” of sorts, but he realized that he could “do more and educate people more about these issues as an educator.”
He also recounted how his high school history teacher fueled his love for social justice. He said that Mr. Takagaki changed the U.S government class into a social justice curriculum. “I’ve always admired and looked up to him,” Zack confided. He has stayed in contact with Mr. Takagaki, who has provided Zack with advice and class materials.
“It was a real Jedi moment,” Zack said with gusto. “He was passing the lightsaber off to me… It was very cool.”
Through his realization and help from others, Zack began to focus on education, and educate he did.
He currently teaches (by Skyping into class once a week since his departure from the University) a First Year Seminar called “Revolution Might Be Televised,” in which students learn about how eight different social movements affected people then and today by utilizing songs, YouTube clips, and other mediums.
Even outside of class, he continued to pass on knowledge.
Zack was the Community Director for Fairmont Hall and assisted with holding many programs, such as screenings and activities with different clubs including, but not limited to, Orale and BLACC.
Sophomore Tinbite Legesse recalled that some of her most memorable moments from freshman year were the “late night talks in Fairmont with William [Zack’s FYS Peer Advisor] and Zack.” Like many students, Tinbite left the conversation with personal revelations.
In addition to helping students organize events, he gave his own talks and hosted discussions in different residential halls, particularly regarding sexism, racism and classism. Zack and Reggie Robles, Senior Associate Dean of Student Life, started the program Dudes Understanding Diversity and Ending Stereotypes (DUDES) in the Spring of 2014 to discover and explore toxic masculinity. Zack was also part of QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), a suicide prevention program that helps to train students and faculty on how to best respond to potentially dangerous situations, and the University-wide Council for Inclusiveness and Community (UCIC).
Junior Damara Pratt worked with Zack on the Council and said that one piece of wisdom that Zack passed on was of the importance of coalition-building.
“Zack advocated for grassroots efforts,” Pratt said. “He fought bureaucratic systems and led through a strong student network. He believed in altering the larger climate of the campus by organizing student-focused events as catalysts for change.”
Zack explained that by connecting students together, he wanted to “[help] students see the common humanity in each other.” People of different identities can identify the common interests within a social justice vision, and they can work together to create that vision, because as Zack says, “we can’t do it all in one lifetime.”
Sophomore, Yelena Bivian, shared her story about Zack’s help with starting her organization, Orale, an organization that strives to create safe spaces for students who identify as Hispanic or Latino:
“When I first decided to start Orale, I didn’t know who to turn to [and] someone recommended Zack,” Yelena said. “At this time I had no idea who he was or if he would be interested. I pitched the idea to him and he was immediately on board. He took a chance on a shy person who he didn’t even know. He invested time on an idea that I didn’t even know if it was possible. When Orale was finally approved I rushed to tell him and we realized that this was just the beginning. I will always be thankful to Zack for taking a chance on me and the club without his enthusiasm to see this happen Orale might not be as successful as it is.”
Zack played an important role in supporting those who wanted to make a difference on campus, even when they didn’t know how to. He was a strong influencer even for those who didn’t know they had passions for social justice, and worked towards getting more people on board with pursuing a more just society.
“I see my role as … changing hearts and minds,” Zack said. “The more change agents I can touch, the fewer Holocausts and [less] destruction [and] pain that my family had to have, fewer families will have to face that and have to deal with that.”
He has succeeded in changing many minds through education, but he has also been able to change hearts by showing compassion and by being unapologetically passionate and honest about himself and his activism.
“He’s just so honest with his growth,” Jewel said. He wasn’t afraid to reveal what he didn’t know and he was never afraid to ask. “He was so comfortable with himself that he made me feel comfortable too.”
“You […] have to wear your passions on your sleeve or else students are not going to see that kind of love that you exude and the passion you exude,” Zack said. This kind of love and support was essential to his connection with, and impact on, students on campus.
Many students would agree with sophomore, Michaela Syage’s, statement that she “considered [Zack] a friend more than anything.”
Maybe it was his quirky laugh or his masterful use of slang, but many students found that they were comfortable talking about almost everything with Zack, whether it be about activism, pop culture, or personal troubles. Zack is some sort of magical magnet of openness, because more than one student has ended up in his office in moments of hardship with no memory of how they got there.
“He always seemed to have time for everyone,” senior Crystal Marshall commented.
Friendships blossomed and shifted people’s attitudes about their activism and about themselves.
Marcus commented on learning how to appreciate the tedious, but necessary, aspects of activism.
“I’ve learned to be open and patient enough with [others] as you are with yourself,” Marcus said. Additionally, he wants to learn how to control the fire in his belly as well as Zack does.
Junior, Jordan Thompson first met Zack during Summer Bridge and recalled how Zack’s patience and understanding taught him how to listen to others. In part because of Zack’s support, Jordan achieved his goal of becoming a Community Assistant in Williams last year and in Merriam this year.
For Jewel, she has learned that she is unstoppable. Even when she just had a seedling of an idea, but didn’t know how to carry it out, Zack would say either, “Yeah, fuck it, why not?” or “Yeah, just do it, why not?” depending on the day. She said, “Every time I’m stuck, I ask myself, ‘What would Zack say? What would Zack do?’ W-W-Z-D.”
While he was officially an administrator at the University, he was also, unofficially, a friend to so many.
Zack was often seen in Hunsaker Plaza, handing out flyers and animatedly chatting with students and faculty alike. Junior Damara Pratt recounted countless times she saw him running into and then speaking with students. “One time I had an entire lunch and watched him bounce from one group to the next while he held the same salad for an hour.”
In his short time at the University, he has built upon what others have begun and he’s built his own programs and traditions from scratch.
Zack stated that he could not take credit for the increased activism and subsequent responses in the University community. “I’m an enthusiastic cheerleader [for the students],” he laughed. The image of Zack in his signature quarter-zip turtleneck sweater cheering enthusiastically on the sidelines for students, with one hand on the handlebar of his bike, came to mind.
But upon listening to what students had to say about Zack, it was clear that Zack was much more inspirational than he gives himself credit for. His impact will extend beyond his time at the University. “He definitely passed the lightsaber down,” said Jordan.
We will remember him for his human-ness and his belief in humanity. We are undeniably sad, but infinitely happy, for Zack.
“I’m happy for him, it’s better for him,” said Jordan. “I’d love to have him stay in my closet forever and give me advice when I need it, but he’s a human being and he has serious potential to change the world, and that’s what he’s doing.”
As Zack said, “The Jedi journey continues. While I miss Redlands and I’m sad to be leaving, I understand that the social justice educator also needs to keep lighting that fire in their belly.” Zack meant the fire within himself. He understands that he, too, still has a lot to learn, which is why he is now at Harvey Mudd, facing the new challenge of creating passion for social justice within an exclusively STEM student body.
In the future, he hopes to have a larger stage to reach more audiences and communities with his message. He’ll definitely go on to light many more metaphorical fires, both within himself and within others, and make the world a more enlightened and warm place.
[photos provided by Lidya Stamper]