Alumna calls for Univ. action on inclusion

Alumna calls for Univ. action on inclusion

September 13, 2019

Dr. Blanca Vega ’98 has always been critical of the spaces she finds herself in and Brandeis University—with its shortcomings in providing equality for all its students regardless of their racial backgrounds—is no exception, she explained in a keynote speech at the Faculty Club on Friday, Sept. 6.

Though Vega has spent 16 years in administration positions in secondary education, she recounted struggling at Brandeis, in what she called a “white space”—a place which renders minority groups invisible. During her time here, students were comfortable with being openly racist toward their peers who descended from minority groups, Vega said. 

Vega—the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants and a first generation college student—felt racist sentiments directed toward her, not only through the actions and words of her classmates, but from Brandeis itself, which accepted few students of color and had even fewer faculty members of color, she noted. These were just a few examples of racism Vega recounted when asked to come back to speak at Brandeis, which she called “triggers.” 

“I never called Brandeis University my alma mater,” Vega said.

Alma mater, a term for the institutions a person has graduated from or is currently attending, is Latin for caring mother—but Vega never made the connection between Brandeis and a caring mother. 

Her aversion to using the term came from her experience with racism at Brandeis, which she described as “a painful truth embedded into Brandeis University’s innermost parts.”

Vega watched upperclassmen like Janus Johnson ‘94 and Michael Clemens ‘93 as they fought the racism prevalent throughout Brandeis, she said.

 “I’m not going to break my back for an institution that isn’t nurturing me,” Vega said.

Vega’s mentality changed when her mentor, Senior Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Kim Godsoe, asked her one day, “What are we going to do about it? We know you are sad. What are we going to do about this?” 

This moment was when Vega realized her ability to take action to better the social climate on campus. Vega worked to improve the beginnings of the Intercultural Center (ICC), a program that encourages the growth and awareness of other cultures, as summarized by their website, which still exists to this day on campus. She also ran a group called Ahora, which was an inclusionary experience for LatinX Students. She also spearheaded the first celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at Brandeis. 

After leaving Brandeis, she earned her Master of Arts in higher education from NYU, later obtaining her doctorate from Columbia University. She has worked on coordinating and directing New York opportunity programs such as The Liberty Partnership Program and the Higher Education Opportunity Program. 

Vega encouraged the current students in the crowd to reclaim their alma mater, and offered some advice. 

She told the crowd of current students and alumni from minority groups to allow change to happen and to embrace it at the university, while keeping in mind that students can have just as large an impact as it has on them. Her next piece of advice stemmed from an anecdote of her first move-in day where her mother said to her, “No te olvides tu Español,” or “Don’t forget that you speak Spanish.” To Vega, this meant don’t forget where you came from, and she stressed the importance of this shared wisdom. 

She also advised the crowd to embrace all forms of culture, love their people and embrace conflict—the catalyst by which change will come. 

“We need culture,” said Vega, “because it calls us. It’s a signaling effect, to let us know if this is a safe space,” Vega said, “Embracing the conflict made me more human though and made me feel empowered.”

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot after her speech, Vega stressed the fact that society is not working toward an end result. If it is striving for an end then it will get stuck in another form of oppression; every generation has set a goal for an end and in turn it leads to another means of suppression, she said. She gave the example of slavery, where the goal was abolition, but then the Jim Crow Laws came, and the pattern continued as society found a means to oppress minority groups. 

“Progress isn’t the way to think about it,” Vega stated, “[racism] is everywhere, composed of peaks of progress with the knowledge it will never end.” As for Brandeis and the social climate on our campus, Vega ended on this note, “[Brandeis] prides on [its] name, yet it falls short. We must continue to fight.”

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