I grew up in a community by the ocean. In the summer months, my siblings and I would frolic by the shore for hours. We splashed in the water and called it swimming. We sunned ourselves in the warm sand, and stared right up into the bright blue skies searching for animal shapes in the passing clouds. I have many fond memories of growing up in that little town by the water. But it wasn’t always warm and wonderful there. My family was one of four families of color in town. As a result, the idea of difference was very real to me at a young age. We were the ones who were different.
My parents validated the existence of a collective experience of othering through an ongoing narrative of struggle, resilience, and resistance. My mother talked about “fighting the system” and “not letting the man hold you down.” Of course, I later learned to use words like oppression, systemic racism, privilege, patriarchy, and all of the “isms” to describe the shared experiences of people from marginalized groups.
My mother showed me what it means to stand up for what is right and just. She taught me, through her words and actions to speak truth to power, to stand up for those who can’t, and to never be satisfied with the status quo. She is what drew me to my work. It is her fire that reminds me that I cannot rest if others cannot rest. This fire pushes me every day to work for a more compassionate world that is grounded in social justice. Don’t be fooled by my kindness, my mother’s fire lives inside of me.
Sylvia Spears is Vice President for Equity & Social Justice at Emerson College
When people ask how I came to do my work, I often tell an amusing anecdote about volunteering to work on a newsletter published by students in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and being recruited to a new job while sitting on a purple couch. However, as with most things in life, the truth is more complex than that. I would say I came to this space by taking a chance, by following a desire and curiosity to find more, to do more to create change. I would also say my upbringing in Minnesota had an impact, teaching me to care deeply for others, to recognize the humanity in everyone, and to honor the beauty of living things.
I grew up believing in kindness and courage. I also grew up believing in books—in the magic of worlds that exist on something as thin and fragile as a piece of paper. I came to Emerson for higher education and changed my major several times. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I will probably never be able to answer that question with a definitive response. When I think of why I do the work I do and how I came to do it, I think about the moments in my life where there has been uncertainty or pain. In those moments, I turned to books, to the solace and hope and power of words. I have deep gratitude for words to share stories and connect beyond the page. It is through writing that I found my place, and I admire those who use words in community with others to honor humanity and find joy.
Alayne Fiore is Director of Operations and Special Assistant to the Vice President for the Social Justice Center at Emerson College
Samantha M. Ivery
In 2007, I ventured to Ghana, West Africa, with a group of students touring together in a Chamber music group. Late one evening we visited the Last Bath House located north of Cape Coast. The Last Bath House is the location where enslaved Africans of the Mid-Atlantic Slave trade were taken after being stolen and/or sold into slavery. They were supposed to bathe before the journey southward to a dungeon where they would be held before boarding slave ships to traverse the Atlantic. While at the Last Bath House, the Chamber Singers began to sing one of the Negro Spirituals they had been singing during the tour, “This Little Light of Mine.” During the song I imagined my own ancestors in chains, fearful, bathing in that river and praying for deliverance. In that moment, I came to understand what Micah, an old Testament prophet, meant when he wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
When asked what do I do for work I generally say, “research and outreach.” If given the opportunity I might add that I do this work in a higher education setting and that my work centers on understanding and addressing inequities in obtaining access to higher education. At this point, people either smile and say, “wow, that’s really important work,” or their eyes veer from direct contact with me and I listen as they search for something intelligible to say. I love both responses. I love both responses because they illustrate to me over and over again why I do this work. I am drawn to this work for the people; the people who say, “wow, that’s really important work,” and the people who cannot look me in the eye once they know my vocation.
As a Progressive Christian I have had to grapple with what it means to be a Black woman raised in settings that were racially, culturally and religiously diverse. I have had to work out what it means for me to be someone whose calling is to work for social justice and equity. To understand how I come to this work it is important to note: I have been impacted by hate and prejudice; I am here for all people and in particular those for whom society has deemed less than; there is a process I employ to do this work; and finally, as Micah said, I believe seeking justice requires both kindness and humility.
Samantha M. Ivery is Director of Diversity & Equity initiatives in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.
Tam (Tamera) Marko
I have been in awe of the power of stories and silences my entire life. I grew up in the Tijuana-San Diego border region. Among my first teachers were elders who, forced to flee violence in their countries, had recently arrived in the United States from Vietnam, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In this little place on the planet where people work hard for the American Dream, we knew that everything would not automatically be okay. My childhood city has walls and armed officers surveilling a border. It also has miles of Pacific Ocean where sea life knows no borders. This can teach us to look up for another horizon, something organically life giving, to ask what is possible?
Our elders’ kitchen tables, the most joyful wise places I have experienced, taught me the responsibility of holding spaces to deeply listen. This listening is not just a matter of love — it is about survival. Here, I first learned that we make policies, practices and decisions based on stories we hear and share.
For thirty years, and in the last decade in Boston, I’ve been dedicated to what stories can do to disrupt structural violence. I worked as a human rights journalist in the Americas, Africa and Asia; an historian of legacies of slavery; faculty in history, Writing Studies and art; and in ongoing collaboration at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and with desplazadas and community leaders in Colombia.
In our world’s most powerful knowledge constructing spaces, people most impacted by violence rarely share stories in their own words for listeners they identifiy as important. I contributed to this silence by publishing stories that “spoke for” instead of by and with. This inspired my dedication to story circles in visual and performance art, music, written word and other forms, led by people with deep knowledge about humanity, resilience, healing and community. We hold space for radical listening -- building authentic relationships to co-create paths for social justice and liberation.
Tam (Tamera) Marko is Executive Director of the Elma Lewis Center in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.
Melanie O. Matson
My experiencing and witnessing systemic inequities drive my commitment to anti-oppression and liberation work. I believe in the transformative power of communities coming together in the service of work that holds space with one another, reduces harm, creates material change, and fosters individual and collective liberation for people on the margins. I have been an advocate and prevention educator for over 15 years. I enjoy exploring, learning, reading, being in nature, walking with my dog Truman, and facilitating trauma-informed yoga. One of my favorite quotes is, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970’s).
Melanie is Director and Counselor/Advocate with the Healing & Advocacy Collective in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.
I am committed to social justice and engaging in work that is rooted in liberatory values. I am compelled to do this work from my own experiences of and witnessing others experience injustice. Within the Social Justice Center, this includes my role as a survivor counselor/advocate, working alongside communities impacted by violence. Through collaboration, I have come to understand that we cannot address interpersonal violence without working in solidarity to address the larger structural and institutional roots of violence and oppression, as well as the ways we internalize oppression. In my work, I think about who is being centered? What do people and communities need to be safe and whole? Who historically and currently has access to resources? Where is power located and how is it distributed? What are ways that I hold power and privilege and how am I choosing to use them? Are there ways that my efforts might recreate the very dynamics or systems I seek to dismantle?
My soul is happiest when I am outdoors, with animals, spending time with those I care for deeply, and reading or learning something new. I believe in the creative, resilient, and powerful nature of individuals and collectives, as well as the radical power of being in deep, caring relationships. I believe that we all have within us the wisdom that we need at any and every moment. We might not always feel like we get it right, but the work is in the learning, doing, reflecting, and trying again. And I believe that healing justice should be at the center of social justice movement work.
Greta Spoering is Survivor Advocate/Counselor with the Healing & Advocacy Collective in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College
Ashley Tarbet DeStefano
I grew up in a community full of diversity, disparity, resiliency, and capacity for caring for one another. I was taught to value and prioritize community service with whatever privileges or advantages I had. This service leadership mindset drove my work to serve communities in need. After college, I thought I had found my calling in social advocacy in the nonprofit sector. I soon noticed in my work, however, the same patterns of harm I thought we were trying to change. This socialized charity mindset made me complicit in this harm when I thought I was making a difference.
I continue asking questions, interrogating my behaviors, fiercely looking for answers in books, media, communities, and histories. Communities already have enormous power to create change, and I learned that my role is to be a neighbor working in community to free ourselves. I devour books trying to better understand the world, why it is the way it is, how I participate in injustice, and how I can change myself in order to impact the world around me. To put my learnings into practice, I connect and build relationships with grassroots mutual aid, racial justice, and no borders movements. I listen deeply to and learn from my community while building a solidarity practice.
What I work toward is a collective dreaming of what the world could be and then working together in solidarity to achieve it through values of self-determination, community and relationship building, courage, conversation, seeking knowledge, and praxis. My journey has led me to two questions that I continue to ask, answer, and re-ask: How do I approach community engagement from a social justice practice? How do we work together to build authentic connections and center marginalized communities in the work towards providing care, finding solutions, and creating lasting change?
Ashley is Assistant Director of Community Engagement for the Elma Lewis Center in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.
I grew up in awe of three African American women – Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Yvonne Braithwaite Burke. These women – lawyers, educators, and politicians – made me dream of public service. At a young age, they made me want to attend law school and leap into politics! These were women who broke racial barriers becoming the first African American women elected to Congress from their states. From voting rights to women’s rights, they fought for racial equality and challenged traditional roles and power structures. After running unsuccessfully for President in 1972, Shirley Chisholm said, “I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
Eventually I grew up. I came to realize that politics was not as noble or honorable as my childhood sheroes were. Though my passion for politics waned, my desire to work in public service remained. I revere these women. Though nothing I do would ever remotely compare to the impact these giants had on the lives of African Americans, women, our political system, and our nation. It is their grit, the sheer will to refuse to accept the status quo that continues to motivate me and inspire me to keep pressing forward doing this work.
Pamela White is Associate Vice President of Title IX Access & Equity in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College
I grew up in a household where many would consider my parents “old school.” They came from a generation where children were to be seen and not heard. From a young age, I was conditioned to keep my thoughts to myself. Limitations were set by timers on the streetlights or how far I could go to where I could no longer hear the voice of Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady” on the record player my Dad had blasting into the streets of our neighborhood. Most mornings before leaving, I heard the voices of my parents almost in unison just before the door fully closed, and the lock clicked … be safe. These experiences are essential to understand as they laid the foundation for my awareness of how I move in the world.
In believing that social justice is both a process and a goal while also having a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable, and all members are physically and psychologically safe. I humbly share this sentiment as a product of the Emerson community. I genuinely believe that together we can change the trajectory of our students that are affected by the challenges that perpetuate oppression in our society.
My intention in this work is to push towards these goals while unearthing truths that may make us uncomfortable in their admission, but on the other side of that discomfort will come solutions that will celebrate and uplift the voices, stories, and culture of all our students.
I believe the level of care and attention to the issues of race, marginalization, and inequality at Emerson must go beyond enrollment numbers and the bottom line so that real change can be seen, and more importantly, felt by those who historically are negatively impacted.
Jae Williams is Director of Special Projects in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College
I have dedicated my life and career as an attorney, investigator and mediator, to nonviolence and access to justice. I’m originally from Detroit, which is where I received my JD from Wayne State University’s School of Law (admitted to practice in 2002) and Master of Arts in Dispute Resolution. I received my BA in International Relations and Peace Studies at Colgate University, in New York. After graduating, I had the privilege of working as an international volunteer at Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, a residential peace and reconciliation center where I supported families and cross-community initiatives.
I spent two years in the Detroit area working as an associate attorney representing employees alleging workplace discrimination and harassment, before serving 10 years as an attorney and supervisor with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in New York City and Boston. While at OCR, I conducted and supervised complex investigations of alleged civil rights violations by educational institutions and other public entities, negotiated resolutions to these complaints, and implemented a successful mediation program for OCR Boston.
I most recently spent three years as an Investigator in Tufts University’s Office of Equal Opportunity where I was primarily responsible for responding to reports and complaints alleging sexual misconduct. While at Tufts, I partnered effectively with students, staff and faculty to explore and identify meaningful and impactful ways to prevent and address incidents of interpersonal violence, and engaged in the work of substantially revising formal and informal Title IX response processes.
As the new Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Investigator with Emerson’s Title IX Access & Equity, in addition to ensuring access to prompt, equitable and impartial options for addressing reports of interpersonal violence, I look forward to contributing to the work of the SJC in addressing all forms of systemic and interpersonal violence.
Ryan Milligan is Deputy Title IX Coordinator in Title IX Access & Equity in the Social Justice Center at Emerson College.