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Dear Readers,

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?

2 Responses to “Our Beloved Community”

  1. Hector Vila says:

    Jennifer,

    Thank you for your honesty — and it’s great to hear your voice on the “Dean’s Blog”!

    I agree with what you say — the process towards engaging social justice issues is slow. And I agree that this campus, this school, Middlebury, has tremendous potential. I’ve said as much to Ron and Alison plenty of times.

    But we have to face some facts, I think: the MLK Keynote, yesterday, was, well, woefully attended. It was embarrassing to me and I had no explanation when MP12 asked me, “Why? Is this what happens at Midd?”

    Why, then? Are we looking into this?

    1/2 of Palana was there, too, the other half working. This brings up another problem I think: “minorities,” for lack of a better word, and international students are the student labor class on campus; this mirrors everything else associated with labor on our campus, our community and our cities. With all the potential we have at Midd, this is the best we can come up with? The most challenged students, those needing the most time to work on developing their skills and knowledge are the ones that do the labor on campus. That’s justice in the Dr. King world?

    Then, as was raised during the “read in” of Dr. Akom’s article on Eco-Apartheid, Monday at the CCSRE, we have the problem of quality of life and the actual “apartheid” that takes place in our stress-driven, production-driven classrooms where certain members of our community, students that is, usually of color, are punished because their respective backgrounds don’t meet the ideals of the punishing compression of our semester and the amount of work that students must undertake.

    We’re not asking these tough questions. We’re not examining alternatives. We’re not putting our shoulders to the creative wheel and trying to imagine a healthier alternative. We never wonder, for instance, why J-Term is enjoyed by so many and why, right now during J-Term, students are already talking about how they dread the coming of the Spring term. Why are dread and education accepted as synonymous? And are the relationship between dread, education and social justice?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do spend every day — and every class I teach — trying to understand how what I do relates to students in equitable ways.

  2. Topher Hunt says:

    Beautiful words.

    I see an environment where members’ talents are discursively engaged to the betterment of the community, as a self-reinforcing thing. The more receptive community members are to each other’s talents and perspectives, the more our attempts at contribution are acknowledged and honored, the more empowerment we will experience, and the more dedication we will model for others in turn.

    In this chicken-and-egg situation, I place slightly more importance on the element of acknowledgement and validation of each others’ contributions. Too many good-willed attempts to get involved and meet some need of the community, become fragmented and even counterproductive when other community members don’t adequately reach out to integrate and align efforts. I’ve started to practice thanking people when I see them putting attention into their “beloved community”, knowing how much I have wished for that appreciation at times.

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