In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have asked Jennifer Herrera, special assistant to the dean of the College and senior adviser for diversity initiatives, to be our guest blogger. Jennifer has an interesting story to tell about how active community engagement awakened in her. As always, we look forward to hearing your comments.
–Shirley M. Collado
Since we are in the midst of our annual celebration honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve been thinking about what it means to be actively engaged in critical issues, and what it means to actively pursue Dr. King’s philosophy of the “beloved community.” I don’t have a scholarly answer. I can only attempt to answer through my own personal evolution and understanding.
I never used to consider myself an activist—or diversity “worker,” social justice advocate, an ally, or even a feminist for that matter. These labels have become attached to me by virtue of my work at Middlebury, growing up in a queer family, raising a multiethnic child in a predominantly white environment, and my personal interests.
As a young person, I wasn’t socially conscious; I was not involved in political, social, or community action. I remember once seeing people marching the streets in my predominantly black and Latino neighborhood, near the Columbia University campus, protesting against Apartheid in South Africa. I was 13 and couldn’t relate to the plight of black South Africans from where I stood on 121st Street and Amsterdam. At the time, I didn’t understand why I should be concerned about what was happening with people I didn’t know or who were so far away. I didn’t realize that the same racism and oppression they were experiencing was similar to what had been happening in my own country for nearly 400 years.
It wasn’t until I attended college that I learned the importance of using one’s privilege to advocate for the underprivileged, the importance of giving a voice to the silenced. I learned that social injustice anywhere diminishes us all. And yet, although I knew these things, I didn’t actively engage myself. Not until much later.
I first came to Middlebury in 2002 from Penn State University, where I had worked in events management and marketing. Middlebury is nothing like Penn State—a place so big, compartmentalized, and hierarchical, with an unapproachable administration—and Middlebury’s differences awakened a hope I hadn’t experienced before. Don’t get me wrong, Middlebury is not perfect, but I have witnessed significant, positive institutional changes in my eight years here.
I see Middlebury as sincerely striving to become what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” because this institution values inclusion, encourages collaboration and coalition building, and empowers all of us to become our best selves. The Middlebury I know is not afraid to be challenged about its weaknesses, to learn from its mistakes. It shows potential for evolving into a fully integrated community.
Here at Middlebury, I have been blessed with having the opportunity to make a difference on many levels. I have been able to work closely with students, faculty, staff, and administrators on issues and projects that shape the College community—to use the privilege that comes from my administrative role to help students in need. I found my activist voice here. (And I learned that my voice mattered when students nominated and chose me for the Staff Feminist of the Year Award in 2006.)
I understand now what I did not understand many years ago: The dream of a beloved community will stay in the realm of slumber unless we each engage our talents and voices to improve the status quo. And while collaboration among all of us is the only way to make lasting change, we still have to take some lumps or put stress on the pressure points along the way. Taking action will lead to the world Dr. King envisioned.
Do you agree with me about what a beloved community is? Do you see Middlebury the way I do, or do you see it differently? Do you feel empowered to create the change you believe in?